Escape by sea
Memoir of a ”Boat People” family who fled Vietnam post-war in 1981
I dedicate this personal memoir to Ngoc Dung, my wife, and my loyal partner, who has shared the ups and downs of the last 47 years of my life. This English version (from the original “Vượt biên lan man tự truyện”) aims particularly at my two sons Rick, Andrew, my grandsons Brandon and Shiloh, as well as their children to come. It could also benefit younger Vietnamese generations, to whom the Vietnamese language seems too hard to chew. Through this personal testimony, they could somehow understand WHY, HOW, and at WHAT PRICE they ended up being here, in this blessed “Land of the free and the Home of the brave,” ten thousand miles away from their Fatherland.
Although the exodus started 45 years ago, in 1975 to be exact, after South Vietnam fell into the hands of the Communist forces, the memory of "Boat People" is still so fresh, so alive, almost an open wound in the mind of most Vietnamese emigrants. Everyone would have a story to share, if not from their personal experience, at least from what they had heard from acquaintances, family members, or read about that horrible ordeal. Most of these testimonies are very bloody and scary accounts from survivors.
My story, although sharing the same subject, has a happy ending. It still unfolds, however, with a lot of suspense, tension, and painful uncertainty. It offers a glimpse of the South Vietnam society after their defeat by the Northside in 1975. It touches on the atrocity of the Communist so-called "Re-education program,” it also brings back the shadow of some "acquaintances" and friends... whose life happened to cross mine in my attempt to escape. Some of those dark memories still haunt me after so many decades. Surprisingly, it also carries a series of breathtaking instances of joy, luck, even euphoria!
THE UNWELCOME VICTORY
In the debut of the infamous year 1975, even after my marriage two years earlier, we were still living with my parents in Saigon, me, my wife, and my few months old son. This tradition of cohabitation, even far from being perfect, was very popular, even expected in most Asian families. (*)
(*) We believe that when the parents get old, they’d be better off living with a child of their preference, usually the oldest or the youngest son. Their presence would keep their folks from feeling lonely, and when their health declines, they would need someone to watch over and care for them. Nursing homes were non-existent at that time and are still a rare thing in Vietnam.
This tradition was particularly beneficial for me and my wife who taught at a Public High School in Binh Duong, about thirty kilometers east of Saigon. In our absence, my parents, who were still in excellent shape, offered to take care of our child, a real blessing for us to have peace of mind when at work.
Since school wasn't that far away, we could come home after work. It would take us less than an hour ride on my Honda motorcycle.
Our work schedule rarely exceeded three days a week. In Saigon, I had also accepted, in 1972, a teaching position at The Lasan Taberd Institute, a prodigious Private Catholic School, which took me another two days of my time. I still had plenty of time with my family. Financially, we were a little better off than most of my colleagues because we were both working and didn't have to pay rent and most of the other expenses.
Sadly, when the war ended on April 30th, 1975, with the victory of Communist North Vietnam, instead of adopting a peaceful reconciliation, the victors had conducted a ruthless revenge campaign. The new regime lured all former military officers and government officials of former South Vietnam into the so-called “Re-Education Program,” where they treated them like animals, hard labor while starving. Some had stayed there for more than a decade, without a sentence. With over 300,000 political and war prisoners, Communist concentration camps sprang up all over the country like mushrooms after a good rainy season. With the man, traditionally the breadwinner of the family, incarcerated, post-war life for most south Vietnamese families suddenly became even more untenable than in wartime. Nothing seemed the same anymore, especially for the poor women who now had to play a double role in the absence of their husbands.
On the morning of May 19th, 1975, just two weeks after the Communist victory, for the first time, the new authority forced the population of the South to take to the streets to celebrate "Uncle" Ho's birthday. It happened that it was also my 26th birthday!
After finishing my studies at the Faculty of Pedagogy in Saigon in 1971, I received an assignment as a teacher at a Public High School in Binh Duong. However, like all male teachers in this time of intense war, I had to complete a six-month “Reserved Officer Military Training Program" at the Thu Duc Infantry Training Center which meant that in addition to being a teacher, I was also an officer, a Second Lieutenant in 1975, ready for the battlefield if the situation called for it. After the Communists took over South Vietnam, all military officers, starting from the rank of Second Lieutenant, as well as most officials in the old regime, were ordered to present themselves at the Regional Revolutionary Reception Center to register for the so-called "Re-Education program". That smart choice of terminology, “Rehabilitation through the re-education “, which sounded so friendly and so innocuous, had caught the South Vietnamese people off guard. It served as an evil trap, luring hundreds of thousands of them into imprisonment without any resistance.
I heard the term “Học tập cải tạo” seven years before, in 1968 to be exact, from the mouth of an officer of the North Vietnam Army, who was searching my residence in Hue, during the infamous Tet Offensive (*). He told us with a friendly tone: " Don't worry brothers, we are fighting to "liberate " the city and its people, we won’t hurt anyone! However, both of you (he pointed at my older brother and me), be ready to go to the Tu Dam Buddhist Temple this afternoon for a “Re-education session". We didn't understand what it was about, but we did agree anyway.
Shortly after, a new group of soldiers came to replace the old one, and no one reminded us of that request, so we tried to keep ourselves out of sight and completely ignored the order and acted as if nothing had happened. We were so lucky doing so; otherwise, we would have had ended up being “reported missing”, as was the fate of over 4,000 residents of Hue, mostly naive and innocent civilians who have complied with that “cordial “invitation.” The VC killed them all before they retreated from the city, rarely with a bullet, but more often with bayonets, rifle butts, or even shovel blows to the head. Many of them were still alive when being buried hastily in shallow collective graves, scattered all around the city’s vicinity during their short occupation.
(*) The Tet Offensive was a surprise attack by the Communist forces in 1968 who violated the Lunar New Year truce, in which they had attacked all big cities of South Vietnam. Hue, the Old Imperial City, was occupied for 26 days and had accounted for the most significant loss in terms of destruction and casualty.
That notification of the “Re-education program” came back seven years later, in 1975, with more malicious and deceitful wording, "... All attendees have to bring in enough clothing, medicine, and spending money for ten days…". Everyone, therefore, would assume that the program would be for only ten days. Those officers and their families found out very quickly they’d been grossly misled. In reality, they've been imprisoned for so many years, from 3 to 17 years, treated like animals, basically in a permanent starving condition while doing hard labor! Many didn't survive the harsh, brutal treatment, malnutrition, the cold, and the diseases; malaria was one of them.
Later, the Viet Cong maintained that they had not lied about the "ten days": "We did ask you to have enough clothes, medicine, and money for ten days”, they said “but we never said that the Re-education program would last 10 days! You are not prisoners; only prisoners would have a sentence with jail time! You were attending a humanitarian Re-education program that would help you to improve yourself and become a new and better person! So, it's up to you to decide how much time you would need to do so! It could be one month, ten months, ten years, or more!" The Communist’s tongue, as everyone can see, is nothing less than evil’s tongue!
As an officer myself, I had the option to attend that so-called " Re-education Program" in Saigon, where I lived, or in Binh Duong, where I worked. I chose Binh Duong, although their notification carried a big difference regarding the length of the program. The announcement from Binh Duong, with the same content as the one announced in Saigon, said "thirty days'' instead of “ten days” ...
Why did I decide to attend that “program” with all the bad experiences I had before with the Commies? I just simply thought that, unlike any previous times, now that the war had ended in their favor, they had total control of the whole country, they'd not have any reason to mistreat an innocuous teacher like me?
Why not attend the program in Saigon, which was three times shorter? Simply because I was wondering, in all naivety, how could I be sure that there wouldn't be other ten-day sessions later? If this happened, how could I manage my teaching in Binh Duong? So, in good faith, I decided to attend the 30 days program instead! It was a stupid decision, I agree, but this time, it's that stupidity that has saved me from a lot of hardship!
After three months of intensive "indoctrination" courses, on the first Vietnamese Communist Independence Day, September 02, 1975, at the Binh Duong Provincial Revolutionary Committee’s request, all teachers were pardoned and released to be ready for the new school year of 1976. Some of my friends, apparently smarter than me, who had chosen Saigon, tempted by an apparent shorter term, were incarcerated
for a couple of years or more in the concentration camps. One of them did not survive.
Holding the release paper handed to me by a former female student of mine, I was quite surprised to find out that, besides all other ID information, it showed that I had... 2 different “titles”.
Official title (Chức vụ công khai): Teacher
“Undercover” title (Chức vụ bí mật): Second lieutenant (**)
(*) Rehabilitation through education.
(**) Before 1975, my official title in Vietnamese was "Sỹ Quan Biệt Phái.“ Literally it means Sỹ Quan = Officer, Biệt = special, Phái = Sent. That's why the VC interrogator kept asking me what was my secret mission? I answered: None. He was not happy with that answer. "You are an officer specially sent… of course, for a mission, what was it?" In their sick minds, I must have worked for the CIA.
I realized that the Communist mentality had never changed. Even nowadays, the Commies are suspicious of anything, of anyone. They see spies everywhere! The reason seemed to be quite simple: The Communists, regardless of their nationality: Chinese, Cuban, Korean, or Vietnamese, are masters in spying! During the war, they succeeded in planting their spies in almost every sector, private or public of South Vietnam: military, administration, religious organizations, media, universities… After the French’s defeat and departure in 1954, thousands of patriots from the South who have fought against the French occupation in the early 40s alongside the Communists or by joining them, have later renounced their political affiliation for different reasons, like Vice President Tran Van Huong, General Tran Thien Khiem, Brigadier General Pham Ngoc Thao… Thousands of others with parents or siblings who have joined the VC and who were still in their rank until the end of the Vietnam war, some with a high position in the Communist organization… were still knowingly and indiscriminately integrated or even promoted by the government of South Vietnam to different crucial positions in the administration, even in the Armed forces, the police, the Intelligence Agency, like General Duong Van Minh, General Nguyen Huu Hanh… to name just a few! I’m not accusing all those people of being VC’s spies, but by being so ignorant and naive while fighting an enemy so evil, South Vietnam has created a golden opportunity for the Communists to infiltrate and consequently won that war. The fate of S. Vietnam was sealed a long time before it happened in April 1975. In contrast, on the Communist side, if an individual had a family member, parents, or siblings who had fled North Vietnam to go resettle in the South as permitted by the Geneva Agreement in 1954, those individuals would be treated as black sheep, or worse, as outcasts, not only by the government but also by the whole society, as directed by the communist authority. As a result, those individuals would be mistreated, persecuted for generations, no one would be willing to hire them for any position, even as a janitor. Their children would not be permitted to go to school, nobody would even dare to befriend them, and so on. Although I did not approve nor condone that inhuman policy, I still believe that if South Vietnam had only adopted one-tenth of that sick policy, we would probably never have lost that damned war.
My neighbors were quite surprised to see me coming home so early. None of them had any information regarding the whereabouts of their loved ones yet! I realized how lucky I was!
On September 22, 1975, twenty days after my release, Hanoi launched the first change of currency, or to be exact, the first devaluation of S. Vietnam's currency that they had prepared in complete secrecy and after the announcement of a curfew! The new rate was 500 to 1, meaning 500 old "dong" ̣ (S. Vietnamese currency) for 1 new "dong,” a sudden loss of 500% of its old value! To make it worse, each household, regardless of how many members it had, regardless of how wealthy it might be, could only exchange 100,000 old dongs. For example, if you had one million "dong,” you could exchange only 1/10 of that amount for the new currency, meaning you'd receive back 200 new dongs. The remaining 900,000 dongs suddenly became trash!
From that deliberate and malicious policy, the most a family in S. Vietnam could possess was no more than 200 new dong! It's ingenious the Communist mind! After over a century, Capitalism all over the world failed to bring equality to their society. In less than five months, the new totalitarian regime had succeeded in establishing their absolute social equality... the way PM. Churchill of England had defined it in a very famous statement: "The vice of Capitalism is the unequal distribution of wealth. The virtue of Communism is an equal repartition of poverty." A naked and bitter reality that all of us had finally understood but relatively too late!
The population, mostly in big cities, not only rich people, even small business owners, middle- class people, was deeply traumatized. Caught by surprise, they had lost almost everything they'd worked so hard for. Their money just vaporized under the Commies' magic wand! Many of them had committed suicide after that dreadful and infamous day! Some died alone by jumping from a bridge, some others died together, as a family, after ingesting some food tainted with rat poison! Unfortunately, that's not the only currency change; there were still two more in the next five years! Where else in the world can you find a regime eviler than the Socialist Republic of Vietnam? Not long after, adding to that somber picture, our school was closed by the end of that School Year, all teachers disbanded. My wife and I had received a new assignment to Tan Uyen high school, almost two times farther, next to the very well-known old warzone, the "Chien khu D.” We fought ferociously against that decision with good reasons: our son, who was just one year old, lived in Saigon most of the time with his grandparents and needed our presence badly!
Finally, I had to accept a compromise: I would go to Tan Uyen alone, my wife would take her new post in Lai Thieu, 19 km east of Saigon. Besides the time spent in the “Re-Education Camp”, that’s the second time we'd come to a temporary split up.
I was so shocked and disappointed with the conditions of the new school. The traces of war were still visible, palpable everywhere. A charred Russian T54 tank still lay right in front of the school entrance. A quarter of the classes severely damaged during the final battle remained in horrible condition. The school had no electricity, no water supply, not even beds for the teachers who had to stay overnight. There’s no help we could expect from the school. There’s an exception, though, one "thing" this school did have that no other school did: GHOSTS! No joke! There's a lot of fighting in the school area; many innocent civilians and fighters from both sides got killed recently in the school area. Every time I went to the nearby local market to buy food, knowing that I was a teacher from that school, someone would ask me, with all seriousness in their voice: "Teacher, are the ghosts still active in your school?" I didn't witness anything paranormal when I was there, but some of my colleagues assured me they did, more than once!
Unlike before, I had a six-day working schedule, of which, two days I had to stay overnight. After the change of currency, as a high school teacher, my monthly salary was 60 dong. You may wonder what I could do with those 60 dongs? I can buy... 1.3 lbs. of lousy grounded coffee or buy 3.17 gallons of bad gasoline on the black market. There was no misreading. That’s the truth, only the truth, and nothing but the truth! It's beyond any understanding, and it’s insane! People always work for a living, not only for themselves but also for their families! At that time, like everyone from the "losers" side, we had to reduce our living standards to the strict minimum, "breathing with only… one lung" as some said, and still, we had to sell out whatever we can find to survive: old clothes, shoes, ties, watch, camera, radio, cassette player… things that we had no more use of, but very wanted by the "winners" side because they had never seen such luxury things in their whole life!
After that rough school year, with the help of an acquaintance and, of course, with a little bribe, the Song Be School District finally accepted my request to join my wife at Lai Thieu High School.
Six years after the fall of the South, survival skills became a must-have “art” to help us navigate through the hardship of "Thời bao cấp“. In that so-called “Centrally-Planned Economy era”, we had to say goodbye to all private enterprises. Goods were not traded freely in the market but sold at a very cheap price to the government which later distributed them at a lower price, compared to the black market, but only to registered residents through coupons. Without that proof of residency (*) too bad, you couldn’t have access to any of those coupons, you couldn’t even stay overnight in your parent's home without permission from the police. There was a severe shortage of almost anything, but you could buy anything on the black market where the price was extremely prohibitive.
(*) Residential registration (hộ khẩu) was the new regime's sophisticated way of controlling and repressing its citizens!
Many Saigon residents, the South’s former capital, had been illegally and forcefully evicted from their own houses and transferred to the so-called “New Economic Zone,” a faraway and undeveloped area where they had no chance to survive. Those people who were at one time middle-class people found themselves suddenly transplanted to a harsh and hostile area with almost nothing: no light, no running water, no help whatsoever from the local authority. They had no other choice than to take their families back to their old city, and being homeless, they had to sleep on the sidewalk, sometimes in front of their own house. It was a heartbreaking scene.
To truly understand how vicious the Commies’ regime is, you must live with them, being a witness from within.
I soon realized that I could not take it anymore and the only way out was to escape: a bold and dangerous decision that would carry a lot of ramifications. Easier said than done! Much thornier than "The great escape,” (*) our escape would require more, much more than a motorcycle! First, the price of liberty wasn't low; the only acceptable currency was gold, pure gold of 24 K. Secondly, we had to cross the sea, not some fences like Mr. McQueen, facing the danger of the VC coastguards, the rough sea, and the barbary of the Thai pirates (**) who had infested the South Sea!
(*) played by Steve McQueen in the ‘60s movie! In that film, as far as I can remember, a former American pilot, a prisoner of war during the Second World War, tried so many times to escape from a German concentration camp but failed. In his last attempt, he stole a German motorcycle, he daringly vaulted over a six-foot barbed-wire fence of the prison checkpoint, but he has been shot and retaken back to jail.
