The Memoir of Tran Thi My-Ngoc
Q. So your mother head of the house when you were growing up?
See, what happened was, my parents were divorced for a long time, when I was just a baby. My father was going to law school and then he was in the army. My mother was so dependent on my father, and it hard on him, so when I was born they divorced. So my mother was left with two small children. I was born in '58, May 8th.
Q. So you have an older brother or sister?
Sister. She was born three years before.
So my mom was broke, didn't have money. And at that time we were living in a like blue collar neighborhood. People were really warm. They took care of me. My father remarried soon after that and he took my sister with him. So I was with my mother until I was about six.
My mother was doing business--in Vietnam was a lottery and she was like one of the person's from the government that goes to the big people -- she was one of the leaders. She was working in the lower rank and then climbed up and got lottery tickets from the government and other people from different parts of South Vietnam would come and would get them from her. So she made money that way.
By the time I was six years old my father took me to live with him so I could get an education. My mom was so busy working.
Q. They both lived in Saigon.
Yeah. Not too far from each other, about two or three miles. So I grew up with my dad after I was five and every weekend would come back and visit my mom.
Our lives as the children and family, my dad then was working as a judge, but he first was working as a judge in the special judicial system where he tried the capitalists, those people who ordered things and who would disrupt -- his robe was red. It's a different type of judicial system. He got transferred to the other one. He was working with the military judicial system. So then we had money up until the day before Saigon fell.
Q. Nice house?
No. Well we rented a house in Saigon. And he was building a house back in the rural area.
Q. Did you have servants?
Yeah. It's a common thing. My dad's family had one or two. My mom's family always had three. To this day she still has. So I grew up, I didn't do anything. All I did was go to school and play and spend money. So I was so naive because my life was so protected. No one could get near me. The kind of friends that I had would belong to families of the same standing.
I went to a private school. I went to French school since I was small until the day Saigon fell. I even learned to read and write in French even before I learned how to read and write Vietnamese. I couldn't forget the day I was forced to learn Vietnamese. I got beat up so much by the teacher because I was so -- like the Vietnamese alphabet has extra accents on the letters and I couldn't get it through my head. So I got whacked so often as I learned fast. It's a school for the French people who worked in Vietnam, for officer's children, diplomats' children.
Q. Did you wear a uniform?
No. Oh, we were free. We didn't want to wear uniforms. But it was one of a kind. It was Marie Curie. You would pass it if you go to Saigon from Tan Son Nhut, Kong Li Street will run right by that. It has four sides.
Q. When did you start to be aware that things were not wonderful?
We knew it early, 1975, Tet New Year. Before Tet New Year, we had the custom that you bring gifts to people, your friends and so on and they give you back. So my father and my step mother took me with them to go visit the Minister of Finance -- or Economy--the department, and he was a good friend of my father. So we were visiting him that night to give him gifts for New Year and so they were talking a long time. I was kind of small and I didn't pay much attention, but then when we came home I heard my parents discussing that he said that my father had to leave Vietnam. He said about preparing to leave Vietnam soon because the Communists are all around Saigon now. They are coming in. The term is they are like "ants" encircling us now.
So then the guy resigned and left early. At that time my father had to go south to Can Tho to try people, like deserters from the army or military people, and Viet Cong, the VC that we caught, and those revolutionary people down south. So my mom said--it was like January or February of 1975, and so we knew about it, but my father didn't want to leave. My mother was afraid, and so was my stepmother. They were telling him not to go south because if something happened, because in the south there was unrest. The National Liberation Front are puppets of the north.
So they were worried if he went south what if something happened? He said, "Well I have to do my duty." So he was going there and by April the last trip he went down there and he had to fly back, I think, because it was going. It was happening. So there I was still going to school, didn't really worry because Saigon never fell before. 1968 they came in but we fought back.
Q. Did you start to be afraid yourself?
I was feeling strange, but it didn't scare me because I didn't know what a communist was. I knew that we fought, but I didn't know what they were like. At the time there were rumors like they would kill people, people who dressed up or people who had fingernails painted, if they caught those people, they would pull out the fingernails. So I was kind of scared but I didn't use nail polish anyway.
And beside I was feeling kind of secure. Rumors were flying and actually in Saigon by the end of March or so, we started seeing people coming in, my friends and relatives from Nha Trang, but I wasn't too scared. Things were going so fast for me and my parents didn't do anything so I didn't really know. But I heard rumors like that.
And then one time my dad came back before the last trip south and he said it was true, like the rumor they would pull the fingernails, because they had come to smaller villages and one of the teachers whose fingernails were painted did get her nails pulled. She got out but she was in the hospital.
The rumors were just terrifying they they would torture you because you worked for the government. And at that time my father's friends started to leave. They were leaving but then there was room for him-- a plan was going out of Vietnam and my dad couldn't leave because there was only the one place for him and they didn't have room for the family and his friends were leaving and said they could save this place for him, but my father couldn't leave.
And at that time the government said, if you leave and get caught you could be shot or be tried in a court marshal and my father was a court marshal judge.
Q. Did your father have a military rank?
He was a lieutenant colonel.
Q. In the army?
I don't know. Not the air force, so it must be the army. So my parents started talking about us leaving.
Q. So your parents were communicating at this time? Or do you mean your father and your stepmother?
Uh huh, and my mother too. Because they were divorced but they were close. We were apart but like we were together. If my dad had this kind of sofa, my mom would have a set like that. If my mom had a set of furniture like that, my dad would have. So we were quite close.
Q. So when your father worried about his family.
Also my mother's family. My mother has remarried also and her husband was a captain in the army.
My father, my stepmother and my mother talked. My stepfather was at that time was stationed in Saigon. But before that he was in Cambodia and went out on operations. But they talked about getting us out of Vietnam. So me and my brother next to me were chosen to go first.
What happened was, I had a cousin who got married to a Filipino and were ready to leave Vietnam and were waiting at Tan Son Nhut, and so we were packed up and deposited to go with them. We were waiting for three days. By that time emigration was taking place for the foreigners. The embassies were taking people out and so it must be like the second week of April. And we were taken and left there and we waited for three days for the plane to come, but for some reason Tan Son Nhut Airport was crazy at that time. People were leaving and this and that.
Q. Three days! Where did you wait?
At home, close to Tan Son Nhut.
Q. When was it you were waiting to go out of Tan Son Nhut?
It was like the second.
Q. But Tan Son Nhut was still pretty hectic, crowded?
I didn't go in, but we were waiting because the Filipino embassy was taking people out.
Q. And you were on their list?
No, my cousin and her husband and family and so they were going to take us with them.
So I waited for three days or so.
Q. What do you mean waited?
They didn't give out the time of day. So we knew that we were going but not exactly when, just that we would receive a call and we would pack up and go. Everything was packed and ready.
Q. What's it feel like to be in that position?
Perplexed and a bit scared.
Q. Did you cry at all?
No, I was very calm. It's my nature. Whenever I am in danger or anything is threatening me, I am very calm, but I break down afterward.
My parents just told us to go, so we went. I didn't really care if we didn't go.
Q. Were you and your sister talking about it at night?
No, everything was moving kind of fast. At that time Saigon wasn't falling and many people did not know that yet. They knew that something was coming but it wasn't like the last week of April with mass emigration from the people. So everything was going fast. It was strange. My family just told us to pack up. We didn't even take a lot. Just one suitcase or two--one for each of us. And we went up there and waited, just doing nothing. School was out by then.
Q. What do you mean, it was suspended?
I think school was closed.
Q. Did you have any money you were bringing with you or any gold?
No, we didn't. But my family said that they would pay my relatives, but they would not pay her, they would pay the mother who was behind in Na Trang. So they promised to take us and my family would pay them.
So we waited and nothing happened. So we got tired of waiting, so my family, my parents were worried about it and took us back. And while they were taking us back, that very night they received a call and they left. They couldn't get us, and they had to leave, so we were left behind.
Q. They couldn't get in touch with you?
No, because it was so fast. That's why we were waiting. If they got there in fifteen minutes --
Q. How far were you from Tan Son Nhut?
It was like one mile. But still -- also there was the factor that -- later on we found out she really wanted us to pay her, not to her mother, so she didn't let us know.
Q. She was related to you?
In a way. Distant. It's on my mother's side.
Q. But she never called?
The next thing happened, the neighbor had a daughter who was married to an American engineer and she left Vietnam years ago in 1972 or '73. They were living in Iran at that time, Teheran. So he flew back to Saigon, she was so worried about her family. We were living next door. She asked her husband to fly back to get here family out. And her family is about as big as my family. So my father got in touch with the neighbor and said, can you take these two kids?
It's so funny. They just let me and my brother go, and I had an older sister and younger brothers. I don't know why my brother and I were the ones to go.
So the guy came back. The Americans didn't want to let him out. They said he could go and get the paperwork ready. He told my parents if I take your children, later on somebody has to pay me, because how am I going to take care of them? My father said fine, Okay.
Q. What was his name, do you remember?
David, but I can't remember his last name. I think he's about your height. He was thirty-something. Nice, he was very nice.
Q. Did you feel you were leaving permanently or temporarily?
At that time, it was just like a game to me. I wasn't real afraid. I knew things were happening. I was raised so securely, I wouldn't think. I didn't even think about whether I would leave forever or temporarily. In a way I was like dazed.
We had a lot of money in the bank and we were trying to exchange Vietnamese money into dollars. My family just could get out only two thousand dollars and then it was stopped because the bank could not exchange dollars any more, the dollars were all gone. Because the higher up had done it a month or so before. They got all the reserve dollars. So we didn't get all our money out, so my mom had to buy dollars in the black market. We had to pay people then too.
Q. What do you mean? You mean just support, not bribes?
No, he wasn't asking for anything like that. He wanted to get out his family and us. So he was doing paperwork and everything and we were supposed to leave on the 27th of April, I remember that.
Q. So this was still like the 20th?
Yeah. And he said it was very difficult for him. They wouldn't let him walk around and he had to get out because the order was no Americans walking around the street anymore at that time. You should be ready by Tan Son Nhut to leave.
So he got all the paperwork done and he said I will come back to get you, we will be leaving. His family too. What happened was, he went back and they wouldn't let him out. And he called back and he cried. He said if I got out they would shoot me.
Q. Out at Tan Son Nhut?
Close to Tan Son Nhut. Not in Tan Son Nhut. He was somewhere very close to the airport. Because close to the airport was a field hospital and then there were American people living around that building. I know it was near to the airport.
He went back in after he got all the paperwork, the names, and he was supposed to come back and get the family and he walked in and couldn't go back out. It was closed the 24th or something like that. So he called back and said "I am stuck and can't leave. So what you have to do is wait and maybe I have a car come and pick you up. Get ready."
Finally we waited until the 27th, he couldn't get out and not car was coming and he had to get out of the country and back to Iran.
Q. It seemed there were so many Americans going around at that time. It's strange.
Now, closer to the end of April I think my dad was panicking. He was worried. I was feeling so sad the closer it got to the end. We didn't know that it would fall on the 30th of April, but I was feeling so sad, and everybody was running like crazy by the 27th. And we got more people coming--and it was so crazy, the whole thing. People were running around the streets. I don't know where they went, but you'd go out and people with bags and suitcases and what have you were running around all over the place.
Q. Do you remember the city being bombed or shelled at that time too? Do you remember hearing shooting?
Oh, yes. It was so close to Saigon. Never before had I heard anything.
Q. You could hear the guns, could you see flames?
I saw on the 29th two airplanes fighting.
Q. What were you doing before you saw them?
We were going out. The helicopters were flying around. One was trying to land -- that was the 29th, I think.
Q. On the 28th they bombed Tan Son Nhut. But on the 29th you saw two planes fighting over the city?
Yeah. In the afternoon. We didn't know if they were enemies or what. I don't know anything about planes, but actually they were shooting at each other.
So we were all packed. The 29th the phone rang from the morning until like one o'clock at night. You put it back and it rang. People were calling my family, telling him to get out. Asking my dad's opinion. People were saying he hadn't left yet so maybe it's not serious, so were waiting and seeking his opinion. So everyone was asking questions and the phone was ringing off the hook.
We were getting ready but we didn't know where to go. My father didn't want to leave before that, because his family was his duty. Later on he knew he had to leave and he couldn't leave because my grandmother was 87 years old and he was the only son and she didn't want him to leave. By the 29th it was very terrible.
Q. You said you were sad, but you don't say frightened.
No, maybe because I was with my family. I was feeling sad, like a premonition that something was coming. And I saw the neighbor whose husband was in Canada. He had left a few months ago to attend a training. She was so worried, she was running like crazy with her two children. Finally she packed up and left. I guess she knew of a ship that was leaving.
Q. Did you see American helicopters coming in to pick up people?
I think so. I saw helicopters but I didn't know which was what.
Q. Lots of noise in the sky over the city?
Yeah. Helicopters were flying.
There was another one trying to land close by where there was a big building of a religious group and the pilot was trying to land but he couldn't because of antennas and everything. He was just going back and forth. Finally he had to leave. But he was trying to land and people were trying to get to that. If they landed they wanted to get in.
Q. You didn't see that picture of the people going up to the roof to get on a helicopter?
No. The embassy's sort of downtown and we were up here and we were not going anywhere. My dad wouldn't let us go out, because soldiers were shooting outside. If you drove a car by they would shoot you. And my dad didn't want us to go anywhere. So we were confined to that area, watching people running.
