Navy Cmdr. Hien Trinh, whose family fled Vietnam in an overcrowded fishing boat after the fall of Saigon, came back last week on board the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson in the ship's historic port call to Danang.
"A Navy ship picked us up, and that's one of the reasons why I'm actually in the Navy," Trinh, a dentist in charge of the Vinson's clinic, said in an interview this week.
Trinh's return to Vietnam as part of a historic port call underscores how relations between the two countries have changed in the four decades since the war ended. The visit comes as the United States takes steps to strengthen relations with the country amid rising tensions and hostilities in the region. For Trinh, who had returned to Vietnam only once before, a decade ago, to participate in dental clinic work with his wife, the visit was a time for reflection and for pride.
Ashore in the land of his birth, Trinh said the bitter aftermath of what the Vietnamese call the "American war" was subsumed in efforts of the U.S. and Hanoi to forge a new relationship.
"The people there were incredibly friendly. We had a great welcome from the people of Danang. They all knew that sailors were in town," Trinh said. "They all greeted us with a nice smile and tried to feed us way too much and feed us all kinds of stuff we probably wouldn't have tried unless we were there."
After a four-day visit to Vietnam last week -- the first by a U.S. carrier in the 43 years since the war ended -- the Vinson and its strike group were back in the South China Sea. The strike group was conducting exercises with the Japanese helicopter destroyer Ise on Tuesday when Trinh spoke with Military.com by phone.
A Desperate Journey
Sometimes, Trinh said, he goes out on deck and gazes at the sea, wondering what it was like for his father to take him as a two-year-old, his five siblings and his mother, and venture into those same waters when escape, rather than a particular destination, was the main goal.
The year was 1975. His father, Trac Trinh, was a lieutenant colonel in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and in command of a garrison near Saigon. The Americans were leaving. The North Vietnamese Army was closing in to take what is now officially known as Ho Chi Minh City.
"We're very proud of him," Trinh said of his father. "Every time I think about it, I just can't imagine the desperation -- to take a family and just go out to sea without knowing what the future holds."
Trinh doesn't remember the journey, but learned from his family that there were probably hundreds on board the fishing boat designed for about 30 to 40 people.
The first stop was Singapore, where they were given food and water but then turned back out to sea.
They were rescued by the U.S. Navy. Trinh said his father didn't remember the name of the ship, but it was probably an LPD, or landing platform dock. They were taken to the Navy base in Subic Bay in the Philippines and began an odyssey with stops at Wake Island, Hawaii and a camp at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas.
The Lucky Ones
The Trinh family was among the lucky ones in the first wave of refugees who fled Vietnam when the policy was for the Navy to take them on board. Later waves of refugees, estimated to number more than 800,000, would become the "boat people" sent to holding camps in then-British Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and other venues.
With the sponsorship of the Catholic church, the family made a home in Lansing, Michigan.
Trinh's father became a janitor working for the state of Michigan and later became a printer.
Trinh went to Michigan State University and joined the Navy in 2001 before the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
"I wanted to pay back for all the sacrifices that were made for us," he said.
In 2003, he was attached to the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit in Iraq.
"I think Vietnam is a place we need to be right now," Trinh said. "We have a lot of commonalities with Vietnam. Some differences, but a lot of commonalities."
A Stronger Relationship
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis set the tone for the later arrival of the Vinson on his trip to Vietnam in January.
"We recognize that relationships never stay the same. They either get stronger or they get weaker," he told his Vietnamese counterpart, Defense Minister Ngô Xuân Lịch. "America wants a stronger relationship with a stronger Vietnam."
The Navy and U.S. diplomats stuck to that theme of building better U.S.-Vietnam relations for the Vinson port call.
They said the carrier's presence was not meant to send a message to China on its military buildup in the South China Sea or its territorial disputes with Vietnam and its neighbors.
Trinh called the Vinson's visit a "milestone" in the history of the region, and U.S. Ambassador Daniel Kritenbrink used the same word in his remarks welcoming the carrier to Danang.
"The visit marks an enormously significant milestone in our bilateral relations and demonstrates U.S. support for a strong, prosperous, and independent Vietnam," Kritenbrink said. "Through hard work, mutual respect, and by continuing to address the past while we work toward a better future, we have gone from former enemies to close partners."
"This is a historic day, and we are honored to receive such a warm welcome here," Rear Adm. John Fuller, commander of the Vinson's strike group, said as the carrier pulled into Danang. "The United States and Vietnam are cooperating more closely than ever before."
China did not share the warm feelings. "China's vigilance and unhappiness are inevitable, but we don't think that the USS Carl Vinson's Vietnam trip can stir up troubles in the South China Sea," the Global Times, a Communist party newspaper known for its hardline views, said in an editorial.
The Vinson's visit would fail to put pressure on China to back off in the South China Sea and would "only waste money," Global Times said.
'We Can Never Forget'
While the Navy and the diplomats avoided mention of China, Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, a former Navy pilot who was a prisoner-of-war in North Vietnam for five years, felt no such restraints.
"The historic port call by the USS Carl Vinson in Vietnam underscores the enormous progress the United States and Vietnam have made in transcending the wounds of war and building a close partnership," he said. "It also demonstrates the growing strength of U.S. partnerships in a region threatened by rising Chinese aggression, expansionism, and opposition to the rules-based international order."
As a Vietnam veteran, McCain said the Vinson's visit had special meaning.
"For those of us who fought in the Vietnam War, as well as for those of us who worked to normalize U.S.-Vietnam relations, the remarkable advancement in our relationship surpasses our fondest hopes," he said.
McCain and all Vietnam veterans have special meaning for Trinh and his wife, Evelyne Vu-Tien, the daughter of Vietnamese refugees. She joined him in Danang for the Vinson port call.
"We can never forget what Vietnam veterans did for us," Trinh said. "Without your sacrifices, we wouldn't be able to have the life we have now.
"The Vietnam war, we put it behind us. We don't dwell too much about the past," he said. "We are very, very proud of our country now, which is America. We are sad that we lost our country, but we've been in another country which has given us more opportunities than we could have imagined."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.