Interview with Filmmaker Doan Hoang: Oh, Saigon – Life After Vietnam War

0 Interview with Filmmaker Doan Hoang: Oh, Saigon – Life After Vietnam War

The Vietnam War has affected millions of lives when the Communist North invaded the South. In Doan Hoang’s documentary Oh, Saigon, it shows how a family is still haunted by the past because of a split-second choice to flee the country.

Doan Hoang was raised in Louisville, Kentucky and was an editor and writer for many different magazines, including Spin and House and Garden. Her documentary Oh, Saigon won many awards and was aired on PBS nationwide. In this interview segment, we get to chat with the lovely and talented Doan Hoang on making the film, why she wanted to make it, and tips for aspiring filmmakers.

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Synopsis for Oh, Saigon:

Airlifted out of Vietnam on April 30, 1975, Doan Hoang’s family was on the last civilian helicopter out of the country at the end of the war. Twenty-five years later, she sets out to uncover their story. The film follows her family as they return to Vietnam after decades of exile, where her father, a former South Vietnamese major, meets his brothers again to confront their political differences: one was a Communist, the other a pacifist. Meanwhile, Hoang tries to reconcile her own difficult past with her half sister, who was mistakenly separated from the family during the escape.

NERDSociety: Can you tell us a little bit about how each of your family members thought about the war? Have their views changed through time?

Doan Hoang: Overall, I don’t feel any of my family wanted there to be a war in Vietnam. They didn’t have much choice in the matter and grew up in times with certain political attitudes that I believe influenced them. They were all against death and destruction that the war brought to the country, but also feel very rooted in their political beliefs.

My father was extremely anti-communist and pro-capitalist while his older brother, my Uncle Hai, was staunchly communist, but oddly they are very similar. Both felt freedom and independence were worth fighting. Both men devoted their youth and lives to the war (I’m not sure how much choice they had). Men at that time were forced to fight whether they wanted to or not. My younger uncle, who was a pacifist and was anti-war, deserted the southern army. He felt that the war was wrong. His wife was also Viet Cong-raised, so he was essentially fighting people like his wife.

My father still hates censorship, state capitalism (which he calls red capitalism), and corruption, which he finds still in existence in Vietnam, but he doesn’t fear the people or government in Vietnam like he once had. I think he was, in a way, surprised to see that Vietnam was still a country, not this place that stopped in time in his memory.

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My oldest uncle was still very pro-communist and pretty anti-American foreign policy until his death, but he was also against corruption. He always told me to never give in to people trying to get bribes off me in Vietnam. He was a real idealist and I believe he had a respect for all people and a real love for his country. He believed that the Vietnamese living abroad should show their love for the homeland by returning and helping out. He appreciated my documentary work, showing people what Vietnam is like now and how it encouraged reconciliation in our family.

My younger uncle is still all about fun and games and family and doesn’t care much for politics, war, or fighting.

I, myself, am quite anti-war. I also acknowledge that the war made me who I am. I would probably not be a Vietnamese-American documentary filmmaker had there not been a war that took me from my home.

NERDSociety: I am also a product of the Vietnam War and because of it, I was born in the States. Can you tell us how it feels for you to be in America because of the war?

Doan Hoang: I came to America at the age of 3, so my early identify formed around being displaced. I have memories of Vietnam, and remember the contrast between the two places. I sensed my parents’ feeling that we really didn’t belong in the States, and I also sensed from those around us that we didn’t really belong here either.

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After returning, I realize that I’m not really Vietnamese the way people in Vietnam are. Those of us here are mostly very Americanized. We can’t ignore the culture surrounding us. In Vietnam, they can see us “viet kieu” coming for miles, all pale skinned in winter, wearing shorts, sweating like pigs in the heat, getting sick from the water, with our expensive cameras and fancy watches. When I returned at first, I expected to feel at home but then realized that I wasn’t one of them. I also wasn’t a “regular” American either, more like something in-between. Now I feel comfortable about being a Vietnamese-American.

I had resented the war for most of my life because it took me away from our home. But I wouldn’t be who I am now if it weren’t for the war. I hated the war, but the war also has given me an empathy for people, particularly other victims of war, immigrants, the impoverished that I may not have developed otherwise.

NERDSociety: Your brother in the documentary doesn’t seem too affected by the war. What’s the difference between him and you?

Doan Hoang: I think we were both affected by the war, but chose to deal with it in different ways. Like many people, my brother chose to focus on the present and the future, and what’s going on around him. He’s very active, thinking of deals and plans, sports, his daily life, his social scene. Although I lead an active life, I’ve always loved art and history and I’m more internal, reflective. Questions haunt me. I think of how, what, why.

I feel the present is very influenced by the past and we can’t escape from repeating the past without examining and understanding it. People are all wired differently and I believe we should follow our propensities, desires and play to our strengths and understand our limitations. My brother is more of an organizer, a wheeler and dealer, and I’m more sensitive, emotional, and artistic than he is. There’s also a male/female split there.

