he plane’s doors opened, and the oppressive heat hit him “like a ton
of bricks,” David Biggs said. It was July 4, 1993, and Biggs had just
landed on the runway at Noi Bai Airport in Hanoi, Vietnam.
“The airport was a tiny, one-story concrete building that hadn’t been
expanded in years,” he added. “You could see all these perfectly
circular fish ponds set in the rice fields; the old B-52 bombing strikes
had created circular footprints that filled up with water and became
Then 23 years old, Biggs had left the University of North Carolina
only a year earlier with a bachelor’s degree in history and vague plans
of attending law school.
“I had been an environmental activist in college, so I was especially interested in environmental law,” said Biggs,
now an associate professor of history and public policy at the
University of California, Riverside. “But when I graduated, I found
there was something about going straight into law school that just
didn’t appeal to me. The world was changing fast with the end of the
Cold War, and I wanted to be a part of it.”
So instead he refocused his sights on Vietnam, at the time best known
in the United States as the site of the longest-running foreign
conflict in American military history.
Several years before, in the wake of the passage of the American
Homecoming Act granting admission into the United States to
Vietnamese-born children of American servicemen, Biggs had volunteered
with a group of young Amerasian immigrants who had arrived in his home
state. Churches and volunteer groups like Biggs’ helped the immigrants —
known in Vietnam as “children of the dust” and often poor, neglected,
or orphaned — to learn English, apply for jobs, and become residents.
Partly inspired by that experience and his lifelong interest in
history, Biggs’ summertime arrival in Vietnam kicked off a whirlwind
adventure. He taught English to Vietnamese students and met leading
artists and retired leaders such as Vo Nguyen Giap, the head of the
People’s Army during the war. And upon returning home, he enrolled in
graduate school at the University of Washington, specializing in
Southeast Asian and Vietnamese history.