[I wrote this essay for my high school’s literary magazine this past spring, and it tells the story of my family’s escape from Vietnam on a tiny fishing boat. The essay was so long that I decided to divide it into two parts; the second part of this essay will be published next week.]
Anti-Asian American sentiment has been on the rise in the United States since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. A poll from the Pew Research Center conducted last year concluded that eight-in-ten Asian-Americans believed that violence and discrimination against them had increased. This violence is hard to imagine considering how hard-working Asian-Americans and other immigrant groups are and the struggles they faced to come to this country in order to provide a better life for themselves and their families. So, for the first-ever issue of UV magazine, I wish to tell my own family’s story of sacrifice and struggle, escaping their native Vietnam on a small fishing boat, with hopes and dreams of a better life. I have heard this story retold countless times by my grandparents, yet it remains powerful and inspirational: an incredible tale of determination, fate, and luck.
My grandparents got married in 1973 and resided in Saigon, the capital city of South Vietnam. The brutal civil war between the Communist North and Anti-Communist South had been raging for two decades and the U.S. had largely withdrawn from the country. The Northern-led Viet Cong forces began occupying large areas of the southern countryside along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The conflict would end with communist forces seizing Saigon and overthrowing the Southern government. My grandmother would remember that chaotic day, April 30th, 1975, for the rest of her life…“For the next twenty-four hours, the whole city stood still. Everything shut down, and the people hid in their homes. When you looked out your window, you could see planes dropping bombs in the distance, and those who ventured out were shot on the spot. Military uniforms, canteens, and other gear from the Southern army littered the streets, like the leaves of a forest floor. Everyone had discarded any evidence that could link them with the fallen government, and thousands of people attempted to flee the city on large naval ships. I recalled looking around at my family, everyone’s faces were pale with fear. The city seemed deserted save for the Viet Cong army tanks roving throughout the streets to collect the bodies of those who had been trampled or shot.”
As soon as the war came to a close, the new communist government quickly began reshaping daily life in Vietnam. First, all citizens were forced to clean the destroyed city, removing the trash and bodies from the streets and rubble from destroyed buildings. The government encouraged citizens to spy on their neighbors and look for signs of disloyalty. People were shocked to find out that their friends, neighbors, and maids were undercover Viet Cong. Everyone feared that their actions might somehow be deemed unloyal, and they would be reported by their neighbors, friends, or even family. My grandparents and other young adults were required to attend communist speeches meant to indoctrinate the younger generations with communist ideals. People abandoned their religious beliefs, as the party insisted that no evidence existed for God or Buddha. Propaganda banners began springing up everywhere, hung on buildings and walking paths, with the big red words: “It takes 10 years to plant a tree, but 100 to plant a citizen.” The only people who could prove their entire family had been loyal to the communist party were allowed to attend university. My dad’s school textbooks even contained anti-American sentiment, with questions such as, “If you shot two Americans and then later shot two more, how many Americans have you killed?”
New government policies also affected the Vietnamese economy. Ties to the outside world were cut as international business was banned and foreign aid organizations expelled. The sanctions placed on the country created food shortages which forced many people to return to subsistence farming. My grandfather focused on mechanical and engineering work; while my grandmother made ends meet by working at an elementary school and selling Chè, a dessert pudding, at local markets. The two did any extra work they could find, such as fixing and reselling broken household appliances or harvesting coffee beans in the countryside. My grandmother sold her wedding ring to buy milk for Dad.
Almost immediately after the war’s end, my grandparents discussed the possibility of escaping Vietnam. It must have been a difficult decision to make. At first, my grandfather believed that Vietnam could hopefully rebuild itself and wanted the family to stay and be a part of that process. However, my grandmother disagreed; not only did she doubt that life would return to normal, but she also did not believe the word of the communist leaders. She felt stifled by all the new laws and missed the freedom she enjoyed before the war. She also had quite the bone to pick with the communist party, who executed both her father and her grandmother for being Catholic landowners, and the regime imprisoned two of her brothers for fighting for the South. Ultimately, the family decided to immigrate and the next decade of my grandparents’ lives would be centered around planning the escape. The first attempt occurred in 1978; my grandparents had worked very hard to save enough money to secure seats on a boat leaving for sea. Under the cover of night, my family walked for several hours in the mosquito-infested jungle with their guide only to have the whole operation discovered by the authorities. The family had no choice but to walk back. The journey caused my dad to develop welts over his body from insect bites, and he had to be taken to a clinic for treatment. The family had lost almost all their money, so it would take years before they could afford another escape. The second attempt came in 1982, this time my grandparents decided to tag along on a family boat. However, that night, local pirates seized the boat and once again left the family broke and without an escape.
After two nearly fatal experiences with their small children, my grandparents grew sick of relying on others and thought it would be best to try to escape on their own boat. First, my grandfather befriended some local fishermen around Saigon in order to learn more about how fishing boats worked. After another year of saving, they purchased a fishing boat. However, my grandparents needed to make it not seem suspicious, by pretending that they would use it to trade fruits and other goods in villages along rivers. It took some time for my grandparents to learn how to use the boat, nearly crashing it in the harbor one time. At the flea market, they purchased a copy of Dutton’s Nautical Navigation and a Vietnamese-English Dictionary. Between nine at night to three in the morning, the couple familiarized themselves with and committed to memory the movements of the constellations.
My grandfather also brushed up on his local geography, mapping out the locations of different rivers and various landmarks so they could find their way to the ocean. Eventually, he knew exactly which latitude and longitude they had to be at precisely which time, and how to find the way if Thai pirates chased them. The planned route would follow various rivers around the Mekong Delta and then once out on the South China Sea, they would travel five hours south before veering west for another seven hours. If they didn’t encounter any problems, it would take them exactly four days and three nights to reach Indonesia and from there the family could successfully immigrate to the United States. My grandparents heard the best times in the year to escape were in March and April, because the waters were calmer and the kids were out of school for summer vacation. The day before the planned escape, my grandmother told her sister that the time had come. The sister then held her breath and made the sign of the cross. By the time this was all done, nearly a decade had passed since the end of the war.