The 29th we knew for sure that it was lost.
My father said two of our biggest enemies were Thieu and the communists. He said don't ever forget what they did to us. Thieu and the communists.
Q. Did he have any faith in Ky or anybody?
No, I don't think so. My father said, "That's it, we are lost. We have to leave. Everything is lost." At that time we were getting ready to leave. My dad was torn, because my grandmother, we couldn't take her. She wouldn't leave. And she was too old. Also we had jewelry and stuff like that but we didn't have actual dollars. We had only a little bit. The money was in a bag. And I think he was worried how he was going to raise us and where were we going anyway. So he was vacillating and didn't want to leave.
The electricity, the power was out, the 29th when it was getting dark so we used candles. My dad was taking out all the papers and documents for burning and flushing it away. He took out all the guns we had and dumped them in the garbage.
Finally at night, I think around eleven or so, we got a call from the guy who commanded the Navy ship. He had been calling and finally he said to my father, "Please make up your mind if you want to go, I'll send the jeeps to come to get your family and then your ex-wife's family too. And you bring whatever you want to bring with you." So my dad just kept thinking, thinking, and finally around almost midnight, he called one more time and say, "Why--my father's name is "Why"--I have to leave now. I can't wait any longer." So my father said "Go ahead and leave." So he made the decision to stay.
The next morning, they were coming in, in tanks. That's when they were coming into the presidential palace. They were in Saigon already.
Q. Did you see any go by on Kong Ly Street?
No, but in the morning my dad packed us up in the car and drove us to another place, because he was afraid we would get killed. People were hysterical. And they would act crazy. So in the morning, we were at Independence Hall and saw it. I saw tanks going into the grounds.
Q. Did they knock the fence down?
Yeah, there was an iron fence. I couldn't remember, my dad was driving so fast.
Q. What did you think when you saw the tanks and the soldiers walking around,
And flags with the yellow star. I said, "Oh boy, this is it." By that time fear was building up. We were afraid we were going to get killed. I was afraid more for my dad than for us. Everybody was afraid for my dad.
It was so deserted. A few days before it was so bustling, people were running around, and in the morning there were more tanks than you would see people.
Q. Were any of the communists in the city coming out to celebrate?
Was anybody you know suddenly saying they were a communist?
Yeah. There was one family in the unit, the thirty-six houses. They were so happy. And right away they wore a red arm band showing that they were. They came out. The 29th they weren't really out, but the 30th they were out. So that's why my father took us away fast.
My dad told my father to take us to this building close to where she lived, because they were her friends and would help us. My dad drove us, the street was so deserted. It was like after a war, things were strewn all over, and you could see soldiers uniforms, and things were burning. There was trash all over the place. So he was driving us there and he was going to stay there too.
Q. Were there cars abandoned too?
Oh, everywhere. There were only two or three cars moving around. No roadblocks. No roving groups of soldiers. They were busy going into the palace.
Q. Did you pass any groups of soldiers walking?
Yes, but they didn't care about us. We looked at them and they looked at us and we drove away real fast.
Q. When you first saw the North Vietnamese soldiers, did they look strange?
The first time in my life I thought they were so -- our soldiers were sort of slick, nicely dressed, uniforms that fit, and here these guys were baggy and looked about as lost as we were.
Q. They were like tourists, huh?
Yeah. They were looking like that.
Q. Let me tell you about the people who lived in the building we were going to.
They were the Fifth Column.
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. . . and we loved them so much. Two women and one man. Business associates of my mother. Ever since I was born. And we never knew.
So they said it's okay. My mom knew it. My father was worried about it, and my mom was worried about him too. So they said to my mother that my father could go there and stay, it would be a very safe place. Nobody would get into the house. Other abandoned houses, they would get in, the Fifth Column or looters or whatever. They said their place would be very safe. Nobody would dare to get in.
Q. What was their name?
I can't say. They are still there in Vietnam.
Q. Do they have a first name?
Actually three of them, but only one of them was the connection. Her name was Phuong. Actually her first name is two words.
What she did was, when she did business it was a way to support those people buying guns or food or whatever.
She was in the lottery thing too. My mom was a distributor and so they got a business.
So they said it would be a very safe place, nobody would come in and harm us. So who knew then. So my dad said, "Good." And took us over there. And he delivered us inside. And he saw people that he never saw before and they were different. They wore the civilian clothes, but they just looked different. And right away he made a u-turn and got out quick. He said, "You kids stay here, you would be safe, but I have to go right away." And we didn't know why he was beating such a hasty retreat. I said, "What's wrong with Dad? How come he wouldn't stay? This is a safe place." And he said, "Just be quiet. Stay here. Act normally but don't talk too much and you'll be safe." He didn't say to us where he went.
Q. You each had a suitcase?
Just a bag, a little bag that contained necessary things, like medication, toothbrush, toothpaste, and some money I think. So seven of us, and he left us there and didn't say where he went. And we were all of us there no father, no mother, these weird people. In the whole place people were acting strange.
They looked so calm and so happy. And here we were scared to death and they kept smiling at us. So people asked us questions but my dad said not to talk too much, so we were kind of -- I was only sixteen and my smaller brother, and they were asking us, "Well, the country is now liberated, how do you feel? Do you like it? What did you hear the government say about the Viet Cong?" And being so naive I said, "Oh do you know that if they caught people with nail polish on they would do this and that and torture people? And that people who were rich who worked for the previous government would be caught and tortured. We heard that." And they were just laughing at us.
So they didn't say anything, just asking us questions about what we heard and felt, and I was telling them what I heard. So they were just smiling and they said, "Well, you are in here and you are safe. Nothing has happened to you, what do you think?" And at that point I got suspicious that maybe I talked too much. So I said, "Oh, well fine, I think those were lies the government was telling us." I knew something was going on when they were smiling and asking us the questions. And after those questionings they didn't advocate for the VC, they just say that "Now you see the truth. They don't hurt people." So I just kept my mouth shut. We left in three or four days.
Q. You say there were seven of you, who?
My brothers, half brothers and sisters and your real sister, but not my mother and step mother.
Q. Where was your mother and your stepmother?
My stepmother was staying back in the home. I didn't know where my father went, and my real mother and her family were staying in that area. She lives in--still lives there--in like a blue collar neighborhood and she is a very good person. She treats people very nicely. To this day she's safe there. Even if she had money, usually they denounce you if you had money, but you know what my mom did? She had a safe, and had money in the safe, so she took out fifty thousand Vietnamese and gave it to the chauffeur, the soldier who was a chauffeur, and so she just gave money to the soldiers who served our family so they could go. And she said, "That's it. I just gave the money away." It was so funny. Finally when everything was done we didn't have any money left. Not any cash left. All we had was the jewels. It's funny now, but then it was terrible.
Q. Was that because she was afraid?
Because -- I don't know-- maybe she thought she had too much money. Also because she wanted to help the other soldiers who served us well and they needed the money.
Q. Where was her husband?
He was at home.
Q. Out of his uniform?
Yeah. And quiet. He was stationed near Tan Son Nhut. He went back after a long time to report. He didn't desert. He was just staying home.
Q. How was it staying at these people's home, all seven of you?
We just ate there, slept there. It was very strange. After the questioning part I think I knew what was going on already. I knew they weren't us.
Q. But you weren't afraid either?
I wasn't really afraid. I was just feeling worried, very strange feeling. There was nothing else you could do. You are just biding time. I didn't know what was going to happen to us, how long we should stay in this place and when would our parents come to get us home. We were in the building--it was like three or four stories. We were just up and down. We didn't get outside. We looked out the windows.
Q. What did you see when you looked out? Was life getting back to normal?
No. It was the 30th. And after it was quiet, deserted. People didn't venture out. No businesses were open, nothing.
I think my mom took us home. We went to my mom's house which was only like three or four blocks away. Later on my dad went to Cholon to get -- on my dad's side we are half Chinese, so we have relatives in Cholon, so he went into in there. We weren't told that he was there. So we were asking where he was and they wouldn't tell us because they were afraid if the communists got hold of us we would blab. So he stayed in there into May when it was a bit settled and the government said for people to report, that people who worked for the previous government to report to the re-education camps, and because of his rank it would be three weeks, or three months. I think it was three months. Because people of lesser ranking went from one to three weeks.
So we didn't know about him, so we went back to my mom. So I think I was taken with my mom to Cholon and I remember him saying to my mother, "Are you crazy, you were telling me to go right into the den of the tiger." And she said, "I didn't know." The guy's house where we were hiding, he was in the Liberation Front with a rank about as high as my dad.
My dad said, "Why did you tell me to go there! Didn't you know that was, you know, like the snake pit? I just came in the door and knew right away that's who they were so that's why I left the children there and retreated right away." I don't know how he knew.
Q. Well you sensed it too.
Yeah, but after they talked to me. At first I didn't know. It was a safe place for us. That home, we went there all the time, so it was no big deal to me, except we saw more people, strange people. And they didn't have the green uniform on so who would know.
So my dad stayed in Cholon a few days until he was called. They broadcasted that people should report to go to re-education center. I think he debated whether or not he should show up but he said finally he might as well because he couldn't go into hiding forever. And it was only three months. So he went.
By that time, back in early May, we went back to our original house. By that time that Viet Cong family was already organizing, becoming the leader of the unit of thirty-six houses, so we had to follow the rules.
Q. What were the rules?
Actually they didn't have any clear thing. They were checking on us, more or less. We couldn't buy anything. We didn't even go to the market. I don't know what we ate. We must have eaten the reserve, the dry foods. We were the only one in that area that had anything to do with the military.
There was one family with a lieutenant in that whole thing.
So my dad reported to the place where people were supposed to report. It was right by the zoo. Lines of people and they all had sack of clothing. They didn't know what they would need, so they just bring some clothing, etc. So they were standing waiting. There was long lines and the communists set up tables to take people. So we were waiting, I my stepmother, my older sister, were there with him and waited. And it was his turn to come in and it was like -- okay, this is the palace and it goes this way down the street, it's a big street. By the other end -- to this side there is the zoo, the biggest zoo.
((Studying a map of Saigon)) This is the capitol.
Anyway, there were long lines. So my dad came up. I think he was asked to return the watch and things like that. So he was checking in and we didn't know where they took the people who reported. We didn't know until one month later. I was doing nothing during that time.
What happened was, they made us exercise and do calisthenics and things like that. And we had to go to block meetings. They started in May.
Q. What's a block meeting?
Everybody in that block, every house, one person has to come out to the meeting. We had a courtyard, like this here, where we park cars. Well, everybody take a chair and go there and sit and listen to propaganda or whatever.
Q. Who were the people giving the propaganda, the speeches?
By that time they have the special people, special police force with yellow uniform. They are block police. So sometimes would go in and talk.
So I wasn't doing anything. I couldn't go anywhere anyway because things were pretty chaotic then. Looters, and -- the communists were still not getting a good hold on people then. People were going around doing things and they wouldn't know. They couldn't control people right away. Things were pretty hectic for them too.
They started moving in to abandoned houses and stationing there first the soldiers and later on, people not soldiers were moving, like bureaucrats and workers. And then they started transporting people from North Vietnam into South Vietnam. Those people would occupy empty houses, depending on their power and their rank, who would get the best houses. The next house to us was abandoned by a pilot and his wife, so later on a couple came in and they were engineers. I don't know. They said they were engineers from the North. So we beat up their kids. Ha. Ha. Ha.
I mean, we were mean. We beat up their kids. And we were mean.
Q. How old were their kids?
Only like five or six years old. And I was like sixteen, seventeen. And going by would whop them and then would go away and they would call their mother. We did not like each other. I just hated them. I hate every single one of them. So I took it out on the little children. It was bad of me. They are different from us. People in the south come in different sizes, different shapes, different faces, but they looked the same, same kind of clothes, either white top, short, three quarter sleeve, with black pants. The women were like that and the men wear baggy clothes, like back in the 1950s. Like people coming back from the dead. Like they were all machine made, robots, come out the same, even their faces looked the same to me.
But we laid low because they were watching us, the family--the Fifth Column--were watching us. They didn't say they hated us, because we were getting along fine until the day Saigon fell. Suddenly they turn around and said things to us. They changed over night. The attitude before was so nice, cordial and courteous, and now they were just cold and don't say things directly to us, but on the side and you know they were talking about you, you were bad, you were linked to the government, a bad element of society. They changed overnight.
My stepmother, I think she went to the market later on to buy food, and the meats, hidden under stacks of greens, because if you eat meat it means you have money. And you are going to be dead. You are afraid they would do something to you.
I was living like that, not doing anything, and not going anywhere, because I was kind of afraid, not only of the communists, but also criminals. They released the criminals from the jails and they were roaming the streets, doing things.
Q. Why? Did thy just consider everybody in jail to be a political prisoner?
I have no idea. They called it liberation, so they liberated. It was a chaotic time. The guards abandoned the jails, so those people could get out. It was just massive chaos the first few months. So I didn't go anywhere, I stayed home and didn't do anything. Didn't watch tv, there was no tv. They broadcast a little bit but I think they didn't have the technology so it was very short. The programs were short.
So we got the note saying where my father was and then we could visit him. It was in Long Phanh which is half way to Cape St. Jacque. That camp was for political prisoners, people who were white collars, not for just soldiers. So we could visit and people go visit and bring food.
