Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The trip we made 30 years ago in search of freedom

Halfway through my work today, I glanced down at the bottom right-hand corner of my computer and happened to notice the date listed as 04/30/14.

Suddenly I got goosebumps realizing that exactly 30 years ago, my family was boarding a small boat trying to escape our native country, Vietnam.  Had it been that long ago?  Had time flown by that fast?

I was only five years-old at the time and travelling with my seven year-old sister and our parents. My mom was about 27 years-old and my dad, who was freshly released from post-war prison camp, was 30.  My dad's teenage brother was also on board with us as well as a few other families we've never met before.  We purposely chose to escape on April 30th, the anniversary of the fall of Saigon, because it was a day the Viet Cong would be preoccupied with their celebrations.

Our journey had actually started several days earlier after we paid a group of human smugglers several ounces of gold. At one point, they had separated the men and women because they said travelling in such a big group would raise suspicion.  My sister and I were forced to go with my mother and other young ladies to hide in a small farm house.  I recall the men dragging some of the women into the woods for long periods of time. When they tried to take my mother away from us, I remember her threatening to scream.  She told them she didn't care if we were all caught by police, but there was no way she would stay quiet if they separated her from her children.  Luckily her bluff worked and within a day, we were reunited with my dad, uncle, and others in our group.

Hidden by the darkness of the night with only moonlight to shine our way, our group walked by foot for several hours before we reached a secluded beach where our boat was hidden.  As it turns out, the boat that awaited us was better suited for the river rather than the rough waters of the South China Sea.  It was no more than 18 feet in length  There was no roof on it, and my dad could actually reach down and the touch the water while sitting on the boat.  We realized we had been swindled by the smugglers and our boat was not a suitable vessel to freedom, but rather a death trap; but it was too late to turn back.  Our clothes were all muddied and we would have been caught for sure.

My dad made the decision to take the risk.  Our only hope was to try to get as far as we could away from Vietnam and be lucky enough to be rescued by a United Nations boat. Unfortunately, we ran into a series of unlucky events. We quickly ran out of food and water and the propeller on our boat fell off. After several days adrift a little boy just a tad younger than me died. I think his death was brought on quicker because he drank salt water.  His parents released his body into the ocean.  He was their only child.

The mood on the boat was depressing and hopeless.  One of the younger men tried to make others laugh by jokingly asking if anybody wanted to drink "stale tea".  I stretched out my arms and begged him for it. It turned out to be his urine, but I drank every last drop of it, nonetheless. Everyone seemed to chuckle at my expense, but soon, they were fighting over their own and each others' pee. One of the ladies had packed a bag of sugar so we were able to sweeten our urine a bit, but there was little to mask the foul smell and acrid taste of it.  Soon, my mother starting pricking her own fingers with a safety pin she had brought along and allowed me to suck her blood.  Her hands were so numb, she didn't even feel any pain.

One night, I was awaken by the adults hollering.  They had spotted a boat about a quarter of a mile away. Without any lights to get that other boat's attention, they decided to strip me of my clothes. They wrapped my garments around a stick, dipped it in gasoline, and lit it on fire.  The plan worked and the boat starting coming closer to us.  Though we were praying they'd rescue us, my dad and the other young men on our vessel were prepared to fight back if they turned out to be pirates. For whatever reason, the other boat steered closer to us, slowing down only to observe a bit, and then continued on.  It was shortly after that most of us began to loose all hope.  My mother cried and prayed to God to end our suffering.  She begged for a huge wave to come and drown us all because she didn't want to see us suffer or to die in her arms.

We continued to drift with the currents for days.  Being naked only worsened my condition.  My mother tried to shelter my body during the day and my dad would dip me over the side of the boat and into the water to cool my burning skin.  The only shelter we had from the harsh sun was a plastic tarp, which we used to collect rain water the very few times it did rain.  One time the waves were so violent, our boat took in a lot of water.  My dad tried to rally the men and teenage boys to quickly scoop the water out, but they all said they were too fatigued.  My dad threatened to throw them overboard if they didn't help and so they did.

A few days later, a second boy died. This time, the adults kept the toddler's body on board.  I overheard them talking about possibly eating him, but no one had the heart to pry him from the hands of his grieving mother. I made my parents promise to not let anyone eat me if I die.

On the ninth day at sea, I was near death.  My shriveled up body loss control of some of its basic functions, I had diarrhea, and was drifting in and out of consciousness.  Suddenly, someone spotted an oil tanker.  By that point, most of us were too exhausted to even sit up.   Like the other boat, the oil tanker seemed to keep a distance and just moved past us.  Every person alive on that boat cried though we were too dehydrated to shed actual tears.  We'd thought that the big ship was leaving us there to die.  Instead, they stopped, lowered their anchor and waited for us to drift to them.  Turns out, they didn't want us to get sucked into their propeller.  They lowered their ladder and helped us on board.  The captain and crew were mostly Italian or Filipino.  The captain personally gave me his big white T-shirts to wear since they had no clothes for children. They took great care of us and even conducted a memorial service for the last little boy who died.

They took us to a port in Thailand where we were processed into a UN Refugee Camp in Bangkok. After that, we were shipped to the Philippines where we lived in another refugee camp for several months before flying to America.

Once my family settled in Pasadena, TX, I made a promise to live life to the fullest as if I would be living for the little two boys who died on my boat.  As fate would have it, I now have two little boys of my own.  At times when I look at my sons, I can't help but think of those two boys and the estimated million or so Vietnamese refugees who perished in the sea in search of democracy.  I hope first generation Vietnamese-Americans like myself share their stories of hardships, tragedies, and triumphs so that our descendants could better understand the many sacrifices made in the name of freedom.

I am so happy God guided my family safely to America.  My dad taught us to love and respect our new country, to be a valuable contributing member of its society, and to give back whenever we can. I hope most Americans realize that there are many immigrants out there who love this country just as much or sometimes more than some natives do.  God bless the USA and other countries that have opened their doors to Vietnamese refugees.  We are forever grateful.

I was very happy to be alive!
(This picture was taken at a Thailand refugee camp)

Standing in front of our home in Vietnam
(My mom is holding me, my sister is in the center, and the lady to the right is my aunt, Lan)
My family at the refugee camp in the Philippines
(Mom, dad, uncle Tien, me, and my sister)

Enjoying a day at the river near our refugee camp in the Philippines.

We were so happy to board the bus bound for the airport.  Some of us got to go to Australia, Norway, Canada, or America. 

My sons, Dexter and Connor.  
This picture is dedicated to the two boys on my boat who lost their lives at sea.

My first career choice was to be a US journalist since freedom of the press does not exist in my native country.  I don't believe in a government that suppresses the God-given rights of its people.


  1. Hi chi Nguyen thank you so much for sharing your story!! I wish us kids or me at least were more grateful for you as a teacher. You are beautiful inside and out!
    - Quyen

    1. Thanks, Quyen! Some of my best years of my life were spent in Washington State, reporting the news for NBC 25 on the weekdays and teaching children like you Bible studies and Vietnamese culture on the weekend. I'm glad that even though that was 12 years or so ago, you guys still keep in touch with me. I especially enjoyed teaching you guys the fan and hat dances for our Tet festival. Thank you for making my life more meaningful and enjoyable back then. I wish you and your siblings the best life has to offer.

  2. A good article and reminder to be thankful every day and to fully live & appreciate the blessings in the present moment.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing your story, it was a really interesting and emotional journey. :)