(**) Those fishermen turned pirates, became more hard-hearted and more unmerciful day after day. At first, they robbed, then raped women, kidnapped girls who fell into their hands. Later, to silence them, they’d kill their victims indiscriminately!
With a monthly salary equal to the price of 600 gr of ground coffee how could we afford the trip? It would have been impossible without the help of my parents. They couldn't stand to see us so miserable, so they offered to help with whatever it'd take to smuggle us out of the country!
Having the "means" did not mean a thing! Just imagine buying online. You don't know much about the seller, no picture of the merchandise, only an oral description, no return or refund policy, and most of the time, you must pay first, not COD (cash on delivery)! Deciding who you can trust to hand out your gold was a real "casse-tête,” a brainteaser! Sometimes you had no other choice than to resort to Jesus' counsel: "Blessed are those who believe without seeing…" Very risky teaching because, in 80% of the cases, you would likely be cheated, not once, maybe many times until you went utterly broke. After being jailed a couple of times, you'd give up that crazy idea of escaping! I was almost one of those until my last try! The scamming "business" was flourishing because there was nothing to deter the bad guys! No one dared to denounce them to the authorities because you'd risk yourself first! The only thing you might think of doing, of course, if you had the right balls, was to take things into your own hands and to do justice for yourself, something like… butchering the bastard! Although it seemed cruel, believe me, it happened quite a few times!
At a difficult time where "Even light poles would want to flee if they can walk,” every sound mind would share the same dream: Escape. However, their planning might vary from one to the other depending on how much money they had. Those who couldn't afford a trip by boat, with much less money, could still join a small group for a "guided tour" through jungles to neighbors Cambodia or Thailand. One danger they might encounter was getting the wrong trail that leads into one of Polpot guerillas' "killing fields"! (*)
(*) “The killing fields” is a war drama movie in 1984, depicting the terror in Cambodia after the takeover by the Khmer Rouge rebels whose leader was Polpot.
Since most escapes were by boat, people with Navy backgrounds, like former officers, even NCOs (non-commissioned officers), who could prove or brag about their navigation experience, were in high demand. They would get a free pass for themselves and sometimes for the whole family! Guess how risky it would be for the passengers on a boat with an impostor on the captain’s chair!
Finally, there were people, who never thought about escaping, who might not even have any good reason to do so, but by luck, while going out at night-time to catch some frogs or some crabs, found themselves at the right place and at the right time where an embarkation took place. If the guy was timid or undecided, he could be kidnapped by the crew for fear he could alert the security. If he’s smart enough, he would know how to cash in on the opportunity of a lifetime by jumping in with other passengers. Nobody would dare to protest out of fear for the safety of the whole group.
Now let’s get serious. Escaping by boat was not like taking a cruise, it’s a very dangerous attempt to cross the sea in a tiny “nutshell”, any mistake, any miscalculation, or accident could mean jail time or could cost the lives of everyone on board. Sadly, bad things happened, and quite often! It could be anything: The communist coastguard, mechanical problems, bad weather, acts of piracy... Based on the UNHCR report, around 20 to 30٪ of those who fled did not make it. They had paid the "ultimate price" for the freedom they could never taste! The UN records showed that 700,000 boat people had been rescued and resettled, which means over 200,000 boat people perished in their search for freedom.
EXPENSIVE FIRST LESSON
In 1978, my older brother met T.T. Binh, an old friend of our family. He was our Math tutor many years ago. The man told my brother that he intended to let his older son leave the country through the new "Semi-Official Departure Program" (Chương trình vượt biên bán chính thức), a program allowing Vietnamese with Chinese origin to leave the country with a very high price paid in gold. That initiative was unofficially supported, even sponsored by the Central Communist Authority. They tried to get rid of the Sino-Vietnamese residents suspected of being Chinese spies after violent military incidents at the borders of two ancient and very close communist allies. By doing so, they could get rich very quickly by confiscating all the participants’ possessions left behind and also by charging them a very high fee. Each applicant paid his due in pure gold, averaging from ten to twelve taels of gold (*TOG), triple the average tariff of the illegal trip by boat.
(*) Tael of gold (TOG) or “Lượng” in Vietnamese, is a Vietnamese weight measure for 24K gold, equaling 37.8 gr vs. 28.3 gr in a US ounce.
The guy assured us he knew well the people in charge of the operation. He said they’re good people, and if we’re interested in the project, he would be more than happy to introduce us to the group and let us deal directly with them. We accepted his offer right away!
The next day, two guys, accompanied by the man’s wife, showed up in a Jeep at our front door. When 95٪ of the population moved around on foot or by bicycle, driving a car was a sure way to impress us! As expected, they gave us information regarding their “ground plan,” the description of the boat they are building, the contemplated date of departure. The only reason that was slowing down their project was the lack of funds to finish it. So, if we’re willing to commit financially right away, they could offer us an exceptional discount fee of more than 50% compared to the regular one: 5 TOG per adult, 3 TOG for kids, totaling 13 TOG (*) for my family of three. They even offered to take us in their car to the construction site for a quick look at the boat before making any decision. While most people dared not even whisper about their escape project, these guys were going to take us to the construction site to look at the boat!
What we saw was not a boat yet, much less that invincible “Titanic” they’ve described; instead, it’s a very preliminary, an embryonic stage of the boat, I’d say!
(*) The current value of 13 TDO is nearly 30,000 USD based on today's gold value, $1,800.00/ounce (9/14/2021)
A "normal” person with the right state of mind, in such a situation, should have had thousands of reasons to be suspicious, or at least, to be doubtful, and should have stopped all fantasy for a new reevaluation. To be honest, I was not in that "right" state of mind. Instead, that burning desire to escape blinded me. I tried stupidly to deny the hard reality.
Back at my house, after some discussion with my mom, we accepted their offer, and we had to hand over in full the "gold" to them, 13 TOG in all.
The organizers reminded us to give them some ID pictures to get a fake ID with a Chinese identity for D Day!
Time passed by, and we didn't hear anything back from them regarding the departure date. Frustrated, I asked them what was going on. They said that the Hanoi Central Committee had temporarily halted the operation for reassessment. They simply advised us to hang tight while waiting for Hanoi’s green light. That “green light" never came. I finally realized that something had gone wrong, very wrong! The more I waited, the feeling of being scammed made me feel so desperate and angry. I went to see “the Math tutor” and confronted him about the delay. Knowing that I’ve reached the “boiling point,” he confessed that he didn’t know much about the organization as pretended. I was seriously thinking about getting even of him and of those dudes as well. Again, it’s easier said than done. I could find a way to hurt them but I was quite sure that I would never be able to get back my gold! Thinking about the consequences that could happen to me and my family because of a moment of rage, I told myself it was not worth the trouble!
That man undoubtedly had lied to us about his relationship with the “organizers,” but his real intention was not necessarily to scam us. He might have wanted to make some commission for himself or as a condition to get a free pass for his son. It was despicable but a widespread practice! In a tough time when survival was the primary objective, ethics and high morals had to make room for survival instinct. Anyway, I still held the man responsible for all mishaps. Without his warm recommendations, we would never have engaged lightly in such a stupid and expensive mistake!
A NIGHTMARE... WITH A HAPPY ENDING
In 1979, when we were still teaching at Lai Thieu School District, my sister-in-law’s husband, Lieutenant Pharmacist Diep Tu K., told me he intended to join an acquaintance of his who planned to escape soon by boat. His wife, a dentist, is my wife’s younger sister. We were very close friends. NL was pregnant at the time, carrying her first baby. I talked to K's buddy; he told me he would charge my family eight TOG for the trip, of which I had to put down one right away. The remaining seven will be paid at the time of the “embarkation”. It was not an easy choice! To trust or not to trust a stranger would be the hardest decision for you to make if it was not based on facts or an intelligent compilation of information, but solely on your gut feelings! The failure of my first attempt still filled me with bitterness and mistrust. I hated to gamble with my parents’ money; however, nothing would ever happen unless I tried.
After consulting with my family, I agreed to join the group. They would notify us of the date of departure 24 hrs. in advance and a guide would be assigned for each group.
In preparation for the trip, my wife had sewed a belt with black fabric, about 2” wide, that I would tighten up discreetly to my waist, in which I could hide the seven TOG that we still owed the boat owner. On her side, she also tried to hide five gold rings (1/10 of a Tael each) by inserting them inside her bra sleeve. Those rings would serve as our little survival money if we were lucky enough to survive and reach a refugee camp.
Among those who had joined our group were Ky’s mom and my wife’s younger brother who had previously escaped from a military training center where he was doing his military service against his will.
Ten days after I gave them my initial payment, we received the green light for the departure. Our guide was the same guy with whom I'd made the deal earlier. He gave me some instructions regarding the itinerary. On D Day, we had rendezvous with him around noontime at Ninh Kieu Riverside, in the province of Can Tho, about 105 miles southwest of Saigon. Kỳ, his wife, his mom, and my wife’s brother belonged to another group. My heart started pumping hard right after the announcement.
We were ready very early on the day of departure, when it was still dark outside, despite a long and sleepless night. How could you sleep when there were so many things on your mind? Saddened to leave our loved ones behind, and the uncertainty of what may lie ahead, a blind venture that nobody could predict the outcome. However, the most heart-wrenching moment for us was undeniably the time to say goodbye to my parents! In the silence of the night, we embraced one another, trying hard to hold back our emotions, although tears just kept falling. My father, while hugging his grandson, still sleepy, said a prayer asking God to protect us against all evil.
The streetlights were still on, the cool breeze of the early morning seemed to startle me when I stepped out of my house. With my son in one hand, I pulled my wife with the other, like I wanted to run away from this unreal moment, not daring even to look back. I told myself to stop being faint-hearted. My little family’s future was in my own hands from now on!
Looking back, I could not remember what force had led us to the rendezvous on time, a place where I had never set foot before! The Ninh Kieu District was a very well-known and must-see site in Can Tho that I had not had an opportunity to visit yet. My ultimate goal now was to look for the guide, my only connection that would guide us to the boat; losing him would mean losing everything. I looked desperately back and forth, in all directions, trying to locate him in the crowd. After about ten long minutes, I’d finally spotted him approaching from my left, turning his head nervously like he was also looking for us. I intended to get closer so he could recognize me and give me instructions on what to do next. The moment he spotted me, he seemed to get agitated. Without a single word, he stopped a “Xe lôi đạp” (*), jumped on, and just left! Freaking guide!
(*) “Xe lôi đạp” is a kind of two-wheeled rickshaw, sometimes hooded, mounted behind a bicycle or a motorcycle, used chiefly in Asia’s poor countryside.
Caught completely by surprise and extremely distressed, I yelled to stop another “Xe Loi.” With my eyes always stuck to the guide’s vehicle, I swiftly helped my wife and my son get on and ordered the driver, in a very hasty voice, to just follow the other “Xe Loi, about 30 yards ahead of us! I got really upset at the guide! His unpredictable behavior could endanger the whole group and especially us! The Communist Police had eyes and ears everywhere; every mishap could be detected and resulted in arrest and jail time. I kept looking closely at the guy. After we crossed a short bridge, I saw him stop in front of a small cafe and walk in. Of course, I followed his steps. We came in, sat down, and ordered an iced coffee and milk. My drink was not even ready when I saw that stupid guide finishing his lemonade, putting down his glass on the table, and just walking out quickly. One more time, the guy took me by surprise! I had no other choice than to pull my wife and my kid out of the cafe, daring not to look behind my back, knowing that some of the customers must be looking at us, and wondering what those weird folks were cooking?
The guide crossed the street and headed to a nearby landing place for taxi boats; he stepped into one of those with its engine already running and took a seat in the front. I followed him from behind and tried to copy him, seating instead in the back. There were about four or five passengers on the taxi boat. After about a ten-minute wait, the boat finally left.
Living under the Communist regime, you must learn very early not to trust anyone, because everyone, even your neighbors, could spy on you! A practice highly commended by the regime. They treated us like aliens in our own country. To go from one city to another, you must apply for a permit. For example, in our situation, we would be in big trouble if they caught us in Can Tho, a province 105 miles from Saigon where we lived, for a simple reason: we didn’t have a permit to go there! Old acquaintances suddenly became suspicious and unduly curious when they looked at you. Before leaving Saigon, my wife and my son put on old clothes, wearing a worn-out “Nón Lá,” a palm-leaf conical hat, trying hard to blend in with the crowd, but their fair skin and rather urban demeanor might betray their disguise.
I didn’t appreciate the unprofessional, even stupid behavior of the guide. I wished I could find an opportunity to be alone with him to teach him a lesson about guidance! We could not expect the Lord to blind the Communist Security every time mishaps occurred!
A lady walking around to collect the taxi boat fee made me realize this was a public taxi boat.
About 45 minutes later, the boat came to a landing stop. The guide kept his mouth shut like he never had a tongue; he stepped out, looking back and forth, ambled toward another smaller boat, and jumped on it! We did the same. The boat left quickly this time, with just the four of us as passengers. I couldn't remember the river’s name, but it was a large one, its water was murky and quite turbulent. None of us had a life vest. In case of an accident, the chance of survival was unthinkable!
After two long hours of riding in the choppy water, when the daylight started fading, the boat slowed down, stopped, and docked alongside a small pier. The guide finally announced that we’d arrived at the final stop, a small peninsula, with a slope about fifteen feet above the water level, covered with bushes and trees. We followed the guide up that slope where we were so happy to see my wife's sister, brother, and their family already there at the “Rendezvous.” I saw Ty, Ky's very close friend, also a former lieutenant pharmacist, accompanied by his single mother. The two guys bore so many resemblances: both hefty, southerners, funny, both "bon vivant" who enjoyed good food, they both worked at Phu Nhuan Health Center, with one little difference, Ty was still single.
The guide advised us to look for a place to rest, not move around, and keep quiet while waiting for the big boat to arrive. I overheard a guy who seemed to know well about this region, saying that we were in Soc Trang, a province 40 miles Southeast of Can Tho, about 3 hours by boat to the estuary. I spread out a piece of nylon so we could sit down. I took out from my sack some French bread with sliced "chả lụa" (steamed pork paste) that we'd brought along since we left home early this morning and shared it with my wife and my son. Except for my son, who had a snack now and then during the trip, this was our very first meal today! We were not hungry, though. Eating seemed not to be a high priority in exceptional situations like ours! There’s a French saying:” Qui dort dine!” (He who’s slept already ate!). We could adapt the saying to our situation:” He who is scared doesn’t care much about his share!”
When the meal ended, we laid down and tried to take some rest. After a long and stressful day, we felt utterly drained, and sores were all over my body! I kept my eyes closed, half asleep, half awake. In the darkness of the night, I heard someone snoring nearby. From time to time, the throbbing sound of a boat approaching woke me up, and I kept wondering: Was this the one we had been waiting for? I couldn't remember how many boats had passed, because I fell asleep very quickly! I didn't realize that counting passing boats had the same effect as counting jumping sheep!
We’d been yanked brutally out of our sleeping by someone yelling:" Wake up, wake up! Everybody! The boat cannot make it! We have to leave immediately and go back to Saigon!"
I never felt that same intense fear in my whole life; my heart kept pounding like the Japanese Taiko drums! In the dark, I moved my hand around, looking for my wife and my son. Within seconds, gunshots broke the silence of the night like we were in the middle of an ambush. We could hear above our head the crazy whistling of flying bullets hitting the branches, the heavy sound of running steps accompanied by the cussing of the local Communist security forces: “Stay where you are! Do not run, or we’ll blow your f***ing head off!”
Surprisingly, right after the first burst of the machine guns, I suddenly felt relieved; I feared no more! Instead, I felt like being suddenly invaded by a strange serenity in the middle of this big mess! It appeared controversial to some, but I’ve experienced this reaction many times before. To me, fear is nothing more than the uncomfortable feeling of something terrible might happen; most of the time, it’s something you cannot identify, neither when nor how it’s going to happen. But you can feel a ghostly presence hovering over you. The feeling of an unknown threat creates fear! But when it happens, when you know what has happened, finding yourself face to face with the "evil”, you have no more fear; instead, you have to find ways to face it and, if needed, to fight it! The survival instinct repels and overcomes fear.
My first reaction was to push my wife and my son to the ground and use my body to shield them. I could hear my wife crying softly under me, begging all the Saints she could remember to protect us! Two guys converged on me, one pointing his flashlight, the other his AK 47 in my direction. They ordered me to stand up; then, they tied me up from behind at the elbows with a rope. Of course, I did not resist, but by reflex, I tried discreetly to swing out my upper arms slightly, so I could later move my hands more freely. All male adults ended up like me, except for women and children who remained free.
When they had finished their damned job, it was around 4 a.m., and darkness was still surrounding us.
