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.
The pirates laid the old man on the ground and proceeded to work on the teeth with a hammer. When that method proved ineffective, they began prying at his mouth with a screwdriver. Finally they found a large pair of pliers and wrenched the teeth out.
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.
During my two-month stay at Uncle Trac’s, I worked in the rice fields, just like a farmer. It was very pretty in the spring and summer, a dry rice farm of bright green nestled on the plains. I tried to help with the work, but I wasn’t a very good farmer.
About a week after I arrived, Trac’s daughter went to Saigon to try to contact Thuy. She located Thuy’s best friend, Binh Minh, who, like Thuy, was part of a support group made up of the wives of men who were in prison. The Communists jailed fewer women than men, mostly those who had been in the South Vietnamese military. There were support groups like this all over the country, and the women would help each other keep track of their husbands as they were moved from one prison to another.
Binh Minh informed Trac’s daughter that Thuy had been arrested when she came back to see me a second time at the re-education camp, not knowing that I had been locked up because of her note.
This news hit me like a hammer to the head. The cadre who was interrogating and beating me in the prison camp had told me Thuy had been arrested, but I had hoped he was lying. They had caught her because they thought she was trying to help me escape. Now she was being held by the police in Long Giao, 110 kilometers northeast of Saigon where, I imagined, she was being harshly interrogated. My first impulse was to go on a suicide mission to rescue her. But how would I get identification papers, and how would I get a weapon?
I did not know what to do, but my mind and heart ached to do something. I thought about going to Saigon to contact old friends, especially the old soldiers still at large; then perhaps there could be some way of rescuing Thuy. I dared not discuss that idea with Uncle Trac and Aunt Chi, for fear they would stop me. I only told them I would like to go to Saigon just for one day to see what it was like.
Uncle Trac quietly looked at me for a moment. He seemed suspicious of my intentions and showed understanding in his look. He spoke gently, “I suggest that you come to the church and pray. May God tell you the right course of action.”
Early the next morning, I went with Uncle Trac’s family to the church. It was a long way across many rice fields. The rising sun illuminated the fields in a pink mist, and the distant peal of the church bell made me a little less nervous as we walked.
The church was small and crowded. It was in a small Catholic village and everybody knew each other, saying hello, and shaking hands. I was a stranger there, but instead of making me feel safely anonymous, it only made me more afraid of being recognized. This was the first time I had appeared in a crowd in public. I felt as if someone were watching me from behind and that the police were ready to pounce on me and take me at gunpoint to hell.
I went straight down to the very end of the last pew and sat with my back to the wall. This fear of being watched from behind was to haunt me for all the time I was part of the underground in Vietnam. Wherever I was, I always tried to get beside a wall to cut off at least one angle of attack. Many years after, even now, this strange haunted feeling of being watched is still with me and has become a part of my character.
At the Mass, where I first experienced that feeling, I felt a contradictory mix of sweetness and pain, for there was a wonderful sensation of freedom in being able to say Mass after two years in prison. My ears heard the prayers, but my mind was with Thuy, who was in jail and probably being mistreated. I stayed on my knees praying for her, asking God for a clear mind to make the right decision. I knelt with my head down, my eyes closed, and my face in my palms, submerged in my thinking until I realized that my palms were full of tears.
After the Mass, I went right home without waiting for Uncle Trac’s family. I got a hoe and walked straight into the rice field and started working furiously. I understood now that I should not make any decision yet regarding Thuy’s predicament.
Binh Minh came out to the farm from Saigon a few days later. The only thing I could do was ask her to go to Long Giao and try to contact Thuy, bring her some food, and tell her where I was. She did make the effort, but she was unable to see Thuy. Binh Minh was such a true friend. She’d been a journalist too, as had Thuy, and throughout our ordeal, she helped with organization and as a go-between. She later died of hunger and thirst on the sea when she tried to escape Vietnam in 1978.
I was living from day to day, just waiting. I was confused, frightened, depressed, and I had no plan. Binh Minh visited me many times and she didn’t know what to do, either. I had to wait for a miracle.
One day in July, I was on the roof of the hut, repairing a hole in the palm fronds, when I saw a woman across the rice fields. It was Thuy! My heart suddenly felt like a sharp needle was jabbing though it. A sensation of hot and cold ran up and down my spine, but at the same time, I felt strangely numbed, emotionally and physically. I feared that she was an illusion.
