Why are Vietnamese Americans so divided over Trump?
How the legacy of the Vietnam War is shaping many Vietnamese Americans’ picks in the upcoming election.
In the days leading up to the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, when communist North Vietnamese forces captured South Vietnam, marking the end of the Vietnam War – and in the weeks and years following that day – around 800,000 Vietnamese left their homes and fled on rickety fishing boats.
Among those who did not manage to flee, hundreds of thousands who were aligned with the former South Vietnamese government and army – on whose side the United States had fought during the war – were captured. They became prisoners in communist re-education camps where they faced torture, severe malnutrition and death.
Today, close to two million Vietnamese Americans – former refugees and their descendants – live in the US. They are the fourth-largest Asian-American population in the country.
In the years since the end of the Vietnam War, Vietnamese Americans – particularly the older generation – have typically aligned themselves with the Republican party because of the GOP’s fervent anti-communist stance dating back to the war.
Many say they will vote for US President Donald Trump in the election, and Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote polls show that Vietnamese Americans are the only major Asian ethnic group that has a net favourability rating for US President Donald Trump.
For the past several weeks, Vietnamese Americans have gathered across the US to show their support for Trump, including large groups who travelled in caravans to Washington, DC in October to rally in front of the White House and the Supreme Court.
But there is a growing political divide between younger and older generations of Vietnamese Americans.
The grassroots Progressive Vietnamese American Organization (PIVOT) was founded against the backdrop of the 2016 presidential election. Its members and hundreds of volunteers are actively campaigning for Joe Biden. It has invested heavily in Vietnamese-language digital, TV and print ads and created Viet Fact Check, which has been dispelling misinformation throughout the election.
According to Hieu Le, a PIVOT board member, Vietnamese-American support for Trump is greater now than it was in 2016.
“Despite his harsh anti-immigration policies targeting Vietnamese communities, he’s been able to recapture support within the Vietnamese-American community and increased his support this year to 48 percent, a 16 percent increase from 2016,” Le explained.
“A large part of this has been his rhetoric and anti-communist ‘tough on China’ message that resonates with a conservative community that views communism and Chinese imperialism with great disdain.”
One of the most contentious issues within the Vietnamese-American community is the mistaken belief that as a senator Biden opposed accepting Vietnamese refugees after the war. In October, Biden addressed this misconception in an op-ed in a popular Vietnamese-language newspaper.
But for many Vietnamese, that will not be enough to change their opinion. Here, Vietnamese Americans explain who they will be voting for and why.
Matthew Truong, 53 – ‘We don’t want the US to be a communist country’
Matthew Truong arrived in the US alone as a 12-year-old boat refugee in 1980 with two sets of clothes and two words of English. His family later joined him in the US.
He received a master’s degree in electrical engineering and has run successful tech startups for the past 26 years. Over the summer, he ran for US Congress in northern Virginia but lost the nomination after a competitive race. He says he is living the “American dream”.
Truong supports Trump and believes the Democratic party and, in particular, Kamala Harris, the Democratic party’s vice presidential candidate, leans too far to the left.
“We look at Biden, and … particularly Harris. Actually, she is a lot more left than Bernie [Sanders]. And so if Bernie is a progressive socialist, a democratic, whatever the terms you want to use, she is to the left of that, therefore, she’s leaning toward communism,” he says.
“We escaped from communism, we lost Vietnam to communists, we escaped from it as boat people, we arrived here and rebuilt our lives again.
“We knew communism, us Vietnamese. And so therefore, we do not want the United States to be a communist country.”
He believes the Democratic party has moved leftwards since the 1990s and “that’s why on the conservative side you see a lot more non-political conservatives coming out”.
Truong says there is more enthusiasm among Vietnamese Americans for this election than there was in 2016.
“They know that they don’t want communism. They lived under it; they feel passionate about it and angry. And the way to get the anger out is to vote and we have done that in droves already.”
Kim Ha Ly, 71 and her son Binh Ly, 30 – ‘Character is very important’
After multiple attempts, Kim Ha Ly’s husband managed to flee Vietnam by boat in 1981. But Ly stayed behind to raise her three sons. Despite initially losing her job because she was the daughter of the former deputy mayor of Saigon, Ly managed to find work as a high school teacher. Then, in 1990, after her husband had received his permanent residency, she and her sons were able to immigrate to the US.