About an hour after the surprise incursion, we'd been ordered to gather in an open area, lined up, and led to a small canal, connecting this area of the islet to the river, where 2 or 3 motorized sampans were already there, waiting for us.
With my arms tied up in my back, there was nothing I could do to help my poor wife in carrying our son and our bag. When we reached the sampans, we had to walk into the water, above knee level, to climb into it. It broke my heart to see my wife struggling desperately until some other person helped her get on the small boat. I was not doing any better. I got on anyway, of course, with the help of others.
After the guards had loaded up all detainees onto the sampans, our “convoy” started leaving the area. It's still dark! I was very concerned about the gold still wrapped around my waist for the last 24 hours. If the guards found it out, they would steal it and try to make my life even more miserable. For the Commies, hurting the “rich” would be not only a duty but also their greatest pleasure. This said I still didn’t want to get rid of that fortune either. Living under the Communist regime, you had to struggle day after day to survive, and I knew for sure that if I lost that gold, I’ll have no other choice than to kiss goodbye to any future attempt to escape. Not knowing what to do with them, I temporarily removed the “belt” from my waist and put it in my pocket. I turned to my wife, who’s still grieving with our son sleeping in her hands. I tried to comfort her and prepare her for what was going to happen next: the interrogation. We would have to sing the same tune during the cross-examination. I told her the “story” that we were going to tell the Communist interrogator: A story that would belittle us and make our situation more pitiful, instead of being looked at as someone wealthy, trying to escape because they hated the new regime! I tried hard to let my wife understand that we had to be on the same page! Looking back, I wonder how many guys would have reacted the way I did, in such a precarious, stressful situation? With my arms still tied up from behind, uncertain about what will happen next, how could I manage to keep such a cool head and make up such a story? I could have been a good writer or at least a great storyteller with such an imagination!
Not far from me, Ky's mom turned to her son, whispering something into his ears, and not long after, I saw her silently dropping something into the water. Later on, I found out that she and most of the passengers had decided to dispose of their gold in the river: "It's better to get rid of my gold than to let the Commies rob it from me!" she later said, seemingly with no regret! It must be very hurtful for anyone to make such a desperate choice! Of course, I was not any better since I had to face the same dilemma, and for heaven's sake, I still didn't know yet what to do. I told myself: Why not take some gold apart instead of keeping them together? At least I’ll have more than one chance to hide them. It would be great even if I could save only one TOG than losing them all? I took one TOG out of the carrying belt and put it separately in my other pocket with some hesitation,
We reached the destination after about an hour’s ride. By the time we’re proceeding out of the sampans, the sky starts lighting up slowly. The guards began to untie the males and rushed all of us to one big room, inside the Commune Headquarters. They temporarily left the room after locking up the big wooden door. From that moment, I was wide awake, free of all fatigue, pain, or distress. I carefully looked all around me, trying desperately to find a place where I could temporarily hide the gold. My eyes stopped at a mound of paddy (*), about knee-high, at one end of the room. I stepped quickly to that area and sat down, leaning my back against the mound, acting like I was so exhausted. With my eyes half-closed, but still very vigilant, making sure that nobody was watching, I took out discreetly the “gold belt” and buried it quickly under the paddy. I felt so relieved after discarding that gold off my body, not even knowing yet what would happen next. At least, I had a warm feeling about having another separate TOG in my pocket.
Until now, I’d tried my best to react to a fluid situation that kept changing, based solely on my gut feeling, a reflex rather than a rational response.
(*) The unhulled rice. Rice that still has a rough outer covering.
The guard came back and ordered all male detainees to walk out of the room; only ladies and kids remained. I felt a big pinch on my stomach. I’d have to say "goodbye" or perhaps… "farewell" to my 6 TOGs still hidden under the paddy, at least for now!
Once we were all outside, the guard ordered us to be in line for the body search. Since I had kept one TOG in my pocket and still didn't know what to do with it yet, I opted to slip in among the last ones of that line, trying to buy some time and observe how they would perform body search. First, I saw him pat down the detainees, searching their pockets and wallets, then asking them to take down their trousers and underwear to make sure they didn’t tape anything valuable to their bodies. One idea came to my mind. I took out my TOG from my pocket, put it between the sole of my right foot and the leather sandals I was wearing, and stepped on it. (The TOG is rectangular gold leaves about 1.5"×4", very thin, wrapped up with light brown paper).
Soon it was my turn. After letting the guy pat down my body, I “respectfully” handed him my wallet, in which there was still some money, a picture of St. Mary of Lourdes. He promptly returned it to me without taking anything out. Next, I took down my trousers and my underwear without stepping out of my sandals. The guard nodded his head to let me know that the search was over; I thanked him and stepped aside. I was surprised that he didn’t notice the 18k gold wedding band (*) that I’d forgotten to remove from my finger. After all, even with the only TOG left in my pocket, after this search, we might still be the... “richest couple” in our group.
(*) A custom order wedding band in 18 karat gold, a custom order, simple but no less tasteful, with the anniversary date of October 12, 1973, engraved from inside
During that same time, the female guards were doing the exact body search on their female detainees inside the room, my wife told me later. Luck was on her side because they didn’t detect her diamond ring hidden inside her conical hat silk attachment, the five gold rings sewed inside her bra, nor the 100 dollars bill inside my son's trousers waistband.
Finally, they opened the wooden door; women and children were coming out without their luggage. A guard ordered us to follow him. He didn't say where, but I guessed the next stop would be the district jail. Sadly, I had to concede that I would never see my 6 TOGs still hidden in that room!
Under the watch of an armed guard, we stepped out of the station, haggard, completely worn out after a whole day of continuous tension, deprived of sleep, food, and now, of hope! Some of the local people, who might have got news of the boat people’s arrest last night, stood along the street. They kept staring at us like we were from another planet, but without any animosity.
All of a sudden, the guard gave us the order to stop and wait. He said the wait might be longer than expected, so instead of staying in the street, he allowed us to enter the houses that lined our road. We were astonished by the hospitality of the people inside the house. They seemed genuinely kind and friendly. They invited us to come in, even tried to comfort us, saying jokingly:” Take it easy, folks! Don't worry! Everything will be fine! If you failed this time, try again next time.” They brought out some newly cooked rice with small fried shrimps, dried fish, watermelon, pineapple…, and insisted that we share the meal with them. Although hungry, we reluctantly accepted their offer, only to not hurt their generosity. We're so amazed by the "unusual" openness of their consolation, despite the presence of the guard. I only found a plausible explanation until much later! Those women, who had greeted us so warmly, who had fed us and consoled us so openly were not true Samaritans. They must have been the wives or relatives of our persecutors. They simply played their role of comforters in all this “masquerade.” For them, we were not their enemy but instead their “hen that laid the golden egg”! Before the Communist victory, they were ordinary and destitute folks living in the countryside, possibly sympathizers or who had ties with the “other side.” Now with their current position as members of the local security force, they found ways to enrich themselves with whatever they could steal from their captured boat people: gold, jewelry, currency, nice clothing. Forty years have already passed, looking back, I didn’t hold any grudge against them; instead, I appreciate their "kindness"! Yes, they had arrested us, they had stolen from us, but those “peasants-converted-Communists” could have treated us in a much harsher way if they had chosen to do so! That part of joviality, warmth, is the genuine “trademark” of the Southern people of Vietnam, regardless of their political beliefs! If we were detained in the North or the Center of Vietnam, our story should have taken a much more tragic turn!
We still didn't know the reason for the long waiting. Around 4 o'clock, almost 90 minutes after the stop, we were ordered to go back to the Commune headquarters to collect our luggage before being taken to the Long Phu District Jail. The announcement woke me up like a whiplash, after all, luck has not yet given me up, this would be my last chance to "reclaim" my gold still hidden under that paddy mound. I let my wife know my intention and with great strides, I ran towards the commune hall. I was among the first ones entering that “room.” While everyone else was busy checking their stuff, making sure that nobody was watching, I dug my hand under the paddy, moving it back and forth, left and right, looking nervously for my "belt.” It took me no more than 5, 6 seconds, still, it seemed like an eternity before I could touch it! I groped it quickly and put it back in my pocket! I’ve felt quite some adrenaline rush in my system! What would be the next move? I didn't know, and quite frankly, I didn't care much! What I had desperately tried to do was nothing else than to delay that likely unpreventable moment when my jailer would finally find out about my attempt. He would possibly give me a big slap in the face then, he would yank the “belt” out of my pocket, and that would put an end to this unbearable tension! So, why should I care? Que sera sera!
We’re soon back to the sampans, on our way to the Central District Jail. I heard many complaints from the detainees about having “things” stolen from their sacks in their absence. That’s the only reason why they had taken us away earlier this afternoon, just to give them time to search for our belongings and to steal whatever valuable hidden in them. This "Treasure hunting game" must be the most exciting part of their job! Nighttime they were men’s hunters, daytime, they became “treasure hunters”!
My wife was so happy to know that I had recovered all my gold. I tried to remind her one more time about the "scenario" we need to tell the interrogator.
In the sampan, I took my boy from his mom's hands and held him in mine. I felt guilty for not being able to spend more time with him for the last two days. He seemed to be OK because I hadn’t seen him crying since we left home. He was more endurant than I thought.
We finally arrived at the Long Phu central jail around 6:00 pm. and the sun was starting to sink. The guards took us into a big courtyard surrounded by barbed wire fences, with a flagpole in the middle of the front office area. They divided us into two groups: women and children to the center of the yard, men to the front left of the main office, facing the flagpole. As I was still aware of the danger of my "mission impossible", I chose to sit at the back of my group.
The daylight was slowly fading as the guards began to search the first group. The sight seemed to attract the complete attention of onlookers, except for me because I had other fish to fry. Wasting no time, I looked around, trying desperately to find a spot where my treasure could be tucked away. There's a row of young poplars behind where I was sitting; one of those was just about 2 ft away, with a pile of dead grass at its base. What a marvelous discovery! I knew what I needed to do next. I got to be wary because about 20 ft on my right side, some guards were standing there, at the entrance of their office, watching the body search unfolding in front of them. I took out the "belt" (in which I’ve added at the last minute, the TOG I’ve kept aside earlier) from my pocket. While everybody seemed to be so attracted by the searching show, I backed away, still on my butt, slowly, very slowly, inch by inch, until I was within reach of the tree. With a quick and precise movement, I promptly buried my belt under that pile of dead grass. Neither seen nor known, with my heart still pumping hard in my chest, I moved back to my row. I scored once more with God's help!
I was quite sure they would lock me up in the next few moments, but I felt so relieved after having stashed away my gold, at least for the time being!
Lesson learned: Wealth doesn’t always bring happiness, it could be instead the source of so many worries, problems, or even misfortunes.
When my turn came, I was ready! I moved resolutely toward the jailer in charge. He glared at me with his piggy eyes and yelled: "God damned! Are you still wearing your sandals? F**king jerk! I’m going to kick your ass?" I was angrier than scared of his cussing but didn't say a word. I threw my sandals to the side.
The guy who seemed to be smarter than his predecessors thought that I might have hidden something valuable inside the sandals. It’s a common technique by boat people to cut out the sole of their sandals to tuck in some gold or diamonds then glue them back on. I'd be out of luck if I had still used the same old trick by hiding my “gold leaf” between the sole of my foot and the sandal like during the previous search.
The old jerk didn't have much luck, he was one step behind me. He then searched my body and took away my wallet in which I had hidden our wedding bands. Finally, he asked another guy to take me to my cell. I turned around, trying to look in my wife and my son’s direction as if to say goodbye to them! What a sad moment!
The jail area was a row of 5 or 6 rooms, basic cement construction covered with a corrugated roof. Instead of having a reinforced steel door like the other jails, there was no door; instead, they used big square wooden vertical bars, of which 1 or 2 bars were removable, the others were permanent, with a lock from outside. It might be the cheapest jail in the whole world, its “open design” was a blessing that had provided us with more fresh air during hot days.
The guy who accompanied me struggled a little bit to unlock and remove the bars so I could get in. Coming from the brighter side, it looked so dark inside because there was no window around. A small kerosene lamp lit the room barely. Adding to that gloomy ambiance, a foul-smelling odor floated in the air. I found myself in the middle of a scary “herd” of human beings, most of them half-naked, sweating like hell. I had never been in jail before, but I’ve read many horror stories about life in prison.
My whole body was in full alert mode. One guy approached me, introduced himself as the jail Rep., and said: “Welcome, my friend, could you introduce yourself, name, occupation, and nature of your offense?” I nicely answered him. “All right, teacher!” he said, “Most of us shared the same offense. Some have been here for almost two years, others about 5 or 6 months!” I felt my heart sinking at the news! “Now, let me share with you some of our procedures every time we have a newcomer. As you might see, it’s so crowded in here, to make sure that you would not carry any transmitted diseases, we must do a quick check-up on you! Please remove your pants! Since the request seemed reasonable, I had no other choice but to comply. He touched my “pecker” with his bare hand, lifting it up and down with his two fingers, while the whole “audience” surrounding us laughed loudly. Finally, he said: “Everything seems neat looking, Teacher! Now one last thing, based on our rules, those who were not circumcised will have it done now. Those who already have it done will get a free “piercing!” One guy was sitting next to him with a bottle of alcohol and a piece of cotton in one hand; with the other, he honed a big needle like the one used by shoemakers against the bare cement floor. The group laughed their heads off at the announcement. I got indignant but tried to keep cool. I pulled up my pants looked directly into his eyes and said: “I don't think so. Sorry! Not that I didn’t want to comply, but our current hygienic condition won’t support such a crazy demand!” "That's OK, teacher! Chill out!" he said, "Let me give you another choice then. How about doing 200 push-ups instead?" I quickly agreed. After about 20 push-ups, the guy said: "That's enough, teacher! That’s cool! Let's give this good man a round of applause! " Everybody in the room clapped their hands and laughed heartily.
After this rather spectacular initiation ritual, they soon told me that it was just a joke, a laughing occasion whenever they had a newcomer. They also told me that they’ve not been here for years as pretended. Most of them with the “Vuot Bien” offense have been here no more than a couple of months instead. Phew! That was a close one. Those fools almost got me!
The jail was approximately 16’x26’ and crowded with over twenty inmates who had to adopt the “sardines” position while sleeping. There’s a square about 3 ft x 3ft, at the upper right corner of the room, with a plastic bucket at the center. The strong smell that emanated from it made me understand right away its use. Yes, it may be gross to our standard, but that’s the communist jail’s “rest-square,” if I may call it so since there’s no “room” at all, at the disposition of over twenty guys to satisfy their natural needs in 24 hours. Another great surprise, as a newcomer, I had the "privilege" to occupy the prime spot, right at the very edge of that square, I had to do everything in this assigned space, including eating and sleeping...until the next inmate arrived!
The “rest square” practice seemed unreal to most Westerners, but it was standard in Communist countries. It’s real, not a joke! Their penitentiary system costs almost nothing compared to ours, but it works much better in deterring their citizens from messing up with “their laws”. One try is more than enough, unlike our jail system which seemingly carries a warm sign “Come back to see us soon!” at the exit!
Women and children received better treatment than men. They shared a bigger room not too far from us and could move around during the day. I felt the need to communicate with my wife, first to let her know that I was OK, and most importantly, to let her know where I had hidden my gold so she could retrieve it when the opportunity arose. Finally, I told her to confirm this message’s reception by asking the guard to come to my cell and ask me for toothache medication for our son! Next step, I borrowed a sharp knife, I asked a guy who had a hand of bananas if I could have one for my son? He gave me one with a big smile. I asked another guy for a small piece of paper and a pencil. I wrote a "coded" message to my wife, for fear of it being intercepted, I wrote it in French, not the "plain" French, but using its phonetic transcription instead! Since we were both teachers of French, it won't be a problem for her to decode it. In that message, I told her, in telegraphic style, the exact location of the gold. I also told her if she found it, to nod her head whenever she saw me! Finally, I told her to confirm receipt of this message by asking the guard to come to my cell and ask me for toothache medication for our son! Next step, I borrowed a sharp knife, cut out a little hole on the banana, put the folded message inside, plugged back that hole with the same piece removed earlier. I then asked a guy who worked in the jail kitchen to take the banana to my wife. Half an hour later, I heard a voice at the cell entrance asking to talk to me. I quickly answered him. He told me my son had a toothache; my wife asked me if I had any medication for him. I told him that I did not have any. I felt relieved knowing that my wife got my message!
First night in jail, contrary to what you might think, I slept like a baby, despite the strong smell hanging over the space and the sardine’s position! I was utterly drained out physically and mentally!
