"We Would Leave and We Would Forget"
Was life any better in Hanoi after the war ended in 1975? Yes and no. As far as material life went, it got even worse after 1975. But then it was better if you are talking about spiritual, psychological or inner life. Then that was better. Emotionally it was better without the war. We had a more relaxed mental state after 1975 I would say, and that was good.
But prior to 1975 the Northern government received foreign aid from the European bloc of friendly nations and from China and from Russia. Before the end of the war, those countries gave us aid so we could regain control of the South and reunify the country. They had a reason then to give us assistance. But then with the victory in 1975, they started to take away aid, and so we did not have anything to go on with. Another factor is that after so many years of war the rice fields were destroyed and the roads were destroyed and the pipes, everything was destroyed totally or partially destroyed. How would you expect us to recover right after the war after so many years of war and bombing and destruction?
So life was harder for people starting in 1975, 1976, 1977. Even up to now there has been suffering and hardship and famine in the North. In some cases it was even worse. I am talking now about the material life in the North. But they no longer had the Big Fear. There was no longer that general and constant state of fear in people's minds from American airplanes dropping bombs on us. That was the best part about the end of the war. That was the biggest change.
I had that idea of coming to the US since I was only 12 years old. Yes, even during the war years, I was curious and wanted to come to the US and so did many of my friends. Let me explain it to you. I had no means to achieve that goal at an early age. My friends and I, during the war, we had talked about trying to come to America -- even at the time we were fighting America in the South. And we thought we would even like very much to leave the North and go to the South. There was the war and we had to face bombings and shellings in the North and just trying to keep yourself safe. And at that time we were young and had no plans and no directions, and we didn't know how to get from the North to the South and we didn't know how we would be treated once we got to the South.
Finally, we didn't know if we would be condemned if we finally got to the South. We didn't want to go to jail in the South just for going there from the North. But of course during the war it was just not possible to do that.
I was conscripted into the army to fight against the Chinese or the Cambodians. I deserted after 7 months in the military and I returned to Hanoi. My mother then said that the best thing for me was to now learn how to navigate a boat. So I took a course on navigating a boat in the river waterways of the North.
When I was taking that course, friends asked me if I was planning to escape, and I started thinking about that and then I told them yes. Later, a bunch of us bought a boat. And so then I left with my brother and sister. After we were stopped and checked at Haiphong port, I drove the boat on the riverways out to the sea, and there the other persons joined us. Then the other person who would navigate at sea joined us.
There were fifty people at that time in that boat.
So we took a boat from Hanoi to Hong Kong. Our mentality when we were ready to leave was that we would leave and we would forget and we would not ever come back to Hanoi.
By leaving we made the statement that we rejected the kind of society that we had and we would rather leave and make a life for ourselves elsewhere. And leaving the country we also accepted the fact that we might live or we might die. And if we lived through it, then we would not ever return to Hanoi because that would mean imprisonment or a very bleak existence.
If we escaped from the country they would never forget nor forgive us. We thought that taking a trip at sea was not as dangerous as it turned out to be, and so we were really positive in our thinking. We were thinking that we would be making it okay and that we would survive. And we would then be able to build a better future for ourselves and for our children in a free country.
Many people in the North feel like me, and want to do the things that I did. During the war years we were all subjected to the same conditions, so life went on. If we went against the stream at that time, then I would be dead for sure. So we had to wait until the war was over.
Let me use an analogy. In the North, my friends and I used to talk about our lives, and we compared ourselves to leaves in a river. Life was a river, and we were but leaves floating in that river. We had no control over our lives at that time. Or over our fates. Like the leaves propelled by the stream, we moved along, and like the leaves who had no way to choose where they would stop because of the moving water. And they could be stuck in clear water or they could be stuck in murky water when they moved along in the stream. But they had no control. No control and no choice but to live the sort of life that was dished out to them.
And so we thought of our fate and our lives in that way. But there was always part of me that wanted to break away from that kind of life. I wanted to be able to be myself and to be able to do things I had dreamed about and that is why I wanted to escape from the North. And when I had the opportunity I seized it.
I am just a regular normal person and that is all I ever want to be. The long war was planned and carried out by the government. We normal citizens in the North had nothing to do with that. We were like regular people, we worked every day and we had to attend to our basic needs and we had to try to live a normal life and we didn't know what went on at the other end.
Sometimes, I think, maybe I should return to Vietnam. No, no, that is just a joke! Just a joke we sometimes use.
Seriously speaking, I have often pondered the issue at night and I have always come to the answer to the question in the same way: leaving the country was the right decision for me. I always say to myself, at the end, I have made the right move and I have made the right decision. I have nothing to regret, really.
The day that I left Vietnam, I left with the clear cut mentality that I just wanted to leave as fast as I could never look back. Then when our boat got into international waters with the strong waves beating on it, we started to feel uneasy and there was a tremendous urge to turn around and go back. It was only 7 or 8 hours after we left. We already missed the country and we missed our homes and we realized what we had done and we started to cry. We all cried. All of us looked back at Vietnam and we just cried.
I left with just a set of clothing with me and I knew that life would not be easy and there would be difficulties and obstacles, and we would have to exchange blood and tears for a living. But we wanted to go ahead and go. And yet when we were in safe waters, we just wanted to go home, and we cried and cried.
Now never a day or a night goes by that I don't think about Vietnam. In my memories I see my family members, I see my relatives, I see my neighbors, I see my parents, I remember everything, even a corner of the neighborhood, the trees. Everything. Vietnam is totally with me, within my mind. I am enveloped by Vietnam all the time. But you must understand, I lived for 25 years in Vietnam, that is where I grew up, that is where I had all the bittersweet memories of childhood, teenage years and early adult years. I lived there for a quarter of a century, and I soaked up a lot of memories there and I can not just throw them away. They are always with me.
I think that even though the older leaders will one day die off in Vietnam, the younger men will come to power and they will see the way of the older generation, and they will copy them. I see no happy future for Vietnam until perhaps after the year 2000. The people are not being enlightened there. Some students go to the East European block countries and go to school, but when they go home they can do nothing because the country is poor and there are few educated people and they are not allowed to see what is really going on in the world. In this way you cannot expect to have an improvement in the standard of living or in the life style of the people. In order for the country to progress, then the leaders of the government should make a change in the way that they do things. They should act according to the peoples needs and wishes. If people want to work only eight hours a day, they should then get to work 8 hours a day and if they do not want corruption then there should not be corruption. The leaders of the country should walk along with the people, and try to understand them more if they are going to improve the country. They should try to understand the people and to work with them. But right now they are not doing that. The leaders force on the people what they want done. And the people do what is demanded of them. But they are poor and they suffer. The leaders in the country need to change their way of ruling, of running the country in order for the country to revive and to move forward. The people work hard now and the harder they work the worse off they are.