Dr. Dzung Dang was 16 when the North Vietnamese took over Saigon, which ended the Vietnam War April 30, 1975.
Because of his father’s work as an intelligence officer with the South Vietnam government, it was vitally important the family leave the country before the North Vietnamese took over. If caught in Saigon, his father faced execution and the rest of the family would be put in a “reeducation” camp.
Dr. Dang clearly remembers the events of the day the North Vietnamese reached Saigon.
“Our family ran to the Saigon shipyard. It was me, my father, mother, two sisters and a young niece and two nephews. The ship yard was chaos. Everybody tried to get onto any ships or boats that were available. My father fought with another man to make room for me to crawl over a bridge made up of two pieces of lumber that connected the docking ledge to the merchant ship, which was slowly moving away from the dock. I had almost reached the ship’s ledge when the wooden bridge fell. I told myself that I was going to die because I didn’t know how to swim, but someone on the ship caught my hands and pulled me up. Safe onboard, I looked back and saw my family crying. No one knew where the ship was headed. It was the first time I’d been separated from my family and I thought it might be the last time I saw them.”
Enduring repeated attacks by the North Vietnamese, the ship, the Truong Xuan, later well known for transporting 4,000 refugees away from Vietnam that day, finally reached international waters.
Their relief was short-lived.
“Our ship broke down and floated without direction for almost a month. With more than 4,000 people on board, including children, pregnant women, and small babies, people began dying of starvation and lack of water.”
Dr. Dang was close to starvation when the Truong Xuan was spotted in the South China Sea by a merchant ship from Denmark. The ship brought everyone on board and gave them food and water before taking them to a refugee camp in Hong Kong, where they stayed for eight months. Though safe, Dr. Dang was desolate.
“I cried every night; I thought that the Communists had executed my father, and I thought I was by myself with no future.”
Dr. Dang registered his name with the International Red Cross, hoping to find other families with the same rare last name. A few months later he received a list, and his family was on it.
“They had escaped by boat later the same day I left, and were picked up by a United States aircraft carrier. After a stop in Philippines and Guam, they were transported to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, where Vietnam refugees were processed. I was flown out a week later to reunite with my family. My family, especially my father, was overjoyed when I arrived. They never believed we’d be reunited.”
Dr. Dang and his family eventually settled in Oak Park, Illinois, but moved to Houston, Texas a few years later.
He was inspired to study medicine by his grandmother, who was a doctor.
“My father always told me I have to study hard and follow the tradition of our ancestors, who were physicians of the royal court,” he says. “Before the war, my family was respected and lived very well.”
The first doctor in his immediate family, Dr. Dang helped support his older siblings as they went to medical school and dental school.
“Now their children are also doctors and dentists,” he says. “And my future son-in-law and my son are in medical school.”
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