In a nod to its Vietnamese origins, the Truong Son Asian Center uses two nón lá (conical hats made with palm leaves) in place of the O’s in its sign. Behind the lettering, a faded silhouette of a street vendor carries two baskets balanced on a pole over his shoulders. This market, nestled off North O Street, is the largest Asian grocery store in Fort Smith, Arkansas, a gateway to the Ozarks region and home to 88,000 people.
In the shadow of the supermarket, to the side of an expansive parking lot, rests a beige stone structure inscribed with the words “Vietnamese-American Flag Monument.” Two flags hang from looming metal poles, commanding the attention of passing shoppers. A gust of wind ripples through the red, white, and blue of the American flag on the left and a yellow flag with three horizontal red stripes on the right.
For many Vietnamese refugees, the yellow striped flag holds great significance: it is the flag of South Vietnam—officially the Republic of Vietnam—a nation that no longer exists after the fall of Saigon to North Vietnam in 1975. There are numerous interpretations of the flag’s meaning. In one, the three stripes represent the common blood running through the three regions of Vietnam: North, Central, and South. Through the flag, the memory of the republic continues to live in its former inhabitants.
As one of the elders, Cac Pham (no relation), tells me, “The flag is our heritage.”
Monuments like this serve to actualize a sense of community. They exist as tangible representations of the community and become common gathering places for celebrations and commemorations. These spaces are especially significant for immigrant groups who live in a society that does little to acknowledge their specific histories. For Vietnamese Americans born in the United States, this monument represents a history we never personally experienced.
My parents moved to Fort Smith in the late 1990s when my mom took an internal medicine position at one of the local hospitals. She told me she liked the “small-town feel,” and she liked that there were Vietnamese who lived in the area. When I lived at home, I rarely visited the Truong Son supermarket. It was far from our house, and my grandparents usually went shopping there alone.
Last year, I visited the market for the first time in years and was surprised to see the monument there. Elders of the Vietnamese community spearheaded an initiative to construct the monument in 2013. I was impressed by their effort, and I took the opportunity to learn more about the community I had grown up around.
In general, neither the flag of South Vietnam nor the present-day Vietnamese flag—red with a yellow star—evoke a strong sense of meaning or allegiance to me. For my family, the present-day flag brings about strong feelings of loss and sadness. In high school, I remember feeling a vague sense of betrayal when I posed for a picture holding the present-day flag. In my hands, it felt wrong, but I wasn’t sure why. The experience was emblematic of my hyphenated Vietnamese American identity growing up—of feeling that neither my Vietnamese nor my American cultural knowledge was ever enough. I knew there was controversy about the flag, but I didn’t know the details.
When I tried to find information about the monument online, it was almost as if it didn’t exist. Driven by curiosity and a growing sense of cultural pride, I used my improving Vietnamese language skills to speak with community members and make this monument known outside of Fort Smith. (All of my conversations with the elders were translated from Vietnamese to English for this article.) I also felt the original meanings and intentions of this monument should be preserved for future generations.
The monument was built with the financial support and physical labor of the Vietnamese community of Fort Smith and the surrounding area. The total cost was around $11,000.
“It was the idea of the community. We decided on it in a meeting,” says Hanriver Dinh, a Vietnamese man in his seventies who was involved in the planning and construction of the monument. A small group of mostly older Vietnamese hold periodic meetings; younger Vietnamese Americans are not usually in attendance.
The land was donated by the owner of the Truong Son supermarket. Construction began in July 2013 and lasted five months. A plaque fixed on the front reads: “honoring the flag of the Republic of Vietnam, symbol of freedom-democracy-human rights.” A second plaque on the right includes images of famous South Vietnamese generals who opted to kill themselves rather than flee or surrender.
For some, the presence of a Vietnamese monument in Arkansas might seem surprising. However, Fort Chaffee in Fort Smith was one of four locations designated as points of entry for refugees in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. In the span of seven months, 50,809 Vietnamese, Lao, Cambodian, and Hmong refugees were processed through Fort Chaffee. Most of them were relocated to other states, but some were sponsored by residents, creating a small Vietnamese community in town. In the years following, other Vietnamese refugees came to Fort Smith, reuniting with family or seeking new job opportunities.
After the fall of Saigon, many South Vietnamese military officers were forced into “reeducation camps,” prison camps operated by the communist Vietnamese government. U.S. negotiations through the Special Release Reeducation Center Detainee Resettlement Program allowed thousands of those former detainees such as Dinh and Pham to enter the United States. Many refugees found work at local factories. Both Dinh and Pham worked at the Tyson Foods chicken factory.
