Au revoir Vietnam, bonjour Quebec

Nearly 40 years after the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War, Vietnamese-Canadian doctor Hải Thông Nguyễn reflects on the journey to his adopted homeland.

C'est La vie series profiles Vietnamese immigrants, 40 years after the fall of Saigon

Dr. Hải Thông Nguyễn and his wife arrived at Montreal's Mirabel Airport in October 1979. (Thomas Ledwell/CBC)

Hải Thông Nguyễn spotted the mud crab and was instantly on the alert.

It was 1979 and he had been answering nature's call in the mangroves near his refugee camp in Malaysia.

He knew he had one shot at this. He quickly grabbed a clump of dry mud, aimed carefully and threw it hard, hitting the crab square and stunning it. That day, he was able to supplement his family's rations with fresh crab.

Today, he still maintains it was one of the best meals of his life.

Dr. Nguyễn is just one of thousands of Vietnamese refugees who came to Canada in the days before and years following the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. 

That was when North Vietnamese forces captured the capital of South Vietnam. It marked the end of the Vietnam war, and the beginning of the communist regime in the south.

In the 2011 census, 220,425 people in Canada said they had Vietnamese origins, 42,480 of them now in Quebec.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, and the end of the Vietnam War. Meet two doctors who fled Vietnam, and remade their lives in Quebec.

Nguyễn is now the chief of service of medicine at Ste-Anne's Hospital, a long-term care facility for Canadian war veterans in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue on Montreal's West Island. He has been at Ste-Anne's for 29 years and is a proud Canadian.

Nguyễn shows a photograph taken after he left Vietnam. He wasn't allowed to have long hair in his homeland, a rule that was strictly enforced. (Thomas Ledwell/CBC)

Like many of his compatriots, he thought first of settling in the United States. But his wife spoke French, and had been working as a doctor and interpreter while they were in the refugee camp in Malaysia.

One day, she was appointed to work for a Quebec representative within the Canadian delegation.

"He said, 'Why U.S.? Why don't you want to go to Canada? Canada, we have everything,'" recalls Nguyễn.

The Quebec representative told them that Canada even had MacDonald's, just like in the U.S.

"And we had no clue what MacDonald's was at that time! But after, we discussed it and the next day we came back and we applied. We told him we'd like to go to Canada."

In October 1979, Nguyễn and his wife arrived at Mirabel Airport. Nguyễn had only a pair of flip flops on his feet. He carried a small bag that he had brought on the boat from Vietnam, and another donated to him by the West German Red Cross.

He still has those bags today.

Hải Thông Nguyễn with the knapsack he brought out of South Vietnam in 1979. Everything he owned fit in the one bag. (Thomas Ledwell/CBC)

Nguyễn has held on to other memorabilia from his time at the refugee camp in Malaysia.

Every three days, each refugee received a bag of rations including a 10 ounce can of sardines, another can of chicken or beef, a can of processed peas, as well as some sugar, coffee, and two pounds of rice.

Without anything to write on, Nguyễn kept the wrappers from the canned food, and used them as writing paper. He wrote down the songs lyrics he recalled from his life in Vietnam — songs that had been banned by the communist regime and that he did not want to forget.

At his refugee camp in Malaysia, Nguyễn used the labels on his rations as paper, writing down the lyrics of Vietnamese songs. The songs had been banned under the Communist regime in Vietnam, and he did not want to forget them. (Thomas Ledwell/CBC)

Also in his personal belongings was a precious document he had smuggled out of Vietnam: a microfiche of his medical qualifications. It would later prove invaluable. It meant that he would not be required to start his degree over here in Canada. He only need to complete an internship.

But those early years in Montreal were not easy. He still had to pass qualifications exams to become an intern, and had to earn a living in the meantime.

"We had to work as unskilled workers, with our muscles, and I didn't have much," he says. "I weighed about 93 pounds, soaking wet."

Like so many of his compatriots, he did succeed.

Once in Montreal, Nguyễn was able to have the microfiche of his medical qualifications developed and printed. (Thomas Ledwell/CBC)

In 1985, Nguyễn applied for and obtained a physician's job at Ste-Anne's hospital. Nguyễn was interested in military history and could also identify with the veterans. His brothers served in the south Vietnamese military forces.

In 2012, Nguyễn was awarded the Queen Diamond Jubilee Medal for his distinguished service and his devotion in caring for elderly war veterans.

In 2012 Dr Hải Thông Nguyễn was awarded the Queen Diamond Jubilee Medal for his distinguished service and his devotion in caring for elderly war veterans. He works at Ste-Anne's Hospital, a long-term care facility for Canadian war veterans in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue on Montreal’s West Island.


Alison Cook is the producer of C'est la vie on CBC Radio One. She is based in Montreal.


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