We woke up at 6 o'clock. Instead of breakfast, lunch was “served” early at 8:30 through the wooden bars. Just plain rice, a full bowl for each detainee, and nothing else! Don’t get me wrong, that’s not bad at all. South Vietnam was once a significant rice exporter in Southeast Asia, after the war, under the lousy management of the Commies, most of the people in big cities were completely impoverished and experienced serious penury in rice. They didn’t have enough rice to feed themselves and their family, so they had to mix their meager ration of low-quality rice with whatever they had available, like flour, barley (“Bo Bo”, cows’ feeding grain), corn, cassava, dry noodles. It was much worse for detainees in those “re-education” camps, who starved to death, in a literal meaning of the word, with half a bowl of stale, rotten rice and still had to do hard labor. A full bowl of good rice for the prisoner was a special treat and, again, proof of Southerners’ generosity.
The inmates who have been here longer might have received some extra food from their families: soy sauce, shredded pork, salted fermented fish (mắm cá), steamed sticky rice cake… They were nice enough to share some with a "newcomer" like me. If you had money sent in by your family, you could ask the inmates who served in the kitchen to buy stuff from the market. Of course, there were also “Orphans,” guys who didn’t receive any help from their families for any reason. To remedy their situation, they offer some special services to those who have plenty, in exchange for extra food, like back massage or picking the gray hair for older guys. Dinner was “served” around 4:00 pm with the same "menu"!
Every day, the inmates had 10 minutes to get out of their cell, one cell at a time, to go to a nearby pond around 10’x15’. The water was above knee level and quite murky because more than a hundred people would go there every single day to take their baths, wash their clothes, clean their bowls, but guess what, that’s the most enjoyable time of our hot and dull day! Sometimes, when there’s no rain, we must retrieve water from that dirty hole back to our cell. We treated it overnight with a teaspoon of “Phèn Chua” (Aluminum potassium sulfate), which looks like rock sugar, to clarify the water from muddy and filthy particles, making them rest at the bottom. Of course, the water might look clearer, less scary to look at, but all bacteria would remain safely!
When it rained, it was good news for us! The rain would bring in coolness and its divine source of refreshment! But how to retrieve it from behind bars? It’s hard to believe how creative men could be, using their survival skills! First, they made a hole at the edge of the bottom of an empty can; they then attached a long handle to the top. Next, they used a piece of scrap aluminum or plastic and shaped it like a long gutter. So, when it's raining, the water would come down from the corrugated roof and land at a reachable distance from the cell entrance. One guy would hold the empty can by the handle through the space between the wooden bars. He’d try to reach out as far as he possibly could, to catch the rainwater into the can. Another guy would hold one end of the gutter out with an angle to retrieve the water coming out from the hole at the bottom of the can; the water would follow the channel through the bars and land inside a plastic container inside the cell. Genius, isn't it? We would store the water in a dozen plastic jugs as drinking water for the whole cell.
The second morning at bathing time, after getting out of my cell and heading to the pond, I saw my wife sitting on her feet, removing weeds not too far from me. I stuck my eyes to hers, kind of saying hello and asking how she was doing? The rule in the Communist jail would prohibit the inmates from communicating with each other. It’s a very firm regulation enforceable by corporal punishment. I saw my wife smile and nod her head, meaning she had found and recovered the gold! I sent her my biggest and happiest smile while walking away! It’s hard to believe that we were still in possession of that gold!
That night, I sent her a second message telling her there were seven TOGs in that belt and asked her to confirm it if possible. I received later from her a brief note saying: "Six only. Will check and let you know ". I was quite stunned and wondered why.
Two days later, again, on our way to the pond, I saw my wife from afar, with a big smile, her two hands raised halfway, showing seven fingers. I got the message right away: She’s found the missing piece!
My wife told me about what had happened after our release from jail. Based on my first coded message, she had found the belt with 6 TOGs in it. She didn’t know there was one missing until she received my second message. The next day, accompanied by Lan, her sister, who was pregnant at the time, they came back to the same poplar, acting like they were removing weeds around its base, but they actually tried to comb through the dead grass. They felt so lucky and thrilled to find the last piece of the... “puzzle,” laying right on top of the dead grass. Since the tan cover of the TOG and the color of the dead grass matched so well, it’s hard to detect it.
The only guy who seemed not much affected by the jail ordeal was my five years old son! Occasionally, through the wooden bars of my cell, I saw him roaming the jail yard, barefoot, with other kids, half-naked, sweating like hell, baked by the sun. He seemed to have adapted so quickly to country life. One time he stopped by my cell, looking for me through the wooden bars, with a piece of scorched crispy rice (Cơm cháy) in his little hand. He looked at me with his eyes wide open and asked: " Dad, are you hungry? I bring this for you! " I held his hand through the bars and gave him a smile that must have looked sadder than… smiley! We had taken all these risks hoping to give our child a better future, but our fate has played a bad trick on us by sending us here. Freedom seemed so illusory, was it worth it for us to endure such pain? I felt a pinch in my heart, and I wondered: Did I make the right choice for my family? Is freedom worth it for us to endure such pain?
Meanwhile, with the “green light” from the jail warden, I sent a letter to my in-laws to let them know that we’ve failed in our attempt and were “stranded” in Long Phu Detention Center. Not long after, we were surprised to be summoned to the detention office to receive some food and money from our family, not knowing that my father-in-law, accompanied by Ky's father, had come in person but were not permitted to see us. Poor parents with children who attempted to flee the country. They had to go through much sorrow, uncertainty when they left, and later, to wait desperately for news from their loved ones: Hopefully, good news informing them that the children have arrived at their destination, safe and sound; other times not so good, like ours, and at times, more often than anyone would like to believe, horrible news that they have perished or are lost at sea! This wound would eat away at them for the rest of their days.
After over ten days at the detention center, it’s my turn to see the policeman in charge of the interrogation. When I entered his office, he watched me silently behind his desk! I guessed he was the same age as me. He asked me to sit down. Through his accent, I knew he was from the South. As planned, I told him my story: I was an Elementary School teacher, I’d given up my job over a year ago to treat lung disease and had to live on my wife’s earnings as a seamstress. From being a breadwinner, now I had to live under her shade I became more and more confrontational. Our life turned upside down; we fought each other almost daily. One day, a client and friend of our family offered us an opportunity to leave the country for a better life abroad. She told us since the boat belonged to her family, we just needed to share the cost of diesel, which was minimal, maybe not even a quarter of the average fee she had charged other passengers. We felt so lucky, so we sold our belongings to come up with one TOG and gave it to her. Now, we knew that the lady had tricked us! He listened to me intensely, without a word, but I could detect a shade of compassion and understanding in his eyes. From a prosecutor ready to give me a hard time, suddenly he became a compassionate man, listening to another man confiding to him his sorrow, which he could identify as his own. He then asked me if I had joined the South Vietnam Army? I said: “No, Sir… but... yes! I had joined the military training program for students when I was in college, during the summer holiday!” That’s another lie from me.
“Your ID shows you’re living in the Tran Quang Dieu Housing Project, in Ho Chi Minh city?” (Cư Xá TQD), he asked.
-Yes, Sir! I answered
- This Housing Project is just behind the NVT Police station, isn’t it?
- Indeed, Sir! How did you know? I asked him, quite surprised.
- I have lived there for some time, not far from where you live, doing the pedicab for a living. (Đạp xe xích lô) You might have seen me before?
- No, Sir! I replied.
- What’s your religion?
- I’m Catholic, Sir! (First honest answer from me!)
- You can go now!
I looked him in the eyes and said:
- Sir, I’ve told you, my story; I’m deeply sorry that I made the wrong decision to leave the country. Now I have learned my lesson. Please be lenient with us and give us a second chance!
He nodded lightly. At his gesture, I’m pretty sure I did perform brilliantly, and I must have passed the oral “test” with an A+.
In the third week, everyone got excited at a rumor of a possible amnesty on the occasion of the upcoming first National Election of the Parliament after the “country’s reunification.”.
Since my jail time was less than three weeks, I didn't expect that they’d let me out. They would probably release women and children early! So, I wrote the third message, telling my wife what I’d heard. "… if they set you free without me, please don't hesitate, just get out as quickly as you can and go home. Don’t even turn around and look back. Your ultimate mission is to take good care of our “babies" and bring them home safely!" I wrote "babies” instead of the phonetic transcript, and in the plural as an allusion to our son and... our gold!
On the 22nd day of my incarceration, around 2 PM, there was some commotion in our cell. They rushed toward the entrance and looked through the wooden bars with excitement! I followed their steps, and I saw two jail guards, holding a notepad in their hands, walking in the direction of our cell. They stopped at the entrance and announced in a loud voice: " Listen carefully, I'm going to read names. If you recognize yours, get out quickly! Ready?” After a short pause, so they could remove the wooden bars, the guy started to call the names from his list: Le Van T., Tran Tuan A., Nguyen Van L…
The inmates who had heard their names called promptly took their belongings and dashed toward the exit. The bars were put back and locked. Although I had prepared myself for this moment, I still felt my heart sinking! By the heavy silence planning in the cell at that moment, I could tell I wasn’t the only one with that feeling. Those two guards made their rounds to other cells. I could see the happy faces of those lucky inmates passing by. Suddenly, everyone was so surprised to see those two guards reappearing in front of our cell. With a big smile, they announced there was a second listing of those who were going to be released. For God’s sake, this must be the "red humor”! “Nguyen Thanh K., Tran Van Thuan…” I jumped to my feet, that’s me, there’s no possible error! Since I owned nothing, except the clothing I was having on me, I sprinted through the crowd and slid out through the wooden bars, the only demarcation between captivity and freedom.
As soon as I reached the open area where all newly released inmates had gathered, I could see my wife, her sister, our son, Ky, and Ty’s mothers but no sign of their beloved sons!
Most of our personal belongings were returned to us, of course, minus those items of value that have already been taken away in previous searches. I checked my wallet in which I had hidden our wedding bands. They were gone! I was not surprised, but I felt somehow annoyed because they were keepsakes for our wedding day! "Well, I told myself, forget about that tiny loss. With some more luck, you're going to bring home the greatest war trophy. That would be a remarkable, unprecedented, even miraculous feat that you could be proud of!
After we’d all gathered, the guards conducted very quickly one last search, mostly the luggage, merely for form's sake! They did their job very quickly. After all, at this stage, it’d be reasonable for them to assume there's nothing of value left to steal. I was the only one who knew they were wrong, dead wrong! They’d have missed the biggest trophy of their hunting season!
We left the district jail around 3 p.m. Barefooted, tattered, down-at-heel, but everyone was so happy to be "free" and on our way home... except for my poor sister-in-law, Ky's and Ty’s mothers, they kept looking back like they'd left their heart behind. I wondered why they didn’t release Ky and Ty!
Ky later told me that they were foolish enough to confess they were "Lieutenant Pharmacist " during the interrogation! They should have learned that under the Communist regime, telling the truth, in most instances, could be a mortal sin!
Back to Saigon, I had to take Ky's father, Mr. Diep Minh Chau (*), to see his ancient comrades, one of them was Mr. Pham Ngoc Thuan, former North Vietnam Ambassador in W. Germany, to get their help to free his son from jail!
His warm Southern nature, as well as his artistic penchant, seemed to prevail over his Marxist indoctrination! To me, he's a good and funny man to be around, especially after a couple of shots of Vietnamese Sake. One day, talking about Ky, he had confided to me: "Would you believe what Ky told me not long ago? He said, “You know daddy, we’re so different, you're just like a saltwater fish, myself I'm a freshwater fish, we cannot share the same water!"
Another time Mr. Diep told me: "I've been in so many Communist countries like Russia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, W. Germany… and I can tell you that dogs in those countries are better fed than us, here in Vietnam? "
(*) Mr. Diep Minh Chau, Ky’s father, a sculptor, among thousands of other “patriots” from the South who were fighting the French occupation, was lured into joining the Viet Minh, a Communist organization disguised as a popular patriotic movement.
After the Geneva Agreements (**) was signed in 1954, Ky’s father had left his wife, pregnant at the time of their first and only baby, to join the Vietminh forces in the North. Later, he became a very notorious artist figure, an “official sculptor” of the regime, author of most of the giant sculpture projects in the North that would have included, of course, those of “President Ho”! In 1975, after the fall of the South, he returned looking for his first wife and son, only this time, after a long absence of over two decades, he had a second and bigger family with four or five children!
(**) After the French defeat in Dien Bien Phu by the Viet Communist forces in 1954, the Geneva Agreements, which involved several nations, temporarily separated Vietnam into two zones, a Northern zone governed by the Vietminh rebels and the Southern zone by the State of Vietnam.
It was late afternoon when we reached Can Tho city, so we decided to stay there overnight. We went to the Can Tho Central Hospital, where my wife's late aunt’s husband, Uncle Năm, worked.
Like Ky’s father, Uncle Năm had joined the Viet Minh Guerilla in the late 1940s, after his wife’s death. He had finished his medical training in Hanoi and became a doctor. After Saigon’s fall in 1975, he returned to Saigon, still single after those long years. He’d tried hard to find out the whereabouts of his late wife's family. He was so happy when he met my mother-in-law, who was his wife’s older sister. She gave him back his wife’s diary, which she had kept since her sister passed away. He held it to his heart and cried like a baby. Although we didn’t know much about him before, we all loved him. There’s nothing in him that would tell he’s a Marxist: He’s a tall, light-skinned, handsome, and very humorous middle-aged man to be around.
He’d treated us like his own family. He loved my son a lot; he used to hold him in his hands, and with his finger pointing at his face, he said jokingly: “Old VC! Old VC!” (Vietnamese Communist). One day, my son went playing in his room, and suddenly he rushed out, screaming out his lungs:” Old VC has a gun! Old VC has a gun!”, we all burst out laughing.
When he saw us at the hospital, he was so happy and wrapped us in his hands. He appeared to be well informed about our ordeal by my father-in-law. He then looked around and asked: “Where’s Ky?” When we told him what had happened, he kept shaking his head and replied with a hint of disapproval in his voice: “How long did he know the Commies to be that naive? To survive this regime, you’d better be smart, like you guys! You must learn how to lie if you don’t want to be in trouble. In Communist society, lying is a basic survival skill, not a sin!”
That night we stayed with Hien, a very close friend in the same class as me, at the Faculty of Pedagogy. He was, at the time, an assistant professor at the University of Can Tho. The first thing I had asked him to do was find a place where I could sell a gold ring so that we could celebrate our first day of “freedom.” We’ve bought plenty of roasted pork, roasted duck, and beer, to compensate for the “plain rice menu” at the Central jail of Long Phu. Happiness could be so basic and so simple for destitute people! A good meal could mean Heaven to hungry people! After all, God is fair, isn't he?
It was late when we got back to Saigon the next day. Instead of returning to my parent’s house right away, we decided to stop by my brother’s house first to get a quick “briefing” from him about the situation at home.
My brother was so happy to see us back. We might have missed once more the opportunity to be free, but many others had missed forever their chance to see their loved ones again.
We didn’t want to attract our neighbors’ attention with our sudden reappearance, so we waited until it was dark to go back to our home.
My parents, who thought they would never see us again, looked at us like we were revenants, especially their grandson, who seemed to have changed quite a bit, after less than a month! They laughed with tears rolling down their cheeks when they hugged us! Never before did the “Home, Sweet Home” means more than at that moment! Their happiness seemed to triple when I told them that we’d succeeded in hiding and bringing back all the gold!
The next day, after a peaceful evening spent with our family, we went to see Mr. Lam, the area policeman (*), at his station across the street.
(*) After South Vietnam fell into the Communists’ firm grip, they divided every neighborhood into smaller areas, with about 25 to 30 households. They then assigned a “policeman” to be in charge of each area. After some time, that guy would know everything or almost everything about those households under his control: How many members are in that household? Their background and current occupation? Did they serve in the old government or the military? Do they have any guests staying overnight? Have any family members been absent lately? Since most owners would leave the door open when they're home, that area policeman could get in and out anytime he wanted, especially during the day, with no need to knock at the door. He's the ears and eyes of the Communist authority!
Mr. Lam was a middle-aged guy from the North. I would say we're lucky that he's more friendly than most of his colleagues. My mom was nice to him; each time he stopped by, she would give him some snacks, a lemonade now and then, especially when he announced he would go back home to visit his family, she'd offer him some money to buy gifts for his kids.
He was undoubtedly aware of our unusual absence and stopped by my house more often and kept asking my mom about our whereabouts.
My mom just smiled and said that we were at work. He knew that she’d lied but seemed not to care much about it,
When he saw us coming into his office, he had a big smile and asked: “Well, well, well, where have you guys been? Let me guess you must have taken your son to the beach? I can tell just by looking at him; he got a pretty good tan, didn't he”? I kept smiling and said: “No, sir! We wished but didn’t have that much time! Since the Chinese attacked our northern borders, all teachers and their students had to take part in making bamboo stick traps to help our troops slow down their incursion…"
Mr. Lam didn't try to give us a hard time, although he'd have known what we were cooking with our long absence?