So we went up there and were waiting for him to come out. You have to show the guard the letter allowing you to visit this person in this camp. My dad walked out of the camp. I couldn't recognize him. He changed in one month. His hair was just white. He had black hair before. Now the whole head was white. He looked so gaunt and so tired and withdrawn and everything like that. My mom and my stepmom were there to. They brought him some beer too. They wouldn't beer in bottles, so she put it in a thermos.
We were sitting down talking. I was crying, I saw my dad looking like that, a foreigner. His skin was so dark. I was crying and crying, couldn't say a word. The visit was like one hour only and I didn't say a word, I was just crying. He gave us the two set of silk pajamas he took with him and they were all rags. Dirty and raggedy and he said take this and keep this to remember what I had to go through. He didn't say what happened to him in camp, but he said, "Take this to remember."
He ate a banana. And we brought salted kinds of food he could save for later use because we wouldn't know how long before we could visit him again. And also we brought food to eat right away like a picnic. As he ate a banana, he couldn't talk. We were sitting at tables like this. . . .
((Interruption for phone call.))
Q. You didn't mean just pants, you mean pajamas that you sleep in?
Because when we were packing we were thinking it was only for three months. And we didn't how they would treat them. So we didn't know what to bring. They didn't tell us. So he brought those things. They were just tattered.
Q. How did that happen?
Oh, he didn't tell. Because he was afraid too, I think.
We were sitting at a long table, and the guard was trying to hear. We sat at one end of a long table and he was standing down there and trying to hear what we said, so we couldn't say anything. When the guard look around, my dad gave us the bag and said, "Keep these."
He ate a banana and my mom poured something for him to drink and he took it. It was yellow and he thought it was tea. So he drank a gulp and said, "Oh, my god, this is beer. No, throw it away, do not let them know that you got this." He was so scared, right away he ate something to get rid of the smell. So my mother put it away real quick.
We never knew how it was in the prison, or how you should act. We didn't think he was a prisoner at that time. We just thought he was going to an education camp to be re-educated.
I don't know what they said, I was so busy crying. So the time was up and so we gave him the food. It was two big sacks like this. In Vietnam we have the handle, like the Vietnam women carry, the pull and the two ends. So we got that for him and so he was carrying it. Well, my dad never in his life had done anything like that. He was carrying it and it was heavy because it was food for him. We worried, we didn't know what he would have to eat. We prepared too much. So I watched him walking back carrying that back into camp. This is the houses here, and there was wire and the camp beyond. There was a gate and wire. And he was walking back, and that was the last time I saw my father in 1975.
Q. Was it a barbed wire fence?
No, it was wood. I think they took over the orphanage. To make a temporary camp. Because after that my dad was moved down to another place and then he was transported to the north. And he didn't come back south until 1980 or 82. We thought he was a goner when they transported him, because it was forced labor and very hard labor. By the time I left, 1978, December 25th, I only saw him that once. I didn't see him again, but I got news from home. Every so often, like once a year or twice a year, they got to visit him and they had to travel from South Vietnam to North Vietnam. It was a hard trip for them because they never were north before. And not only you went north, you didn't go into a city, you went into the jungle. So it was awful.
Writing my mom, what happened to my mom is an entirely different story. She is very diplomatic and she get along quite well with people. I don't know how much of this is really true, but I was told my mom, when she was young and living in Nha Trang, she worked as a ??Viet Minh??? . It was before, like in World War II, or something like that, and she worked for the Revolutionary Government. She didn't go into combat or anything, but she connecting people and she was making money for them. So she was married at that time to an interpreter for a the French government. And what happened was, one time, she was working but when she got married she didn't work any more for them. At that time the government was gone, so one day when she was married to that guy, she was telling the story that there were twenty or so of the Viet Minh people who got caught and who were going to get shot, but some of them were my mother's friends. She knew them when she was working. So she talked her husband into talking to some guy to let those people go. So they said okay -- she did something so that instead of getting killed they were freed but they had to go north. They couldn't stay, but they didn't get killed.
So they came back when Saigon was liberated. So here is my mom had people on the other side and this side.
Also when my mother was young, her family died, her parents and brother died early, so she was taken and the people didn't really raise her, but took care of her in a way. So one of the guys left to go north-- we call it it means leaving north to join Ho Chi Minh, and he came back. It was so weird.
Q. Write these terms down. (((This is at counter 508, side b)))
Like, I don't know the word, for "you are not real", puppet? It's not exactly that.
Anyway, so they call us those terms. My father is a nui gwim?? because he is white collar. He is not a soldier, he is a judge.
So she had people coming in and she was ever an enterprising soul. At that time it was good that you know somebody from the north. The Fifth Column wouldn't bother you because you've got backing up. You are not a traitor. But you can't help it, because we are related in certain way. North and South people, it's a country, and you have relatives up north and the northern people have relatives in the south. In the war brother is killing brother. It's not something new to them.
So she's got those people coming in and visiting her so she was okay. The Fifth Column people didn't bother her because she knew all these people. The guy who went north--my uncle--he came back as an engineer and he brought back with him friends. They were going south even before Saigon fell. They received orders to go south, they left early in 1975, a few months before Saigon fell, to go south. He came back and brought in people. And they didn't have any luxurious items like electric fans, or what have you, or Honda motorcycles. We just had so many things and they didn't have anything. So they wanted to buy this, they wanted to buy that, so my mom went, "Okay, I'll buy the thing for you." And she was buying and selling so she made some money, because she gave away.
Q. How did you and where did you decide you could get out?
It was summer, April then May, June, July, which is normally summertime, no school. So I was finishing tenth grade. I was supposed to go to the eleventh grade and by that time Marie Curie was closed, the French teachers went home. Come September I didn't have to beg to go to school because the school was still closed and the other school was so crowded and they wouldn't let me in. They kept turning me down, didn't give any reason why, just turned me down. So I persevered and finally the school was open again but under the run of the communists. Actually they let the Southern teachers of other Vietnamese schools come and teach at that school. It was open late, like in October. So I spent two years in school learning Marxist, Leninist theories --
Q. How was that?
We were wild. You wouldn't believe it. We were very rebellious, the students, so they had students from the North coming in. So we were mixing with them but we never mixed with them. We had two different kind of classes. Our class didn't have anybody from the North. They couldn't stand us. At first there were a few of them and we got too much for them and they asked to transfer to another classroom.
There were certain teachers and they had some northern teachers come in and I was wild. The school was occupied by soldiers before who were destroying things, but the main classrooms were still whole. I was just going two years of school. I worked so that I could graduate, get a high school diploma. Besides I didn't have anything else to do. If I didn't go to school I would have to do forced labor and I didn't want to do that. I was just wild in school, because I was going to a French school until then, so my idea of going to school was different. Now was the first time I learned everything in Vietnamese. In the French school, in the tenth grade I got to choose what to study, so I didn't choose to study physics and chemistry. Oh boy did I have a hard time.
There were two classes for us, the residue of the Marie Curie students. There were only forty or so of us. Then other students from other Vietnamese public schools came in. So my friends decided to go with the French. I split and took English. You would study same subjects but you would have a different home room and different home room teacher and you would study English. If you were in this one you'd speak French, in that one, English. So I was there only by myself, my friends went the other way. Well, two more of them went to English with me.
The teachers being southern teachers, it was okay. We didn't have any teachers from the North in my class. We were lucky. The teacher trying to teach Vietnam history, of how the North was good and great and etc. and she was so good at teaching it you would have thought that she came from the North. Nobody let out any emotions like where their hearts belonged, to the old government or the new government, because you can't. So I thought she was so far communist. We were learning about Ho Chi Minh, his history and how he left Vietnam and what he did, how great he was, etc.
One day she came into the classroom crying. We didn't find out why. She was very pro-communist. She was vocal. She said things--and she was crying. We found out that her . . .
(((End of side B, Tape 1.))) Begin Tape 2
. . . go to dig up canals, irrigation things. Every student some time or another had to do some labor. They were teaching us the value of labor. So there was nothing better than us doing the labor so we would appreciate the hard labor. So he drowned and she got very frustrated. So she something, she was crying, something to the effect that -- at that time she showed that she wasn't a pro-communist. But she had to in order to keep her teaching post.
Later on she escaped too.
Q. What did you think when she said she was only doing this because she had too?
We were feeling so sad. I was feeling so sorry for her. All the time I was thinking, Boy, how could this woman teach all this garbage and act as if it was something normal.
They made us work like sweeping the playground. I always tried to get out whatever I could. I didn't want to do anything. I hate people telling me what to do and I was in a position I couldn't do anything. What I did, I ran for class vice-president. It was like mock school. We were playing like we were learning, because who would want to learn these stupid things anyway.
Our classroom was wild. I don't know how I got by, but I did. Passed eleventh grade, went on to twelfth grade and graduated. First I had to take the final test, before I could graduate. But those two years of school was funny to me because I learned something about communism, how it operates and the way they thought. It was so alien to me before. Now I knew.
In 1977, I graduated from high school. I had to take the final test. Oh, boy, I was good. In history, there were questions having to do with Ho Chi Minh and the fight to regain South Vietnam. You had to write an essay. And I was writing an essay like I was growing up in the North, like I was brainwashed. I was faking it, but if I didn't, I would flunk. I didn't think I would pass. I was surprised when they told me that I passed.
After that you had to take an entrance test to go to college. So I applied and took an entrance test. At that time I thought I did great but I didn't get accepted. There was a thing called black list, my father was working for the government. Nothing was ever concrete because of that, but that was the rumor that was going on. It was told to us by other people from the north, the people that my mom knew, that such a thing existed. So I didn't pass the entrance test, couldn't go to college, couldn't find a job, there was no job for me. I was staying home and taking care of the family.
At that time, starting in '76, people started to escape--not by boat--you didn't hear about it so much before, it's only by '77 that it became widespread that people would leave Vietnam by boat. At that time I didn't want to go. I had my family and I didn't want to go, besides the fact that I was doing fine. We had money. We had food to eat and we comparing with the way other people were living we had high standards still.
The three maids--we had a cook, a maid to take care of my younger sister, like a nursemaid, and then a younger man, like a page boy that--I was mean, you should see me--I was a tomboy, I was different. My mom always said to me "You couldn't be a Vietnamese daughter-in-law. You have to marry a foreigner, because only foreigners could put up with your antics. The Vietnamese people would not." In high school the two years, I was like the leader of the pack making troubles, teasing teachers, and trying to screw things up. I don't know how I passed.
The youngest one, to run errands, her mother came and took her away, she was like fourteen, I think, and living with us she always had good clothes and good food to eat. And we grew to like her even though we beat her up all the time. It was like in the family, younger brothers and sisters, I beat them up all the time if they disobeyed me. I think that's why I paid for it later on.
So her mother took her away. And then the other maid, the one who was from Cambodia, who came back, she also left. Liberated, no more maids, no nothing. The older one, the nursemaid stayed with us for a while. He son was a Viet Cong and he came up to our house so often in the past and my mom would get him a job working in the Tan Son Nhut Airport and everything like that. My aunt had a night club in there for Air Force people. He was working in there. Lucky he didn't set any bomb in there. He could have, because at that time he was working for the Viet Cong. We didn't know.
I think the mother of this boy knew, but I don't why. Finally, he went back to the countryside and we found out later on that her family was linked to the Viet Cong. But she was nice to us. Otherwise she would go to the police.
Q. What was her son's name and her name?
I call her by rank, not by name. I called him, Bu Hai, which means nursemaid. B-u H-a-i. I met the son less than ten times. Maybe it’s H-o-a. I can't remember.
So she went back to a farm. Her son kept her land for her. For a while we didn't have any maid. So I had to do household chores. That's how I learned to cook and wash clothes. Later on we hired another maid. She was working for the East Indian people and they went home, so she came to work for us to cook, clean and everything.
So she left and this time my mom's friend introduced another person to our family to work. She is mute and deaf. To this day she is still working for us. So I started learning how to do sign language. But I was helping, we had only one maid at a time when I was home from '75 to '78. That's off the record. They called us like "capitalistic" which is bad.
Q. How can you have maids without anybody knowing it?
My mom lived in that neighborhood for more than thirty years and she was always helping people out, so it was okay. She knew how to get along with the block police.
Q. They called you "Capitalists"? What would be the word?
It's more like, if you own property and things. The class of capitalists. The communists have only two, the proletariat and that. If you belong to that you are doomed. You must be very careful.
So I was learning a lot. From a carefree and naive person, I grew up and became more responsible. I was not responsible before, but I became very good, housekeeper and everything like that. So after school in '77, couldn't get anywhere, do anything so I was home helping my mom with her business. She worked for --actually the communists run big farms--so they need food for the animals. They are good at fighting but don't know anything about business administration or anything like that. Through a friend she got into this business supplying food for the animals. She would buy things from people in the countryside, like grains.
So I was helping her with that, like running errands. One time, I was still naive, money was no problem to me, I always had more money than I ever needed, ever since I was small. My mom was feeling guilty, so we always got the best. Anyway, this guy was coming, business people, so my mom sold something to him and he was paying his money and my mom wasn't home and he was giving me money. At this time soon after the communists came in they changed the monetary system. They changed it two or three times.
It was terrible when they changed the money.
Because every family will have only that much money exchanged per person. A family together is like a few thousand. After the finishing of the exchange a family has only a hundred and some new dollars.
Q. But a lot of people must have transferred their money into jewelry and gold to avoid that.
But still money was circulating.