Thuy hurried along the trail, wearing a peasant hat and the brown outfit worn by women farmers. I jumped from the roof of the hut and lost my footing, falling down onto the ground. I ignored the hurt and ran to Thuy. When I approached her, I saw that she was very thin and pale. My heart lit up, I started to pant, and I felt a deep mixture of painful affection and joy.
Thuy felt the same way, standing quietly and staring at me. We looked at each other’s eyes, each other’s face, and on down to each other’s feet, not saying a single word, not even hello. When I opened my arms to reach for Thuy’s shoulders, I saw Binh Minh behind her, holding my two-year old daughter, hurrying toward us and motioning for us to get inside the house.
Thuy stayed overnight. We stayed up talking and never went to sleep. I told her all about my escape from the re-education camp and asked what had happened to her. “I got caught that afternoon when I came back to see you again,” she said. “They set up a trap with about 20 soldiers along the trail to your camp. I’d felt something was wrong, but it was too late to go back.”
Her eyes filled with rage and her lips started trembling. “After searching me and confiscating everything I had, they drove me the 20 kilometers to the police station, because I was a civilian. I asked them to send a note to a friend asking her to pick up little An from the babysitter and take care of her, but they said that with parents like us, An would be better off in an orphanage. They also told me that you and I would never see each other again.”
Thuy was jailed for two months in the Xuan Loc police station, 90 kilometers northeast of Saigon. Every day she had either to be interrogated about the plan to help me escape or she had to do hard labor in the fields. They accused her of working for the CIA against the Revolution in attempting to liberate the prisoners in the camp. Thuy kept denying all the accusations. Her story was that she was so lonely, so desperate, that she attempted a suicide mission in order for us to be together. After two months of interrogation, they told her that she would be transferred to a long-term jail by the following week.
A few days later they called her in again and informed her I had escaped. “At first, I did not believe them,” she told me. “I thought that you had been executed. Then they said they would release me if I signed papers confirming that I would turn you in whenever I saw you. I signed all the probation papers, and I’ll have to check in with the police and divulge my activities every week. It was my only hope to be free and see little An again.
“I took buses to Saigon. I thought they would try and follow me in order to find you, so I changed buses along the way. Instead of going straight home and reporting to the local police as required for the intense probation I was on, I went to Binh Minh’s workplace, an embroidery shop. She was so shocked to see me. ‘Oh God, did you escape?’ she asked. I learned from her that you were safe, and I asked her to help me see you and An. She had me wait in a coffee shop while she picked up An from another friend. Since then, wherever she goes, she too has to make sure that no one is following her.”
Thuy asked me not to tell An that I was her father. She said this was necessary because the police always went after the children to find out information about their parents. An had been two months old when I was sent to prison, now she was two and a half years old. She called me uncle. It was very hard sometimes, not being able to act like her father. I had to lie to her. But it was safer that way.
We decided that I should go to Saigon and hide out until arrangements could be made for us to leave the country by boat. Thuy went back to Saigon the next day to make contact with a Catholic priest that she knew. He had connections with a secret organization that produced fake identification papers. In Vietnam, everyone has to carry a small ID card, and the police can demand to see it any time. Without ID, I could not return to Saigon. It took a few weeks, but Thuy finally succeeded. She had to pay about 300 Vietnamese piasters – equal to a year’s salary for the average government worker – to get me a voter’s identification card and a permit for moving between towns. This permit was required even to go 15 miles to a neighboring city. By strict agreement between the organization and the priest, Thuy never knew anything about the organization. During my two years hiding out in Saigon, she had to go to the priest many times, because the government changed the ID forms regularly.
My new name was Le Van Bao. I adopted a disguise by wearing fake glasses with powerless lenses and by changing my hairstyle. I didn’t want anyone to recognize me in Saigon, but this would be difficult, since I had appeared on television as a reporter, and a lot of people knew my face.
My farewell to Trac and Chi was very sad. Aunt Chi gave me ten ears of boiled corn, stuffed in a plastic bag. She was moved to tears when she told me to be careful living in Saigon. Uncle Trac tried to be calm. I knew he was a strong man and did not want to show his emotions. When I tried to find the words to show them my gratitude, Uncle Trac cut me off. “Do not thank us,” he said. “Just remember that no human can avoid God’s will, no matter how strong and skilled he is. Keep praying and listen to God.”
