Escape from VietNam
by Tien Cao
Christmas Eve, 1978. Little did I know that this was to be my last day in Saigon, VietNam. On that day, my father and I escaped from the country leaving my mother and two younger brothers behind in a search for peace, freedom, and a stable future. Living under a Socialist government that ruled its citizens with a vise-like grip, my parents were prompted to make a decision about the family’s future and security.
The only way out was to leave VietNam and go to the United States. It was too risky for the whole family to attempt escape for if caught by the government, my whole family would be arrested and sent to concentration camps, with all of our assets confiscated. To reduce the risk, my father and I were chosen for the attempt. If caught my mother would still be able to take care of us in prison, and furthermore, we would still have our house. What I remember most was what my father said to me many times, "If for some reason the boat sinks, at least I could still have you hang on to my back and your chance of survival would be much greater. However, I cannot save the whole family if we all escape together."
The trip took many months of planning. My father worked for a government shipping company and was left in charge of a ship that carried cargo between cities within the southern regions of VietNam. He and a few coworkers secretively organized a group interested in escaping the country. In their quest for freedom, they prepared the ship for the journey with a willingness to give up everything, including their lives.
5:00 p.m., December 24, 1978. My father told me to say farewell to my grandparents and mother because we were going on a long trip. As we were leaving, I remember my brother running after us to ask for my father’s watch. It was then that I sensed we were going on a very long trip because with this watch my mother could live off of the money from its sale.
We boarded the ship at about 8:00 p.m., and at this point, my father finally told me we were leaving the country. I was excited and scared. I repeatedly asked him about our destination, but he never replied with a straight answer. The journey was full of risk: We could be detained by the VietNamese government. We could run out of food, water, or fuel. We were navigating with faulty equipment. And then we had to also survive rough sea conditions, and worst of all, piracy.
Pirate attacks occurred frequently in the South Sea, especially with Thai pirates, notorious for their inhumane ways. These pirates typically would kill men by either shooting them, throwing them overboard, or by simply ramming their steel vessels into the fragile boats (leaving the men on board). Women of all ages were raped and taken as slaves and prostitutes. Many Vietnamese lost their lives to this tragedy.
Our only option was to pray. I later discovered that my father had told my mother that if she had not heard from us after a month, she was to consider us dead because the trip should have taken only two weeks.
1:00 a.m. on Christmas Day. We headed for sea. I hid in the cargo area the many times we were stopped for inspections. That was the hard part. Everything luckily went according to plan once we reached international water. I knew then we were on our way to freedom. I was seasick for the first two days and I missed my mother and brothers so much that I cried every night. Fortunately, nothing went wrong. The weather was good and the ship had plenty of fuel, food, and water. We encountered an oil rig during our first week and were given additional supplies along with directions to our destination, Malaysia, where we could obtain temporary refuge.
I eventually overcame my seasickness enough to go on deck. The first time I saw the dark blue water I was very scared (as I still remain to this day). Our ship was designed to travel in local rivers, not the ocean. The undersized engine powered the ship at a very conservative pace, as the captain did not want to push it to the limit. The calm sea looked frightening at times. It was easy to imagine how the sea could sink us at any time, if it so desired. I quickly learned to respect Mother Nature and her enormous power. We saw a pirate ship heading in our direction but it turned around after our captain fired his rifle in the air. Towards the end of the second week when everybody was on the deck, we spotted seagulls and countless other ocean birds flying in the air feeding. We knew that land, Malaysia, was in sight. The next afternoon we reached our destination.
Pulau Tengah is the Malaysian island where all VietNamese refugees stay while awaiting admittance to the country of their choice. Here the Malaysian navy ordered us to anchor about 200 yards from shore to await their decision. After anxiously waiting for six hours, they declined our request saying that the island was too crowded. They then towed us back out to sea at night. We were all sad, upset and uncertain about our future. Then a miracle happened. The towing cable snapped during the middle of the night. Sensing the urgency, the captain headed the ship toward land and ran the ship ashore. At this point we did not care what the Malaysians would do to us so swam to shore and sat there until the authorities arrived. Fortunately, at that point they had no choice but to admit everyone onto Pulau Tengah.
This was our home for seven months along with some other 10,000 VietNamese refugees seeking a common goal. Sponsored by my cousin in Eugene, Oregon and my aunt in San Diego, my father and I went through countless interviews with United States Immigrations and United Nations Immigrations Service personnel until we were granted refugee status to the United States.
We arrived in the United States of America in July of 1979. I remember clearly knowing we had made it to our final destination when I took my first bite from a McDonald’s hamburger. My family and I are now naturalized citizens and our family was reunited in 1986 when the VietNamese government finally granted my mother and brother’s visas to immigrate to America.
This story is not about me. It is only an example of the many hardships faced by VietNamese in their quest for freedom. The fortunate ones are here. The unfortunate ones gave their lives to the sea.
This is part of our continuing series, Bridging the Cultural Gap: The Overseas-Asian Experience. If you have an Overseas-Asian experience you would like to share, please feel free to send it in! firstname.lastname@example.org
Bridge illustration by Duke Windsor.
Part one in our continuing series: What is "Field Trip" in Chinese? (February 1998)
Part two in our continuing series: The Cultural Hyphen (March 1998)