Q. What happened to real estate, the deed to your house?
The house that my father lived, we rented, so we didn't worry about that. But my mom's house, she bought it and nothing happened. With the communists like this, my mom does not own any other property, does not own any businesses, so her house wasn't being confiscated.
Q. So the house you lived in you could keep, but any house that you owned to rent to other people,
That would be taken.
Q. I wondered about real estate since they redistribute the money.
What if somebody owned a really big house they could keep it?
If they lived there. But if they owned a real good house they got kicked out. You don't need too much space. They put people in there, soldiers and other people from the north who came in. Eventually the people who lived there had to leave. That's one of the ways they would get housing.
Q. You were saying how your mother got into this business --
Uh huh, that's how she could support us, because my father was going away. My mother and stepmother never did get along too well. After a while I left the house where I lived with my father to go live in my mother's house. One reason was because I got done with school, they were after me, the youth group--at that time they had formed the Pioneer group and the youth group, and they were after me to make me do forced labor, to dig up canals, and irrigation ditches. I remember one time, I went because I couldn't duck it any more, it was my first time. Oh, my god, I didn't even know how you would grow rice, I never set foot in any of this mud. And they took us to the fields. They made us go by train. I never used the train before in my life. They were so disorganized. We were up there, a whole bunch of teenagers, we didn't know where to go, what to do, like a snake without a head, just running wild all over the place. I was pretending to be busy, running from one place to another.
So me and my brother were up there running around and didn't do anything. Of course, fine with me, I didn't have to dig anything. Finally some of the people from the housing, I talked to them and said, why don't we just leave. We're not doing anything, we don't see anybody here. None of them are here. Why don't we just take off. Finally in the afternoon it was so hot, we just took off. After that I just disappeared.
Q. How did you get home? Just catch a train?
Uh huh, we caught a train back.
Q. So nobody was even keeping track of you?
No. It was strange. I went back and didn't go home right away. The others weren't home and you couldn't go home when the others weren't. I was going to my mother's home. It was easy for me, every time they came over to enlist me, and they say "You have to go." I wasn't there. I just disappeared. A few times they caught up with my family and they said "She had better do something or else." So what happened was, my family had to pay somebody back in the area -- in the houses where my father lived is like middle class and in the other area it was like slum, and there were poor people. So finally we put word out we wanted somebody to go do the labor for me because I couldn't handle it. So every time they called me, my mother told my stepmother to hire somebody to do it for me--put my name down, but she went.
Q. Things have not changed that much. Only the paperwork seems to have changed.
If you have money, you live -- the poor were ecstatic when the end of Saigon came, they said, Oh, now we are equal. And the communists came in, controlled everything, no selling, no market, everything right away got it to the black market, rice, meat and everything, and the prices went sky high. And the poor died for it because they didn't have money to buy it. And that's why later on they became disillusioned. Before, oh, my god, they were talking back to you and everything like that. Everybody was crazy. They'd say, "Don't act this way to me any more, now we are equal. We will share in your wealth."
So people who had wealth and who couldn't hide would get into trouble, but my family we had always lived in that neighborhood. They knew we had money, but I guess they saw my mother giving money out, so it was okay. So the poor died first, hunger, the poor people got caught, because, like us, we could have money to buy rice and we could buy things in the black market. Finally they realized that the revolution wasn't for the poor at all.
Q. Who was it for?
I don't know. It was for the new breed of people, the Fifth Column, and the opportunists. And also for the high ranking communist officers, people like that.
Q. Did you hear people start to grumble?
At first it wasn't, but after a while I think by the end of 1975 you started to hear things, and people started talking. They had sayings, and it was the poor who started to say things first, because they got mad. They made slogans, to the effect that they are poorer than they were before and their lives were more miserable than before.
Of course, we didn't dare to say anything, because we were being watched and we couldn't start those things. It was the poor people. They didn't have anything to lose. Like the street people, if you go to Vietnam, they will talk to you, they don't care, they don't have anything.
Q. What about the Amerasians? When the communists came in did you start hearing rumors about them wanting to get rid of all the Amerasians?
Actually anything that was linked to the American people was bad, but I didn't come into anything. I can't remember. It wasn't in my environment.
Q. Were the communist officials that came south that you met very bright? You mentioned the block leaders.
Let me start with the block leaders. Those are the Fifth column. They are the working class, poor. They carry jealously and envy. But the people who came in who I came into contact with, even though they say they are engineers and doctors, somehow they are not like us over here, or even us back home. They had a certain air of deprived, if they didn't say that they are doctors and engineers, I would think they were just a laborer. They dressed the same and acted the same. The guy who came back, was an engineer, I wouldn't know. He was earing his uniform then too. I think there was nothing that stood out to let me know. My family never talked to them about anything intellectual, all they wanted material things and we got them the material things.
We always, the southerners, laughed at the northerners--"doctor, huh, give me a break." That was the attitude of the southerners, they despised the north. But some of them did go overseas. One guy went to East Germany to get trained, but their value system and educational system were, I think, different from the south. You couldn't really prove that they weren't educated, who knows?
Some people I knew were ordered to take over a noodle factory that was owned by Chinese women. The government took over and those people became engineers and were supposed to run the place. It was outside of Saigon. Most of the factories were outside of Saigon.
My older sister was a university student and then her boyfriend was also a university student, so my uncle from the north, that I called uncle, he got them jobs.
Q. So it was who you know, still.
It was exactly like before, money, people you know, if you push the right button. At that time, he said, now decide if you want to go to work. If you want to work you have to go now because the situation is still blurry and chaotic. It is the time to act now. The government is not in control yet.
They were telling us things. One of them, he came from a background of a capitalistic family and they got caught in Hanoi in 1954 and couldn't go south, so she grew up learning all these craps but she never believed any of it. You should here her talk. She was so funny, so very bright and enterprising, and she was telling what they did to her family. In 1954 people got executed because they owned land, or because they were rich. So they were telling us a lot of things how things would happen or could happen, so we knew how to live. They were preparing us how to live in a new society.
Q. It doesn't sound like you are disillusioned or disenchanted enough yet to leave.
I didn't like them because of what they did to my father, but the people from the north that I knew were nice people and so I didn't hate them and don't hate them. If I see anybody in a uniform though, I can't stand it. I was very much anti-government but I didn't dare to do anythin because I was scared.
Q. Did you see any executions? Were any advertised?
Just for the robbers. Not political. Only one when they came and took my cousin away--he was a congressman, and he --this happened in my father's house. He was a congressman, he represented a small town northeast of Saigon, and so he was supposed to report to the government and he did and they let him out because at that time they didn't know what to do with congressmen. So they let him out. He couldn't go back to his home town because he was afraid. It was worse in small villages and towns. But Saigon was so big and they couldn't have a hold of us then.
So he decided to stay, and for some reason they found out he was staying with us. He was staying there legally, but I don't know who said what, but one night we were all there except my older sister who went to live with her mother, and we were sleeping. Eleven o'clock at night. Saigon had a night life, people doing things, but since the communists came in it had a curfew and so it was quiet. We were getting ready to go to bed and suddenly bam bam, somebody banged on the door and said "Open up in the name of the people." We were scared. It's said the communists never do anything during daytime, only during the night, so when you hear somebody knocking at your door at night, you are scared. Because they take people only at night. They do everything at night. I don't know why, to hide from the people maybe.
We were scared and didn't know whom they wanted. So we opened the door and they stormed in. Positioned all over the place. Ten or more guys carrying machine guns and positioned from the living room to the kitchen. And said, "Everybody freeze." I was in the living room and I was walking out of the room because I thought it was not my business, and they said, "Freeze," and I froze. They took out a list of names and called my cousin's name, if he was living here. We said yes, and they said call him down.
They took out and read something "We are sentencing you and this is your crime. And now we have to take you in." He was reading the whole thing like that. I was so sorry for my cousin. He was pale. He was scared. They took him at night. If they shoot him we wouldn't know.
((Break for tea. Conversation about why interested in the Vietnamese war?))
Q. What ever happened to your cousin?
That was a sad story. He got jailed somewhere and we didn't know. He was in jail for a long time and didn't get released until -- he was just a wreck. I never got to see him again since that night. I heard that he got released about two years ago (c. 1983???)) He was deteriorated physically and now he is nobody so he can't do anything. When he was the congressman he was young, only twenty-seven to thirty, the youngest congressman in Vietnam, and so he was on his way up. His name was Trong. He got houses back in the countryside, and he lost everything. He's reduced to nobody. They broke him.
((((End of side A, Tape 2. Begin side B))
. . . the day he was released he said, nine years, how many months and how many days. He actually counted the day, every single day. He knew by heart. Oh god, I thought he was gone and I would never see him again, especially when he was taken away.
Many people died but he survived. The day he came back I was so happy. I was praying every night, I am becoming a very religious person since Saigon fell. And even now every night I pray. So by the end of July in last year I got a telegram saying my dad came home. This was incredible. Like a huge burden was lifted from me. Another thing that would make me happy to see my family over here. Actually, they don't have to be in the United States as long as they are out of Vietnam.
Q. When does leaving pass beyond the fantasy stage and into reality for you? You hear about it, but then you actually start meeting people who are planning to leave?
My mother has a lot of contacts, and many of the people were leaving. It was something at that time in '75, '76, everything was mostly in order. The communists had very good control. It was no longer chaotic. It was more routine. I was going to school and who would want to leave anyway. I was in not danger. I didn't have any family overseas. How would I go and how would I live? I have never worked in my life. It wasn't anything I was considering. But people started talking about leaving Vietnam so the fever got into me too. Okay, I'll leave Vietnam.
In '77, by May or so, after I failed the test and couldn't get in, I was thinking about leaving, but I couldn't do anything. They were after me for forced labor. So I started to say, Okay people I'm leaving, but I wasn't serious at all. My family was there and life wasn't hard for me. I had people there, so why should I leave?
The thing that happened that made me want to leave was that one day I was out -- where's a map and I'll show you.
Oh, before I even decided to escape, my mom was trying to get me out legally.
Q. How do you do that legally?
Fake marriages, fake children, everything. Changing documents, things like that.
Leaving by boat was risky and she wanted to let me go legally by trying to -- there were Filipinos who were left in Vietnam and they had children and wives and so my mom knew a lady, very old then, a Filipino woman who lived in Vietnam for a long time, so it was like a bonded family, not a real family. So she wanted to return to the Philippines. Before that, when I was in Saigon in the fall, I knew a family where the father was a diplomat and that lady knew that family also. She was trying to contact that family, to say that I was left behind and needed to go.
Sometime in '77 the Filipino government sent an envoy to Saigon, a consul and three more guys. So here I was mingling with those people. I was going with the family of that lady. I called her "Grandmama" because she was old. I was going with them doing paperwork, doing translation for them, etc.
Would you believe there were still restaurants and people were dressing up. I was dressing up in furs and dresses, which was before Saigon fell, if you wore those things, you would get into trouble. There was a change in the way people wore clothes. Before they would wear the Ao Dai all the time. And suddenly now they switched to a pair of black pants and a Vietnamese top, like for commoners or laborers. So I was still there with my dresses and was going all over the place, through the Caravelle Hotel, because they were staying there.
I was doing translations and going everywhere with that family. So finally they went to collect names and somehow my mom gave money to put my name on a list. It went back to the Philippines, and a few months, like six months or eight months later it came back finalized. The consul, I was telling him about my frustration and he was saying he would try like hell if he could. The next time he came back he said he couldn't do it because there wasn't any paperwork or anything. The guy was already married in the Philippines and I didn't know it.
So finally the family left Vietnam in late '77 or early '78. The whole community of Filipinos left. And I got stuck. At that time I didn't have any job. I didn't have any place to go to school and I couldn't do anything. And I couldn't get out legally. So I had to think aout getting out illegally. But still I was wavering. I didn't know for sure if I should leave. Until one day, my mother was telling me to go buy gold and I with my bicycle--gas was very hard to find-- so I rode from my home to the Center Market, which was about one mile.
The black market was everywhere. One day I was buying a piece of gold, what Vietnamese call Luong. They have good and bad and gold, and this person we had been buying it from them for so long we knew that the gold was highest grade. So I was buying it and gave her the money and she gave me the gold. I was ready to leave and that morning my told me to also get a basket and get a bunch of fresh sausages that were made especially for her. She ordered it. So I was with a basket this big, this deep, with four sausages, and also a piece of bone meat, and I was ready to leave. Suddenly I heard it again, "everybody freeze". I froze.
I was going to hop on my bicycle and the guy ran after me with a gun and said, "I said 'freeze!'" I said, "Okay, Okay. I am staying still."
Q. What did they actually yell in Vietnamese for "everybody freeze"?
((She wrote it down.))
Q. Do you put an exclamation mark after it?
Yeah. And it was forcefully said. And said it in a northern accent. So I didn't know what to do. If they caught me with a piece of gold my life was gone. They would take me to wherever and my family would never find me. So I was passing the buck and gave it back to the girl who sold me it. She had the money and the gold and I would lose everything if she were to be dishonest, she would get both. Gold was expensive. She was so scared. She threw the whole thing into the house. There were house with metal doors and the door was open this much and she threw the whole thing in there. If she lost it I would have lost it too, but at the moment I didn't care about the gold. I wanted to get out of there. I didn't want them to see me with any gold.
Anyway they got me and her and all those people. This is the center of the market and they encircled the whole thing. Any person walking about in that area was arrested.
Q. How many people were there?
Oh, many. They took us to a church, an Indian temple. So okay, I froze and I walked with them to that holding onto my bike and my basket of fresh sausages.
