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Stories from Saigon:
The Last Days In Vietnam
Vancouver’s Dr. Soma Ganesan discusses how his time in Saigon during the final days of the Vietnam War influenced the life he would lead.Read More
Stories from Saigon: The Last Days In Vietnam
When Dr. Soma Ganesan heard Christmas music playing, he knew his life would be forever changed.
It was June 1975 and the United States had been scaling down operations in Vietnam for the better part of two years. Working at the Saigon Medical School alongside Americans, Ganesan had been told that if he ever heard Christmas music playing on the radio, it would be the signal for a full withdrawal by the United States.
“They told us to just listen to the FM station — at that time there was only one FM radio station in Vietnam and it was an American one. So they said when you hear that, that is the point when you need to go, otherwise it will be too late.”
“When we knew the North was coming, some of the South Vietnamese threw away their ammunition, they tried to get rid of their uniforms and run away,” he recalled. “In the last few days, with the evacuation going on, everyone went to the harbour or the embassy. I remember seeing the American marines protecting it in the morning, but by the afternoon they had all left. There were still lots of people outside the fence of the embassy though, and they all waited there.”
But despite warnings from his American colleagues, Ganesan decided to stay in his home country, optimistic that life could continue under the rule of the communist forces.
“The American advisors, they talked to us all the time and they told us ‘You need to go, you can’t trust them,’ but for a lot of us, we thought ‘This was our home, this is where we were raised and there might be some hardship at the beginning but let’s stay and see.’”
However, whatever hopes Ganesan might have had of life under the new regime were soon dashed when South Vietnamese who had collaborated with the Americans were sent to “Re-education camps” and the pre-war life he sought never returned.
“They closed off the economy, kicked people out of their homes and confiscated everything. They closed all the banks and took the businesses,” recalled Ganesan. “We found out late that life was going to be very different.”
Any liberties that they had previously enjoyed were taken away and life under Northern rule was a far cry from anything they had expected.
“They only had one radio station and one TV station and they only talked about government propaganda, nothing else, so nobody wanted to watch TV or listen to radio anymore. It was so depressing, having to do your duties, doing whatever they say and learning how to keep your mouth shut to survive.”
After less than a year under the new regime, Ganesan decided he had to get out. He fled the country in 1976 and made his way to a refugee camp in Singapore, before being moved to refugee camps in India and France. It wasn’t until 1981 that he would set foot in his new home, Canada. The rest, as they say, is history.
Now, more than 40 years after the close of the war, Dr. Soma Ganesan still draws upon those experiences for his work as head of Mental Health at Vancouver Coastal Health.
While he worked as a pediatrician during his time in Vietnam, the topic of mental health became an issue near and dear to his heart as Ganesan himself sought support from others who had fled the war-torn Vietnam.
“We all met here, we all arrived around the same time, from 1981 to 1990, lots of refugees came at that time and we all grew close and became a network and supported one another, listened to each other’s stories and helped each other deal with difficulties when we first arrived.”
Having dedicated his life’s work thereafter to exploring and expanding the mental health services available in British Columbia and beyond, Ganesan’s efforts have seen him travel the world in support of spreading mental health awareness. That work came full circle two years ago when Ganesan was invited to take part in a program establishing mental-health services for the children of Vietnam.
“So I went back there and spoke a lot about how our mental health system could help theirs, and helped establish a five-year plan for them.”
Asked how he felt bringing his work back to his native country, Ganesan said it was all about the people.
“I’m helping my people, the people that suffer.”
Looking back on his life’s work and how one of the largest conflicts in modern times affected his life, Ganesan hopes that one day, work like his won’t be necessary. Until then, he hopes that services continue to be available to those needing it the most.
“We need to learn the lessons of the past and we need to transform so that we don’t repeat the history,” he said. “The better people settle, the more constructive it can be and the earlier they can contribute to society.”