I tried to swallow my emotion, lowered my head to show respect for them, and got stuck in my words. They had let me stay with them, regardless of the danger to themselves. They offered their farm as a sanctuary if I needed a place to hide out again. Even though I had papers now, they knew I’d have to deal with a lot of trouble in Saigon.
City of Red Flags and Black Pajamas
Entering my hometown of Saigon for the first time after my escape from prison, I felt very afraid of being arrested on sight, regardless of my ID papers. Besides this fear, I felt a painful bitterness in seeing that my beloved Saigon had changed so much. It had become a city with more red flags and propaganda banners than businesses.
From Ho Nai, Binh Minh took me on a small Honda motorcycle through downtown Saigon straight to a hiding place in Cholon, Saigon’s Chinatown. I lived in a tiny room in the attic of a very small wooden house. The room was narrow, dark, and very hot, with only enough space for a reed mat laid on the floor. The one tiny window was kept closed most of the time. I dared to open it only late at night for some fresh air, after turning off the light. For months I did not see the sunlight. My meals were brought up to me by the lady owner of the house, who was a friend of Thuy’s mother.
I stayed in a series of such hideaways as Thuy and I attempted to escape Vietnam. It was a terrible time. I was afraid to go out, even though I had papers.
Thuy lived in the same house where she and I lived as husband and wife before I was jailed in the re-education camp. Being on probation, she had to check in with the police every week and turn in her daily activities log for inspection.
I had to change hideaways often because the police conducted irregular house-to-house searches. Everywhere in the country, they did this. For no particular reason, they would search a certain neighborhood this week and another neighborhood the next week, so I had to keep moving. But there was one time, in the evening, when they suddenly searched the area in which I was hiding. I had to get away and was unable to contact Thuy’s friends for another place. I had to wander the streets with nowhere to go. Late at night I went into a churchyard and ducked under the stairs to wait out the night. I stayed on the flooded floor, wet, frightened, and desperately waiting for the day.
In the morning I stayed through all the Masses then went to a movie to get some sleep in the darkness before going to the next scheduled hiding place for the night.
Since the police were keeping a close watch on Thuy, she asked Binh Minh or Tuong Vi to arrange new places for me. Tuong Vi was another friend in Thuy’s support group. She had been a journalist, too, and later on, after Binh Minh died on the sea, she became the one who did most of the hard work leading to our survival.
I saw Thuy often, but always through Binh Minh or Tuong Vi. Every time we wanted to see each other, we had to inform them, and they arranged it. Thuy couldn’t come to my place, and I couldn’t go to her house, so sometimes we met at a movie, in the darkness of the theater, sometimes at the river. One time I was almost caught in a small coffee shop beside the Saigon River. It was the first time I was confronted by the police and had my ID checked. I had rendezvoused with several friends to discuss an escape by boat from Vietnam. Thuy had ten thin gold leaves with her to give to the organizer, through Tuong Vi. The meeting included Binh Minh, Vi, Bao Hoang, and Duyen of our support group.
The police suddenly broke into the café, blocked all the exits, and began checking everyone’s IDs and searching their bodies. To be caught with gold or U.S. dollars was a grave crime under Communist law. Our table was on the balcony above the river, so Thuy quickly pushed the bag of gold leaves through a hole in the wooden floor. They fell into the water below. I was frightened but had nowhere to run, so I withstood the search. They kept us, along with other customers, locked in the café for an hour while they gave us a lecture on “revolutionary morals” before letting us go. At the time, the Communists were pressing a campaign for “erasing imperialist and American culture” by confiscating and burning all books and musical cassettes published under the former government of South Vietnam. The Communists did not allow couples, even spouses, to display loving acts in public, even hand-holding or sitting too close together. They called these acts violations of tradition and revolutionary morals. I was lucky that day to be not with just one woman, but many. That’s why they let us go and kept other couples.
Late that day we came back to the café and waded into the shallow water beneath the balcony and searched for hours before we found Thuy’s bag of gold.
After about a year with the different false ID cards, I felt more confidence. At first, I had thought that the Communists were very organized, following me, following Thuy, and they could find out a lot of information about us. But after a year, I reevaluated their system. The police were very inefficient and relied almost entirely on informants, and many of the officers were corrupt and just wanted to make money. So Thuy and I started meeting more often, and then we moved in together.
