Last week, Fountain Valley City Council members Steve Nagel, Mark McCurdy and Michael Vo attended a ceremony in Westminster commemorating the 37th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. It's a time in history that carries great significance for Fountain Valley's Vietnamese community, and for Vo personally -- because he risked his life to escape from it.
Vo was 12 years old when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975, two years after the U.S. pulled out in 1973, ending its role in the Vietnam War. Within five years, his father, who was a successful rental property owner before the war, had lost everything, and his family of eight had been forced to move out of their three-story house and into an apartment.
"They didn't massacre thousands of people right away the way it was in Cambodia," Vo said. "They were a lot smarter; they stripped everything away from people slowly."
Under the new communist regime, Vo was prohibited from pursuing any further education, and faced a choice between being drafted into the North Vietnamese army and sent to Cambodia, or taking a menial job at home.
"My father told me, 'You have no future saying behind. Eventually they'll make you a slave to the communist state,'" Vo said. "So my family planned our escape."
That plan would divide the family up into three boats over the course of about three months, bound for Indonesia. One of Vo's brothers got out first, then Vo and the majority of his family followed in a second boat a month later. A month after that, his grandmother and oldest sister escaped in a third boat.
A well-equipped boat can make the trip to Vietnam in about three days. For a 10-person riverboat carrying 75 people, that trip is considerably longer -- literally and figuratively. Within three days, Vo's boat had run out of food and water, and 10 of the passengers had died from dehydration. The rest might have suffered the same fate had salvation not fallen literally from the sky in the form of a storm that dropped just enough fresh water to keep them alive.
By the Vo and his family reached Indonesia, hundreds of thousands of their countrymen were already there, living in refugee camps, free to set up the sorts schools, churches and temples now gone from Vietnam. Vo's aunt had escaped Vietnam two years earlier and was living in Hawaii, so he was sent there one month shy of his 18th birthday.
Five years later, Vo made the move to Southern California, and three years after that, in 1988, his family pooled together all the money they'd saved since escaping Vietnam and bought their first home, in Fountain Valley. Not bad for someone who once, by his own admission, had no future.
"I sometimes joke with my friends that I'm the councilman who went through hell to be liberated," Vo said. "The whole country basically had no future. The communist party doctrine basically gave a tool to a group of people who maliciously tried to get power and stay in power."
Vo said he has no desire to go back, partially because his entire family escaped with him, but mostly because he's so proud to be here living the American dream and serve his community as a member of the city council.
"One thing I've learned over the years, especially during the time when I lived under the communist yoke: I was not able to speak my mind; I was not able to say what I wanted to say," Vo said. "Everything we take lightly here -- freedom of speech, freedom of religion -- is basically not allowed. So I learned to cherish what I'm offered here, and the opportunity here. I take that as a tool to move forward to learn to serve on the council, and I'm never afraid to speak my mind. I think that's what we deserve."