Born Van Anh Dang in Vietnam, Dr. Van Anh Chandler
never knew her native country when it was not
at war. She was fourteen when she left in April
1975, a few days before the fall of Saigon. Today,
she lives comfortably in Camarillo with her husband,
and balances raising three small children with
her job as an ER doctor.
As a teenager in Saigon, she remembers family
conversations around the dinner table, which rarely
touched on politics or war. The talk was always
about education, her father often harshly admonishing
her brother to do better in school. The message
was clear – do well in school, get into college,
get a draft deferment, don't die in the war.
Her family was Buddhist but she went to a French
speaking Catholic girl's school a short walk from
home. The nuns were strict. Competition was intense.
Although she couldn't help being aware of the
war, her focus was always on her studies. The
war was just normal background to school - soldiers
on the streets, the sound of bombing and gunfire
on the outskirts of the city, jets flying overhead,
a bomb shelter next to her bedroom.
Her parents kept their plans to flee Vietnam
even from their children. One day, on a routine
family trip to visit her Uncle's home near Tan
Son Nhut airport, she found herself hustled across
the airbase and aboard a U.S. military aircraft.
"We went into this big hollow opening of
a plane," she recalls. "There were just
canvas seats along the walls."
From Saigon, her family was flown to Camp Pendleton.
They were among thousands of other Vietnamese
refugees living there in tents.
From Pendleton, her family moved to Minona, Iowa.
She had a distant cousin living there. And Minona,
population 900, warmly welcomed them.
Starting high school there in 11th grade wasn’t
“I remember my first class in American History,”
she recalls. “I sat there in tears. I spoke little
English. At the end, I just copied down what was
said from another person's notes. I would go home,
read the book, take the dictionary out, and just
From her experience, she believes teaching English
is best taught by immersion.
“None of this hold your hand thing,” she says.
“If you're not forced to learn, you won't.”
Van Anh went on to the University of Iowa and
continued on there for medical school. She became
an emergency physician she says, “because when
people think - ‘My god I need a doctor now. I
need a doctor fast.’ That's my idea of what a
“I like the unknown,” she says. “You don't know
what kind of patient will present to you next.
The uncertainty is scary because sometimes you
only have moments to decide life and death things.
And you better do it right.”
Van Anh’s life is busy. Between shifts in the
ER, she takes her kids to school, to extracurricular
activities, makes sure they do their homework.
“You just get swept up into things and don’t
have time for much else,” she says. But she says
it smiling, obviously pleased with her life.
As a teenager in Vietnam, she relates the story
of a favorite aunt.
“I remember my aunt coming to visit and teaching
me to swim. My aunt had learned to drive and then
to swim. It was not something that women in Vietnam
did normally. My aunt was very adventurous.”
“Adventurous.” That may be an apt description
of Dr. Van Anh Chandler as well.