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NERDSociety:  It would seem that a traditional Asian family wouldn’t be keen to the idea of a documentary made about their lives. Did you have any problems when dealing with your family about filming?

Doan Hoang: My father was a bit reluctant at first. He was actually about 3 hours late for his interview and I think he probably really didn’t want to do it, and didn’t even want to communicate with me that he didn’t want to do it. However, after he began, he couldn’t stop. He spoke for hours and revealed things he never told me, or I imagine, anyone. For a military man to admit his failures and losses and reflect on his life, I found it incredibly powerful to witness. Many people have commented on how poetically he spoke. I didn’t know he had it in him! He really seemed to change after that experience. We are much closer now, and I respect him in a way that I hadn’t before.

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My mother is a hard working Vietnamese woman, so at first it was impossible to film her just sitting still. She was at her shop sewing, chopping chicken on the floor Vietnamese-style, cooking, watering plants, washing dishes, continually taking care of the family. The only time she wasn’t doing that was when we were on vacation elsewhere, and that’s when I managed to film some more expressive interviews with her. I think my parents and uncles were much more comfortable than my siblings and me on camera. The younger folks seemed to be more aware of how they might appear and were more self-conscious. When you’re older, perhaps you are more aware of how short life is and want to tell your story than when you are young and still in the thick of it.

In some cases, the camera emboldened them to speak or do things that they might not otherwise have done. I don’t think my sister would have challenged my mother the way she did without the presence of a camera.

After shooting was over, I almost felt a strange nakedness without the camera. The camera helped me keep an objective eye. I felt safer behind it and able to keep a distance. I’m now fine without the camera, but now I’m just starting a new documentary about my aunt, who was a geisha, and I am remembering again how hard it is to shoot a film.

NERDSociety: In the end, you’ve visited Vietnam again with your father to face his past. How has the trip back changed how you see things?

Doan Hoang: I feel healed in a way that I didn’t before. I think as a Vietnamese child, I felt a strong desire to help my parents. Many people feel the need to do that financially. I did do that to some extent, but I also felt a stronger need to help my family emotionally. I feel like it was one of the finest accomplishments in my life to have my family address the war and their pasts, and help them on a path to heal.

NERDSociety: When did you decide you wanted to become a filmmaker?

Doan Hoang: Probably after I made Oh, Saigon. Ha ha. I didn’t particularly want to be a filmmaker. The film, I felt, found me. I had done video production in middle school and in college, made some shorts, but I was really a journalist – a writer and editor. Film was a hobby. I had been writing a book about Vietnam.

I also had interest and experience in art, sociology, music, design, history, and documentary filmmaking happens to be a blending of all those things. There had been no Vietnam War films that I could relate to and I sought a reflection of my family’s identity desperately in the very non-Vietnamese world where I lived and couldn’t find it, so I guess I had to create it. It just happened organically after I met Ham Tran and Chris Sicat from Club of Noodles in 1998.

The book I was working on suddenly became a movie. Since making Oh, Saigon, I now feel like a filmmaker and I am making a new family documentary called American Geisha.  I’ve also been working on screenplays (one is called Love London, a romantic comedy) and producing, so filmmaking has become something that I find really satisfying. I feel lucky to be able to explore subjects that compel me and make me think. I also feel like making these films helps people. I’ve been told Oh, Saigon makes many people think and emote about the war and gives them something to relate to, whether they were involved in the war, were Vietnamese or American, were soldiers or women, or the children of the aforementioned, or even those with family conflicts or had veterans in the family.

I’m glad to be doing something that moves people.  I’ve also started a fund with Vietnam Relief Effort ( to build a school in Vietnam, and we’ve been using the film to raise money for the school. So far, we’re more than halfway there and have raised thousands of dollars. I couldn’t think of anything else that better used my skills or is in line with my desires, and that is very fulfilling. Where can our readers go to check out Oh, Saigon?

Doan Hoang: DVDs can be ordered at and you can also find out where the latest screenings will be at or on our Facebook page here.

Hear my radio appearance on “Subversity,” the KUCI 88.9 FM Irvine Radio Show with legendary historian & activist, Dan Tsang on mp3 here.

Podcast: link
iTunes Store (free): link

NERDSociety: And finally, for those that want to be filmmakers, do you have any tips for them?

Doan Hoang: We all have the things that grab us and make us pay attention, and we have different strengths and different stories to tell. Filmmaking is a competitive profession where outside success and financial gain is hard to come by, and it can be very humbling.

If you believe in something, or if you absolutely have to do something, that’s what keeps you going. I think tenacity, taking rejection in stride, going with the flow, vision, the ability to learn, finding inspiration in your subjects, keeping your eyes and ears open to your subjects and to opportunities are helpful things to have and to do. If you believe in something and care about something enough, I do think you can make it happen if you don’t give up.

NERDSociety: Thank you Doan for making this touching documentary and for having us interview you.

Doan Hoang: Thank you, NERDSociety!

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