This was in the house of my elder brother. Our parents had died when we were very young. My brother was a judge in the former regime and as a result was now in jail. We lived with my sister-in-law and her four children. One of the children, Duong Hoa, later escaped Vietnam with us. His mother asked me to take him out of the country before he got drafted into the Communist army so he would have a better future. It was common for families in Vietnam to arrange for their young sons to escape by boat. Often there wasn’t enough money for the whole family to buy passage, and besides, the wife usually had to wait behind for her jailed husband to be released.
As far as the police knew, Thuy was still living at her house, but she and I and An were actually living together just like a family. That’s why we had a second daughter with us when we escaped Vietnam.
All this time, we were attempting to get on a boat to flee our country. We made many trips from Saigon to Vang Tau and other cities at the mouth of the Mekong Delta, and although we were prepared to escape on twenty different occasions, we actually got onto a boat only two times. We said goodbye to our relatives and friends so many times and had so many farewell dinners, it almost became embarrassing. Finally, we stopped saying goodbye and just left.
Before each trip, we had to pay about ten gold leaves to the organizers, and after each trip fell apart, it took a long time to reorganize another one. Since the fall of Saigon in April of 1975, we had no income at all. Thuy could not find any job because of her background as a reporter for the Voice of Freedom, a U.S. funded radio station. She had to sell all of her jewelry and our possessions before she started getting support from her parents, who had left Vietnam just after the fall and who now lived in Texas. Like many refugees, they were sending money to someone in France, who would have the money converted into gold. In Saigon, a person whom Thuy didn’t know would bring her gold leaves that weighed about one and a half ounces. Each of these leaves was worth about $400.
This gold was already in Vietnam. The people who were wealthy before 1975, especially the businessmen, always kept their wealth in the form of diamonds or gold leaves hidden somewhere at home. After the fall, they became desperate to transfer their wealth overseas. They knew that the secret organizations that arranged the escape boats would only accept gold in payment for passage, so these rich Vietnamese businessmen set up a system to sell their gold to the boat people. The wealthy people had relatives in France or other countries who were the go-betweens. Thuy’s parents, as well as the relatives of other Vietnamese wishing to buy passage on the boats, would give American dollars to the relatives of these businessmen. Those relatives would then send a coded message by telegram to the owners of the gold in Vietnam, authorizing the payment in gold to Thuy or other people. Of course, the payment in gold was always at a somewhat lower value than the dollars received. This way of transferring wealth between people and between countries was based totally on trust and it seldom failed, since it worked to everyone’s mutual benefit.
We lost a lot of money on our first few escape attempts, but not later, because I wouldn’t allow it. Unlike the other boat people, I had to leave the country or I’d be shot as an escaped prisoner. I fired a gun once to scare a person into believing I was serious about getting our gold back. I had no choice. It was the first and last time I fired a gun during our ordeal. It had been lent to me by an old soldier friend who had escaped the re-education camps. I didn’t want to use guns to threaten people, but if I lost gold, I had no way to leave the country. The man gave me back my gold the next day.
The escape attempts were all the same. We had to trust whoever we were dealing with because we had no choice. There was a meeting two or three days ahead of time at one of the organizers’ houses in Saigon, where we would receive instructions on taking the bus to Vung Tu, finding the safe house we were assigned to, and waiting there until dark. All the boat people were divided into family groups and were transported through the delta by small boats to the larger boat offshore.
A guide would take us through the river channels. During the risky trip through the delta, the strict rule was to lie as low as possible on the floor of the small boat, as the boat did not have any cabin or cover. Lying flat, we watched the black sky lighted only by the stars. The night chosen for the departure was always the darkest night of the month, without moonlight.
Although we could not see anything, we understood that we were in an extremely dangerous situation. Silence was the greatest requirement on the boat. Small children were usually given light tranquilizers so they would sleep through the night. The overloaded boat usually swayed on the river. When it ran fast, waves of water poured inside. We often choked on the water, trembling in the cold and wet.
The engine was sometimes suddenly turned off, and a frightening silence took over. The boat handler would paddle the boat into the dense brush along the shore or under thick trees. Without seeing what was happening, we all understood that there must be Communist patrol boats somewhere in the area and the escape boat had to wait until the way was cleared. It took several hours to make our way out to the big boat offshore. We climbed aboard the big boat only twice, because the Communist patrol boats were good at catching the small boats in the delta. When that happened, a signal would alert all of the other small boats, and we would have to turn back. Many people stopped trying to leave after four or five aborted trips. After our tenth failure, we too thought of giving up, but I knew that only bullets awaited me if I didn’t leave.