Ly comes from a political family and believes it is important to be involved in activism; a value she has passed down to her son Binh.
Binh, who was born in the US and is now 30, first volunteered with former President Barack Obama’s campaign while he was still in high school.
During this election, mother and son are helping to organise rallies of Vietnamese-American Biden supporters.
Ly believes that character and compassion are on the ballot this year.
“[Trump’s] foreign policy damaged American standing in the world, I think that’s important,” she says. “And because of his lack of character, lack of compassion, lack of kindness. And he lies. He never thinks of how many times he has lied to his people. So, I think that character is very important. I think that makes Biden different from Trump.”
At one recent rally of Vietnamese Americans for Biden, a Vietnamese Trump supporter started yelling at Ly, saying that because Biden had not accepted Vietnamese refugees, her parents had died at sea while fleeing Vietnam.
Ly says she shrugs off such confrontations and accusations of not being part of the Vietnamese community, and that she has been receiving private messages and calls from Vietnamese Americans thanking her for showing that it is OK to support Biden and not feel bad about it.
Binh discusses the “painful” conflict between older and younger generations of Vietnamese Americans and says there is a Facebook group called “Asian Americans with Republican Parents Support Group” on which some younger people have even described being kicked out of their homes by their parents for disagreeing with their political views.
He believes it is important to make people “feel empowered about their support for Biden” and to understand that it “is not necessarily just a vote against Trump”.
Trung Phan, 32 – ‘He brings us another dream’
Trung Phan arrived in the US 12 years ago, joining family members who had fled after the war. He now has his own IT business in northern Virginia.
Because he was born after the war, he says he knows what it is like to live under communism.
“Twenty years under communism was like living under a blanket – all information about the outside world was under control,” he says.
“We can’t talk about the government because they have agents all around your neighbourhood. You can’t talk negatively about the government and leadership or you end up in the police station.”
Phan was not at all interested in politics until 2016, when he voted for Trump.
“He brings us another dream, that you can be a president; maybe my kids can be president, too. We love this country, we came here with empty hands but now that has changed, we have opportunities,” he says with a smile while sitting on his white Harley-Davidson motorcycle in a parking lot at the Fairfax County Government Center, the last stop of a “Trump Train” parade and rally that took place earlier in the day.
Kathy Tran, 42 – ‘This is the most consequential election of our lifetimes’
Kathy Tran was an infant when, in 1980, she fled Vietnam by boat with her parents and arrived in the US. She is a Democrat, mother of five, and the first Vietnamese American elected to the Virginia House of Delegates.
She decided to enter politics immediately after Trump’s 2017 inauguration. Before then, she worked as a civil servant at the US Department of Labor for 12 years and then in immigration and advocacy. She says she could no longer stand on the sidelines.
“In Virginia, we have an election every year. And I think we’ve always said, ‘This is the year that is really important to come out and vote’. But truly, this is the most consequential election of our lifetimes. And I think any issue that affects our daily lives – whether it’s healthcare access, public education, the [COVID-19] pandemic – the differences between Joe Biden and Donald Trump are so great,” Tran says.
“[Trump is] fighting really hard in the US Supreme Court to end the Affordable Care Act. And so, I think most folks don’t know that over 147,000 Vietnamese Americans, since 2014, have access to health insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act,” she explains.
Another important issue for Tran is immigration and how undocumented migrants are contributing to the country’s economy and social and cultural fabric every day. “When we came as Vietnamese boat refugees to this country, I think public opinion at that time didn’t want to accept us. And it was because of the generosity and the moral leadership that everyday people and political leaders and faith leaders showed that made us feel welcome. And we have to have that moral courage now.”
Vince Tran, 53 – ‘Everybody has to speak up’
Vince Tran was born in Saigon the year before the February 1968 Tet Offensive, one of the most significant military operations launched against South Vietnam and US forces.
He was 11 when he and his mother fled Vietnam by boat to “escape from the oppressive communist regime”. He has little memory of his life in Vietnam now.
“I owe a lot to this country for being here,” he says after participating in a Vietnamese Americans for Biden rally at Eden Center in Falls Church, Virginia, one of the oldest Vietnamese food destinations in the Washington, DC region and a hub for the vibrant local Vietnamese community.
Tran was involved in local politics before but feared it could harm his 7-Eleven franchise business. But that changed with this year’s election.
“In this election, everybody has to speak up. It is just not acceptable for me to not have a voice, or more importantly not act more, during this election cycle,” he says.