Everything seemed to get back to normal after a while, with one big exception: we were both fired from our job because of our long, unauthorized absence! It sounded like a disaster, but actually,it was a real blessing. In our hearts, we still love teaching; we'll miss our students, but we felt we'd been mistreated and overburdened doing our job. We could not make a living with our salary. We had to sell out whatever we owned to survive and serve a government that we felt estranged day after day! From now on, we wouldn’t have to wake up "before the sun" (before sunrise), chasing crowded buses to go to work with an empty stomach. My wife would have more time to take care of our child. On my side, to make a living,
I had to join some friends in the black market. Despite its name, the "black market" under the new regime had nothing to do with contraband. It consisted of buying and selling anything: food, medicines, old clothes, watches, jewelry, cigarettes, sometimes gold, and dollars. It was the mainline of commerce that would complement the state-owned stores where the price was lower, but their shelves were empty most of the time.
Instead of taking home a "negative income" like before, I soon realized that not only could I make it but I could even make it better, I earned much more money compared to my teacher’s meager earnings. After five years of desperate struggling, life seemed to return to a more bearable rhythm.
AN ISLAND NAMED “KOH KRA”
No matter how life may have treated us, we would never quit thinking about escaping. There’s common ground between "boat people" and gamblers: Regardless of how many times they might have failed, if they still had money, they would never give up their hope and quit!
At that time, we knew two “reliable” groups who were preparing to escape. The first one is the family of my brother’s colleague. The lady and her husband got their master’s degrees from the USA. They had a big family, and they were planning the "trip" primarily for family members. My brother happened to know about their attempt and asked her if his young brother’s family could join them. She didn’t make any promise, just saying she’d let him know. Not long after, she left without saying goodbye. We later learned that she had reached the Thai’s shores. I felt so sorry that we'd missed the opportunity! Three months later, her friends finally received a letter from her, telling them about her horrible ordeal: The Thai pirates attacked their boat after they reached the Thai waters. After robbing them of their valuables, they took all female passengers aboard their boat, then sunk hers by t-boning it with theirs. All male family members perished, including her husband, her father, uncles, and brothers. Those monsters then took them to a desert island named Koh Kra (*), where they’ve been kept in captivity for weeks with just enough food and fresh water to survive. After their fishing, at nighttime, they would come back to the island and have a good time by raping the women, brutalizing and killing those who dared resist or fight back. She’s spared because of her late pregnancy.
(*) From an unknown and desolate Thai island, Koh Kra became a notorious island where Thai pirates victimized hundreds of innocent Vietnamese victims. They attacked their boats, robbed and brutalized their victims, raped the females savagely, then kidnapped them, kept them captive for weeks on that island. Those fishermen-turned-pirates had succumbed to their lowest animal instinct. Fishing during the daytime, they came back night after night to torture their victims, raping them, and in many cases, killing those who dared to resist. The final UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) report showed they had killed more than 600 in Ko Kra alone.
We knew the second group through a former Sergeant of a Paratrooper Company, of which my older brother was the commanding officer. My family knew him well since he had stopped by our house many times before Saigon’s fall. He told us he’s an active partner of the organization and asked if we’d like to join them. He set the fee at three TOG per adult and one TOG for kids. After being schemed, cheated on the first two times, we had all reasons to be suspicious of everyone who approached us and made such a proposal. Seeing our hesitation, the guy made more and more concessions, from three to two TOG. We would not even budge when he said: “That’s OK, I know that you’re scared of being cheated: Since I have been with Captain T. (My brother who lived in the US), and known him for a long time, you don’t have to pay me now, your brother would pay me only after we could make it safely!” How could anyone refuse such a convincing offer? Still, there’s something in me, some kind of premonition, that had kept us from accepting his bid! Instead, my father-in-law, once more, wanted desperately to smuggle his 19 yrs. old son out of the country because he was in hiding since our last failed attempt to escape (*). He accepted the deal, paid his dues, and my young brother-in-law left with the group one week later.
(*) Unlike us, he ran away and was caught later in another District where he’s also been jailed and released, but much later than us.
After a long time waiting for news of his fate, we’d received a letter, mailed from an address in France, in which my wife's younger sister, who lived in Virginia, let us know, through her “encrypted” message, that her lucky brother landed in Thailand. She also advised us to delay any attempt to “move”! Needless to say how miserable we’ve felt for having missed one more time the golden opportunity for freedom!
We didn't know until much later how lucky we were! The boat which took my brother-in-law suffered the same fate as the other one. Their boat, which was very small and overloaded, broke down in the middle of the sea. The Thai pirates approached them, but in place of helping, they robbed them. They hadn’t hurt them yet but took them into their fishing boat and fed them. Later, around 4 am, the Thai pirates took them to another island. The passengers felt so blessed thinking they were going to be saved finally.
According to my brother-in-law, it was still dark, and the sea was very rough. When the boat was about half a mile away from the shore, all of a sudden, the pirates became more aggressive. They were screaming in their native language that none of the passengers could understand, but it’s clear they ordered all passengers to jump into the cold water and swim in. They pushed overboard those who hesitated. By sheer luck, my brother-in-law could grasp an empty plastic can before being pushed into the water. He was washed ashore and survived, among eighteen other passengers. Sadly, seventeen of them drowned. They found their badly injured bodies for the next few days on the beach nearby. There were over a hundred other victims already on this island named Koh Kra, who were brought there at different times.
Four days later, a pilot of the UNHCR discovered those distressed people who jumped and waved at him desperately while flying over the area. The man alerted the Thai authority, who sent out a patrol boat to check out the situation the next day. They then brought all victims back to Songkhla, a Thai Refugee camp where an investigation had taken place.
Some perpetrators were arrested. With the help of many witnesses and accompanied by condemnation from the press, the Thai had no other choice than to bring those monsters to justice. How hard was their sentence at the end of the trial, apparently no one knew for sure? There’s a very convincing “theory” which said that those atrocities were well known all along by the Thai authorities but condoned and used as a deterrent to discourage the Vietnamese refugees from seeking even temporary refuge on the Thai territory! True or false, this shameful theory would be a big stain on the history of this Buddhist Kingdom! A News bulletin issued later by The UNHCR had shown over 160 Vietnamese refugees have been killed, directly or indirectly, by the Thai Pirates, on that infamous island named Ko Kra alone! Many thousands more had been killed, raped, and discarded on the open sea. In many instances, women, including underage young girls, after being raped, tortured for days, traded from boat to boat, mortally depleted, didn’t survive. Others committed suicide or were killed afterward for fear of witness. Their bodies were thrown overboard and ended up on the Thai coastal line. There’s also evidence of female victims being sold to brothels in Thailand or other neighboring countries like Cambodia, Malaysia. Those abominable crimes would tarnish forever those countries known for their Buddhist upbringing!
There’s a French saying: “Tout chemin mène à Rome!”, meaning “All way leads to Rome!”, it would be great to have it updated to “Tout chemin mène à Ko Kra.” If we had joined either one of those two groups in our attempt to escape, where would we have ended up? Likely in the stomach of those overfed sharks that had enjoyed their feast in the Gulf of Thailand! Our fate could have been nothing less than horrific!
Was it luck or something else? I don’t believe in “Luck”! Being Catholic, the Buddhist teaching of the “Karma” seemed to be more explanatory to me! Looking back at my life, mainly through bad and ugly moments, I feel that the wings of my “not-so-bad Karma” had always lifted me out of all dangers, and landed me on higher ground, a safer place!
ONE MORE TRY
At the end of 1980, Colonel M., a friend of my family, told us that he and his young daughter had paid for their places on a boat. He knew the owner well, a lady from our hometown that we also knew indirectly. Through his warm introduction, and after meeting the organizer and her family, whom we deemed trustworthy, we accepted the deal: ten TOGs for my family of three. Instead of a partial prepayment like before, we had to pay the whole “fee” right away! Still bearing the scars from previous failures, I wonder why we nevertheless accepted this deal with little reservation? I hoped I was not that desperate gambler who wanted to bet all remaining money on the last game.
The whole family was involved in different preparation steps for the trip, mainly her husband, Mr. Hai, and her son-in-law, a Phu Tho Engineering School student. For the last few months, they’d been living full time at that location, readying the boat, recruiting local crewmen who knew the rambling waterway network in that area and the topography of the rivers’ beds. Without them, the safety of the trip would be very much compromised.
We’re so excited to know that all preparations were almost complete, and they would announce the launch date at any time.
The D Day came around mid-January 1981. The second time we had to bid farewell to our parents. Believe it or not, I felt more uneasy about that moment than about any possible dangers of the high sea. Although better prepared than the first time, we all got choked up by tears in silence.
It was dark and breezy when we left. The whole city was still sleeping; the blinking yellow traffic lights added a somber touch to the scene.
We felt relieved to recognize our guide at the Western Bus Station (Xa Cảng Miền Tây), located in Saigon’s vicinity. With a smile, she calmly handed us the bus tickets and asked us to follow her. Her calmness was very reassuring and far better than our first experience.
The bus took us to Vinh Long City, around 130 km from Saigon; from there, we used a public boat to go to our rendezvous with the organization’s taxi boat. Everything happened smoothly without a glitch! When we arrived, the "taxi" was there, ready, waiting for us. There were about six or seven passengers already on it.
The taxi boat was a small, around 12 ft long wooden motorized sampan, covered by an all-over roof. Two long wooden boards about 10” wide along both sides of the sampan served as a bench for occupants. A young local couple was in charge of the taxi boat. Their mission was to take us to the big boat. It's shady from the inside, and I could not recognize any of the passengers. When the “taxi” finally left, it was around 5, 6 PM.
After a long day continuously on the move, we felt so tired; this could have been a good time for us to take a short nap. Unfortunately, we were so tense, and the “seat” was so hard for our “skinny” butt. With my son on my lap, pushing my torso backward against a wooden pole that supported the side of the sampan, not only was it an uncomfortable position, it was also painful and took a toll on my lower back.
It was near dusk, and the sky was growing dark outside. People started dozing around, lulled by the boat’s rhythm. We were sailing on the river, but it was not less dangerous by any means. The river was vast and wavy, the sampan too fragile and lightly unproportionate with the carrying human load. The young couple in charge of the taxi boat acted very confidently and worked harmoniously together: the girl as a watcher in the front, the guy as the conductor at the rear. Sometimes I heard them joking loudly and laughing like ordinary local fishers on their working route. I admired them; they were our heroes, our guardian angels. From time to time, we could see the light from a projector sweeping back and forth the dark water, possibly from a coast guard boat, searching for their prey.
After a very long ride for many hours, the sampan slowed down and finally stopped. Since we were inside and it was so dark, I could not tell where we were. The young lady said to us that we'd just arrived in the designated area, we had to wait for the "big fish" to show up.
Although excited, everyone kept quiet! The surrounding silence was immense. Through the entrance cover, I tried to get a glimpse of the outside. The night was dark and breezy. I can see water plants where we stopped. The water kept rocking the taxi boat. It would have been a perfect time for us to enjoy it if we were in a different situation.
It was mostly past midnight. We were exhausted and tense, I closed my eyes in a drowsing state. My back was numb from leaning too long on the wooden side of the sampan. The waiting seemed to be endless.
Suddenly I was startled by the voice of the guide: “Sorry folks, we cannot establish the connection with “Big Fish,” we have to retreat immediately before sunrise! Please, stay calm. We’ll be OK!” Silently I squeezed my wife’s trembling hand! The bad news hit us like a nasty punch in the stomach.
Until now, I still wonder how did they know that our plan of action had to be aborted and decided to retreat? Back then, the cell phone was not around yet, and I did not see them having “talkie walkie” either! Maybe they’ve been ordered to take such action if the “Big Fish” didn’t show up after a specific time? Only God knew!
In warfare, troops’ withdrawal is always more dangerous than in an offensive operation; therefore, it would demand much more preparation and commanding skills. Most of the passengers felt distressed at the news! The hope factor, which helped us overcome fear and physical exhaustion, was not there anymore. The only thing that had kept our spirit up was the coolness and the ability of the young couple in charge of the taxi. Those ordinary people that we might look down on in real life unexpectedly become our Guardian Angels in this frightening situation!
The retreat unfolded like watching a movie in reverse. The night was still dark. From time to time, high beams of lights swept across the dark surface of the water to remind us that the presence of the coast guard might not be that far. The coolest guy around must be my son, who slept peacefully in my arms.
Many hours must have passed when the first daylight appeared on the horizon. Our “Taxi” pulled into a ferry port. The guide told us to take the ferry to go back to Vinh Long and, from there, take the bus back to Saigon. The ferry was mostly empty when we set foot on it.
I felt that I could no longer resist sleeping. My eyes kept shutting down like heavy doors. I’m not in control of my body anymore. I handed over my child to his mom and chose a hidden corner of the ferry floor where I dropped down like a toy out of battery. The sleeping came upon me almost instantly. At that moment, I was beyond any fear. I just didn’t care about anything anymore!
“The third time's a charm,” that idiom has been proven wrong in my case. My first failed attempt to escape had cost me 13 TOGs; the second try, besides the loss of money, we’ve been jailed for a short time, and now, the third time has landed us in this miserable retreat! I will never believe in stupid idioms from now on!
So many questions kept bothering me: Why the “Big Fish” didn’t show up? Was it a misstep, or was it another scheme? I had no idea, at least for the moment.
We’re back in Saigon around 5 PM. My parents were happy to see us back, safe and sound. It was kind of mixed emotions on their part: Happiness with a bit of surprise and a “pinch” of disappointment. How many times have we already said farewell? More money had to be pumped in after each failed attempt. Countless prayers had been said, many tears shed, and we were still back to square one.
The next day, the first thing I did was go to Thu Duc to see the boat owner and find out what had happened. I also wanted to know if I could cancel the trip and get back my gold?
The boat owner apologized. Due to security reasons, they had to abort the launch at the last minute. They chose to postpone the trip. She promised, however, that it wouldn’t be long before they could reschedule the next try. She also told me that all contributions from passengers have been invested in preparing the trip and would not be available for restitution. What a mess! Another 10 TOG “out of sight” but not out of our mind, that's our last ammunition, our last chance! Without them, we would go bankrupt, and like it or not, we’d have to stay and be part of that crazy, vicious regime!
I met Colonel Minh not long after. He’s rather pessimistic compared to previous times. He mentioned a female fortune-teller living in a housing project not too far and asked if I’d like to go to see her? All his friends highly recommended her. Since I had nothing to do on that day, I volunteered to take him there. I had no problem finding her residence on the second floor of the building. Everyone living in that housing seemed to know her and showed us the way even before we opened our mouths to ask! Heavy smelling of incense from an altar filled the small apartment. There were quite a few people already there, waiting for their turn, sitting on the floor. The “clairvoyant” in her 40s was sitting behind a small table with authority. Her client seemed timid in front of her. She predicted her client’s fortune based on her “translation” of the Tarot cards they’ve chosen. I could not hear them from where I was standing, but I was quite sure that it was all about their coming escape attempt! I was not a big fan of fortune-telling practice. I’d rather be in the “unknown;” a “yes” or a “no” from a fortune teller could never convince me!
Colonel Minh got out after the session with the Lady with a somber expression on his face. At my inquiry, he said: “Not good! She told me it was going to be bad! Go get back your money if it’s still possible!” That’s precisely what he tried to do the next few days, without telling me! I felt sorry that he and his daughter were not among us later after we’d safely reached the Indonesian waters and ended up in a refugee camp!
GOOD LUCK, BAD LUCK
Not long after the celebration of the Tết, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year (1981 was the “year of the Rooster”), we got news from the boat owner. He set the D Day on Sunday, Feb. 22, 1981. We appreciated the progress because it meant that the organization was genuine and not a phony one. Deep down inside, I still felt a big squeeze on my stomach when I thought about all the previous failed attempts with all the hardship and suspense.
Boat People fled Vietnam in different directions. Three hundred eighty-nine thousand nine hundred sixty-nine survived the ordeal and ended up in different Refugee Camps. Hong Kong (86,634), Philippines (35,516), Indonesia (50,742), Singapore (16,997), Malaysia (115,748), Thailand (84,332)
There's some last-minute change on my side. My wife's youngest brother Dang, who was 19 years old, would join us.
Like the previous attempt, they divided Saigon’s passengers into six small groups of ten to twelve people. My wife’s younger brother would join the first three groups, which would leave on Saturday, Feb. 21, one day before the date of departure. The remaining three groups, to which we belonged, would leave Saigon the next day, Sunday, Feb. 22, on the same day as the boat owner’s family. It’s a special favor because it would be less dangerous not having to wait overnight in the area before departure.