Q. So they weren't yelling exactly at you. They were yelling at everybody in that area.
Yeah. But that area was big. The street that I was on was a short one. Houses on two sides. And they blocked both ends. The guy that was running after me came from behind. I didn't even see the van stop. The van actually stopped there and when I heard about it I was so glad he didn't see the transferring of gold. Later on I looked around, and the vans screeched and stopped and people jumped out with guns and stopped people from trying to walk away.
They took me to that temple. It was so full in the temple. They kept us there from morning until the evening, like four or five o'clock, no food no water no nothing. Some people were being asked what the heck are you guys doing at this time of day. Why are you not working? So some people were able to prove that they just went to the market to buy food, because it was next to the central market. And some people were just going to eat a snack. One woman held open a sack of French pasty and said I was just going to buy French pastry. And they said why did you have to go all that way to buy it. She said, "I am a French citizen. I have to go." And she is Vietnamese, but Vietnamese do have French citizenship. Now it's kind of funny, but I was wishing that I was like her and had some papers saying that I was a foreigner and could get out.
There were like 200 of us in that stupid temple. Sitting so close to each other like this. They made us all sit down, no moving, no walking around, just sit and explain to them. And they didn't let you explain. They only poked at one or two. But finally a dozen or so people were released because they could provide proof that they went to buy food, and like that woman had some documents. Finally, it took them from morning until five o'clock to realease those people who could prove they were there on business. So here I was sitting there with my basket of sausages. And I was thinking, "this time I am gone." I can't get out of here. How would I tell them. My family wouldn't know what would happen to me, they would be worried sick. I worried about them more than I worried about me because my mother had high blood pressure and every time something happened her blood pressure shot up.
So I was thinking I don't know if my life was ended. I should have left months ago. The thoughts were running through my mind. Finally the trucks were running to take us to go somewhere, and the guard said, "Okay, everybody who is left here, you people are going. The trucks are coming so get organized and get ready to go."
There were two of them in the courtyard. They were sitting down in the courtyard, two of them. One was from the north and one was from the south. This guy from the south wasn't actually a soldier, he was recruited to do it. He belonged to--we called them "big red ants" because -- actually the term is more those ants that get real big and get claws and bite you. He was forced to do it. He couldn't do it. He was body builder. He belonged to the body building team. So I looked at him. I was sitting about that way and he was standing like this. Then the communist said, "Well does anybody have anything to say or to request?"
So I took up all my courage and stood up and said--acting real innocent--I pull out my basket of sausages and said, "Why are you guys holding me here? All I did was go to the market to buy the sausages. And somebody told me to freeze and go here. I've been here and didn't get to eat or drink or anything and I'm so tired. I'm small, I didn't do anything bad. I'm small, young, I just went to the market to buy some sausages." I was acting. It was my last chance because the trucks were coming.
So I looked at the guy from the south, because we southerners were supposed to -- I knew he wasn't a communist soldier. I think he was asked to do this. So I looked at him pleading and kept repeating, "I didn't do anything. I'm young, small. All I did was go to market. My family doesn't know anything about this." So I just kept looking at the body builder guy and so he was feeling pity for me, or what, so he kind of smiled and turned around and talked to the communist and said, "Let her go. She's only a child. Look at her basket, sausanges. It might spoil." So five minutes--it was my last chance. So he kept talking to the guard. So the guard finally said, "Okay, you go."
Oh, did I run. I just ran out the door. They opened the door for me and at that moment I really knew what freedom meant. It was like a temporary jail, but it was a jail. I got to that door, I got out real quick.
I saw my stepmother and one of my sisters there. Some people who saw me being caught and knew my family went back and told my family. My mom was so scared and they were out there with a bunch of relatives who had people who were being detained inside. I went outside. I acted as if I didn't see them. So I just picked up my bike and went home separately. My mom bought two ducks and celebrated because I came home safe.
After that I said, I have to get out. I can't stay. It's too dangerous. This time I got out but I don't know what will happen the next time. I told my mom I really wanted to go and she said okay. My mom wanted me to go and she didn't want me to go; and I wanted to go and I didn't want to go. She said to me one time, "Why don't you just stay. If we have to die, we'll die together. The whole family together. But if you leave, what if something happens." And I said, "Mom, I can't. Maybe if I get out I might be able to help you later on. If I stay here, I would be of no good. We used to have to pay people to do labor work for me. And they would go after me because they were getting tighter weeding out people who do not have anything to do.
So in June or July of '78 a friend of my mom's was supposed to leave and she had a boat. The boat was organized by the communists at the house we went to -- the one who was true communist, she didn't want to leave, but she helped the others to leave. So we thought the boat was safe.
She left with her three children and she got help from the other one who was linked to the communists.
And that lady, you know, she married a communist from the north after that. She was thirty-seven years old and didn't get married, then that guy from the north came and she got married to him.
So we knew the boat was a sure thing. There were people cheating people, taking gold and a boat never showed up and everything. You could lose your money and you could go to jail, etc. So we knew it was a sure thing. It was like seven or eight pieces of gold. It was a lot of money, around eight thousand dollars. I can't remember.
So there were two places, and my brother, the next one younger to me-- always the two of us. I don't know why. My family always wanted the two of us to be the pioneers. So two places, and the day the boat was getting ready to leave, I had second thoughts. I said, "Let him go first, I stay." Because I knew there was one more boat coming, another family, my mother's friends leaving and so I knew there would be another boat later. And I told my mom I wanted to stay with her for a few more months. I was like her right hand. I was looking after everything. I was firm with the young children because my father was gone and they were growing wild if nobody kept teaching them. So I was too valuable for her.
By nature I am a strong person emotionally. My sister's are more feminine and less tomboyish. Anyway, I taking care of everything while my mom was out making business deals. So I said I wanted to stay a few more months because another boat will be leaving and I will be on that one.
So my brother left and I stayed. I was really torn. I really wanted to go and I didn't know what would happen to my family, and my father. They wouldn't let us visit my father so the last time I saw him was in June of '75.
My brother was leaving and we didn't know where he was. So in December I was getting prepared. I knew it was hard. I could die. I didn't know what going by boat meant. I never was on a boat before, a ship, maybe, or canoe, but not a fishing boat. I knew it was dangerous, because there were people who went and their boats sank and the people were close enough to us so we knew. I knew I was taking my chances.
The day was the 25th of December was supposed to leave Saigon to go to Can Tho, south near the Mekong River, to leave. So on the 24th my Mom -- we always have Christmas dinner, she went and bought Christmas food, like we would usually have. Vietnamese celebrate everything. More so because we are more westernized than the other people. So at Christmas we would have a tree and would go partying and come back and eat at midnight. We didn't go partying because of the communists. So my mom made Christmas dinner early because I would be leaving on the 25th. We had like sandwich bread, ham and chicken and everything. All the goodies we usually ate.
I was so cross with my mom. It hurt me and I didn't know how to express it that I had to leave. I couldn't say it. I knew she did it for me, but I couldn't eat a thing, nor could anybody. Everybody knows that once I'm gone there's no return and it might be the last time that I see them or they see me. It was more like a funeral than a celebration.
This was the last safe boat. I was going with people that I trusted and everything like that. I wouldn't get turned in to the communists or police. So I had to go. It was my last chance. To prepare me for the trip my mom gave me one hundred dollars. A one hundred dollar bill and I was choosing what jewels I was taking with me. We knew that in the refugee camps gold was good. Every kid in the family always has jewels, so I left the diamond and everything home. I took two rings, actually three rings, twenty-four karat gold and one to sell when I got to the refugee camp because it was made of pure gold. I left another ring which was a cute ring I liked, and my mom said never to lose that ring because we liked it so much. And I took a gold bracelet with a small bell in it. I took that because I liked it. I was still taking things as if I was going on a safe trip, those things that I liked. And I took this the Buddhist sign??? of protection, my mom had made especially for me by a goldsmith a few months before I left. This thing she told me to sew into my shirt because we were afraid of bandits and pirates.
. . . I hardly talk to anybody like this. Piecemeal, sometimes, people would ask me something like this. I never talk to Michael because I don't want to talk about it. From time to time when I miss my home so much, or something like on tv show or I read something, it would come back and I would talk about part of it. I keep it inside too much. I become what you call, "psychosomatic". I get sick all the time when I'm here.
Anyway, she got the thing sewed between the seams and then the one hundred dollar bill, U.S. My mom got that for me because it's not good keeping American money in your home. The communists could come in at any time usually at night, and they would order you to stand still while they searched and listed your property.
Even now I still have dreams that I was hiding my jewels and my family was hiding jewels because of the search. I still have nightmares that they came to our house and we were trying to save what we could save by hiding things. I kept having dreams like that. Even last night I dreamed about Vietnam. But I always dream going back to Vietnam. And every time I went back the communists would give me trouble because I'd escaped from the country. So I came back to visit my family and got caught. They caught me and didn't want to let me go again. I always have those nightmares. But last night was different because the day before I received a letter from my sister and her father got it from the United States embassy saying that they now agreed to let my mother and my three younger sisters emigrate. So giving her the entry visas that for five years I've been going after. And they were asking the Vietnamese government to issue exit visas for those three people.
So last night I dreamt that I came back home to bring them over here. And the first time ever the communists did not give me any trouble at all. I was feeling so good. The first time ever that my dream wasn't a horrifying one.
So I was going to go with another brother, a younger one. There were two places in the boat. The person who sort of masterminded this is not living in Texas. She came to Canada and now she is in Texas. Very rich, very very rich. Billionaires, back then. Here she still has money, but no billionaires any more.
Q. What was the source of all their money?
She was in the export-import business of fertilizers and things like that. She was helping my family out a lot. My mom's family.
So I got things all picked out and in a small bag. I had to disguise it that I was going to the southern part of Vietnam. It's the countryside, not the cosmopolitan town. People there are different than people from Saigon. I was to dressed as a peasant.
(((End of Side B, tape 2. Begin side A, tape 3)))
. . . I was going there with some other nieces and nephews and children of my mother's friends and I was wearing that, and then the other Vietnamese top which is very simple, like laborers wear. I was wearing a hat, conical. It was the first time I ever wore anything like that. I hated hats and still do.
On the day I left in the morning I was riding a Honda to a meeting point in Saigon. I lived in Saigon but on this side of Saigon, and to the other side of Saigon to the outskirts, to the meeting place. And then the morning came and my mother and sister and -- on the younger children in the home were not told of this because we were afraid they would blab, or somebody would question them and we would get into trouble. Only my older sister and my other sister and my mom knew that I was leaving, because I always ran errands for my mother on the Honda. But the neighbors knew because I was trying not to cry, but you show grief even if not tears. My mom was crying. She hid behind a door. My mom hugged me and my sisters hugged me and they had to act normal because of the Fifth Column people, they were watching. But the other neighbors knew but were small merchants and didn't like the communists any more than we do.
They knew that I was leaving. My family just couldn't stand outside and say good-bye because then people would know I was leaving. They were just hiding behind the door. I just walked outside with the Honda and never looked back. That time my stepmother took my brother. At that time I was 18, 19, so he was only 15 or so. From the other home she took him to that same meeting place. We arranged everything. I left the motorcycle in that lady's house, because she wasn't leaving. He nieces and nephews and children were leaving.
Her home was close to a bus station, so we got into the bus, going south to Can Tho. In the bus we would pretend--we went in separate small groups. And my stepmother got the responsibility to take us down to that town in the south. So she got the two of us and also another pair of brother and sister. We were like sitting in the same bus but different rows, acting like we didn't know each other. On the 25th we were supposed to go there, and by nightfall we should be leaving. So when we came to the town, and we were supposed to wander around until nightfall, but stay in the bus station so they could come and collect us.
Night came and nobody came, and the whole bunch of us got together and the first time in my life I was living like a bum, sleeping in the open air in the bus station, on the floor, in the middle of the road. I was scared. I thought they would know, this whole groups of strangers, living there, and we would no way look like farmers or villagers. The night was so long. Sleeping outside we just had a piece of newspaper. I was like a bum.
So we waited through the night. And in the morning we had to leave, because a whole group, twenty of us together in that bus station--
Q. Nobody suspected anything? This group of 25 strangers all sleeping in the bus station. All trying to pretend this is normal.
Morning came and it was hectic. There I was just armed with my toothbrush and toothpaste. But sometimes, because of the gas thing it was hard to go anywhere, sometimes you had to stay in line. Some people would sleep outside to get in line the next morning to buy tickets. So we were mingling among them. In the morning they were all gone. We were standing there, no purpose, no nothing. I was scared, and my stepmother was scared. She didn't know what to do.
Well, we had to brush out teeth. It's so funny how people live. I never knew how people lived in that town. They were selling like a can of fresh water for people who slept overnight to wash and brush their teeth. So that was okay. I did my hygiene and stuff like that. And we had to leave and waiting and starting before five o'clock people were moving and buses were coming in to take people, and we stayed until eight o'clock, and we had to leave, because by then people were looking at us. The people who were there all the time were wondering.
Finally, we had to leave. You couldn't stand around all the time, they would call the police over. At that time, the informant, the connector, said you couldn't go because the boat broke down last night, so we couldn't pick you up. So now you have to go to this house and wait until. Then I was so hungry and thirsty and was so scared to eat. It was closing to noon time, so we hop on this car-- like a motorcycle with a sidecar?-- and went to the house of the woman who actually bought the boat for this lady and who found mechanics and etcetera.
