In his country, Nguyen Huu Hieu was a Buddhist monk who translated major literary works such as "Doctor Zhivago" into Vietnamese.
But he was defrocked by the Communists, he said, and he spent a year in prison. In 1978, he escaped by boat, was picked up by a Japanese tanker and made his way to the United States.
Yesterday, he was one of about 1,500 Washington area Vietnamese refugees who gathered to remember the fall of Saigon in an emotional ceremony at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria.
The three-hour service, conducted mostly in Vietnamese, marked the anguished end of a war in which more than 250,000 South Vietnamese troops died, but it also celebrated the mixed dreams of the estimated 468,000 refugees who have so far come to this country.
"We are describing, in song and theater, the suffering and hopes of the Vietnamese people," said Hieu, 45. "We are speaking of the resistance to the Communists, and we mourn the loss of life in prison and at sea. Every year, we have this observance of the fall of Saigon, but this is 10 years -- this is the biggest."
Gray-haired women, some bowed from age, came in long silks, and they wiped their eyes when the national anthem "Quoc Ca" was played from a stage flanked with the yellow and red flags of the Republic of South Vietnam.
We will go to sacrifice our lives, because of the future of our people.
We will fight with hope to keep all the mountains and rivers forever.
Even with the sacrifice or our blood, our bodies
Through the dangers of swords and bow and arrows,
To keep our country forever.
Vietnamese grocery store owners came, too, as did doctors, playwrights and hundreds of others, some wearing "Vietnam -- We Shall Return" lapel buttons, and worrying aloud about losing their children to an American culture they do not yet understand.
Teen-agers were there, some driving up in Pontiac TransAms or Volkswagens with rock music playing. Others stood outside, dressed in running shoes and rolled up jeans, talking among themselves about the frustrations of getting into college.
Nguyen Duc Vinh, a 44-year-old poet from Richmond, drove an hour and a half to attend the ceremony.
"A lot of Vietnamese like me are nationalists," he said, "and we do everything we can to keep our own freedom, and to tell the world that we hope to go back when the Communists are expelled."
Phan van Thinh, 60, of Rockville, a free-lance writer with a doctorate in law and economics, was there with his wife, a physician, and his 12-year-old daughter.
"I feel very emotional," he said. "It's the 10th anniversary, and it is not easy to leave everything behind. Especially for the Vietnamese, who are attached to the country of their ancestors, and to their way of life.
"But, for people like us, living in North Vietnam when the Communists took power, it's simply impossible to go back and live once again under their yoke. I hope one day I will be able to return."
Also present were several who had sponsored the exodus of refugees, including Glenn Rounsevell, 60, of Falls Church, the owner and director of the Flint Hill Preparatory School in Oakton.
He said he was the American consul in the Mekong Delta from 1972 until the fall of Saigon, and that some of those whom he helped escape were seated in the audience.
"This is not a celebration," Rounsevell said, "except a celebration of being alive. I've never understood why the North Vietnamese didn't shell the embassy or the consulate when they had the opportunity."
Thaininh Pham, 27, an AT&T computer progammer from Richmond, escaped Saigon in a small boat "just like everybody else." Yesterday, she was one of the program's featured singers.
"I came when I was 17," she said, speaking in a Dixie accent. "It's kind of young, but the strong thing is that I'm still homesick, and I feel it today, for this celebration.
"I feel that we Vietnamese have to be close together. I'm so proud of what we are doing today. To remember everything. We will cry for what happened. And, one day, we're going to go home to freedom."