I was two years old when my family left Vietnam. I don’t remember anything about leaving my native country. This story is based on my siblings’ recollections.
My dad was a colonel for the South Vietnamese Army and fought against the North Vietnamese military in the Vietnam War for over 20 years. He last served his country as an interrogator. My sister has memories of him bringing North Vietnamese soldiers onto the army base where we lived and him questioning them for top secret information.
My family moved often, as military families are known to do. But our reason for relocating was not for training. No, it was for our safety. The birthplace and order of my siblings and me correlates with the progression of the war. As the North Vietnamese military claimed Vietnam city by city, our family migrated from Central Vietnam to South Vietnam. Picture the country as an “S” shape. My older siblings were born furthest north in Hue which is in the middle of the “S”. As the tenth child I was born furthest south in Quy Nhon. We continued to move as the war progressed and our last move was to Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City.
Two days prior to the fall of Saigon (the last day of the war), my dad had to accept that he would have to leave the country that he loved. Vietnamese was the only language he spoke fluently. Vietnam was his home, where he was born and raised and where his family and friends lived. It was where he was respected in his community and his work. It was all he knew and all he wanted to know. But he did not have a choice. He went to the American Embassy in Saigon and made arrangements to fly my family to the US. (Americans fought in the war as allies with the South Vietnamese.) But we would wait until the war was officially over before we left so my dad could serve his country to the very end.
April 30th, 1975, my dad came home and told my mom that it was official. We had lost the war. He then took off his uniform and asked my mom to cook him one last good meal. He knew that there was no future for him and his family in Vietnam. If he were to stay, he most likely would have been tortured and killed because he had fought so long on the losing side. And that would leave my mom as a widow with 9 children to raise. (One of my siblings died as an infant with chicken pox.)
Flying out of the country by plane was no longer an option because the airway was bombed, nor was flying out by helicopter, which were reserved to evacuate Americans. The only other way out was by boat. But we did not make arrangements to leave by a boat because we had thought we would be able to fly out, plus, the boats were private and quite costly.
My dad thought there was no way out, but my mom, who is typically passive, was not willing to give up. So she and my dad drove to the coast to see what was going on and found total chaos. Finally, my parents ran into some people they knew who were willing to allow my whole family onto their boat.
My parents returned to Saigon to pick up my siblings and me and took us to the boat. We were to leave everything behind and not look back. But my oldest sister refused. She packed some family pictures and hid them under her shirt. She knew if my dad discovered them, he would make her throw them away. Those are the only family pictures we have now of us in Vietnam except for a few that my aunt preserved.
To get us through the crowd and onto the boat, my dad had to shoot his gun in the air numerous times. We pushed our way through, and I was thrown onto the boat as many children were. My sister remembers hearing big splashes but could not see where they came from. She thought they were from the children who were thrown onto the boat and then dropped into the sea.
The boat was packed beyond its capacity. My dad held the captain of the boat at gun point to make sure the captain was not a spy who would take us to the enemy. Each of us was given a small amount of rice and water per day. People began to become delirious due to lack of food and water. My sister was so thirsty that she tried to drink a bottle of perfume. Others wanted to jump off the boat to drink the ocean water. My brother worked in the kitchen just so he could have the burnt part of the rice at the bottom of the pot to give to my family. I can only imagine all the emotions–defeat, fear, anger, sadness, anxiety, confusion, hopefulness, helplessness–all contained in each person on the boat. They surely were wondering where they were going, what they had left, who they had left behind, what their future would be, and whether they would even live through the day.
After three days of sailing, the boat landed safely in the Philippians. Shortly thereafter, we refugees were flown to Guam. Once we had completed the necessary paperwork and received the necessary shots in Guam, we were on our way to America.
This is my family’s story. There are many stories out there because all Americans are immigrants or products of immigrants except for the Native Americans. I do not want to forget this story so I write it for myself, my children, my future grandchildren and the people I love.