( Resume with anecdote))
When I was twelve I was riding a moped and somehow got into a convoy in Saigon, close to my school. I got hit and was kind of like dead. At Vietnam at each intersection there were like CHP, and he saw me. The guy who hit me was driving a truck was an American, barely 18. So he stopped the truck and he saw me and thought I was dead, so he took off. He got into the truck and drove like crazy. So the policeman radioed ahead, knew that the truck would go only one way, so the truck was stopped.
At that moment I was dying. I couldn't recall anything. My brain blocked out everything. But what happened was, I was hit-- I fell off the moped and hit on the street. A military man, Vietnamese, stopped by, scooped me up when the policeman at the intersection was radioing ahead to try to stop the convoy. So that guy took me to a Vietnamese hospital and they refused to admit me. They said, what's the good, she's dying. I was twelve or thirteen--thirteen. So he got my identification and came to my home and my dad wasn't home, my stepmother was home. One policeman came to our home asking if this person lives here?
I had a picture of my girlfriend in there, but the name was mine. So my family said the picture is not correct, but the name is. So the policeman said "Well, I'm so sorry to say that she died. She was involved in a car accident." And my family was going off the wall. The whole neighborhood all ran out and tried to do this and that. Somebody tried to locate my father and somebody tried to locate my mother. So they were finally located and they didn't know where I went. The Vietnamese military guy just picked me up and took me to hospital.
I was in a coma. I didn't know anything. So my family finally went to Tja Ray??? the biggest hospital in Saigon -- they got me from another hospital which didn't really want to admit me--but they got me to Tja Ray and that was the biggest public hospital. I was in there and they couldn't do anything for me. I was like dead. I wasn't bleeding that much, but I was like dead.
At that time, the American MP finally located me. And they took me and drove like crazy to the Third Field American Hospital. So my mom was so worried because there were rumors that somehow when Americans were involved in certain kinds of accidents they would take the people away to eliminate so they wouldn't get blamed for anything. What I think happened was the people were taken to the Seventh Fleet to get treated, so they just disappeared. So my mom didn't want to let the MPs take me and they were haggling, and finally, they just yanked me away.
So when I get in the intensive room, I could hear them. My eyes I couldn't open and I couldn't feel pain, but I remember hearing my father and mother. My mother was crying. I wasn't feeling any pain at all. So I just came back conscious. I heard their voices and said Mom and Dad I'm fine, don't worry. And after I said it I went back into a coma. My mom said I was vomiting blood because of internal injury, and I was swallowing blood. My eyes were closed, but I was vomiting.
She said the nurse had to carry a bucket to get my blood. I received transfusions all the time I was in the hospital. So my dad was very upset.
So what happened was, the guy got stopped on the freeway later on and he wasn't let go. Because my dad was a military man and knew the American judges too. So the guy was ordered to leave Vietnam in twenty-four hours.
I was in the hospital recuperating. I had so many operations.
Q. I never asked you. What was your attitude toward Americans in 1975?
Q. Didn't feel resentful that they corrupted the culture?
Q. But they hit you. You didn't draw a racial basis?
Not from that.
Before I was born the people married French people. Prostitutes would marry Frenchmen. We called them My Tay, people who marry to French.
Q. So you did not have any unusual resentment toward Americans?
Q. But, what if you had married someone from the north?
Forget it. My dad said, marry anybody, but don't ever marry a communist. There's something about northerners and southerners, they don't like each other.
Q. Which was lower on the social scale? American or North Vietnamese?
I'd say American. But communist we didn't like. We don't even rank them.
Q. Let me go back to the group of people waiting in the bus station in Can Tho.
Some of us were to go to this house, some were to go to another house. So we went and stayed, me and three other people, in the afternoon. We were to leave in the evening. This was the 26th. Then we were told to leave because they were afraid to keep us there. So they said you were going to go off at this river port where there were all these small boats, like canoes, at night. But until night you have to find something to amuse yourself.
Q. How big is Can Tho?
Oh, it's fairly big. But the bus station was very conspicuous. So after that they fed us and we had to leave. I was wandering around that small area to wait for the time to come to get onto that stupid little boat. There was some sort of celebration. The communists were celebrating and they had roadblocks and everything and we were so scared. So me and my brother and another guy and girl, husband and wife, were sitting at a street vendor's one hour. We were the only ones who sat there one hour. So we had to get up and leave. I was just wandering in and out and into the market, going back and forth, the whole area.
So finally night came and we got assembled to go. So we went to the port where the little boats were. We got onto the little boats--the first time in my life. I was so scared I would fall off.
Q. How many people on a boat?
Like 10. It was a long one like for transportation, transporting passengers. So they were calling, "Good-bye, see you next time." Like, in Vietnam, say your grandparents died, the next year, the day they died you would come in and the relatives gather together to pay tribute. Because we were the only ones who were leaving at night. "Good-bye, we'll see you next year this same day." It was funny, but it was tense. This was it.
The stupid thing was carrying us out to another boat, not the main boat that we were supposed to leave on. The stupid thing carried us halfways on the river. The riverways at night was so quiet. So we got from the little boat onto a bigger boat which had like twenty some people in there. We were packed in like sardines. We were waiting that night. I don't know if you have ever been on the river at night. It was my first time. The moon was shining. We were keeping so quiet. Only the two people at the other end of the boat acting like they were boat-living people and the rest were inside. Gosh that baby cried, the voice carried all over the place. It was only a few months old, about five months. People were terrified because it would attract the communists. They patrolled.
So we said, please do something about the baby. Give it something. The baby was lucky it didn't get killed at that moment. Finally they gave him something to drink to sleep, the cough syrup.
That boat took us to another boat and in that boat there were like ten of us like sardines. And they piled up coconuts and watermelons on the other side to act as if they were merchants and we were all crowded in the middle. We didn't have water to drink. The 27th we were waiting in that boat. We waited for one more night, until the 29th. It was like in the morning the sun was so hot. We couldn't go to the toilet at all and at night we'd come out one at a time. There was nothing to eat. We just ate the stupid limes.
Q. So you were from the 26th to the 29th. How terrible could things get?
Finally the night of the 29th the boat was ready so we were taken. I tell you it was awful sitting in that boat. It was so hot and crowded and you couldn't have anything to eat.
Q. Was it the rainy season?
No. It's a dry season.
Q. What was the name of the boat?
It didn't have a name. It just had the boat number, which I have forgotten. We were like teenagers. Here we were packed in and sitting there doing nothing. Couldn't move, couldn't talk, couldn't draw attention.
So finally we were transported that night, I think the 28th. We got to another bigger boat. It was worse. The river breaks into tributaries. We went into one in the bigger boat. That night we were really quiet because we were ready to go, and a patrol boat came over, and said, "Who's in there?" And the two guys acted as fishermen, merchants, and they said, "Nobody, just us merchants waiting for morning." And they said, "Are you sure, just the two of you?" And they used the lamp to look. So they finally went away. The boat got started to move up to the bigger tributary that was closer to the river mouth at the ocean.
My heart was beating so much. Finally we out close to the mouth of the river, to a big boat. We went to big boat and made the transition. I had to climb up to the big boat. The total number of the people was fifty men women teenagers and children.
Q. Who was the crew on the big boat?
You wouldn't believe it. If my mom knew about it, if her friend knew about it, we wouldn't have been in that boat. They didn't know anything about navigating this stupid boat. There was only one guy who had gone out--he was a navy man and he was the only one who knew how to read a compass, only one who knew anything. The rest of the crew did not know anything. We did not know about it until we were in trouble. If my mother knew about this she wouldn't have let me go.
So we went into the big boat and went outside to the river --it was at night. The machine was running so loud, the night was so still. Too much noise would attract them. Finally the boat got out to going to the ocean.
I had all my gold and everything in there. So me and my brother -- I was staying on the bottom of the boat. There were people on the top. I was so seasick. We looked back, there was the patrol boat and it was going after us. We said, "Oh, my god, those special police, were going after us." We said, "We have to stop or they fire." So we stopped. And they came over and said, "Okay, you guys are going to escape, right?" There was no way to say "no." I said, "Yes." And then the guy said, "Well, what do you guys have? I said, "Would you like some money?" They said, "Lucky for you there were only two of us." We collected gold and gave them the gold and also there was a radio on board and they took that too.
Now we were at sea and the stupid crew didn't know where it was going. Didn't know what international waters was, or where Malaysia was. So we went out for a while and there were high seas. I was so seasick.
Q. How big was the boat?
I don't know, but it was very cramped for fifty people. I would say the width was like from this wall to that. I don't think it was even this big, because underneath we were lying like this both ways. We were touching feet.
Then we saw a big ship and the stupid crew members said, "Now we are in the international waters, now we are safe. Here is a ship. We will ask them to help." They threw up two flares. At that time I was moving up to the upper part of the boat because I was so seasick. They threw up the flare attracting that ship and they came closer and close, and it was a Vietnamese boat coming back. I couldn't believe it.
Before I left I took a card that had my father's name. I used to use that card when I was back in Saigon and going out and partying. If the police got me I just showed them the card and they would release me because my dad would make trouble. So I kept that card with me. When the ship was coming, I tore the card into pieces. Everybody was so scared. It's not a boat, it's a metal ship, and guards from one end to another with guns. We were so mad at the crew because they threw up the flare.
What happened was, they were the government fishing ship on an expedition and they just happened to come back and they happened to see us because we threw up the flare. They drew closer and said through the loudspeaker to stop your engines and stay there. So they got closer and said, "Okay, you guys are escaping, right? And we said, "Yes." What else could we say?
I said, "Please let us go, we are only fifty people. And we have children here too." So they said, "Well, we'll let you go if you give us all the gold and money you have." And we said, "But we were just robbed." Some stupid guy was bringing Vietnamese money with him. I don't know why. But we gave them everything. Finally people did have gold, so we chip in one more time, and give the whole collection to them. They didn't believe us and sent out a small boy about twelve years of age to go into our boat to check and see if people have hid any gold.
I was so tired and seasick at that time I was just lying there. At that time my rings were all gone and I finally had to break the bracelet and said, "Okay just give this to them so they let us go." But I still had this thing in here and the hundred dollars I gave to the guy next to me to hide.
I was acting again. I think I'm going to be proficient in acting. He was fumbling all people to find the gold. He came close to me, and if he found gold, he would find this necklace which was hidden. So I started to act real sick. I was sick but not that sick. I acted real miserable. People spoke up for me and said, "Oh, leave her alone, she was so sick." The boy came so close to me--I was lying down like this,--at that time I had not had a drop to eat or drink except for a drop of lemon juice to keep me from dying of thirst, and so I was kind of miserable. He looked at me and I looked miserable to him. So he left me along and didn't touch me. Had he touched me he would have found it.
So finally they were satisfied. They told us, " You got only one boat, us. Had you gone the other way there were like sixteen ships coming back and you wouldn't have enough money to pay off and they would have to take you back. We were only one ship, so we will let you go." So they said we could go. And the stupid crew people--you won't believe this--asked how we get from here to Malaysia. They said, "You guys don't know how to get to Malaysia?" And we said, "No." And they showed us how to set up our compass, gave us fish to eat, two big fish --
((End of Side A, Tape 3. Begin side B.)))
. . . They said to us, "Don't feel bad because you got robbed twice."
Q. Do you think they would have taken you back if you hadn't had the money?
Q. What did you feel like when you heard your own crew ask?
I thought, How did I get into this. Not enough that I was scared. We paid for this. And here the crew didn't know anything. At that moment we knew they didn't know. There were like 43 people, the crew was seven and the rest were passengers. Now we knew they didn't know how the hell to get to the place we wanted to go.
So they showed us the way, set our compass. Besides the fact that they robbed us, they were nice.
So we went the way they told us. By the time I got out to the high sea I wasn't sick any more. I got used to it. And besides, I didn't eat anything. So I had with me a small bag where I had an extra pair of jeans and a t-shirt and some underwear. I had lost the conical hat and even my shoes were lost. I was barefoot. I didn't care. I just wanted to get out.
Finally we got out of Vietnam. We were now in the international waters. That means we wouldn't be afraid of Vietnamese boats, or ships any more. We were on our way going to who knows where, and the night of January 1st, we went into Malaysian waters. One more time we saw boats, ships passing us, but they didn't come near to rescue us even though we tried to flaag them down. By about five or six o'clock we saw another ship. We were flagging them, and guess what we got, Thailand pirates. Would you believe it, the stupid crew did it again.
Q. You were not in sight of land?
No, it was high sea. I wasn't seasick because I was up there breathing fresh air.
Q. When did you discover they were Thai pirates?
When they came close. It was a big metal boat, about five times bigger than our rickety boat. When they came over they were wearing knives and whatever, and we knew it was pirates, because they commanded that we put our boat closer to their boat and they threw a rope over to our boat to station it.
Before that we were traveling and there were sharks swimming and waves--you know the ocean is deep but you never see until you are out at sea way away from land. I kept thinking, this is it. With this crew, I am going to die for sure. I was feeling so bad for my mother for all the money and hope that she put into us, and now if I die, I wouldn't mind because I had chosen to leave, but if I died at sea, my mother would not know. It would be a very sad thing to wait a few months later and when you didn't hear some news from your loved ones, you would know they died at sea. That thought was running in my mind constantly.
We were at sea and we didn't sea land in we wouldn't know how long. We were running out of water and food. I was eating lime juice all the time. There was no water. And there was no food. And I couldn't tolerate any food any more.
