Children of Vietnam: Souls of a Nation

Look deep into their eyes and you will find hope
2018: Me with Saigon school children
1971: Lt. Fred Vigeant with Chu Lai school children
2014: Cyclists Natalie and Dan with Mekong Delta school children

Everywhere in Vietnam, the children shout “Hallo!”  Toddlers, teens, school children and street kids. On bike baths, from cars, buses and motorbikes. In the restaurants and museums. They see a Westerner and it is a jubilant moment. “Hallo!  What’s your name?”

Vietnam is a particularly young country. Nearly half the population is under 25 and almost 70 percent were born after the end of the Vietnam War. English is taught in all the schools. To Vietnamese youth, war — against the French, Americans, Kymer Rouge, Chinese or otherwise — is what they read about in history books. Vietnamese children–and for the most part their parents–have only known peace, independence, unity and progress. Any reason to wonder why they are so joyous?

SCHOOL DAYS: Biking to class in Phong Nha (Photo by Bao Huy of Hue, VN)
HOW MANY ORPHANS? We’ll never know precisely, but probably millions

Wasn’t always so. In 1971, I spent a lot of my time, “ghosting” at the Van Coi Orphanage and others like it, beyond the gates of our base at Chu Lai. Back then, half of Vietnam’s population was estimated to be under 14-years-old. We may never know exactly how many children were orphaned by the war. One conservative estimate of the time said 700,000 were left homeless or maimed. But the real number, in my opinion, is more likely in the millions.

So-called Amerasians, Vietnamese children fathered by Americans, were believed to number in the tens of thousands. As the North Vietnamese Army noose tightened around Saigon and the last vestiges of the Vietnam Republic in April, 1975, thousands of infant Amerasians were evacuated to the U.S and elsewhere in dramatic fashion–Operation BabyLift. Again, precise numbers are in dispute, with some evacuation estimates under 3,000 and others in excess of 10,000.

SCHOOL FOR GIRLS: The former site of the Van Coi Orphanage in Chu Lai

I returned to the site of Van Coi this year. It is now a government-run, vocational-training middle school for young women. I was prevented from walking the grounds, but during my tour, I watched and documented soldiers of my division orchestrate holiday parties, donate food and clothing, and even build a new building at this and other orphanage sites.

TEAR DOWN THIS WALL: PFC Joseph Ozug sledge hammers his way toward a new building at the Van Coi Orphanage in 1971
FOOD CLOTHING AND MORE: American soldiers donated supplies and their time to Vietnam orphanages (Ta Bi Tha Orphanage, 1971)

Sister Helene, a nun of the Love of Christ order, started working with orphans in the city of Tam Ky, north of Chu Lai in 1968 with 50 children who were abandoned either by impoverishment or the death of their parents from hostilities.  She founded Van Coi in the tiny hamlet of An Tan, outside the gates of the Chu Lai Americal base, as the number of orphans swelled. When I met her, she and sister Yvonne had more than 230 orphans in their charge, with more showing up every day. I recall many a sweaty work session when shirtless soldiers wielded sledges and hammers and saws at Van Coi, while bedraggled infants looked on from fly-ridden cribs, and toddlers clung to the hands and legs, and snuggled in the arms, of any GI visitor who’d share an affectionate moment, no matter how fleeting.  I called those children that I met in 1971, Orphans Of the Storm.

No US solider was closer to the orphans of Van Coi at the time than Tom Brogan, a Chaplain’s assistant for the Americal Division. After the war, Tom searched and searched to learn the fate of the nuns and children of Van Coi. “I looked for them for years,” he said. “Finally, I found them in 2008.” As I prepared for my return visit, Tom filled in the blanks of the orphanage’s fate after the Vietnam war ended.

“Van Coi nuns and 250 orphans were booted from the orphanage in 1975 with just the clothes they had on. Among the refugee melee, they walked to Da Nang. No shelter nor food for them there, so back to Chu Lai they trekked. Children died in such numbers their burial sites are unknown. 100 orphans and the nuns were evacuated off Chu Lai beach to Saigon. Sister Helene was allowed to open a new orphanage nearby: Xuan Tam in Xuan Loc. 50 of the surviving orphans were adopted into the community. A small number have since returned to the Chu Lai area. Some of the still-surviving orphans are now in the United States. Xuan Tam continues to be a functioning orphanage with more than 50 children. Surviving orphans and their families now gather every April 26, the anniversary of Sister Helene’s death in 1987.”

