I wasted no time heading for the market. I had to try and find my wife’s cousin, Phi, who used to live in the village of Ho Nai. In the midday sunlight, I felt very exposed; it was obvious that I didn’t belong there. The clothes given to me by Father Trac were tight and looked strange compared to what other people were wearing. I was very, very afraid as I walked toward Phi’s house. I felt that everyone around me knew I was an escaped prisoner.
Everything was so different after my two years in prison. I had been taken to the re-education camp in June of 1975, when I was 30 years old. Now the money had Ho Chi Minh’s picture on it, and most people wore the black pajamas that the Communists favored. Even the police wore clothing I’d never seen before. I felt like a stranger. I looked and acted differently from other people.
Phi’s house was right across from the open market, the main commercial area of Ho Nai province. I had been there once, and I still remembered where Phi lived. The house was built in two parts divided by a large cemented yard. The back part was the family living quarters. The front part was Phi’s grocery store.
When I entered the store, I saw that nothing had changed – except for the addition of a big red Communist flag over the door and a large picture of Ho Chi Minh on the wall. Phi was standing behind the counter, talking to a customer. She stopped talking when she saw me, her eyes widening with astonishment. She glanced at the door, then said something in a low voice to the customer. When the person was gone, I approached her and said, “Sister Phi, how are you?”
She tapped her head in a gesture of confusion and did not answer. Instead she asked me, “And you? How are you?”
Our formal conversation sounded lost in this embarrassing situation. I thought I should be direct. I told her briefly about my escape. My wife, Thuy, had come to visit me at the camp on May 19, but we had had only a few minutes together in a ditch beside the field of elephant grass where I was working. A camp guard caught us, but Thuy managed to get away. She had told me she would be returning later that night. The bag of food Thuy brought me was thoroughly searched by the guards, and when they inspected a pack of cigarettes she gave me, they found a note from her. The note told me to get ready to escape, because she had paid for a seat for herself, our daughter An, and me on a boat that would be secretly leaving southern Vietnam very soon. When the guards read that, they became furious. They locked me up in a small box for nine days and beat me during intense interrogations every day, trying to learn about my escape plans (I had none), and who was involved in organizing the escape boat (I did not know). They even told me that Thuy had been arrested, but I thought this was just a ploy to make me talk. I was sure that as soon as they finished interrogating me, they would kill me. That’s why I had found a way to escape the camp. Now, just three days after I’d broken the wire lock on my cage and run away under the cover of darkness, I was headed to Saigon, where Thuy lived.
I told Phi, “I need a hiding place here, in Ho Nai, before I can find a way to Saigon. Could you help me?”
She did not answer but took me through the back to her house. She served me some food at the kitchen table. “I don’t mind risking myself to help you,” she said, “but I am not sure I could convince my family to take the risk.”
I told her I had to leave this area because it was too close to the re-education camp. I knew they’d still be searching for me. My only plan was to get to Thuy in Saigon. Phi thought I should just get on a bus to Saigon, but I was afraid to do that. I had no identification papers, which everyone was required to carry at all times, and the bus would go through many checkpoints. I then remembered that Thuy had an aunt whose family had moved to this area after the fall of Saigon. Her husband used to be the chief of the department of social services in another city. They moved here pretending to be farmers so that he could avoid being sent to the re-education camps. They now farmed rice, and Phi knew where they lived. We decided that I should go there until I could find a safe way to reach my wife in Saigon.
Phi took me to the farm, which was about an hour’s walk outside of Ho Nai. Thuy’s uncle Trac and her aunt Chi lived there with their three children. I asked them please to let me stay, because I had nowhere else to go. I told them that if I were captured, I would be executed.
Aunt Chi looked stricken, but Uncle Trac seemed calm. “You can stay here,” he said. “But understand that we are all in a dangerous situation. You must be ready, at any time, to get away from this house whenever someone comes. I will show you where to hide then.”
They lived in a very small bamboo house, with a palm frond roof. Inside there was only enough room his would allow me to get away through the back door.
Uncle Trac led me to the back of the house, through the rice field and a stand of elephant grass, and then down into a wooded valley. He told me to run and hide here immediately if I saw someone coming toward the house and to wait for him.
This is a two-party story. Read Escape! Part 1