I was the one who had to throw him over the side.
In February of 1979, we made it all the way out to a big boat. Thuy, our daughter An, my nephew, and I climbed aboard, but 35 people crammed onto a fishing boat makes it seem anything but big. It was fourteen meters long and two meters wide and was so crowded we couldn’t move. We were caught up in a storm almost immediately, and two days after we set out, the engine broke down. The person who was supposed to be a mechanic turned out to know almost nothing about engines. He had lied about being a mechanic because he had no money to buy a seat on the boat and mechanics could ride for free. We drifted aimlessly for 15 days.
Thuy was six months pregnant at the time. The storm had broken the boat’s water container, so we had no fresh water. The dried food we brought along was useless. We assumed that we would all die. Thuy just lay there and couldn’t move. I felt that I was the strongest man on the boat, so I had to do something. I rigged up a pot with a pipe in it and boiled seawater. The steam condensed in the pipe, and enough water dripped out for everyone to have about a pint a day. But it only worked for a couple of days because we ran out of things to burn to keep the fire going. Our clothing had provided fuel for the fire, and that was all soon gone.
We saw 22 ships of various nationalities, and we signaled them, but none stopped to help us. We felt hopeless. In that situation, you only help your own family. I had my pregnant wife, my four-year-old daughter and my nephew to worry about. On the fifteenth day, a 25-year old man died of thirst. He was the brother of someone I knew, and he sat next to me on the boat. So, I was the one who had to throw him over the side. Most of the other people were too close to death to even notice. The two crewmen and I said a prayer for him, then I dropped him over. After that, everyone just wanted to die.
That same afternoon, we were arrested by the Vietnamese Coast Guard. We had been pushed by the wind and current back toward Vietnam. When we saw them coming, Thuy, An, and my nephew were lying on the cabin, exhausted by thirst, hunger, and the ocean. I crawled to them, held them all in my arms, and said, “We are going to land. There will be water and food. You must not worry about being arrested.” Logically, I should have realized that I was being brought back to a firing squad, but at that moment, I had no thought of the danger of being recaptured. I only felt relieved that my wife and my daughter and I weren’t going to die on the sea.
Some of the Coast Guard crewmen laughed at us. They told us we were lucky to be captured and that they had caught a lot of people like us. They towed us back to the coast to a fishing village called Vinh Chau, in Bac Lieu province. The men were forced to pull the boat ashore at a Buddhist temple. I’ve wondered how we could be strong enough after our ordeal to help unload all the exhausted women and children, but we had no choice. The soldiers had guns, and they forced us.
They searched us and confiscated our valuables, gold and diamonds, and our papers. They took everything, including my wedding ring. We had to fill out some forms with our names and addresses (Thuy used her real name, but I used my fake one), and by the time we were finished, it was dark. They’d given us some water so that we would be strong enough to walk to the police station, where we would be held for what we thought would be a long time.
It was so dark you could hardly see the person walking beside you. We walked on narrow paths between the rice fields, and those unable to walk rode on a wagon pulled by a cow. I quietly slipped up onto the wagon and kept myself flat on the floor to talk to Thuy.
“You must run away before we arrive at the jail,” she whispered. “They’ll find out you are an escaped prisoner, and then they will kill you.”
“I can’t leave you,” I pleaded. Before I could protest further, she gripped my hand firmly and forced me to go, saying, “If you stay, they will kill you, and then we will all die. You’re our only hope for living.”
I felt guilty, leaving behind my pregnant wife and my daughter and my nephew. They needed my help. I didn’t want to leave, but she convinced me. She gave me her wedding ring, which she had hidden from the soldiers, to use as money if I needed it.
When the wagon stopped in front of the house the police used, the guard got down to open the gate. At that time, I touched Thuy’s hand goodbye, slipped off the wagon and ducked behind a bush. I knew this was risky and there were guards behind me, but I gambled that they wouldn’t be able to see me in the dark. When everyone had been taken through the gate, I got up and started walking toward a light on the road to the village. I had no plan at all. I had never been in this area before and had no idea where to go. Plus, after 15 days on the sea, I felt very unbalanced on the land and exhausted from hunger. I could barely walk, much less run. I made it to a market, which was empty, and I couldn’t stand up anymore, so I lay down and fell into a fitful sleep.