On Friday, I took Dang to Mrs. Hai’s house to stay overnight so he could leave early the next day. Among the people I’ve met on that day, I saw a young and good-looking lady. Based on her accent, I knew she was from Hue, my hometown. Through the introduction, I found out that she’s Mrs. Hai’s goddaughter; her husband, Lang, who was district chief before the fall of S. Vietnam, had recently been released from the Concentration Camp. They’d be leaving on Sunday with her two children and her two young brothers too. She said hello to me and asked me with a smile: “Do you mind if I ask for your age??” I was quite surprised by her question but answered anyway: “Not at all! I was born in 1949, the year of the Ox,”
She said with a smile: “We have the same age then! By the way, do you believe in fortune-tellers?” I smiled and said: “No, Mam! I do not! How about you?” “I do a lot!” she answered, “Do you know the blind fortune teller at the Ba Chieu Market? He told me it’d be bad! He said the same thing on our last attempt, and see what had happened?”
I told myself: Not only this lady is superstitious, but she’s also a little bit crazy too! Why bring up such a subject at this time? I tried to calm her down anyway with some words of encouragement: “Don’t let his prediction bother you! There will be at least seventy or eighty people on the same boat. What makes you think that we’ll all share the same fate?” The conversation ended, and she seemed to agree with me. It appeared to be a banal exchange to most. However, I still remember vividly that moment after thirty-nine years. (*)
(*) Two days later, on Sunday, Feb. 22, 1981, the taxi boat she was in with her family sunk in a section of the Mekong River. She drowned alongside her two children and one of her brothers. The local villagers rescued her husband, but the Police sent him back to jail. This horrible news reached me much later after we'd already safely reached the Indonesian shore and were temporarily taken to an Indonesian Refugee Camp.
We left Saigon very early on Sunday, Feb. 22, 1981. I’d like to spare you all the sorrows of this third farewell when the time came to say goodbye to our loved ones!
We had no problem locating our guide when we reached the Western bus station; he told us that another family would join our group. The couple seemed older than us, with two kids about the same age as mine. I later knew that the man was Dr. Tan, also from Hue.
Everything went smoothly, pretty much like the last time with the same itinerary. The bus’s final stop was Vinh Long. From there, a public boat would take us to the rendezvous with our taxi boat. The dock where the boat took us to was relatively deserted, with few houses and dwellings. We got off and followed the guide. Close to the pier, there’s a small coffee stand where a group of three or four guys was sitting there, chit-chatting while sipping their coffee. I would not be surprised if they’re local security guys taking their break!
About ten, fifteen steps ahead of us, Dr. Tan followed the guide, holding his son in his arms. He walked toward a “Cầu Khỉ.” (*), ̣crossing a narrow ditch alongside the road.
(*) “monkey bridge” is a very primitive construction in the VN countryside. Made of trunks of trees or bamboo, the size of your arm, tied up together with rope, connecting the two sides of a ditch or a small body of water. Depending on how far the distance is to cross, some are built with handrails, some without.
With the help of the guide, Mrs. Tan crossed the ditch safely with her daughter. I was looking back to check on my wife when suddenly I heard a loud thud in front of me. I turned my head, and I saw Dr. Tan with his son still in his arms, crawling in the mud at the bottom of the ditch! He's lucky because the trench was shallow and muddy; otherwise, he could have hurt himself badly and his son too. In another situation, I would love to have a good laugh at this hilarious scene, but the fear seemed to prevail. Losing his cool, Tan nervously used his hand to clean the mud off his face and hair. He tried hard to climb up the ditch, stumbled sideways again and again before limping hastily forward, leaving his hat behind. What a funny and awkward situation!
Out of the corner of my eyes, I could see that those guys at the coffee stand were aware of the accident. They laughed loudly, pointing their fingers in our direction! I felt my heart pounding in my chest. I knew for sure those guys were now watching us; any mistake could be a disaster. Thanks to Dr. Tan's mishap, we processed the crossing very attentively and made it without a hitch.
After another fifteen minutes of walking, I saw a small boat parked in a rather discreet place on the riverbank. My group was already inside, so we happily joined them. Without delay, the boat operator started the engine, and we left promptly. I guessed it was around 4 pm. Although it’s a river, it looked vast and turbulent. From one side, I can barely see the other side. The muddy and swollen water seemed very unfriendly. The boat heaving up and down on the unrest water surface added up to our anxiety and fear. None of us knew how to swim, and we had no life jackets either. Any accident could mean a certain “river burial”! Won’t it be a real sarcastic irony to lose our life in this muddy river while planning to cross the sea?
Many hours had passed, and it had already gotten dark when the crew reported that they had finally identified “Big Fish.” From inside, we could not see anything, but everyone was ecstatic. The young boat operator asked us to calm down and keep quiet. It took us almost twenty minutes to accost the “big” boat. With the engine completely turned off, the silence returned. We could hear the two hulls’ scrubbing sound. The unloading of the passengers was done quietly, starting first with kids and women. Since the "big fish" deck was higher than the "taxi,” they got help from several persons on the deck. Among them, I rejoiced to recognize my wife’s young brother. This was the first time since I paid my due in gold that I could finally see with my own eyes, touch with my own hands, “the merchandise” I have commanded a long time before, the “Big Fish.”
All passengers moved quickly to the lower deck. We barely had any time to rest after a very long day when Mr. Hai and his son-in-law appeared. They asked us to form a circle around them so they could update the situation. The atmosphere, in general, seemed quite tense. With a hesitant, worried voice, he said:
"Welcome, everyone! I'd like to share some urgent information with you, folks! I think that some of you may have already known: Of the three taxi-boats that had left this afternoon for the rendezvous, only one had arrived just a few moments ago, two others, carrying most of my family members, including my children, grandchildren, and close friends, are still missing. The reason for the delay so far has not been determined yet. To make things worse, those two missing “taxis” carry our navigation tools, the food and drinking water intended for the trip. For this reason, I’d like to suggest delaying the departure until tomorrow night, enough time to find out the whereabouts of those missing boats. Anyway, without the navigation tools and food, I doubt that anyone would like to engage in this venture?”
The general reaction of the audience was not far from panic. I overheard someone cussing, others talking about jumping into the river and swimming ashore! As for me, I was speechless; a mélange of anger and anguish seemed to invade me.
How long would this curse be on us? After so much waiting, uncertainty and hope, here we’re finally onto the “Big Fish” safely, and we still could not leave? That’s insane! Was it fatality? No, I would not surrender easily to whatever it might be! I got to do something… But what could I do good Lord?
A quick thought came to my mind. I quickly regained my composure and stepped onto the upper deck, looking for the two Navy guys I heard would be in charge of the boat’s navigation. I saw them talking next to their cabin. After 40 years, it’s unbelievable that I still remember their names and the short conversation I had with them. Mr. Lưu, clean-cut and good-looking, was by himself and Mr. Dưỡng, short and dark-skinned, brought his five-year-old son with him. I asked them: “What do you think about Mr. Hai’s proposal?”
Lưu smiled and said: “I’ll do whatever Mr. Hai asks me to do.” I turned to Dưỡng and asked:
“How about you?” He thought for a moment and said: “I think we got to leave tonight!”. “How to navigate without a compass?” I asked. “I’ve brought a land compass with me, just in case I need to adjust the other compass,” he said. “Tell me with all honesty, with that land compass alone, would you be able to take the boat out of the estuary and hopefully to our destination?” I kept asking.
He pondered for a moment, nodded, and said: “With God’s help, I think it’d be possible!” “Would both of you agree to leave tonight if I can convince Mr. Hai to change his mind?” I asked. They nodded their heads resolutely!
I rushed down to the lower deck. I thought it’d be crucial to seek support from the passengers before addressing the boat owner. I told everyone I met: “Good news! Please tell everyone it’s going to be OK! We already got the compass!” I didn’t lie; I’ve just told them half the truth! (I didn’t mention that it’s only a small land compass!) “Let’s get together now, so we can demand Mr. Hai to let us leave tonight! We cannot wait here for another day; we’ll be caught and will be put in jail not before long. To do so, I’ll need all your support, folks! OK?” I added.
After reaching consent with most passengers, we gathered up and asked to talk to the boat owner. In front of all, I told Mr. Hai: “First, we sincerely share your concern about the fate of the two missing taxis with most of your family. We’re aware that your family has put a lot of effort into organizing this trip. However, our boat is not safe in this area; we can see all the house lighting from here. If we stay here for another night, the boat will certainly be discovered and confiscated; all passengers will be apprehended. There’s no winner in your decision. That’s why we’re asking you to leave tonight! The audience showed their support for the demand.
To be fair, I must say that Mr. Hai was a very decent person, calm and always listening. Somehow, I can feel that deep down inside, he shared my view, but due to his own family’s uncertainty, he’s reluctant to make such a decision. With a trembling voice, he said, “As you all know, the boat belongs to you since you all have fully paid your due. But like I’ve mentioned earlier, the reason that forced us to delay the departure was not only because of what might have happened to my family but also because we don’t have any navigation tool, no food and drinking water.”
“Don’t worry, Mr. Hai. We have a spare compass!” I promptly replied.
“How about food and water?” he asked. “We’re having a bag of rice…” someone said.
Another one added: “We can rinse the empty diesel plastic tanks and refill them with the water from the river… It might not be the best water to drink, but I think it won’t kill anyone!” The majority seemed to approve and voiced their support for the request to leave tonight! The boat owner saw that, so he said:” Folks, if that is your decision, let’s finish all preparations, and we’ll be leaving at 10 PM! However, I’d like to ask you for a favor: As you already knew, until now, we don’t know what might have happened to our family, so we're willing to let you folks and the crew take over the control of the boat. My son-in-law and I, have to go back to find out what has happened and take care of the family.” After being cheated so many times before in my attempt to escape the country, those "last-minute surprises" scared me off big time! I wondered since they have been in charge of the boat for so long, how could we make it through without them? But what he said was also very understandable; their family was in danger and would need their help. So, I came up with a compromise: “We understand that you have to take care of your family, but your presence is also very needed here too. Let’s do this. Please, talk to your son-in-law; one of you two has to come with us!”
They looked miserable, both father and son. I could tell they didn’t want to join us. Mr. Hai joined his hands together and begged his son-in-law: “Please, let me go back to take care of our family! If the VC finds out we’re behind all this mess, they would be likely more lenient to an older man like me than a young guy like you! Please, go with them tonight!” The young man wiped out his tears but didn’t say a word.
A group of young people, meanwhile, were taking care of the drinking water. Two of them jumped into the river from the deck; the others handed them empty diesel plastic containers to rinse and fill them back with water, then used a rope to pull them up to the deck. After an hour, they ended up with about ten containers of around five gallons each. Meanwhile, all passengers were preparing their “nests,” which were very cramped. Presently, with almost seventy persons aboard, kids included, everyone had to adapt to the “sardines” arrangement. If the other two taxi-boats had no trouble, the number of passengers could reach almost one hundred, how could they have enough room for them?
The boat was finally ready to leave by close to midnight. In the darkness of the night, the boat began gliding slowly, heading toward the South China Sea. We all felt the tension as well as excitement. Only a few people responsible for maneuvering the boat were in the upper cabin, the rest, including my family, were in the lower compartment. Everyone prayed silently for a smooth and safe journey. We were just at the very beginning, and I was very aware of the dangers ahead at every step of the trip. To operate the boat safely at night, keeping the boat from hitting dunes or its propeller from entangling with fishing nets would demand crew members to be local and familiar with the river topography and its current. If this happened, any incident would stop the boat and put all of us in imminent danger of being arrested.
The boat ran smoothly for many hours, but as long as it didn’t reach the international waters, there’d be scary surprises to expect. When we finally got to the estuary, it was dawn. Fishing boats were on their way to the sea. Fear seemed to fade a little bit. Everyone could finally breathe freely. It’d be too early to celebrate, though; there were too many dangers still hovering above our heads. One thing worth mentioning, we learned that the boat’s owner and his son-in-law had both left us discreetly, maybe right at the time of departure, to go back to take care of their family.
After about 3 or 4 hours of smooth riding, we saw appearing at the 1 o’clock position, a big white ship at a great distance from us. Some passengers on the upper deck pointed at the unknown ship with excitement and suggested getting closer to ask for help! I joined some others to convince the crew to do the opposite because we were not even sure if we’d already reached the international waters. If that ship were Russian or Cuban, instead of rescuing us, they‘d be happy to bring us back to their “buddies,” the VC coastguards.
In challenging times, I've learned that common sense and good judgment are the basic skills of survival: having the right reaction at the right time!
After that tiny incident, the boat rode smoothly into the immensity of the sea. The weather was beautiful, and the water was calm. We could smell freedom in the air, no more worries about the VC coastguard. Still, threats were still around: the unpredictable high sea and the Thai pirates; falling into any of the two would mean certain death or a lifetime of incurable wounds!
The boat kept rushing into the unknown of the night without any interruption. At this time, I was pretty sure we were in international waters. Our planned destination was Indonesia, hoping to distance ourselves as much as we could from the Thai pirates’ fishing route. Honestly, the threat of Thai pirates was always on my mind since we were preparing to escape by sea. Although I was not a very devoted Catholic, I always prayed to God to protect us from them. I was not afraid of being robbed, but I was mainly scared of losing my own life! I knew myself so well. I knew exactly how I would react in moments of danger. I knew for sure that I could never stand still, powerless, subdued, watching those bastards attacking, raping, killing the passengers, let alone that person was my wife, my child, my sister... I’d rather die fighting back than dying later, of shame and guilt. I’ve drawn a Red Line that should not be crossed: Witnessing a robbery in progress would not be pleasant, but I might be able to endure. But if confronted with acts of vicious violence, especially against women and children. I couldn’t help myself! Yes, I had practiced some Martial Art when I was young, but I‘m no Bruce Lee or Rambo; my fate would be sealed for sure in case of confrontation! Even now, at the age of 72, that “Red Line” is still there, bold and non-negotiable!
Maybe God knew that my prayer was for a good reason, there was no sight of any pirates’ activities during the whole trip. We saw giant ships passing by instead, sometimes at long distances, some other times very close, so close that we were so afraid that the waves from their passing could have endangered our tiny, little boat. I’ve seen people watching us with big binoculars from their very high deck. Sadly, none of them have responded to our signs of distress. They just left us behind with our despair and a feeling of extreme fragility facing the immensity of the ocean, a feeling we didn’t experience before their encounter. Our presence was completely ignored!
Luckily the high seas were on our side. The water was calm as the surface of a lake. There’s an old Vietnamese saying, based on fishermen’s experience: “Tháng ba bà già đi biễn!” (“In March, even old ladies can afford to travel by sea!”). We were at the end of February, though!
During our trip, passengers were “served” “special” rice soup with a strong smell of diesel oil, the same “flavor” with drinking water because, as mentioned earlier, we stored drinking water in empty diesel containers that were rinsed hastily in the river before leaving. No one was complaining. At other times, eating and drinking may be a serious subject to most of us, at that moment, they were nothing more than survival instincts.
On the third day at sea, thank God, everything was still good: the boat held up well and ran smoothly; the passengers were healthy although weak, because of the confinement, the lack of physical movement, and also the lack of nutrition too. They had plenty of time to adjust themselves to the boating condition. During the day, I came to the upper deck more often to breathe more freely and chat with the crew.
It was around late afternoon on the third day. The crew thought that we should have reached by now some Malaysian or Indonesian island! Nothing more than a guess, since they didn’t even possess maps and a navigation compass?
Among the people on the upper deck that I used to hang out with was Hung, a friend’s young brother. Hung was a young police officer of the old regime sent to a “re-education camp” after the fall of South Vietnam. He succeeded in escaping from the camp with the help of a female VC guard who had a crush on him! A very hard-to-believe love story. In fact, his brother signed up for the trip, but after last month’s failed attempt, he got “cold feet” and gave up his place in favor of his fugitive brother.
Last night, I took my raincoat to the upper deck to wash it of all traces of seasickness from the day before. It was so dark, I sat down next to Hung, leaning against the side of the boat, I held the raincoat by the collar and dipped it in the seawater which was within my reach. Suddenly a wave came unexpectedly and snatched the raincoat out of my hand and swept it away quickly under the surface of the dark water. A small incident, but it sent shivers down my spine. I felt like part of myself going down that insidious black hole with that raincoat. Thousands of unfortunate boat people might have experienced that same feeling of terror before being sucked into that point of no return. Their souls would be marked forever by that painful farewell. Myself, after 39 long years, I still vividly remember that frightful feeling!
The day ended a long time ago. We still didn't see any sign of land around us. The crew looked so desperate, most of them believed that we must have missed it! That conclusion would not surprise anyone. How could we expect to reach our destination with amateur crewmen using no other navigation tools than just a land compass?
