In a parking lot along Bellaire Boulevard—here renamed Dai Lo Saigon, or Little Saigon—a South Vietnamese soldier and an American stand, fighting, side by side, frozen in time with machine guns aloft, their heads held high and faces forever searching. These men are 27 feet tall, made of copper, and sculpted by the late, renowned Houston-based artist Thong Pham. Their oval pedestal, which sits atop nine steps—a lucky number in Vietnam—was designed and constructed by architect Nghiep Nguyen, as was the gleaming piece of black granite behind the soldiers, which supports three billowing flags: South Vietnamese, American, and Texan.
This is Houston’s Vietnam War Memorial, whose spot in Asiatown’s Universal Shopping Center was donated by the center’s owner, State Representative Hubert Vo. The monument, says Nguyen, is “a tribute to those who sacrificed their lives to maintain the freedom of South Vietnam.”
Today Nguyen is an “almost retired” architect and longtime Houstonian, but 43 years ago he was a third-year medical student at Minh Duc Medical University in Saigon when it fell to the People’s Army of Vietnam, ending the Vietnam War in a way that many residents of Saigon were terrified of—with communist rule.
“If you look at the videos of that day, you can see how disorganized it was,” he says, remembering April 30, 1975, when helicopters swarmed the American embassy, evacuating thousands of Americans and Vietnamese, while the People’s Army shelled the airport and entered the city. “Before the fall, everybody tried to get out as soon as possible, by any means possible. Go to river. Boats there. Jump in.”
Nguyen left with his brother, a naval officer, who captained a small escape boat carrying about 140 refugees, sailing to the Philippines, Guam, and, eventually, a refugee base in Florida. Because the fall of Saigon happened so quickly, the only possessions Nguyen carried with him were the clothing on his back and a pocket-sized Vietnamese-English dictionary. His mother and sisters stayed back, waiting for his younger brother, a soldier who did eventually return, emaciated and unrecognizable. “You don’t know what your future will be,” Nguyen says. “You just try to escape communism.”
In America, Nguyen first moved to New Orleans, where he worked at a grocery store for three years before going back to school for architecture in 1978—a lifelong dream—at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. In 1987 he debuted his first Vietnam War Memorial, a pyramid-shaped monument of his own design and construction, in downtown Nola.
He and his wife relocated to Houston in 1989. In 2003 Nguyen was elected chairman of the Vietnamese and Allied Defenders Memorial Foundation. Within six months he’d raised $350,000 to commission Pham’s statue and build the memorial. On July 11, 2005, the work made its debut, with the mayor, veterans, generals, senators, and congressmen all in attendance.
Thirteen years later, a group of elderly Vietnamese Houstonians meet every Sunday for small ceremonies at the memorial. Every April 30, thousands gather here to remember the Fall of Saigon with an evening of speeches, performances, and song. The U.S. is home to almost 2 million Vietnamese people, with more than 120,000 in Houston alone, per a 2015 count, but the memorial is visited by people from the world over.
“Every day you see new foreigners or out-of-state visitors,” Nguyen says. That shouldn’t be too surprising. The center is a cultural hub, home to famed eatery Crawfish & Noodles and to another of Pham’s beloved sculptures, “Refugees,” in which a woman, her child, and a group of men—all of different descent—face the great unknown together. It’s meant to represent hope. “It’s also in the name of the center,” says Nguyen. “Universal. So people from around the world feel welcome here.”