Oral Histories: Việt Nam’s Unwritten Story

Published September 28, 2015 in Episode 23

Discovering oral history, bridging gaps in communication

Earlier this year, 31-year-old Nguyệt-Vy Vũ sat down at the VietAID Community Center in Dorchester, Massachusetts, to interview her mother, Vân Tâm Nguyễn.

It was the first time that Vũ heard her mom share details of their family’s departure from Việt Nam, and their subsequent settlement in Boston through a U.S. government Humanitarian Resettlement Program.

Growing up, we hear a lot of stories from my mom, my dad, other people about what it was like but they never really go into details of their experiences,” says Vũ, reflecting on the stories from her childhood. “It was generally about how difficult life was and how challenging it was for them to make the journey over here to raise us children and to give us the opportunities to make a bright future here. But they never really [went] into details about how they felt or how that experience changed them.”
— Nguyêt-Vy Vũ

Her interview is part of the First Days Story Project, a collection of oral histories recorded in intimate conversations between loved ones. Inspired by the film Last Days in Vietnam, a documentary about the last 48 hours of Sài Gòn in 1975, the First Days Story Project is a collaboration between Public Broadcasting Service’s American Experience and StoryCorp, a non-profit working to collect oral histories. Its mission: to preserve the stories of the Vietnamese American refugee experience.

The First Days project invited over 200 participants to have 40-minute, uninterrupted conversations with a family member or friend. The recorded conversations are archived at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Vũ, who now has two children of her own, says participating in the project gave her an opportunity to have an exchange with her mom that went much deeper than discussions they have in everyday life. It also gave her an understanding she says that she would have never found in school.

“I think oral histories really give regular, ordinary people a chance to say that, you know what, this is my world, this is my life I have things to say and they are just as important as things that do get written down in books ultimately,” she says.

  Vân Tâm Nguyễn and her daughter Nguyệt-Vy Vũ. (Photo: StoryCorps)

Vân Tâm Nguyễn and her daughter Nguyệt-Vy Vũ. (Photo: StoryCorps)

Sharing stories, from generation to generation

So what is oral history? It is the age-old practice of passing down stories through generations. Oral history can be found in native cultures and among many traditions around the world. The Oral History Association defines oral history as “a field of study and a method of gathering, preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events.”  

The association considers it the oldest type of historical inquiry, since it predates the written word. At the same time, it is also one of the most modern, thanks to the use of 21st-century digital recording technologies.

Đức Trọng Ngô from San Jose, California, interviewed his wife Anh Lan Hoàng for the First Days Story Project. He and Hoàng, who was his girlfriend at the time, reflected on their escape from Communist Việt Nam in 1979. Both journeyed by boat to Thai refugee camps before coming to Chicago, in the United States.

Despite the volumes that have been written about the war, Đức thinks something is still missing.

“People need to know the truth,” says Ngô.  “For the past few decades, Vietnamese people probably [have been] the most misunderstood because of the war, because of the refugees, the concentrations camps, because of all the happenings when the Communists took over in 1975. So it’s about time for people to see the truth.”

With this year marking the 40th anniversary of the Fall of Sài Gòn, the Vietnamese diaspora has seen a renewed focus to document this side of history. There are many oral history projects in the United States that feature photographs and personal keepsakes, such as the Vietnamese American Oral History Project at the University of California, Irvine and the 500 Oral Histories Project by The Vietnamese-American Heritage Foundation.

Initiatives have also popped up in other places where Vietnamese refugees have resettled and rebuilt their lives, such as Australia and England. These projects all aim to empower Vietnamese refugees to tell their story in their own words, for the benefit of future generations.

Oral history: a critical part to every story

Contemporary oral history arose out of the shortage of diverse voices and perspectives in institutional archives. It is ironic that oral history is now in turn informing academics and historians.

Joey Nguyễn, a graduate student of Asian American History at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, says he utilizes oral histories for his own research.

With the information that’s out there, it can only provide the contextual narrative that my parents and grandparents experienced. For me to actually understand what they went through, I have to get it from the sources themselves. And since none of this stuff is documented because they didn’t have anything on paper or photos from Việt Nam, because they were refugees, everything had to be oral history.”  
— Joey Nguyễn

Nguyễn believes aside from informing, oral histories add a critical dimension to our understanding of history by appealing to our empathy. “Oral history is probably the most understated history itself, primarily because it is the one itself that have the most personal touches to actual things that connect us,” he says.

History and writers of history favor not only the victors, but certain groups of people. Oral histories help document voices and perspectives we often do not hear from, so it was also an important decision for Vũ to interview her mom rather than her dad for the project.

“In Vietnamese culture, it’s really hard for the women, to really have a strong voice especially when it comes to historical happenings because a lot of the time it’s the father who went through the war, the father who had his personal experiences, his war experiences, that he can talk about. But oftentimes you forget that the mothers, the people who stayed behind also had the war impact them in very strenuous ways. This interview gave her a chance just to talk freely, to reflect on her experiences,” says Vũ.

From that day in the interview recording room at the VietAID Community Center, Vũ began to unlock her mom’s buried memories and emotions over the Việt Nam War: leaving behind a homeland and raising a family of seven in the United States.

These were things that Vũ did not have the chance to ask her mom until now.