That evening around five or six we flagged down that stupid boat. When they came closer we knew they were pirates. They threw a cable and attached to our boat and made us jump over from our boat to their boat. The sea was almost stormy that night. It was a stormy night. The waves were so big. The two boats were mashing together and apart. They made us jump. Three of them jumped into our boat and made us jump into theirs. One of them was a young guy, about 17, who was smiling at me. He held me back.
I was worried for my younger brother at the time. So when the guy held me back I went like this and ran to find my brother. I told him to jump first, he would be safe in the big boat.
Actually, at that time we really didn't know that they were going to rob us. They didn't act as if they were going to. We were thinking that they would rescue us. So we were jumping. For some reason, I was praying all the time, so I didn't know why this guy was smiling at me and trying to hold me back. I was so worried about my brother who was only fourteen, fifteen. I was like nineteen then. So my brother jumped, and everybody was jumping. You know how hard it would be to jump with both boats moving in that sea, coming apart and back together. You had to wait until the boats came together to jump.
People were jumping, so I jumped with them. I hit something sharp and my toe was bleeding and I didn't feel pain the cut was so deep. The little bag I had had one extra pair of pants of jeans and shirt, I threw over to their boat first. I ran up to the other end of our boat and jumped over. One girl was jumping and missed and fell into the water and the boats were coming together. If she didn't get up in time she would be smashed. So we pulled her up. I don't know how I jumped even this day. You couldn't calculate it. It was hit or miss. With that girl I saw her fall into the ocean and said, "Oh, my god." It was getting dark now and there was only the light from the big ship. We pulled her up and she was wet like a mouse.
Some younger men jumped first and then the women and the older men, in their thirties like, jumped later. One of them jumped and the boats separated and he fell into there and the boats came back so quick we couldn't get him on and he died. He must have been knocked under. We were feeling so bad. They made us line up and sit down in the front of the boat. Then they started robbing us, even though we didn't speak the same language, they went around and fumbled us trying to get money and gold.
Meanwhile three of them who were in our boat, there was one girl who was so sick she was staying in the bottom of the boat and they raped her, three of them. The boat was being pushed and pulled by the waves and we could hear her cry and we couldn't do anything. We just cried, for her and for ourselves. They could rape one girl, and there were girls over here and they could rape us at any time. It was so awful. The first time in my life I was exposed to any such violent behavior or events. I was so worried. I just stood by my brother and next to some other young men, and some of them talk of fighting back. I said this is not good. We do not have guns of anything. We could all get killed if you try to overcome them. There were three of them in our boat and with us five of them and we didn't know how many more they had below.
So we had to give them what we had. One thing though, they were fishermen turned pirates, so they fed us. Gave us dried fish and some rice to eat and some hot ointment, while we were in their boat and while they were raping that girl. Savage. They act so barbaric. The way they were dressed, wearing almost nothing. Dark skin, mean.
Q. No translators?
No, we didn't speak their language and they didn't speak ours.
Q. They fed you while they raped the girl?
They just gave us some dried fish and some rice.
Q. Were some of them kind and some not?
I don't know who was the head, who could let this thing happen.
Q. Why did they decide to rape the one woman?
Because she was there. She was sick and wasn't able to jump to the other ship. We were like fifty people until that guy died, and left 49 of us, three children, one was just a baby. About half women. I said, "This is it. I don't know what's going to happen. But if they touch me, I'm going to kill myself." I was worried more about my brother than about myself. My responsibility was to take him to another country safe. And here this thing happened. I was scared, but I was calm then.
Suddenly I looked down and saw my right foot was bleeding. I didn't feel pain, usually I feel pain. But that time I was so scared and trying so much to survive that I didn't feel any physical pain. I looked down and saw my big toe was bleeding so much, and I couldn't do anything. There was a little purse I always kept with me, I didn't put in the bag. My mom put in some anti-biotic pills because we didn't know how life was in the camp and we might need them. I kept that purse and I think those pills kept me alive. And before I left I got a tetanus shot.
So after they finished robbing us and raping her, they pushed us back to our boat. They made us jump back. They made holes in the boat, broke everything, took the compass, took the map, the flashlight, and everything. And they made us jump back. We were happy because they made us jump back, because that meant they were not going to kill us.
When we got into the boat, the thing in the middle that covered us was broke, water was coming into the boat and we were sinking. It was night. It was raining. It was storming. And they left us there to sink.
We had big bamboo shoots, and we were searching for the guy who fell down. It couldn't have been more than an hour, but it seemed like an eternity to me. We called his name and dropped those things in case he was there. I think deep down we knew he had died, but we called him and dropped those things that float in case he came back up he could hold on. The boat was like this, and because we were jumping the boat was going like this. So we had to divide the weight to stabilize. Funny how scared we were yet we had the mind to -- the survival instinct of human beings is incredible -- the boat was like this and water was coming in and the guy said, "stabilize", and we ran to the side, divided evenly so the boat stabilized. And the men started to take the water out. Lucky for us they didn't take the patching material, so the crew for one time did something good and found that thing. After they started getting the water out--there were no lights. Somebody happened to have a match, and we'd light up and find out where the holes were they had made. We worked real fast in concerted effort. It was unbelievable. To this day I can't believe how we did it that night. Finally the water got out and they put that thing the patch on.
We didn't see land. We didn't even know whether it was Malaysian or Thailand's waters. We said by morning if we did not see land we would be dying because there was no water or food. The boat's condition was terrible. It wouldn't hold on for too long. It would come off and water would come in and we would die. It was raining and we were in the middle of the sea and no navigator. The only navy man, who knew how to use the compass and where to go, he died and the crew said, we don't know where to go. How do we go? And we said, you mean you guys don't know where? I thought I was dying ten time over.
Finally everybody was so tired they said forget it and the boat just drifted. The engine didn't work, the water got into the engine. Lucky for us there was no big tempest, just rain.
I couldn't believe the crew. How dare they do that. They said, "We don't know the way. We don't know where Malaysia is." So we just let it drift and tried to go the way the navy guy told us to go. He set the compass but now he died and they just guessed. Through the whole night, the longest night ever in my life. I wasn't asleep. Have you ever felt that the night is so long and you are so scared and so alone and you want to see the light, just any light? The darkness by itself is so overwhelming. That night I couldn't wait to see a ray of light. I said, "Just let me die in the sun."
Morning came. It was such a warm and comforting feeling to see the sun come up. Finally we saw a grey thing, land. Just mountainous area, but we had been almost five days on the sea. All we saw was water. Suddenly we saw some grayish thing, which couldn't mean anything else but land. And island? Who cares?
They finally got the engine to work. It was working like half dead.
We finally went into the place where there were two Malaysian navy ships and they were looking at us. We were feeling so good that now we were going to get rescued. High time because we ran out of food and water. So people were smiling and feeling so good. l said, "Get down. You have to act real sick and real terrible for them to help you. You can't be so happy all over the place. Who would help you?" The Malaysian navy men saw us. They told us to stay away from their ships and they would get somebody to go over. They said don't get closer. One guy went out and examined us. I was the only one in the boat who could speak up for anything. I knew English, and next to me there was a guy who knew a little bit of English, so I was telling him what happened to our boat, that we were robbed and everything and now we're out of water and we have children and don't have food, etc., and the engine would not work.
We asked that they help us. So he went back to tell the commander of the ship. And so he came back and said we could put our boat close. I was invited up to the big ship and the other guy went with me because who knew. I went in to see the captain, and I talked to him and explained exactly what happened. One of them, was in Vietnam, in Saigon. I told him that I came from Saigon and he was asking me about those places like the Caravelle, those big places and I was telling them that yes, I was from Saigon. They were checking me out.
While I was up there they started feeding the people on the boat, giving water and food to eat. I was barefooted. From the 27th on I had not had a shower, and had not had the time to comb my hair. I was looking a total mess. I was being vain, a girl, so after I talked to the captain, I requested that I be able to go to a restroom. I looked at myself in the mirror and I looked like a bum. I said, "Oh, my god, this is me?" I was transformed into a street urchin.
When I came back I asked for help, our engine was broken, we couldn't go any farther. They wanted us to go to Singapore because at that time Malaysia had said no more refugees. If they saw us they would have to pull us out to the open sea again. They could not take us to a refugee camp. He was trying to explain to me that it was hard because he had to follow orders. I kept pleading with him and finally he said, "Let me think about it."
I remember distinctly one thing I said to him. "This is a small boat. We had only fifty people. One was dead, and we had children. Our engine was broken. We cannot go to Singapore. We would if we could, but we can't, so please help."
So he said he would have to think about it. In the meantime, before I left--it was New Year, January 1st--so he gave me a whole package of cookies, like wafers with filling inside, and he said it was for me only. And he gave me fruit and other goodies to eat, for me only. Meanwhile, people got fed and when I came back to the boat I got something to eat too. But this was mine, in a little bag, cookies and fruit and something else.
It was the afternoon now, so they let us rest for a while. They gave us food and water. In the afternoon, going into the evening, what they said was, "You have to go with us." So they attached a cable to our boat and pulled us out to the open sea. They were going to pull us out to the open sea again because they couldn't take us. The captain was doing something, I don't know.
They pulled us out to an island, uninhabited. And they anchored there because it was night and the sea was getting rough again. We were like and elephant and a mouse, the elephant pulling the mouse. It was a ship and we were just small and rickety. We stationed that night near the empty island and they said women and children could come aboard the ship to spend the night but the men had to stay in the boat. So we came up there and the captain came out and talked a little bit. We got food to eat, they fed us again, and we were camping outside on the deck.
That night we were sort of scared because we didn't know what would happen. The captain was nice, but how about the sailors? One of them got drunk and wanted a woman to go to bed with him. He was making such a terrible thing. Lucky for somebody else and not me. He made noise, and finally other sailors got him back into order.
In the morning the captain came out and said he talked to headquarters and it was okay to take us to the refugee camp. I was so happy. That was a very good thing that he did. There was no way for me to repay him. I can't even remember his face clearly. They said since we were only 49 people we will send you to a refugee camp. The refugee camp was overcrowded already.
So now men and women got on the ship and they pulled the boat to Pulau Vi Dong camp. Let me tell you, after being at sea for so long I was really happy. They were really nice. They fed us again and took us to the camp. It was about noon when we came to the island where the camp was.
The shore was full of people. It was so crowded I couldn't believe my eyes. I didn't know if this was a good thing happening or what. I never knew what a refugee camp was before. But we were safe after all.
I was the only one talking, talking too much, on the ship and they said to me, you would be ablt to leave the camp fast because you speak English. I remember that. At that moment I really didn't care what speaking English mattered. Why would that help me? And he said to me I would be leaving there soon because I speak English.
So we sang for them, and said good-bye. The whole group sang for them a Vietnamese song. It was a well-known Vietnamese song, so most of us knew it. I didn't know all the words. It was about Vietnam. A proud song. I can't remember exactly all the words.
Q. What a beautiful gesture. You could only thank them by singing to them.
So we were discharged onto smaller boats, because the ship couldn't go closer to the island because of the coral. At that time I only had a pair of black pants. I didn't have anything. The other bag was lost with the pirates.
The refugees who were there before, every time there was a boat coming in would go down to see if any of their relatives were there. So I was treading water to go in, and the coral was sharp. We didn't even have shoes on. Our boat was towed close to shore and onto shore to be broken, because they wouldn't want us to have a boat to go around somewhere in Malaysian waters. They wanted to confine us there.
So I waded and went in there. It was just a sea of people. It was pathetic. People were dressed like crazy, shorts, what have you. Nobody was dressing good. And weird housing. Not even houses, just palm trees and too many people. So I was there standing at the shore on the beach, not knowing--trying to find out what was going on here.
So, you remember my brother who left earlier and we didn't know which island he was, he came down to see if there was anybody, and we met. My brother and I met. We didn't think that he was there. We knew he was in Malaysia, but there were five or six camps. And there he was. Wearing only a pair of shorts. And I was so beat up, I looked so beat up, and the other guy, my younger brother. He still had his glasses, he didn't lose them.
The lady, my mother's friend, who went ahead and then another friend of my mother's, and the first thing I requested was that I could have a bath. I wanted a shower and at that moment I didn't know how scarce water was. I got my bath.
Back home I didn't conserve water. Water was taken for granted. Until the day I was in the camp. I had a whole big can of water to myself to wash and take a shower the whole first. January 2nd we came to the camp.
The camp was so crowded. By the time it was over there were forty-six thousand people on the small island. So we had to build our own place to live. The men had to go to the forest to cut down the small trees and small sturdy vines to make a roof. It was the simplest house ever. Just four corners and a roof over us. We broke up the boat and got the planks to make beds. And people would go up to the forest to cut down trees, no tools or nothing, and people were working like crazy to build up nothing.
And eating--I never ever starved before in my life. And I did experience starvation. I went there and didn't know anything about it until the next day, that water was a valuable item. Secondly, food was scarce. One can of rice, condensed milk size can, for ten days. I didn't have anything to eat. We tried to make soup out of it, but how long would it last? Hunger, I was so hungry, no meat, no vegetables, no nothing. My wound--I took all the antibiotic pills so I didn't get any infection, but it --((Turned off tape.) Normally a wound would heal fast in a week or so, but it didn't heal. I stayed in the camp three and a half months and it didn't heal until I came over here. Because I didn't have any nutrition. My body didn't have enough vitamins to heal myself. I was glad it didn't get infected or I would have been in trouble.