Suddenly I was jerked to my feet by someone pulling on my arms. It was the policeman in charge of the market area, and he recognized right away that I was an escaped boat person. I don’t know how long I was asleep, but it was still dark. The policeman knew I was supposed to be at the police station, and I thought it was all over now, but I was lucky. He wanted money. I was also lucky to have the ring Thuy had given me. I gave it to him. Then he showed me the way to the bus station. I realized that he wanted to get me out of town before I got caught again, because I might tell on him. He had to help me escape now. He walked with me to the bus station, and he even gave me ten piasters for bus fare. He wanted me to leave his town as soon as possible. “If you are arrested, you must not say that you saw me,” he commanded. “Understand? That’s for your own good.”
I was very scared waiting for the bus. I had no shoes, and I was wearing one of Thuy’s blouses because we had burned my shirt on the boat. My skin was charred from the sun, my hair was a mess, I was unshaven. I tried to hide myself by sitting in the back of the station, but people still stared at me.
The bus went to Can Tho, a city close to Saigon, where I had some friends. The wife of a reporter friend who was then in prison helped me with money and clothes. I took a bath, went to a barber shop, and then made my way to my brother’s house in Saigon.
Thuy, An, and my nephew were held by the police for two months. Thuy was eight months pregnant at the time, and she did not admit anything about her background or her probation. The local police couldn’t check on her because the communications system was very bad after 1975, and Vinh Chau was 500 kilometers from Saigon. She wasn’t about to help them by confessing to who she was and who she was married to. The jail became overcrowded with more and more prisoners who had tried to leave Vietnam, so they let the women and children go.
We waited for four months after Thuy gave birth to our second daughter, and then on October 19, 1979, we joined 77 other people on a tiny boat off Ving Tau. Though we eventually succeeded in escaping Vietnam, I sometimes wonder if, had we known what awaited us on the water, we would have still undertaken the journey.
We were headed southwest toward Malaysia, but the engine quit after two days at sea, and we drifted for eight days. Sixteen merchant ships passed us by in that period without stopping to help us. On the tenth day, we were attacked by the first of three pirate boats. They were fishermen from Thailand, and we knew right away from their guns and their faces that they didn’t intend to help us either. They jumped down into our boat and beat the man who was in charge, then took everyone’s jewelry and money. Watches, rings, everything. Gold leaves were hard to carry and conceal, so many boat people had them made into rings. Thuy had one gold leaf and many rings, which the pirates stole. I lost my wristwatch.
The second group of pirates showed up that same afternoon. They became angry when they saw that there was nothing left to rob from us. They tried to kill us all by ramming their much larger boat into ours, but they only succeeded in destroying the cabin before a third pirate boat came and stopped them. The two pirate crews conferred with each other and then tied a rope to our boat and towed it to tiny Ko Kra Island, off the coast of Thailand in the Gulf of Siam.
For 21 days, hundreds of pirates took turns landing on the island to torture the men and rape the women. In all, the boat people eventually numbered 157 persons, after three more boats were towed in by the pirates. It was a living nightmare, something I could not have believed if I hadn’t experienced myself.
It was late at night when we got to the island. On the way, we had talked about our plight, and we realized that the women were the main targets. We numbered 50 men, 20 women, and 11 children. The women became very frightened. We knew we had to do something to protect them, but we were very confused and didn’t want to do anything that would make the pirates angry.
We planned to find a way to hide the women when we got to wherever they were taking us. The children would be taken care of by the men. We tried to assure the women not to worry about the children. I told Thuy, “This time it’s your turn to run away. You must find a safe place to hide. I’ll protect you at any price. Don’t worry about the kids, I’ll take care of them. Just worry about yourself.”
The pirates pulled us up onto a beach orfcoral rubble and moved us into a large cave, where they searched everyone thoroughly for valuables. Then they left, after giving us water and fish that they had cooked on their boat. I had no idea what was going on. We were just alive and on land, that’s all I knew.
The next morning, about 40 pirates came in a group, and they laughed and joked about us, but nobody understood what they were saying. They drank a kind of wine and smoked opium in pipes. That first day, they didn’t rape anybody. But that night they came back with guns. They shot into the air several times and were very belligerent. As soon as we saw them coming, Thuy jumped into a hole in a rock, and I sat on top to help hide her. She was one of only three women to escape the whole ordeal.
The pirates separated all the men from the women, husbands from wives, brothers from sisters, and then each pirate took the woman he wanted. They went off into the rocks, some very close by, and we could hear the women screaming and crying. Some of the girls were only twelve years old. The men could do nothing. It was at once both sad and terrifying.
