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 fish ponds.”
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.