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In nation's largest enclave of Vietnamese, former refugees recall fall of Saigon

TEN years ago, Tho Lai employed nearly 1,000 people at his heavy-construction company in Saigon, building airport foundations, hangars, and gas stations. ``In my country, we worked very hard, but we still had time to enjoy friends and family,'' he says.

Now he helps his wife at their restaurant here in Orange County's Vietnamese enclave. ``Here -- I don't know why -- but there is no time.''

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Mr. Tho didn't realize until the day Saigon fell to the communist North Vietnamese on April 30, 10 years ago, that he and his family would really have to leave.

Two days later, they were gone, spending all the gold they were able to take with them to buy boat passage to Thailand.

The stoic refugees of the fall of Vietnam have had very little time for anything but work in the past decade.

In starting their lives over in the United States, the Vietnamese have created an entrepreneurial beehive in northern Orange County, which has the nation's largest concentration of Southeast Asian refugees.

There are now at least a dozen Vietnamese millionaires here who started from scratch 10 years ago. Clean, prosperous shopping centers have sprung up in otherwise stagnant neighborhoods. The shops appear to have standard American middle-class fare, except for the signs sporting names like Pho Bac Ha, Tho Lai's restaurant. The parking lots have their smattering of Mercedes-Benzes.

(The national restaurant and bakery chains Vie de France and La Boulangerie were started by a Vietnamese refugee, although they have changed hands since.)

It has not been easy, and it still isn't. The biggest share of the capital that started the 800 Vietnamese businesses here has come from the private savings of families, according to Luu Trankiem, executive director of the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce in America and a business professor at California State University, Fullerton. Many work more than one job and save half of the family earnings until they can go into business for themselves.

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Some who were high-ranking officials and prominent businessmen in Vietnam have gone to school to learn manual labor skills or have opened struggling little shops. Women who were housewives in Vietnam have had to work long hours here and often continue to tend the household. Extended families that once had ready help with minding the home and children now have everyone who is able working outside jobs.

There are now between 85,000 and 95,000 Vietnamese in Orange County, most of whom have migrated here from elsewhere in the US where they were originally resettled.

Many of these people have started their lives over before. Tho Lai is originally from Hanoi, where he was an architecture student preparing to follow his father and grandfather into the family construction business.

In 1954, when the communists took over North Vietnam, killing his brother and father, the family fled south to Saigon, where Tho's uncle started the lost company over again.

The experience taught him, he says, ``that once the communists take over a land, they never lose it.''

Tony Lam, a delicatessen owner and business consultant, is actually a three-time refugee. His family first fled the French in 1946 when he was 9. They lived in Hanoi until the communist takeover eight years later, then fled to Saigon. He left Saigon April 22, 1975, with only a few hours to prepare.

Now, Mr. Lam considers himself ``a middle-class guy who can get by.'' But he is most proud of his daughter, who graduated from the University of California at Irvine at 19 and now works for Rockwell International Corporation.

Refugees from elsewhere in Southeast Asia are having a much rougher time adapting to the US. The Hmong, Laotian tribesmen who fought for Americans against the Viet Cong, have moved in great numbers to central California, where roughly 90 percent depend on welfare. The Cambodians have fared better, but with none of the entrepreneurial dazzle of the Vietnamese.

Altogether, about 20,000 of the roughly 100,000 Indochinese in Orange County receive welfare checks. The number has stayed the same for three years now, even though the total number of Indochinese has grown by 20,000, says Mai Cong, a mental health specialist with Orange County and a key liaison between the county and the Vietnamese community.

But for the moment, the Vietnamese have nearly outdone themselves. The community is now swamped with small businesses, including 17 Vietnamese-language newspapers. Restaurants especially have glutted the Vietnamese market. Growth now will have to come from a broader base of customers, from non-Asians.

Many shopkeepers acknowledge this, but not many know how to appeal to mainstream markets.

Melting into the mainstream has been easier for young Vietnamese students who are frequent award-winners in school, especially in mathematics and the sciences. But many Vietnamese have trouble in school, too, especially with the language barrier.

The young can get caught between the two cultures -- the brassy independence of their American peers and their traditional, authoritarian parents, says Mai Cong.

The appearance of youth gangs in Vietnamese neighborhoods is attributed by many refugees to a permissive American culture and parents who are too busy at work to enforce discipline.

The adults here are full of painful memories of the lives left behind 10 years ago this month.

Mai Cong recalls wondering that April how the south could be losing the war so fast. On April 27, a Sunday, she went to church. The normally full Saigon cathedral was eerily half empty. That day, traffic was disoriented on the streets, people driving every which way. At the market, she ran into a friend who asked, ``You're still here?''

She got a call from the US Embassy that evening to be ready to leave by 7 Monday morning.

Now, she says, things from the old life that she never would have suspected she would miss set off waves of nostalgia. She was once compelled to draw from memory a detailed map of her Saigon neighborhood.

Memories are particularly sharp for the many refugees who left relatives behind. Those who stayed are frequently outcasts in communist Vietnam, living either in prison or as paupers. Refugees here try to send clothing and salable goods, but find that the packages are often picked over on the way into Vietnam.

Not surprisingly, the strongest political feelings among refugees here are anticommunist. The 12,000 registered Vietnamese voters here -- refugees are now becoming US citizens in growing numbers -- tend to vote Republican.

But fund raising to fight the communist regime in the homeland has slowed in recent months because of bickering factions and corruption charges in the National Liberation Front Movement here.

Mai Cong prefers to see Vietnamese invest their money in Orange County. ``We have to look at the Jews; they became strong here so they can help Israel.''

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