The three other groups of boat people who arrived in the coming days met similar fates. There were twenty-one people in the second group, sixteen men, four women and one child. This group had been attacked by pirates ten times already. One young man had been thrown overboard and drowned while the pirates searched the ship. The four women were raped as soon as they landed on the island. The third group of boat people consisted of twenty-four men, eight women and five children. The fourth and last group originally numbered thirty-four people, but only eighteen survived to reach the island; fourteen men, three women and one child.
The pirates moved us all to the other side of the island on the third day, where there was jungle and grass. I guess they wanted a more comfortable place to enjoy the women. It was very pretty and peaceful, which only made the episode that much more horrible. As soon as we got there, almost all of the women tried to find a place to hide. I helped Thuy and two other women find a place in the brush, but when the pirates set fire to the bushes, trying to flush the women out, the four of us fled to the highest part of the island. The women pressed themselves into the rocks at a place where they could look down at whoever was approaching. At night they were drenched by rain and dew and held on to each other, shivering to try to keep warm. They hid in the most dangerous possible place, so that the pirates would never believe that women could make it up there. If the women had been found there, they decided there were two means of averting further shame: if only one pirate came, they planned to combine their strength and try to push him off the cliff; if more than one came, the women needed to take only one step and would tumble down the cliff onto the jagged rocks below. The second method was the more likely to be used, since the pirates rarely went hunting alone.
I cared for my two daughters, aged four months and four years, and for my nephew. I brought food and water up to Thuy and the two women as often as I could. There were many days that I could not bring then anything due to the intense scrutiny of the pirates. Thuy and the other two women had to endure thirst and hunger until I could sneak away and be sure I wasn’t followed. Meanwhile, the pirates rampaged in subhuman glee.
There was the girl, P., twelve years old, who hid in a crevice in the side of the wooded mountain. She was terrified of the rats, the snails, and the centipedes, and even of the ghosts she thought she saw. After fifteen days alone, she couldn’t contain herself any longer and left her hiding place, only to be raped on the spot by four pirates.
There was the woman, B., 22 years old, who smeared feces over her body in hopes of preserving her virginity. She stank so badly she herself vomited, but the pirates still took and raped her, beating her cruelly because of the smell.
There was T., 19, who had been on a boat with 34 people who were thrown into the sea by the pirates. Sixteen of them drowned. T swam for hours before she reached the island. Just as she climbed onto shore, nearly collapsing from exhaustion, she found the pirates waiting. They rushed up to her and raped her, despite pleas that brought tears to the eyes of those around her.
The men were mostly helpless before the pirates’ wrath. Tran Minh Duc was beaten and hanged nearly till death when he refused to take the pirates to where the women were hiding. Pretending to be ignorant of the women’s whereabouts, he had led the pirates around in circles in the jungle so that they found no one.
One gang was called the “red-boat-pirates” because of the crimson color of their boat. There were 28 of them, the cruelest, most viscous, and largest of the pirates being twice as big as the average Vietnamese man. They brought terror everywhere they appeared, raping by day, ready to kill anyone they didn’t like the looks of, and taking anything they could find. They weren’t simply interested in valuables. They took anything, including clothing and ordinary articles. Anything they couldn’t take with them they destroyed.
One man, L., had three gold teeth broken out of his mouth by this gang. He was forced to open his mouth and show his teeth even as he wept and explained how the teeth were bad and the gold was only an outer layer and that consequently the teeth were of no real value. The pirates would not listen but laid him on the ground and proceeded to work on the teeth with a hammer. When that method proved ineffective, they began prying at his mouth with a screwdriver. Finally they found a large pair of pliers and wrenched the teeth out. L. held his mouth and screamed as blood spilled for an entire day. The pirates picked up the bloody gold teeth, dropped them in their bag and, screeching with laughter, took L.’s 15-year-old daughter and raped her.
We felt so completely alone and utterly separated from the world. As far as we knew, no one who could help us even knew the island existed. The pirates continued to give us fish and rice, just to keep us alive for their pleasures.
Unbeknownst to us, after almost three weeks of living hell, an oil company helicopter strayed over the island by accident and saw us. He contacted the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and officer Theodore Schweitzer flew out in a helicopter from Songkhla refugee camp in southern Thailand. When he dropped food and medicine, we knew we were saved. He came out the next day in a police boat, and the pirates were so brazen and unafraid of the police that they stood and watched as we were loaded onto the police boat. But there were too many of us, so Schweitzer had to hire one of the pirate boats to take us all to the refugee camp in Thailand.
