Houston is home to both one of the nation’s largest populations of military veterans and one of the largest Vietnamese communities, so with the debut of the monumental Ken Burns and Lynn Novick PBS documentary series The Vietnam War, Houston Public Media wanted to bring a local perspective to the project by producing three supplemental programs: Saigon Stories, Peace Meals and Getting Here.
The first of this Houston-focused trilogy, Saigon Stories, brings back a familiar hometown face to our television screens, longtime local news anchor and reporter Lily Jang. Born in Vietnam but raised primarily in Houston, Jang becomes the ideal guide to help local audiences explore Vietnam’s largest city, Ho Chi Minh City, which many in the U.S still call Saigon.
Before the special airs on Monday (8:30 pm; TV 8), I got a sneak peek and a chance to speak with Jang about her journey back to the city of her birth and the Houston stories she found there. When I asked Jang how she started on this trip into her own past and the vibrant city’s dynamic present, she explained it was Houston Public Media’s Don Geraci who first started her on this Saigon road.
Finding Two Homes
“When he found out I was leaving Channel 11, he reached out and said, 'We’re doing something that’s really a parallel with your life, going back to Vietnam. We want you to find stories of Houstonians or ex-pats who live there,' " she recalled. "I don’t think he could have found a better person because I have friends who are making the biggest waves in Saigon. They have amazing stories to tell.”
Jang says that after growing up and going to college in Texas, she’s formed connections with many Asian Americans who also grew up here but now have decided to go back to Vietnam for its entrepreneurial opportunities while they continue to maintain strong ties and even second homes in Houston and Texas.
“There are a lot of people, just like me, who were born there, came over to the United States during the fall of Saigon as babies. They have their American education. They went to school in Houston or at UT,” Jang said.
The special details how some of these enterprising Texans who speak both English and Vietnamese fluently “decided that they wanted a second hometown to live out their American dream.”
Saigon Stories focuses on two Houstonians — Adam Vuong, creative director of AVuong Consulting, and Tue Nguyen, chairman and managing director of Bates CHI & Partners Vietnam — who now call Saigon one of their homes and represent a growing community of Asian Americans living out their American dream in Vietnam.
“There were are actually too many stories to tell,” said Jang.
Along with talking to Texans living in Saigon, Jang explores the city’s burgeoning fashion scene and a growing foodie culture. She has visited the country several times before, yet one thing she noticed right away with her return for the special is how rapidly change happens in such a fast-paced city as the skyscrapers grow ever higher and the whole city seems always on the motorbike move.
“Just in four years the city has become so westernized. Everywhere you go you see cranes in the skyline and everyone’s internet connected. It’s like any other place I would go in Houston. It’s not that different,” said Jang, though she notes one distinct difference between the two cities in that Saigon lacks Houston’s diversity, as “everybody is Asian.”
“Other than that, people are the same. They do the same things. They even date the same way. There’s Tinder in Vietnam.” she learned after a funny but awkward experience sitting in with a young woman waiting to meet her Tinter date.
“They have adapted to western culture so much quicker than maybe even we have,” she said, recounting the story of friends who recently traveled to Shreveport, Louisiana, and were frustrated to find Uber had not reached that city. Meanwhile Jang found Uber, and especially motorbike Uber drivers everywhere in Ho Chi Minh City, carrying passengers and delivering food.
Near the end of the special, Jang goes in search of the house that her family had to abandon when she was very young and they fled Vietnam. That emotional quest back through time stayed with her after filming and she made her way home to Houston.
“It made me realize how much they had to sacrifice to get where they are now,” she said of her own parents who had to separate for several years until they could all be together in Texas, but also of the many families who fled Vietnam and came to the United States.
“You realize the struggle they went through and the sacrifices they went though, for me to live this American dream, I will never take that for granted,” she said.
Jang also found the whole experience of producing Saigon Stories changed her perspective on her own life in Houston as she began a second career in real estate after leaving KHOU Channel 11.
“When I left television news and didn’t look back, it was scary. I didn’t know how I was going to pursue real estate,” she said, but then she heard and experienced those Saigon Stories. “It’s almost like it lit a fire under me and said, 'You can do anything you want to do in this country that’s given you every dream and you can make every dream come true.' ”
Saigon Stories airs on Houston Public Media Channel 8, Monday, September 18 at 8:30 pm, with encore presentations September 19 and 21.