REDEMPTION AT LAST
It was mostly past midnight. I could not sleep amid all hope fading. I came to the upper deck to get some news updates. Like dark clouds, anxiety seemed to hang over us. Suddenly everyone was awakened and rejoiced to see a ripple of pink-colored light flickering between the clouds from afar on our right side. Conjectures were many and varied. In my opinion, it might be the lights from a city reflecting on the clouds. Regardless of what it might be, undoubtedly, that must be the “Light at the end of the tunnel,” the star that had led the “Magi,” the wise men to the Nativity scene!
Hope came back quickly, and all agreed to change direction, aiming at that beacon light. Although the boat had sped up, after many hours, the pink clouds were still far away! Around 3:00 AM, we arrived at a distance from which we could finally identify the light source, that “game-changer” that God had sent us, to guide us through the darkness of the night. It was something none of us have ever seen before: A tall oil rig spitting fire like a giant dragon in a fairy tale!
That fire reflected on the dark surface of the sea like setting fire to the waves, then shot it back to the clouds above. That’s what had attracted our attention from miles away. Mystery solved!
Most of the passengers were up by that time to witness that unforgettable moment of their life. They stood there, stunned, hypnotized. Added to this unique scenery, from nowhere, appeared a school of relatively large and quick-moving fishes circling, diving tirelessly around our boat. At first, their big dorsal fin made us believe they were sharks, impatiently waiting for their early breakfast. Later on, I realized they were just friendly dolphins welcoming the lucky escapees.
That apocalyptic, blood-stained light reflection, blended with our ecstatic emotion of the moment, reminded me of Theodore Gericault’s (*) masterpiece, “Le radeau de la Méduse” (The raft of the Medusa) depicting a shipwreck scene. Without any doubt, we’re much luckier than the victims of the Medusa!
*Talented French painter of the 19th century
After some hesitation, we all agreed to head to the rig site. The whole area was well illuminated. We could see a human shape standing high up on the rig top platform. From a great distance, the man waved out his hands, kind of warning us not to get closer. Of course, we completely disregarded the warning. The man up there desperately sent out his “message” a second time using a water hose. No result! We kept approaching until, from nowhere, we saw a middle-size boat heading in our direction. With a megaphone, they instructed us to follow them. Finally, we let go of the rig and followed the leading boat until we reached a ferry boat the size of a small football field. We found out later that the ferry was the shelter for the drilling personnel. We docked our boat alongside that monster. What a difference in size between the two! Only crazy and desperate people like us would dare to cross the ocean in this tiny wooden “nutshell?”
The crew allowed us to get on the ferry. Our boat wobbled dangerously, everyone had to be very cautious not to be trapped and smashed against the ferry’s metallic side.
It was around 4:00 am February 26, 1981 when we all got on the ferry. . Although it was still dark, this must be the brightest, the most memorable, the happiest moment of our life. After over three days and four nights of braving the unthinkable, we proudly embraced the ultimate reward of our sacrifice: We’re FREE again!
A group of Indonesian Engineers and drilling workers greeted us on the deck. They were very kind and friendly. Some of them spoke English quite fluently. They offered us soft drinks, fruits like bananas, apples, and sandwiches. After the last few days of eating plain rice soup and drinking water with a heavy oil sludge smell, everyone was eager for some real food.
After about an hour of rest, refreshing, eating, partying with our rescuers, we were so shocked when our host asked us to get back to our boat and be ready to take it to the final destination, the Kuku refugees center, which was not very far from where we were. They reassured us that everything would be okay because they would provide us with additional food, drinking water, and some basic nautical chart to help us get there. Everyone felt deeply disappointed. Like other passengers, I wrongly thought we would be allowed to stay on the ferry temporarily while waiting for a lift to a refugee camp. After that quick sight of freedom, the idea of going back for new uncertainties was not a comforting one; other than accidents that can happen at any time, we weren't even sure if we would be welcome at Kuku Island or not, but what could we do?
When everyone got back to the boat, it was still very dark, the “captain” put the engine in full throttle ahead, suddenly, a horrendous crashing sound resonated, accompanied by an enormous jolt. There was a lot of screaming among the passengers. I got to the upper deck to find out what could have happened. The captain, because of the darkness, might have not seen the colossal anchor chain that secured the ferry boat, causing the bow of the boat to hit the chain and break. However, the damage was not very serious and did not seem to endanger the boat, based on my evaluation. Somehow embarrassed by the incident, the captain tried a second time to move the boat forward. He seemed to have lost his cool (*), and again the bow of the boat hit the big iron chain, it sustained more damage this time.
(*) after almost forty years, through current communication (2020) with a lady who shared the trip with us, she confirmed that the accident was intentionally staged by the crew to give the Indonesians more reasons to rescue us right away. I might have been the only blockhead around!
The Indonesian workers who watched our departure from the deck of their ferry panicked at the incident used the megaphone to instruct us to stop and come back right away. One of the engineers with whom I’ve talked earlier asked us to stay put and let them have the time to ask for instructions from their higher authority. Before long, the same guy came back and signaled me to come closer. He told me that we had to create an urgent situation, like voluntarily sinking the boat so they could rescue us right away without going through a lot of red tape. Based on the Maritime Laws, they would have an obligation to assist people in distress at sea! Not only was I surprised by his suggestion, but I was also profoundly grateful! To make sure that I did understand his proposal, I asked him again and again. Finally, I relayed the message to our crew, to which they agreed and assigned a small group to stage “the incident.” However, one safety issue had come to my mind. I shared it with the Indonesian engineer: When the water started to enter the boat, without any doubt, it would cause a lot of panic and jostle among the passengers, so it would be safer if the women and the children were allowed to be transferred to the ferry before it happened, the rest could evacuate later. My concern seemed to make sense; the man came back a moment later with his boss’s approval.
The “sabotage team,” without the right tools, had a hard time puncturing the plank in the boat’s hull from where the water could get in and sink the boat. It took much longer to sink the boat than we’d anticipated. After over a long hour of waiting, the Indonesian crew finally allowed the rest of us to board the ferry.
The sun began to rise above the horizon. It wasn’t until around 9:00 in the morning, meaning after about 4 hours, the boat was completely submerged in seawater and engulfed in a vortex with a loud and chilling flushing noise. It was horrifying to witness a boat we’ve been in the past few days going down into those deep dark waters. Thank goodness, there was no one in there!
The time spent on the ferry was a short but cheerful and relaxing time! Even in my wildest dream, I could never think that one day I would be standing there, from nowhere, between sea and sun, “born again,” not in the Christian meaning of the word, but as a man who had conquered his fear, the uncertainty and the dangers to be born again free!
I spent most of my time enjoying the panoramic sight of the sea, watching the Indonesian workers in their routine activities. I enjoyed most watching them fishing, using their bare hands and a line. They pulled the fish up one after another effortlessly. They were all big and fresh! They descaled their catch, gutted them then cleaned them with seawater. In the final step, they hung them up to dry them in the sun to preserve them.
I befriended Sonny, an engineer I spoke to earlier when we first set foot the first time on the ferry. I learned about his family, his work, and I also shared some information about my family and how life was in post-war Communist Vietnam. He listened to me intensely. I told him my parents must be anxious about our whereabouts. Without hesitation, Sonny asked me to draft a telegram to my family; he would be more than happy to send it out when he went to Singapore for his weekend. God blessed his good heart! (*)
I wrote a short message addressing my oldest sister living in Houston, Texas, to let her know that we’re currently safe and sound in Indonesia. I also asked her to forward the good news to my parents and my sister-in-law in Virginia. Sometime after I arrived in the US, my sister handed back to me that heartwarming telegram, and it's still in my possession after more than 40 years. It showed that it had been sent out on March 03, 1981, from Singapore, meaning just nine days after our rescue and only twelve days since the day we left Saigon. It has likely set the record as the fastest “Good News” that a “boat people” could possibly inform his family of their whereabouts.
(*) That big favor I received from a good “Samaritan” sent me back to an old memory in 1980
when I was still in Saigon. One evening, after dinner, we heard a lot of commotion outside our front door. I came out to check to see what was going on. I saw some of my neighbors surrounding a stranger dressed in a tattered old S. Vietnam infantry uniform. He was using crutches because apparently, he had an injured foot still in a dirty bandage that smelled badly! He was a former lieutenant incarcerated in a “re-education camp.” Based on his story, as a prisoner he was forced, along with some of his comrades, to clear an old minefield. He got injured in a tragic mishap and was released soon after. His foot got infected because he didn’t receive much medical care. When he came back to his parent’s home, he found out they'd already decamped. Their house has been forfeited. His cousins said his parents had escaped a couple of years ago and they were now living in France. I asked him if he had their address. He nodded and searched in his plastic bag, and gave it to me. I jotted down the information on a piece of paper and promised him that I would write them a letter to inform them about his situation. He thanked me politely and told me he’d come back later to check with me. His story moved everyone, so despite their meagerness under the new regime, everyone tried their best to help, some with old clothes, others with money or food; I gave him a little bag of rice. I wrote a short letter to his family as promised and mailed it out the next day. The letter was returned to me almost a month later because no such name or address was found! End of the story. The guy didn’t come back either. I hated to jump to a quick conclusion, but I couldn’t help thinking he was a crook. If so, that guy was a real genius, an outstanding storyteller, an excellent psychologist, a top-notch actor who deserved an Oscar from Hollywood! Need I say more?
Here and now, I found myself in almost the same situation: a poor escapee in the middle of the sea, far away from home. In the past, at one time, I was a good Samaritan who tried to help a lost soul; now, I’ve found one myself who came to me with his caring heart. If this was not Karma, what was it then?
Around 4:00 in the afternoon, the other boat that served as a “shuttle” between the ferry and the oil rig, came back to pick us up and took us to a rendezvous with FLORA. Regrettably, it was not a lady as the name would have suggested, Flora was a real liner in size and majesty, with a voluntary West German crew. Their humanitarian mission was to rescue boat people in difficulty in the South China sea. When we got close enough, the sailors descended a long metallic staircase with handrails; besides, since our boat was wobbling so severely, they hung up a rope gill net underneath the stairs in the event of someone stumbling and falling into the water. A small and trivial detail for some, but it said a lot to me! Those strangers did care about our safety. They had left everything behind: their family, their job, their comfort to come here to rescue these desperate, ragged human beings who fled their country where they were persecuted, maltreated in the hands of their own brothers? We thanked and said goodbye to our Indonesian brothers before leaving.
I found out pretty soon that the captain of the FLORA was German and spoke French quite well. He was surprised and delighted that I could do the same. He let me know he needed a volunteer to join the cooking team to prepare dinner. I accepted the offer with pleasure.
That evening we had a fantastic dinner with steamed rice, stewed beef, vegetable soup, and fried fish. Late at night, just before midnight, we learned that the ship would have to make a quick stop to pick up a new group of “boat people” who had been rescued earlier and taken to a small village not too far from our itinerary to the Kuku Island. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw Truc, a childhood acquaintance, among the first people who set foot on the ship. I knew him well; we grew up together from a very young age since his parents rented their house from mine, and lived there for a very long time. He was about four years younger than me and a former S. Vietnam Air Force jet pilot. He had left Saigon ten days before I did. I knew for sure because he stopped by my house to say goodbye the day before he left.
His boat had a lot of mechanical problems at sea that caused the delay. From that moment, he joined our group until his departure to the USA.
THE KUKU ISLAND
Before 1975, Kuku Island was a small and unknown island among 18,300 other islands that formed the Indonesian archipelago. Surrounded by other islands, the water there looked calm, more like a lake. In 1979 with the introduction of the “Semi-Official Departure Program” (Bán chính thức), with the approval from the Indonesian government and the UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees), the island was allocated to accommodate thousands of Vietnamese refugees who fled their country. Since then, it has become one of the most famous Refugees Center in the whole region.
With the material found on the island, the refugees had built with their own hands many rudimentary, patched huts, just good enough to shield them from the sun and the rain. If you were not a handyman, you could hire others to do it for you.
They might charge you around 1TOG (Tael of gold) or less for the job, depending on the size or the quality of the construction, but it’s not a problem for the people who could afford the SODP. They could also resell their hut at their departure to resettle in another country, maybe with a little loss.
On March 01, after eight days at sea, we set foot on Kuku Island. After the “seasickness,” now we were experiencing the “Ground sickness.” We all felt groggy, like being drunk. Our bodies needed to readjust after having been boating for over a week. We saw a couple of hundreds of Vietnamese people rushing to the dock, waving, yelling at us, trying to find out from where our boat had departed? They tried to find out if there were any of their acquaintances among the newcomers?
We’re still being kept apart in a separate area close to the dock, waiting to go through many protocols like registration and preliminary “physical examination” before being formally admitted to the Camp. I could see some indignant reactions, especially among women during the session conducted by “Males-we-don’t-know-who.” Were they Doctors, nurses, or just some curious soldiers taking advantage of the situation? The Right to Privacy never exists in Third World countries, much less in a Muslim country where they’d treat females as second-class citizens! Fortunately, there was no further abuse, just a short and uncomfortable moment for some. After all, we were just pitiful refugees, the uninvited, the unwelcome guests not only for neighboring countries but also for most countries of the World. What could we expect? We should be thankful that the “examination” was conducted by Indonesian strangers and not by the Thai pirates!
At that time, there were many abandoned huts in Kuku, most of them in terrible condition. Our first task was to choose a good location for our “Sweet Home”: a decent empty hut, with a front view of the sea, large enough for six people: Me, my wife, my son, my young brother-in-law, and finally my two improvised companions Hùng and Trúc. Our next effort was to improve our new shelter with all available materials from other unoccupied shacks. Last but not least, our new “Home” would need a serious and thoroughly clean up. Et voilà! It’s ready for us to move in!
We’re so excited to receive some basic supplies from the Camp’s Reception Team, including mosquito nets (*), blankets, rice, noodles, canned food, a large tank of drinking water… and a kerosene stove for cooking; mostly all basic stuff needed for our temporary stay.
(*) Malaria was still a leading cause of death on this island. It had killed many Vietnamese refugees who had reached Kuku.
My wife was the only female in our group, so it was no surprise that we unanimously elected her as our Chef Cook, with at least four reliable helpers at her command. One big concern at that time that I could remember: except for the cooking oil, there were no spices included in our daily ration package, no salt, no fish sauce or soy sauce, no hot pepper, zero! To solve that serious problem, at my suggestion, we began to retrieve the seawater and boiled it in a pan until it all evaporated and yielded sea salt at the bottom. It was a new and exciting experience for all of us. Our daily ration of rice was quite generous. We’d use the leftover to exchange for fresh fish from local fishermen. They left early in the morning and came back in the early afternoon on their tiny fishing boat (*) … When they saw us waving at them from the beach with a plastic bag full of rice, they would understand and get closer so we could walk out into the water to meet them.
(*) It’s a very exotic, primitive, narrow “watercraft,” big enough for two or three persons, which consisted of one main hull with additional wooden stabilizer bars on each side.
We have never seen fish that fresh anywhere before, still wriggling at the end of a small rope! Fair deal! Everyone was happy: They were delighted to have more rice to feed their family; we were also delighted to enrich our daily menu with extra nutritious plates like steamed or stewed super fresh fish besides the canned food.
“Needy time is the mother of all creativity”! With very few choices in our daily ration, my wife succeeded to accommodate all tastes with her unique cooking creations, like “Green Beans dessert with honey” (Chè đậu xanh mật ong), “Noodle with canned duck meat” (Mì vịt hộp), “Spam in seven courses” … ( Thịt hộp Spam bảy món)
We soon forgot all the hardship of our venture across the sea to enjoy this improvised vacation on this unknown Indonesian island! We lived with a worry-free camping spirit, away from harm and threat, under an open blue sky, with beautiful and exotic scenery. Anything could be easily tolerated, even becoming enjoyable. We ate our dinner early with a great appetite. When the night came, we would gather, and under the moonlight, everyone would have a joke, a story, or an old memory to share. Truc was a real entertainer. He’s tall, dark-skinned, with curly hair and a big smile which made him look like more a local guy than Vietnamese. He’s a good singer with his husky voice, insisting us to join him at his late-night show!
The only disturbance on this island at nighttime was the presence of rats. They were roaming around, looking for food, a possible result of boat people’s high occupancy on this island in the past. During the night, they even ventured close to our couch, making a squeaking sound. My wife hated them so much. They’re so scary and annoying to her.
Besides being a temporary stop for a significant number of Vietnamese refugees in the late ’70s or early ‘80s, Kuku Island was also a final resting place for many of them, who died during their stay, from different diseases and sicknesses, mostly from malaria. After over forty years, most of the graves are still there. Recently some families returned to the island to retrieve their loved ones’ remains and brought them back closer to their families.