“We all became a community here,” Dinh says.
For Dinh, who served in the armored cavalry regiment, the flag is associated with the sacrifices of war and the ideals of freedom. When I first asked him about the monument, he sent me a handwritten note detailing its dimensions and background information. He also included his personal thoughts on its importance:
“Anytime. Day or night. Rain or sunshine. Anyone who passes by, especially the Vietnamese who love freedom, will see the presence of the yellow flag with three red stripes. It is a holy flag that our ancestors have spilled blood to protect. It protected the freedom of the Republic of Vietnam before 1975. On April 30th, 1975, the North Vietnamese defeated the South Vietnamese. The yellow flag with three red stripes was taken down. But miraculously, the flag still flies all over the world, wherever Vietnamese people live.”
Pham served as a police officer in Vietnam. After the war, he spent nine years in a reeducation camp. He arrived in Houston in 1994 before eventually settling in Fort Smith. “The flag represents humanity, peace, and freedom for the people,” he told me. “The flag represents serving Vietnamese people so they can live happily. Those are my ideals, so when I see the flag, I’m happy. I’m getting old, about to die, but I’ll hold onto my ideals and keep the ideals of the flag with me ’til my death.”
For both men, and other elders actively involved, the monument helps them cope with the remembered traumas of war.
“It’s a symbol of honor for the people who escaped to come here,” Dinh says. “There are some people who are more focused on their own lives than communism, but for the people who fought communism and failed… when they come here, they feel at ease. This monument is their soul.”
Yet for some young Vietnamese Americans, the flag serves as an unwelcome reminder. “Sometimes I observed my grandfather in a confused daze,” says one young man who wished not to be named. His grandfather worked on the monument. “He sometimes spoke about babies he saw sucking on their dead mother’s breast. Sometimes, at the mention of the war, he wore a thousand-yard stare.
“To me, the monument is a time capsule,” he continued. “While I do appreciate what it means to my grandfather, me and other young Vietnamese Americans will never share the same love nor tragedy of losing South Vietnam as a country. On a brighter note, the hate and trauma of the Vietnamese civil war will be buried with the older generation.”
For both Pham and Dinh, there are strong hopes that the younger generations will continue the legacy of the monument. It requires regular upkeep to ensure that the flags are replaced when they become ripped or faded. As Dinh says, “Compared to other monuments, it’s small, but it’s a precious treasure of the Vietnamese here.”
But Pham also has doubts that next generation will carry on their work. He noted that the young people sometimes participate in cultural events but are not involved in the planning. “We need the young people to participate so that the community can live on.”
In speaking about the purpose of the monument, Dinh says, “It’s for younger generations and their descendants to remember. To remember the process of fighting against communism.”
For many young Vietnamese Americans like Kim Phan, the monument says less to them about the war years and more about the struggles our families faced coming to the United States. She feels that the two flags standing side by side symbolize how our parents and grandparents were able to coexist with other Americans.
“I definitely feel like our generation will take care of the monument,” she says. “I don’t know about our children though.”
For me, keeping strong connections to my heritage is important. I study Vietnamese in my free time and conduct oral histories with family members. Learning more about my heritage gives me a better understanding of myself. Apart from its connections to war and the fight, the monument is significant to me for its representation of history and heritage. It exists not only for Vietnamese Americans but also to educate other Americans on the Vietnamese perspective. In better understanding the flag’s significance to older generations, I find that it has a deeper meaning for me. I hope that this history still has meaning for future generations of Vietnamese Americans.
“No matter what the flag may mean, Vietnamese Americans should carve out our own destiny,” the young man concludes.
The fall of Saigon occurred forty-seven years ago, but the flag of South Vietnam continues to fly. In 2021, certain events demonstrated how the Vietnam War and community divisions within the diaspora continue to be profoundly felt in the United States. The South Vietnam flag was flown at the January 6 insurrection. Its presence was upsetting for many, and it brought attention to the deeper generational and political divides within the Vietnamese American community. When the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August 2021, many remarked how it was reminiscent of the way the Vietnam War ended many years ago, showing how narratives of conflict and displacement continue to be reproduced.
But for the shoppers at Truong Son Asian Center, the monument with its waving flags is a constant fixture, a testament to the hopes and dreams of the refugees who came and the generations who come after. It remains an enduring mark of the Vietnamese community in Fort Smith.
Lena Pham is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a graduate student in applied anthropology at the University of North Texas. Her research focuses on identity and education within Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. Lena would like to thank all the community members who contributed to this story.