Less than 10 hours before the fall of Saigon in 1975, Nguyen Manh Hung, South Vietnam's deputy minister of national planning, arrived at the American embassy with his wife and two small children. In one hand he carried a briefcase with the first chapters of a book he was writing; in the other hand were cans of condensed milk for his 17-month-old son.
In the chaos and confusion of those final hours, Hung found he needed at least one free hand to make his way through the crowds to the helicopters. He kept the milk and abandoned the briefcase, leaving behind his homeland, all his possessions and countless friends and relatives.
To one degree or another, Hung's experience has been shared by the more than 11,000 Indochinese refugees now living in the Washington area. They make up the third largest concentration of refugees in the United States, after those in California and Texas.
Recently named director of George Mason University's new Indochinese Refugee Studies Center, Hung has just embarked on an ambitious program of reserach into the special problems and concerns of his fellow refugees.
"There is a serious gap in research done on the Indochinese refugees," said Hung, who was a professor of International politics at Saigon University and at South Vietnam's National School for Administration. "Those who are doing the research do not have the understanding of the culture of the subjects they are researching. Those who have the understanding do not have the capability to do scientific research."
With six Vietnamese currently on its faculty, Hung observed, George Mason is a logical choice for a "clearinghouse for information and research on Indochinese refugees. We are interested in all the problems of adjustment -- cultural, personal, professional."
Hung, who earned his Ph.D. at the University of Virginia, spent five years in Charlottesville before returning to Saigon in 1965. For the next 10 years he taught and served with the Thieu regime, but when the collapse of the government was imminent, there was no question that Hung, then 38, would flee the country.
"I knew I had to get out, and I was lucky to get out," said Hung. "There were many good people left behind, and I felt very sad about that."
As the helicopter lifted off from the U.S. embassy en route to naval ships that would take them to Guam, Hung remembers looking down at his native city for the last time.
"I felt that I was leaving a paradise," he said. "Saigon was so bright with the lights, but very, very sad. It looked like something that would never be the same again -- so cold, so chilly, beautiful, but sadly beautiful."
From Guam, Hung and his family went to Fort Chaffee, Ark. He eventually wound up in the Washington area after a childhood friend, a native Vietnamese who became an American citizen, agreed to sponsor him.
In Washington, he went through the common refugee experience of pounding the pavements looking for work, being turned down and looking again. A drug store in McLean rejected his application for a clerk's job. For two years he worked as a part-time instructor at George Mason and Catholic universities before being appointed to an assistant professorship at George Mason in 1977.
"That is just a situation that all refugees have to go through," he said.
In his job as director of the Indochinese Refugee Studies Center, Hung says, he plans to be a "bridge between the service delivery agencies and the refugees."
He is planning a handbook for American families who would like to sponsor refugees, and a course at George Mason for Vietnamese lawyers studying for bar examinations in the United States.
And he will be planning and directing scientific and scholarly research on the Indochinese refugees.
For instance, there will be programs to examine the impact of billingual education programs and studies of how leadership patterns emerge after refugees become established in their adopted communities.
There have been two separate and distinct groups of refugees since Hung left Saigon in 1975. "The first wave in 1975 didn't run away from an unhappy present. They ran away from a paradise lost. The second wave ran from economic oppression, political repression and ethnic persecution.
"The first wave were middle-class professionals -- doctors, lawyers and government officials, most of whom were highly educated and skilled. Today, the Indochinese refugees are more likely to have been shopkeepers or clerks in one of the nations which is now driving them into the sea."
Impetus for the Refugee Studies Center, Hung said, stemmed from a conference on Indochinese Refugees held at George Mason in late October under the sponsorship of the University's Citizens Applied Reserach Institute, directed by another George Mason faculty member, Harry Stopp.
Response to that conference was overwhelmingly positive, the two professors said, and Stopp is considering directing another such conference in the spring.