During our short stay in Kuku, the UNHCR representatives came from Singapore to interview the newcomers and finalize the registration. The commanding officer in charge of Kuku Island was Major Dohardjo, an Indonesian Marine Corps officer who had been in Vietnam before 1975 as a member of the ICC (International Control Commission), which oversaw the implementation of the Paris Accords signed in 1973. I had a chance to talk with him a couple of times; he’s a very kind and caring gentleman!
After almost three weeks of leisure on this beautiful “resort”, on March 20, 1981, we had to pack again to board the “Sea Sweep,” a cargo ship sponsored by the World Vision Evangelical Church Group, to be transferred to the Central Refugee Camp on Pulau Galang (Galang Island).
Unlike Flora, the Sea Sweep’s volunteers team didn’t leave any trace on my sensitive heart mostly because we didn’t have any real contact with them. It was a small group of young Asians, males and females, possibly Taiwanese or Singaporean, who spent most of their time talking, laughing between them. The only interaction was when they handed us a Vietnamese pocket-size Bible when we first set foot on their ship. It’s just like we were taking a bus: get on, get off, and go! For me, Charity, even under the simple form of human touch or feeling, is still a rare virtue among Asians! Was it a pessimistic, generalized, prejudiced observation of mine? I honestly hope that it was.
WELCOME TO PULAU GALANG
The 80-hectare Galang Refugee Camp was very crowded during peak time. It is estimated that around two hundred fifty-thousand Indochinese refugees passed through Galang from 1979 to 1996. Over half of that number were Vietnamese refugees who had arrived by boat directly from Vietnam or had been rejected by Malaysia before reaching Indonesia. The Camp was divided into two different areas: Galang 1 and Galang 2. My group was in Galang 1. Each site had dozens of barracks covered with corrugated roofs. Two long wooden decks, one on each side, served as beds. Upon arrival, the Camp’s authority assigned each group a group ID, based on the country of arrival and their boat’s order. Mine was IN15129 (IN =Indonesia,
M = Malaysia, P = Philippines, H= Hong Kong).
When we first arrived in Pulau Galang, my first impression was that we had just come to a small, poor Vietnamese fishing village: The sea air we were breathing; the people, the language, the sounds, even the smell of the food. There’s a “tiny” market where both sellers and buyers were Vietnamese. Some people whose requests for asylum had been delayed for some reason prepared themselves for a much longer stay in the Camp by opening a small “business” to get extra money to improve their living. They were selling cigarettes (*), drinks like iced coffee with condensed milk, sweet treats like “chè”, fruits cocktails... Some even offered new clothing, sandals, shoes. Others were doing currency exchange, US dollar vs. Rupiah. Some of them were successful; with their extra cash, they would even offer to buy gold. Like the Chinese, the Vietnamese are also very resourceful!
Not long after arriving in the camp, some lucky refugees might have received some financial help from their family or relatives already resettled abroad; others had carried their gold and would sell it out for cash. A gold ring (**) that I’ve sold would give me enough Rupiah to indulge ourselves with little extra things the next couple of months in the camp.
I had witnessed a very high skill of survival among my compatriots. I’m not surprised because I’m one of them. In a country where there’s more wartime than peacetime, generation after generation, we had lived through so many ups and downs, we had to restart everything from zero, again and again, survival instinct must be in our DNA!
(*) The Indonesian cigarette called Djarum Black is quite strong and has a pleasant taste of anise. It emits an unusual burning cracking noise when puffing. (**) 1/10 of a TOG = 3.75 gr of pure gold, current value 210.00 USD as of 10/2020.
Unlike Kuku, in Galang, we had plenty of activities we could do besides resting. We already had our pictured ID cards. Everyone looks terrible in the picture; it’s more of a mugshot on the FBI Most Wanted list than an ID picture. But that’s OK, no complaint!
In the Galang Refugees Camp, there were different classes that people could join, like English, Typing, Sewing classes. There was also a Catholic Church and a Buddhist Temple. Both places were the most frequented sites by the refugees. After surviving such an ordeal, it’s understandable that the believers became more fervent. On Sunday the church was crowded with a choir who performed very well! No surprise, they had plenty of time to rehearse.
Father Dominici was the chaplain in charge of the spiritual support for the Vietnamese Catholic Community in Galang. He was a very popular and respected figure in this camp.
He‘s of Italian origin and has served in Vietnam for almost ten years before the fall of the South. He loved Vietnam and its people. His followers honored him with a Vietnamese name that he’d proudly mention as his badge of honor: Father ĐỖ MINH TRÍ. After the Communist victory in 1975, they expelled Father Dominici out of the country. In the late 70s, witnessing the flow of Vietnamese boat people, he soon volunteered to come to Pulau Galang, again, to serve the refugees after its opening. As a Catholic priest, besides being in charge of all church activities, he’s also known as a vibrant organizer and benefactor who has worked passionately alongside the UNHCR and the Local Government to benefit all Indochinese refugees.
It was a big surprise for me to meet Tran Q. Phuc, one of my closest friends at the Faculty of Pedagogy in Saigon. He had left Saigon by himself much earlier than me and his boat has landed in Thailand after being attacked a couple of times by the Thai pirates. He’s lucky for not taking his wife and his two baby girls along with him. Rescued in the Philippines and later transferred to Galang, he has been approved by the US Delegation to resettle in California.
A VERY SPECIAL PERSON
A very special person whose memory would be associated forever with our stay in Galang, Le Trung. A 29 yrs. old, single, well-mannered Vietnamese volunteer from France. Through the French Croix Rouge (Red Cross), he came to this faraway Indonesian island to serve the Vietnamese refugees. It's very rare to find a Vietnamese ex-pat engaging in such a benevolent task.
Through conversation, he was quite excited to find out that my wife and I were both French teachers from Saigon. He suggested that together we can open up a French class to help people who chose to go to France, to which I strongly agreed! We got along so well and soon became good friends. He stopped by often to see us, talk, and share with us the memories of the good old times in Saigon!
Unfortunately, our stay at the Galang Camp was not extended enough for our project to materialize. On the date of our departure to Singapore by boat, to catch our flight to the USA in the next couple of days, Trung offered to escort us. We had to stay two days in Singapore, thanks to his kindness, with him as a tour guide, we had the opportunity to visit the smallest Republic, an island country in Southeast Asia, instead of getting bored in our temporary shelter. Trung spent one whole day taking us around: "window shopping" in a tax-free shopping mall, having lunch in a Chinese restaurant, and other sightseeing with photo sessions. There’s nothing extravagant, but it’s a sentimental debt that we still carry in our hearts.
After arriving in the US, for over a year, although being very busy restarting a new life, I kept communicating with Trung regularly to keep him updated on our whereabouts, inviting him to come to visit us in Texas whenever he had time…
On his side, he sent us his words of encouragement and his promise to come to visit us possibly very soon. He told me he had made many friends during his stay in Galang, but I was the only one who still remembered and was still in touch with him. The last letter I sent him was in 1983. Not long after, I had received a short reply, not from him, but from his family, to inform us that Trung had passed away, with no other explanation whatsoever. We’re badly shocked. Why could dreadful things happen to a young, healthy, dedicated, life-loving guy like him? His life happened to cross ours for a short time, but the traces he had left would stay forever in our hearts! Rest in peace, my friend!
Two weeks after arriving in Pulau Galang, we could finally establish contact with our siblings in the US. In their correspondence through Father Dominici, they sent us some cash, not a lot, because obviously, it’s real gambling sending cash through the Postal Service. They strongly warned us not to apply to go to France. They had good reasons to do so: My wife and I, were both French-educated, our degrees were French (recognized in France), we knew well their history, culture and above all, we could speak French quite fluently. It’d be much easier for us to readapt and feel at home in the new country. Needless to say, the temptation was very strong! They kept repeating the same advice in their letters: Don’t ever make that mistake. Life would be much harder in France. We’ve already made up our mind to go to the US, not necessarily because of any worldly reasons, it’s for a much simple one: We’d like to be close to our families wherever they might be!
By the time the American Immigration Team came for the interview, our request for asylum was granted with few questions asked. College graduates with an above-average English fluency, former “Second Lieutenant” in the old regime, with family members already residing in the US: All big pluses to our benefit. At the end of the interview, to my surprise, Larry (?), the American Immigration Team Leader, asked me with a big smile if I’d like to join his Team as his translator? I didn’t see any reason not to accept. Doing so would help me to “regrease” somehow my English.
The time spent on both islands should have been the most wonderful and enjoyable after we escaped from the so-called “Socialist Heaven” (Thiên Đàng XHCN). It was kind of a long and free vacation, with plenty of time for... doing nothing, in this exotic part of the world! Surprisingly, very few people seemed to fully enjoy those real and nearby moments of leisure and happiness. Reasons were many: Some worried about the incoming interview, others whose request for asylum has been denied because of some inconsistency in their statements or for other reasons. Even those who had passed the screening were still nervous and worried about their uncertain future in a foreign country. Years later, while struggling to rebuild their new life, some with more than one job, most would remember that heavenly time with big regret!
Our final destination was Houston, Texas, where I had my two older sisters.
On the day of departure, we’ve been picked up by a high-speed boat at the Pulau Galang Pier to go to Singapore. Sampai Jumpa Galang! (Bye-bye, Galang!) Terima Kasih Indonesia atas keramahan anda! (Thank You, Indonesia, for your hospitality!)
In Singapore for a short couple of days, we’ve been transported to a vacant barrack to stay. The living condition was even worse than in Galang because it seemed unprepared to house any large or small group of refugees. We had even to sleep on the bare floor, but there’s no complaint since everyone understood this would be a very short and final inconvenience. To compensate for that temporary adversity, we had received a small daily allowance in Singaporean dollars which we could use to buy food and even Tiger beer, something strictly forbidden in Galang because Indonesia is a Muslim country. As being mentioned before, under Trung’s guidance, we got acquainted with the Island-Nation, which was quite impressive, especially with people like us, who have endured six years in the backward and impoverished Socialist Vietnam. Geographically compared to Vietnam, Singapore was just a tiny island the size of even less than half of Saigon, the former capital of S. Vietnam. Ten years ago, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew once said he wished someday Singapore could strive to equal Saigon. What irony! Just six years under the Communist regime, Vietnam was in total shamble. The extreme shortage of anything was the norm in the whole country, concentration camps might have been the only exception. On the other hand, with the right guidance, Singapore has become an undeniable and successful power in Southeast Asia.
The shopping malls were luxurious, plentiful, and Tax-Free! Unfortunately, we’re poor refugees just out of the Camp, the only thing we can afford was “window shopping”! It was an eye-opening experience, after all. The Singaporean population was mixed because, besides the Chinese majority, I also saw Indians, Malaysians, Indonesians, and you can use either the Singapore Dollar or the Indonesian Rupiah in your transaction.
We’re impressed by the high-rise buildings, modern commercial centers, public transportation with large buses and a fleet of Mercedes used for taxis*, well-maintained parks with flowers and green shades. Above all, you can witness civility, order, and cleanliness everywhere you go.
At the same time, Saigon was severely polluted by old buses, some being redesigned to use a charcoal boiler, instead of gasoline or diesel, like in the very old time. Others had no choice but to use cheap, “mixed-with-you-know what-gasoline” … The thick and black smoke they emitted was not less than old locomotives! The former Capital population had quadrupled and became overcrowded with a frightful horde of bicycles.
On the day we left for the US, a bus took us to the Singapore Changi Airport, another astonishing experience. Everyone in our group held a large yellow envelope containing our Immigration papers, our current lungs’ X-ray image. While waiting for the flight, I started a conversation with a Frenchman, standing there with a very young girl about 4 or 5 years old, who I guessed was his daughter. After almost 40 years, I still remember his name. Monsieur Frantoni worked for BNP (Banque Nationale de Paris) in Hong Kong. Through our conversation, he knew that we were Vietnamese refugees, freshly released from the Camp, and on our way to resettle in the US. He seemed very surprised to find out that we were both former teachers of French. He politely asked if I could give him my name and, if possible, my address in the US, and with our permission, he’d like to be in touch with us later. In my mind, I thought he might have said that out of kindness. I jotted it down anyway on a piece of paper and gave it back to him. When we said goodbye, he squeezed my hand and wished us good luck.
I didn’t think much about that meeting at all. After my first month in Houston, I still didn’t have a job yet and still living with my oldest sister. One day, while checking the mail, I was quite surprised to see a letter from Mr. Frantoni. Its content was heartwarming: “I’ve met you and your family in a very ironic situation: I was on my way back to Hong Kong after a week of vacation in Singapore with my daughter. At that same time, you and your family had just left a Refugee Camp and were on your way to restart a new life in an unknown land, with more questions than answers about the days ahead. I sincerely admire your courage and wish you and your family the best of luck and success in your new life. By the way, allow me to forward you one full year of prepaid subscription to “Le Magazine Littéraire”. Sincere words from a “stranger” deeply touched me and brought tears to my eyes! ! After six years of living in a Communist society, in dark moments, I had believed that human kindness might no longer exist! I had been soon proven wrong, quite often, especially after I could get out of that “Hell on earth.” I rejoiced to find out that “good Samaritans” were still among us!
GOODBYE ASIA! HELLO AMERICA!
After an endless flight in the giant TWA (Trans World Airlines) Boeing 747, we finally arrived in San Francisco after a short stop in Alaska.
A Vietnamese representative of the US Catholic Charities (USCC) was there to greet us. I didn’t see much emotion on his face. Not a welcome, not even a question about our long flight. He was just doing his job. He might have done this so often, it became routine like an employee of a shipping and receiving company!
While waiting for the bus, he handed us a bottle of drinking water and a small bag with sandwiches and bananas. He also told us that we would stay overnight in San Francisco, waiting until tomorrow for the next flight to our final destination. We boarded a big bus that took us to the temporary shelter. We were amazed by the heavy traffic and very impressed by the sophisticated multi-level American Highway system.
I could see a young Asian guy about my age through the bus window, driving an old Convertible Mustang. He looked confident and content, with his long hair fluttering in the breeze! Wow! For me, he’s a perfect picture of a successful man, someone I wish to be someday! That dull moment was still vivid in my memory after more than forty years. That guy would never know that, at one time, a poor refugee had looked at him with much admiration!
We finally arrived at the temporary shelter, an old military barrack, but it still looked clean and in excellent shape. The guide took us around to show us the facilities which seemed well accommodated to make our short stay very comfortable: Beds, mattresses, hot water shower, towels. We were told to be in the dining area at 19:30. After a quick hot shower, the first thing I did was to look for a public phone. My brother, who lived in California, was very excited to hear his young brother’s voice over the phone. I let him know that we had arrived in San Francisco, that we were doing well and we would fly to Houston tomorrow. I asked him to inform my sister about our arrival. My brother promised he would take the earliest flight to Houston to see us.
We went to the dining room as scheduled and were ready for our first meal in America. The menu was quite simple: Grilled chicken with salad. There was a lot of chicken, all thighs and legs, in a big and deep tray! I never saw that much chicken in my whole life, (*) especially for a small group like ours. We ate so much that there was not much room left for dessert. We finished our dinner with a cup of coffee, which was nowhere near our traditional strong and tasty French coffee.
(*) It reminded me of the time when I returned to my teaching post after being released from the Communist’s “Re-Education” camp. From now and then, as a teacher, we were eligible to buy, at a discount price, a live chicken from a co-operative not far from our school. Those chickens were bred in what we sarcastically dubbed the “Stalinist breeding method” They reminded us of those poor and emaciated prisoners of the Soviet gulags in Siberia... The Chicken was nothing more than a light ball of feathers with much more bones than meat! Nowadays, any breeder who dares to adopt the same method would undoubtedly be prosecuted for animal cruelty! Yet two skinny chickens and three big cabbages for a Chicken Cabbage Salad, accompanied by a pot of thin chicken rice soup, would amply satisfy over 7 or 8 “hungry teachers”!
After a fairly hearty dinner, I took my wife and my son out to the big courtyard for a walk. What a pleasant surprise, it’s evening time, past 9 o’clock, and the San Francisco sky was still softly bright, and it’s strikingly cool for early June! Silently, I let myself submerge in a profound feeling of happiness.
The next day, leaving “our heart in San Francisco”, we boarded a Continental Airlines flight to
our final destination: Houston, Texas. As the plane was about to land, I was struck by that deep green shade covering a vast area surrounding the airport. In my mind, Texas, the heartland of the Cowboys, should be bare, arid, and covered with cactus, as depicted in every Western movie. I was wrong!
This coming June 5th, 2020, would mark the 39th year since we first became Texans! I was 32; I will be 71 in three more days!
THUAN V. TRAN (STEVE TRAN)
* The original Vietnamese version of this personal memoir is available on Google. Please look for “VƯỢT BIÊN LAN MAN TỰ TRUYỆN” from the same writer.
Houston, May 16, 2020
Bổ túc phần Anh văn ngày 07 tháng 04.2022