WHEN WE WERE GIANTS: Tom Brogan at a Van Coi Orphanage reunion, 2015

Tom has returned to Vietnam for some of these reunons. Tall and sinewy, quick with a smile or a helping hand, Tom is literally and figuratively a giant among the orphans of Van Coi, past and present. He maintains a Facebook page for the Van Coi legacy and remains in touch with Sister Yvonne, the nun I interviewed in 1971, who took charge of the orphanage after Sister Helene. Today, he teaches English to the Vietnamese community in Dorchester, MA.

FRED VIGEANT: Chu Lai, 1971

Fred Vigeant of Stratford, CT, was a young Iieutenant Information Officer for Americal in 1971.  He spent boo-coo hours with Vietnamese children in Chu Lai schools and orphanages and also with Montagnard families on remote artillery firebases of the surrounding highlands. Fred’s camera was always at the ready. As you’d expect of any war photos of children, Fred’s have a poignant narrative. Yet, another quality penetrated Fred’s lens and incised so many of his prints: hope.  The children’s situation was immensely sorrowful. Their faces often dirty, their skin riddled with sores and wounds.  Their living conditions were dangerous and dismal, their history was a nightmare. So often, however, Fred found hope in their eyes.

I see that hope today in Vietnam, under far far better conditions. From the poor and quiet rural countryside, to the bustling, burgeoning urban centers, Vietnamese youth are war-free, energized, living on cellphones, and optimistic about their future.

I envy them. I want to be young again. I think of my own children, now grown to adulthood, and recall the elixir their youth induced in me. I yearn to again experience childish enthusiasm, its boundless joy, the bring it on and don’t spare the speed optimism and voracious appetite to drink up, eat up, devour whatever life delivers. I want to see life as the children of Vietnam see it: the yellow brick road ahead; not the deathly path behind.

I know that won’t occur. But what I can do is shout—as gleefully as I can convince myself—to the children, to everyone, to the world:

“Hallo!  My name is Fred!”

And then, hope……

THE GLOW OF CHILDHOOD: Baby-san and Grandma-san at a 1971 medical exam provided by Americal doctors in Chu Lai (Photo by Fred Vigeant)
THREE GENERATIONS: All smiles today in rural Vietnam
HOPE BEHIND THE WIRE: At the Van Coi Orphanage, 1971
SWING TIME: Soaring high above the Song Bung River in northern Vietnam today
Chu Lai, 1971 (Photo by Fred Vigeant)……………….At the “The Pub with Cold Beer”, 2018
Chu Lai, 1971…………………Quang Binh Province, 2018
Chu Lai, 1971 (Photo by Fred Vigeant)………….Quang Binh Province, 2018
ALONE IN THE WORLD: At the Van Coi Orphanage nursery, 1971 (Photo by Fred Vigeant)
LITTLE MISS QUANG NGAI: She reached up for my hand, and smiled for a photo
SCHOOL DAYS 1971: Lt. Fred Vigeant taking a break on the classroom steps in Chu Lai
FOREIGN FOODS: Italian spaghetti, French fried potatoes and Neapolitan pizza in DaNang, 2018
CATCHING THE CATCHLIGHT: The eyes have it; Chu Lai, 1971 (Photo by Fred Vigeant)
FAMILY REUNION: Tom Brogan with the grown up orphans of Van Coi and their families, 2015
SOULS OF A NATION: Chu Lai, 1971 (Photo by Fred Vigeant)
AMERICAL MAGAZINE 1971: The article I wrote about Van Coi Orphanage
OPTIMISTIC YOUTH: Energized………
…..war free and living on cellphones

4 Replies to “Children of Vietnam: Souls of a Nation

  1. Very poignant…thank you, Fred. We too easily forget how much of the world lives, and the scars they carry with them. But having been to Vietnam last year, I can echo the optimism that permeates even the poorest conditions there. Your first-hand history there gives weight and perspective to that feeling.

    Your kids went in 2014?

  2. I knew Van Coi had become a school but did not know specifically for girls. Interesting, seeing as nuns started the property, and the building they built in ’70-’72 remains. The other buildings incorporated into today’s school are the former Dong Cong School, where I had my first teaching experiences, and the once Catholic church with its steeple removed. That is a great read, Fred, bringing a lot of memories back from ’71 and the joyful returns in 2013 and 2015.

  3. Chris–There are so many parallels to the world at large hiding in plain site in Vietnam. The children then and now being just one. I think too of US soldiers being sacrificed in Afghanistan and the refugee plight of Syrians and others in this vein. Yes, Chris my son Daniel and his wife bicycled the Delta area nearly 4 years ago.

  4. Tom: The sign at the gate says “Vocational School of Vietnam; Department of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs of Quang Nam province”. Our buddy Cau told me it was a girls’ school and that’s all who I saw entering or leaving the grounds. Hope you and I get to go back for a future reunion.

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