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Returning To Vietnam Years After Fleeing War, A Man Finally Feels At Home


April 30, 1975 - this day 40 years ago, Saigon fell. The end of the Vietnam War or the reunification of Vietnam, as the communist government calls it. And we begin this hour with the story of a man who found you can go home again. As the memory of the war recedes, more and more Vietnamese who fled are now opting to return - bankers, entrepreneurs and people just looking to reconnect with the country of their birth. Most return to the South in and around Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon - most, but not all. Here's Michael Sullivan in Hanoi.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Nguyen Qui Duc is late, but he does own a bar, and it is 8 in the morning, and he did have old friends in town the night before. But he shows up after about 10 minutes, cigarettes in one hand, his Mac in the other, an aging hipster beat poet in Hanoi. His bar, Tadiato, on a leafy side street around the corner from the venerable Mertropole Hotel and the new Starbucks. Duc fled the country as more than a million others did as a boat person in 1975 when he was just 17. He came back to live in 2006.

NGUYEN QUI DUC: I've always wanted to come back to live in Vietnam to sort of finish the man that I was meant to be - disrupted, interrupted to go to America and become somebody else, and after about 30 years, I wanted to get back to Vietnam. I wanted to live here.

SULLIVAN: But why Hanoi, the capital of the communist North, the seat of power of the regime that imprisoned his father, a senior official in the South Vietnamese government for 12 years? To some Vietnamese Americans, it's akin to betrayal, but Duc's always been different.

DUC: I always see Hanoi as the capital of a long history of Vietnam - not just the communist capital. And enough time had passed. But I had romantic notions of Hanoi from reading the books of the '30s and '40s that I studied in school. It was all very romanticized. But I love the seasonal changes in Hanoi. I love the architecture, the trees. And Saigon was too big, too crass and too Western-like. And I was tired of the Western life.

SULLIVAN: And there were other reasons that had to do with family. His first trip back was in 1989 on a journey for NPR to do a story about retrieving his sister's ashes. She'd died here during the war. And when he came back for good, he brought his mother with him. Alzheimer's was already taking its toll, and he figured he could take far better care of her here - and a lot cheaper - than he could in the U.S.

DUC: I hired three people to be around the clock with her, and then she passed away, and now her ashes are with my sister's and my father's ashes.

SULLIVAN: Duc says he's not bitter about what happened to his father. He wasn't bitter, Duc says. Why should I be? But then there's the Americans who come to his bar, and everyone comes to Duc's. Think Bogart's Rick in "Casablanca." And many of the Americans are confused because the Vietnamese seem so friendly.

DUC: I hate to be in the position of having to explain to all the Americans who come here and say, well, why don't the Vietnamese hate us? Well, the young people, they don't think about you. They think about America as Hollywood, the next movie that's coming out, Starbucks. They don't think about the war. If they think about war, it's about China, the big, giant, demon, evil force - which we've had a history of conflict for thousands of years. They don't think about America in those terms.

SULLIVAN: Those Vietnamese young people, he says - the artists he works with, the filmmakers whose scripts he translates - make him feel younger, too.

DUC: They're starting to write about gay marriage, abortion and all that stuff. Those issues that have been hidden all these years are now coming to the fore, and I get to work with young people and not be concerned with war. Their parents don't talk about it. Their parents are telling them, don't think about these dark things. And Vietnamese are very pragmatic. Asians are like, hey, we have to survive. You can talk to us about democracy and human rights, but, you know, at the end of the day, I want my Toyota. I want my Samsung, iPhone. And as long as I can get it, I'm not going to rock the boat.

SULLIVAN: Duc's boat is moving right along. His bar, Tadiato, is now more of a brand, his fingers in many pies - writing, painting, designing. And unlike many Vietnamese Americans who return, he says, he's not viewed with suspicion.

DUC: I have friends here that I see regularly who are local people who've accepted me - who don't see the stigma of the Viet Kieu coming back to live in the country. They don't judge me that way anymore. And local people are coming to me proposing business deals - open a restaurant with them, open a hotel with them, and I learn from them, and they've accepted me.

SULLIVAN: Duc says he's still not sure who he is - an accidental American, as he calls it, or an accidental Vietnamese, or maybe both. Either way, Hanoi is home, and for him, it fits. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Hanoi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.