Drivers on Highway 395 in San Bernardino County might miss the South Vietnamese flags flapping next to a stretch of road as they whiz by.
On a hot and windy day, Dr. Chinh Huynh drove his SUV up to an empty, 55-acre plot of land near the city of Adelanto. The land is flat and dotted with dry shrubs.
It’s an unlikely site for the first National South Vietnamese Cemetery, two hour’s drive east of Westminster’s “Little Saigon” in Orange County.
Huynh is a family practice physician in Orange County, home to the nation’s largest population of Vietnamese-Americans. During the Vietnam War, he was a Vietnamese Marine Corps doctor for the Republic of Vietnam, America’s ally in the fight against the communist North.
There’s a wooden sign that bears the name of the cemetery, “Nghia Trang Bien Hoa Hai Ngoai.” In English, it’s The Overseas Bien Hoa Veterans Cemetery.
It’s named after one that still exists outside Ho Chi Minh City, which is what Saigon was renamed after the war ended in 1975.
“In the 1970s, the Republic of Vietnam had built its own cemetery to mourn its fallen soldiers,” said Viet Nguyen, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Southern California.
A famous bronze statue of a soldier in mourning used to stand outside the gates of the Bien Hoa cemetery in Vietnam. For Vietnamese-Americans, the Mourning Soldier is as iconic as the Iwo Jima Memorial is for Americans. Nguyen said the statue isn’t there anymore, though.
“When the South Vietnamese regime fell, the first thing the North Vietnamese communists did was to tear down the statues that the regime built,” Nguyen said.
Today, the Bien Hoa Cemetery in Vietnam is barely recognizable. It lies in ruins, and some graves have been desecrated.
“When we heard that, we were sad,” Huynh said. “We decided that we have to build something like it overseas. That’s why we formed a group.”
Huynh’s Committee to Build the Overseas Bien Hoa Veterans Cemetery bought the land in San Bernardino for $250,000. It was cheaper than trying to buy land in Orange County.
Huynh has blueprints for what could be an elaborate resting place.
“Here we see six black walls,” he said. “The names of the fallen soldiers will be written on these walls.”
The site will also include two lakes, a camping site, a museum and a King Hung temple, Huynh said.
There’s also plans for a replica of the mourning solider statue that used to stand at the cemetery’s namesake in Vietnam. It will be outside the cemetery gates.
When he dies, Huynh said, he wants to be buried at this Bien Hoa Cemetery, next to his fellow soldiers.
“When we live, we fight side by side, and when we die, we like to die side by side,” Huynh said.
The price tag for the project could be somewhere between $10 and $20 million, and Huynh’s committee has been busy fundraising.
Huynh often sings at these fundraising events. He’s a well-known singer in Vietnamese circles. During the war, he organized USO-style shows to entertain the troops.
This is an emotional issue for the Vietnamese community in exile. It largely supports the new Bien Hoa Cemetery project, even if some feel it’s a bit far from where they live.
“The dream of each veteran is to be laid to rest among fellow soldiers,” South Vietnamese veteran Truat Quang Dinh said April 30 at Little Saigon’s annual commemoration of the fall of Saigon.
Huynh’s wife Kim said it could be 10 years before any veterans are buried on the land in San Bernardino County. She stopped in front of a two-story grave for husband and wife at Westminster Memorial Park Mortuary, which is right off Little Saigon’s main shopping street.
“The one who [passes] away first lies on the bottom, and the one who dies later lays on top,” she said.
She and her husband, who is 71, bought the two plots in Westminister -- in case the Bien Hoa cemetery they envision hasn’t opened before they die.
This story was a collaboration between New America Media and KQED’s The California Report.