When the Vietnamese government sent word last summer that they would allow Lam Ton to visit his native country, it made at least two people happy. The first was Ton, the owner of Chicago’s Mekong restaurants and a veteran of the South Vietnamese army. He left his country by helicopter from the roof of the U.S. embassy in 1975, and he’s wanted to go back to visit ever since. “I missed my family so much,” he says. “I also missed my friends, and my country.”
The other was Len Aronson, a friend of Ton’s and a producer at WTTW (Channel 11). He had been trying to get Ton into Vietnam for nearly two years. Now not only was Ton going home, but the government had agreed to let a camera crew into the country as well. “It was a great assigiment journalistically,” Aronson says, “because it had everything you’re looking for–a story focused on a human being and connected to a much larger issue.”
So in, September, Ton became the first Vietnamese emigrant who had fought against the government to return with a camera crew. Ton, Aronson, and a three-man crew were in Vietnam for ten days and shot about 23 hours of film. Four months later (after shooting more footage in Chicago), the film was completed Vietnam: A Chicagoan Goes Home airs Wednesday at 8 PM on Channel 11.
Aronson met Ton about four years ago, when he and his wife went to eat at the Uptown Mekong and got to talking to its owner. “Lam wanted to go even then, but the government was too closed,” Aronson says. “There was also a lot of fear”–about repercussions both here (from vets, the families of MIAs, and local Vietnamese) and in Vietnam. But should he get to make the trip, Ton liked the idea of a TV crew coming along.
“Then about two years ago, a Gorbachev-like Party chief came in, and they began to talk about opening up the country and changing it,” Aronson says. He and Ton flew to New York to visit the Permanent Mission of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, the country’s only diplomatic outpost in the United States. But again they were denied permission to visit.
They sent a dozen letters to the mission over the next 16 months; but got no response. “They were confused,” Ton says. “They didn’t know what we were trying to do.”
So Aronson wrote yet more letters, and tried to explain better. “The Party had talked about I letting people come back, about mending the country,” he says. “I made the point that there was so much mistrust about Vietnamese leadership that one way to show they were sincere was to let one of the people who had fought against them come back.” He gave the letters to his wife, Chicago Tribune reporter Anne Keegan (who was going to Vietnam on another story), to give to government officials. This time the government responded.
The Vietnamese government would allow them to come, to film the visit, and even to meet with a Party official on camera. Later, travel plans had to be changed: instead of flying into Saigon, much closer to the town where Ton’s mother and some of his siblings lived, they would have to land in Hanoi.
Ton says he was “a little bit nervous” as they approached the airport. “From the air I could see a lot of bomb craters,” he says. “The destruction from the war is still very vivid.” But he was ready to face his country again. “Ton is mission-oriented,” Aronson says. “He felt he was representing all of the people who were not allowed to go back.”
One of the first stops on the trip was the office of Nguyen Co Thach, minister of foreign affairs and Vietnam’s third highest ranking official, where Ton and the minister discussed economics. “I told him he should give the people freedom of speech, freedom of movement, and freedom of enterprise,” says Ton. “Not until such freedoms are granted will drastic changes be made in Vietnam, I said.”
But although Ton was able to speak openly to the government about his grievances, there were signs of the regime’s old heavy band. In one town, a man who said he’d been a translator for the American Air Force approached Aronson, told him he was afraid of the police, and asked him to mail a letter. Aronson took the man’s envelope.
“Five minutes later he was hustled past me by one of the local Party officials,” Aronson says. Aronson learned that the man was questioned and told to return later for more questioning; instead, he fled the province. “I think they’re really trying to change,” Aronson says, “but it takes a long time to convince all those people at the bottom that they want to give up all that power.”
While Ton faced his past, Aronson and the crew–none of whom spoke any Vietnamese–were busy coping with other problems. At the Hanoi airport two pieces of luggage were confiscated, and the crew had to shut off their cameras before airport security would give them back. (For most of the trip, they were able to film freely.)
Then there was the hot weather. “Right away, we realized that one of our greatest challenges was going to be getting something to drink every day,” Aronson says. “We didn’t want to drink the water, because we didn’t want to get sick.” They managed; and no one did.
Aronson says the locals didn’t seem put off by the cameras or the American faces; the crew was greeted warmly almost everywhere. When they reached Hoa Bin, the small town at Vietnam’s southern tip where Ton’s family lives, a huge crowd had gathered to welcome them.
“We were the first Americans to come to this little town since the war,” Aronson says. “We had to walk across this little bridge, and we were stepping on kids’ feet, and all these hundreds of kids were shouting, ‘Hello! Hey! Hey!’. . . It was a marvelous feeling. It wasn’t what we expected.”
They stayed with Ton’s family for four days, and then flew home from Saigon.
Aronson says Ton is still worried about reactions from American vets and the Vietnamese community here, “who may think he’s pro-Communist.” But Ton seems calm. “What I was trying to do is for the future of Vietnam,” he says. “I am not a Communist, but people believe what they want to believe. You can’t please everybody.”
He’s optimistic about his country’s chances for economic reform. “I strongly believe that changes for the better will be made in Vietnam,” he says. “They’ve already started.
“Some of the people who fled the country . . . hold a grudge against Communism,” Ton says. “Before I landed in Hanoi, I was still holding the grudge. But the leaders were willing to admit they made a lot of mistakes. That touched me.”
For Aronson, the visit showed what Ton’s country was really like. “Vietnam is filled with people who are trying to build good lives,” he says. “In Hanoi, you know–there’s the ‘enemy,’ and they’re just like the people in the south. They’re just trying to make it.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.