We stayed ten months in the refugee camp in Thailand. Thuy and I wrote an open letter describing the piracy and sent it to newspapers all over the world. Theodore Schweitzer and some U.S. embassy employees in Bangkok also helped distribute the letter, which helped bring international action against the pirates. The women victims of our group, with the support and protection of Schweitzer, filed charges against the pirates in Thai courts. When we left Thailand in September 1980, the defendants had not yet been sentenced.
We first arrived in Dallas, Texas, and lived with Thuy’s parents for eight months, then we moved to San Diego in May of 1981. San Diego was where Tuong Vi lived. She had escaped Vietnam six months before we had. She was one of our best friends, and she had been willing to share life and death through our most perilous times. Tuong Vi is now the godmother of our third daughter, the first American in the family, born last August. Her name is Binh Minh.
Finally we are able to live in a free land, after so many challenges that seemed impossible to meet. There are still a lot of struggles in starting a new life, but the price of freedom is never too high. We’d believed in destiny, and we’d believed in our faithful love. And God had protected us.
About Duong Phuc
Much more than distance and time separates Duong Phuc’s home in peaceful San Diego from his former home in South Vietnam. The cultural separation is of glacial proportions, and 41-year-old Phuc, like many of his fellow refugees, has only survived rather than thrived after being severed from his roots. But to the Vietnamese boat people, survival is the ultimate triumph.
When Phuc and his family finally stepped onto American soil in September of 1980, they entered a new life of contradictory realities. “In this country, I got very strange feelings,” Phuc recalls. “I thought, finally, I’m here in the land I had almost died trying to get to, after many years of jail, hiding, dealing with the sea, and with the pirates. But I felt just like a stranger here. I had to adapt to life here because I was not allowed to live like a human being in my country. We had paid such a high price for our freedom. But we are free in a country that does not belong to us, and we continue to dream about someday returning home.”
Although Phuc and his fellow refugees still feel fundamentally connected to Vietnam, they have begun to create a hybrid culture in this country. Their children are more American than Vietnamese in attitude and outlook, regardless of how hard their parents try to instill in them the old ways. The adults tell and re-tell the story of their experiences in crossing the seas to freedom, and these stories have become the Flood myths of an ascendant culture.
The children of the refugees are once removed from these legends, but for Phuc and his wife Thuy, coming of age during the Vietnam War and living through the most harrowing escape from a land that was no longer theirs are still very much in the realm of painful reality. They had met as journalists covering the war in the battlefields. They lost friends and family to death and separation, and now they live with a kind of permanent gnawing. Although they have been able to provide reasonably well for themselves – Thuy works as a news assistant at the San Diego Union, and Phuc has held a series of social-service jobs – their real work has been directed toward helping to rescue some of the 10,000 boat people who continue to leave Vietnam every year.
Their years of effort in that endeavor are culminating this month in Phuc’s trip to Singapore, where he will meet up with the Cap Anamur II, a transport ship that has been plying the Gulf of Siam in search of boat people. A group of French physicians, Medecins Du Monde, and a West German humanitarian organization, Cap Anamur, began operating the ship in April of 1985. The San Diego-based Boat People S.O.S. Committee, which Phuc and Thuy became actively involved in shortly after their arrival in the U.S., has provided financial assistance for the rescue efforts. Hundreds of refugees have been rescued and resettled in the United States and Europe. But, Phuc asks, “Why should only the French and Germans do the job? We Vietnamese should be doing it ourselves. At least, we should be contributing more than money.”
Phuc will be the first Vietnamese boat person to return to the scene of his ordeal to try to help his countrymen. He was chosen for several reasons: his active role in Boat People S.O.S. Committee, which is providing financial support for the six-week trip; his experience, as a boat person, which may come into play when helping other boat people; and his skills as a journalist. A cameraman will also be on board, and together they will be producing written and taped reports on the rescue activities. “Thuy convinced me that this trip will be a real opportunity to help the boat people,” Phuc explains.”After what happened to us, I always wanted to go back to sea. I had been ignored and abandoned in desperate conditions at sea by 36 different ships. Now I want to be on the rescue ship. It is very meaningful to me and to all of us who survived.”
This is a two-party story. Read Escape! Part 1