When his family members ask him why he is not supporting Trump, he says his long laundry list comes out: “Trump is against all the minority groups, the LGBTQ community, and immigrants like us. And not just in a subtle way, in a very open way. And that is just so against how I felt that this country was [when I arrived].”
Tran says he hopes the political rifts in his own family will heal after the election.
Christina Nguyen, 58 – ‘I’m not afraid to speak up about supporting the president’
Christina Nguyen, a stay-at-home mother and former realtor, came to the US from Saigon in 1975.
She stands near her car, which is adorned with a “Women for Trump” sign and US flags, and is parked in a high school parking lot in Manassas, Virginia on a September morning where a “Trump Train” parade is about to take off. The crowd in the background chants “USA! USA! USA!”
She was never interested in politics until Obama left the White House, “[but] after eight years of Obama, I was afraid that this beautiful country would turn into a socialist country,” she says.
Nguyen says she believes in hard work and that her parents found a job shortly after they arrived in the US. “They didn’t stay at home waiting for the government to take care of them,” she says.
Nguyen is supporting Trump because “you can see that for the past four years, whatever he did, he always did it for the country and he always did it for the American people”.
She says she does not want to think about a Biden-Harris presidency. “Look at Kamala Harris. She is so towards the left. AOC [Democrat Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] already said that if Biden becomes president, she will push him into making the socialists stronger.”
Nguyen says she became more politically active and vocal during the weeks leading up to the election – especially on Facebook, where she maintains a popular page about Trump. She says that she gets blocked by Facebook at least once a month from posting on her page, but adds: “I’m not afraid to speak up in supporting the president.”
Minh Dang, 58 – ‘Trump has been on the outside’
Minh Dang was once registered as a Democrat but switched to the Republican party when George H Bush became president.
“One of the things that really ignites my posture towards President Trump is that he has a deep belief in the higher being,” he says. “That also gives me a lot of encouragement and motivation to see that like him, I make mistakes, I say things, I get upset, I yell at people. But who doesn’t?”
“I think Trump probably understands the ‘outside the Beltway’ attitude, he’s been on the outside,” he adds.
Khai Nguyen, 70 – ‘He’s incompetent, immoral, irresponsible’
Khai Nguyen is a new member of the Progressive Vietnamese American Organization (PIVOT). He is a retired World Bank economist living in Fairfax, Virginia.
He came to the US in 1972 to study economics at the University of Florida before joining the World Bank in Washington, DC. Not so many Vietnamese had immigrated to the US at the time – the first wave of immigration would come in 1975. He did not go back to Vietnam until 1992, when the country opened up.
Nguyen was always interested in politics and volunteered for John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008. Throughout his whole life in America, he was aligned with the Republican party. He explains that back in the 1970s, most Vietnamese supported Republicans. “So I just followed the crowd,” he says with a laugh.
But that all changed for him with Trump.
“I became an independent voter because of Trump. Trump disclosed many things about the Republican party, bad things about the Republican party that helped me to quit,” he says.
“I am supporting Biden. I don’t think Trump is a good candidate. He’s incompetent, immoral. And he’s irresponsible.”
Unlike many Vietnamese Americans, Nguyen doesn’t believe that the Republican party is the only anti-communist party.
“I think Democrats are anti-communist too. But they don’t make noise about it.
“Trump makes a lot of noise about communism. But he did not do any real things yet. He failed badly on the trade war with China. He withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership [TPP]. It’s very good for us to surround China.”
He hopes that if Biden becomes president, the US will join the TPP again.
Nguyen has also been actively involved in setting the record straight on Biden’s position on accepting Vietnamese refugees into the US. Using Library of Congress and US Department of State records, he provided evidence that in fact Biden strongly supported Vietnamese refugees. He faced a backlash from Trump supporters in the community for writing articles about this issue in Vietnamese-language newspapers.
“They hate me, but they cannot do anything. They don’t like it. But this is reality. I did not make up any story about this. This is real,” he says.
“I think Trump is a racist person. Nobody wants to admit that he or she is a racist, but you look at the way he behaves, the statements he makes, the action he took, then you can conclude that he’s a racist person,” Nguyen adds, referring to a September rally in Minnesota where Trump told the mostly white crowd they had “good genes” and a statement he made to four Democrat congresswomen of colour that they should go back to their countries.
“That’s racist,” he concludes.