No salt, no sugar, no water, no nothing. We got a ration. For the first three months I didn't have anything to eat. And then we had to go to get sea water and boil it and let it cool down and use it as salt. And we were eating soup all the time. And the sardine can, three or four ounces, one can of that for three people for three days. Supply came only every so often. But they'd say three days and not come back until ten days later. We didn't have any food to eat.
I was feeling so bad. I was living with the group that I came with, and after that a friend of my mom's took me to her place where she was living with another group of people. There was no privacy, no nothing. Staying with her we didn't have anything. Everybody was starving.
I hung onto my 100 dollar bill. I didn't want to use it.
(((ENd of side B, Tape 3. Begin Tape 4.)))
. . . But I was lucky all over. Those three and a half months were like three and a half years. And what I did was, I didn't have anything to do and I didn't just want to stay around doing nothing, so I joined the group that worked to get the supplies distributed. They also had a committee called the translation group and also a committee to run the camp. And also a committee called the serving committee. Each country, American, French, the Australian, sent a delegation over to interview people to resettle them. The camp was very organized.
First I went into the welcoming committee, serving food to the delegations. Later I moved up to the translation committee because with my English I could do something. It was a volunteer kind of work. No money, nothing. I didn't get anything back. Sometimes if a supply came in I might get some extra thing, but not much. During the three and a half months I only ate meat one time. A big ship carrying chicken for us. No vegetables. Never saw one. There was a black market there too, and Vietnamese were wheeling dealing with Malaysians from neighboring islands. The Malaysians guards wouldn't let them near the camp, but people would sail out and buy things and come back and sell to other people. The Vietnamese are very enterprising and resourceful.
I grew up a lot in those three and a half months. No more of this sheltered pampered life at all. Sometimes I worked until one o'clock in the morning. That guy from Australia, the Australian delegation, he worked like crazy. As he stayed up working, we were working with him.
Q. Did people keep arriving and people keep moving out?
The people leaving in small numbers. The people arriving, it was very hard for them, because one time, they wouldn't let people go in, and we saw a boat coming in. It was about to land, but the guards didn't let it land. Sometimes delegations came over alone, sometimes they came one after another and sometimes UNHCOR came over. That time there was no U.N. representation there and they shot the boat and made people leave, and that night it was circling the island and there was a storm. They died. The boat just hit the rocks. This was 1979.
Q. Remember the guy whose father was on the boat? I wonder if that was the boat?
I don't know. But there were three boats that were like that.
One time there was one boat, but the U.N. was there and he intervened and the people landed. But that time they didn't want anybody to come in.
Q. You saw this, it sunk at night?
In the morning there were bodies. We buried them. I didn't bury. We built a house --
Q. Did you see Ed Bradley in Malaysia?
Q. I have all these people in Malaysia in 1979. Sunny's dad drowning of the coast, Ed Bradley, you --
It was because of the CBS reporting that we got better rations.
I was living up in the hill. He might have been there but he might not have toured the compound where I was. I lived in the E compound which was up on the mountain--hill.
So life was very hard and I was working all the time. And I didn't have any clothes to wear. And people lived like animals. There was no hygiene, no sanitary. People had to dig holes for an outhouse. It was awful, awful, awful. It was awful for things like menstruation. You didn't have anything.
Q. What did you do?
There was some infirmary for distributing medication. I think I somehow managed to get some feminine napkins.
Q. What did people do when sick?
They have medication, but very limited. Because I was working, I got some privileges --
Q. Did many people die?
No, not that many. But sick.
I was so deficient in vitamins that I got bloated. My face was all blown up and watery. My mom never knew anything about it.
Working, I knew people, doctors and people who worked in infirmaries, so sometimes I got extra, vitamins, pills, but once in a while, because there wasn't enough to go around. It would tide me over.
I was working for the American delegation. I knew one of the people. She's here. She was one of the American delegates. I became friends with her for a short time. She gave me her address so that I would look her up once I was in the states. I came to Iowa and she was in California. So let things pass and now last year I was finally here, going to graduate and said to myself maybe I should look up Jennifer. And I looked her up and I called. She gave me two numbers, one of her parents' and one of her fiancé’s. She lives in Los Altos. Jennifer Bisset. She worked for the voluntary agency. It happened she was traveling in Malaysia and then there was this job and so she signed up for it.
Almost five years, here I was trying to locate somebody in California. So I called the phone number she gave me in U.C. Davis and the girl said, "Well, I don't know anybody." That was her fiancé’s number but he moved away. So I had her parents' name and called information and asked. There was only one couple by that name. So I called and asked to speak to Jennifer. I told them I met her in the camp. So they gave me her phone number and I contacted her. And we had dinner together. To this day I haven't been able to repay her anything. Now she's married to another guy not the one at U.C. Davis. She didn't marry him.
In the camp I was working and met her. It was good for me to work, because that's how I left the camp early. I met those guys, Mr. Down, he spoke Vietnamese too, and one more guy. I think those guys must have worked for the FBI or something like that. They spoke Vietnamese with a southern accent. Usually Americans would speak Vietnamese with a northern accent because it's easier for them. But these guys spoke with a southern accent. So I was working with them. They ate so well. They lived as hard, they had to sleep on tables and so on, but they ate well. I remember being so hungry, starving all the time, and finally I sold my one hundred dollar bill to that girl who was going to leave and she had Malaysian money. So I give the money to buy a whole bag of flour. We just ate bread and bread like crazy.
At that time, my brother who was there first wrote to my aunt in France and she gave him a two hundred dollar check. But we couldn't use it, we couldn't exchange it. We just kept it to keep it. It was like a source of security. At least we had some money.
It's there I learned how people behave when they are desperate. People could kill for food, for money. Friends turned into enemies in a matter of seconds. Like my mom's friend, we treated her very well and so she thought that I had money because she knew my mom had money. At first she treated me real well because she thought I had money. When I told her I didn't have any, that I got robbed three times and didn't have any more money, she wouldn't believe me until I lived really poor. I starved and etcetera. So she found out I wasn't having any money, so she started giving me trouble and everything. It was just a whole big mess. I cried so often. I couldn't sleep. I developed insomnia. I just slept like two or three hours a night. I was just staring at the sky. I was feeling so bad for myself, for everything, for people.
The water in the well, the well was this deep and the water came about like this much and the coca cola can people used to get the water. My younger brother had the job of guarding the well and waiting until the water came up this much to scoop water up. Water was extremely valuable. The only fresh water bath I had was the when I first came. After that I took my bath in the sea.
The time I was there it rained only one or two times. When it rained, the water in the well came up quite full and lasted three or four days. But it rained only two or three times during the three and a half months we were there. So we would go to the beach and dip in the sea and go back with a few coke cans of water to rinse us over. I couldn't believe that I lived like that.
The first thing when I came to America, I wanted to take a shower. My sponsor took us to the apartment and I said could I take a shower, please? They didn't know why we wanted the shower first, we didn't tell them. The three of us said, could we take a shower first? Because my dad was really good at getting us to keep clean. We had vaccinations every year or three years and because I was a girl I always had to have a handkerchief with me, because girls were supposed to have handkerchiefs with them. And where in Vietnam people would brush teeth once a day, we would brush them two times or three times a day. My dad was very careful about his children. Dental examinations, people didn't care about going to the dentist maybe every two years or so, but we were going every so often. I mean he was really careful. So we grew up with all these good habits.
But at that time, all my effort was put into living, surviving and getting out. I didn't care where I would go, I just wanted to get out of the camp, I had to stay alive.
So I worked. And one day the last half after the CBS broadcast we started getting better rations. I think the Malaysian government got from the U.N..
Q. Why do you think the CBS broadcast was responsible?
I don't know. It created consciousness and let the world know what the refugee camp was like. But after that we got good rations. We got enough to eat. It came in a package, rice and tea and food. From the U.N. It was like from the U.N. Each person got a bag like that for three days, every three days. It came faster than we could eat. We were used to starving for so long. That was close to the time I was leaving.
They went by boat numbers. My boat number was one twenty-nine. The one hundred twenty-ninth boat that came to the camp. So they went by the boat number. The first boat would be interviewed first. The second boat, etcetera. And my boat was number 129, it would be a long time before I got interviewed.
My brother was there before and his boat number was smaller, so he got interviewed. We were given choices, like which country we would want to go, so I put down Canada, Australia because I was thinking United States was too much with all the racism going on. I don't know where I got that idea, but I got it.
Q. Had you ever met Canadians or Australians, or not?
Just the delegations were there. Then what happened was, at that time Canada said the only people they could take were the people who had relatives in Canada, so that got us. And Australia said that -- before that they were taking everybody. Suddenly they changed the rules. They said, well, now we want only family type, husband, wife and children. We don't want any more men. We want females and families. So my brother's boat's turn came, he was forty-nine or sixty-nine, something llke that. He was interviewed by Australian guy and was asked who all he had with him and he said us, and the guy -- I was there too, they pull up brothers and family into the group, no matter how late or how soon you arrived. So he said it would be fine. I would be able to go, but my brothers wouldn't be able to go. Who would want to go to Australia without my two brothers? So forget it, we're going to the United States.
My aunt wrote to us and said go to the United States of America. Don't ever go to France. It would not be good. Besides at that time we didn't have anybody in the United States and the United States accepted four categories, people with relatives in the United States, two was people who worked for the U.S. government, number three were people who had something to do with the former government, and number four was people who had no other country that would take them. So we fell into the category three, meaning we didn't work for the government but my father was involved in the former government.
My brother was being interviewed and I was working in the translation group, so I knew people in there. So we got interviewed. After the interview what happened was, the governor of Iowa, Governor Ray, wanted to -- at that time many states didn't want to take in any more refugees but he said Iowa said they could take more, like thirteen hundred. The first group would be coming. So from Iowa went to Washington and from Washington to the U.N. and went to the camp. There was a chief of the translation group and I didn't know anything was going on at that time. There was a list, the INS guy came over, and the big list for the camp, you fill in the names of the people. The list was filled up very quickly, three hundred and some. The blank pages were filling up so quick. On the top three lines were empty and they said, "My, we saved this for the three of you." So we filled in our names. That's why we were leaving so early.
So I went on working. Governor Ray said something like, "Get them over here quick." Because we got our interview and everything done in mid-April and we were to leave only a few days after the list was filled out. It was unbelievable.
I was off duty and was running around talking to people, and the loudspeaker sounded all over calling my name. I thought it was time for me to work, some delegation just came in, so I ran down from the hill and they said, "Guess what, you and your brothers are leaving." It was just a matter of a week or so.
We were supposed to leave on the 19th of April. The boat took us over to Terengganu. It was in the afternoon that we left. We didn't come to the mainland of Malaysia, until night time. And from afar we could see the lights. For so long I hadn't seen them, three and a half months. It was like an eternity that I didn't see any electric lamps. In the camp there was no electricity, just flashlight or candles. There were lights in the big rooms where the delegations worked. It was such a good sight.
At last I was leaving. And at that time I didn't even know where I was going. I knew I was going to the United States of America, but I didn't know which state.
((conversation about the nature of the interview, etc. Not part of her story, so I didn't transcribe. Ctr 400 or so through 438))
. . . The hardest time of my life was there, those few months. Before the communists came in and after a while it came back to normal. I only grew up when I left home. Also one thing that I think has been lost from my life is my teens, the period from sixteen to nineteen or twenty. That period was so chaotic and miserable. Everything was going so fast and I missed my teenage years. I never had a chance to live like I was supposed to. Every good thing was planned for me and nothing happened.
You know what my dream is? I saw it a long time ago when I came here and it required a lot of courage and determination. I wanted to go to school to be somebody, and I worked so hard. My life was so hard for the first three years here. Our mission here was to go to school and get a job and get educated, because education is very valuable, highly valued in my family. Our intention was to come here and get an education and my sponsors at the time didn't want us to be going to school because then we would have to be on welfare and they didn't like it. They were well-to-do people and for them to sponsor somebody and let them go on welfare would be a bad thing. So I needed money anyway, so I didn't mind working.
So I worked, first me and my older brother. They found me a job with company which paid well. And I told my brother to quit working and go back to school. So I was like raising them, and they were growing up fast. They were very nice kids and didn't get into any trouble, no drugs, nothing. And they really worked. By 1982 they were very well grown up and financially they knew how to make a living even though the first three years from '79 to '82 I was supporting them. They worked a little bit during summer to help pay electricity. But I was working so hard. I have never worked so hard in my life. Never in a million years back then did I think I would have to work like this. My thing was to grow up and go overseas to study and have a good time and go back and get married. And here I was going through all of this.
My mom was real good. My dad was raising us to be different from other people. My mom said to me don't ever try to be snobbish or anything. You never know what your life will bring you. One day you may have everything, but you never know what tomorrow will be like. She kept saying that to us. All those years Saigon was so safe I grew up and didn't hear any fighting until just one short moment in 1968 in the Tet Offensive, and then when Saigon fell. Saigon was so safe, well-protected, and there my mom was saying all these things to us and we kids of course did not pay attention to her. Nothing would happen, and really it did. My life was turned upside down so quick.
From Terengganu we were riding a bus through the night to Kuala Lumpur to a transit camp and we stayed there for three days. We were told that we would be there for three days and go on to the United States. Nobody believed us, because people would have to wait at least six months or four months. They thought we were bluffing.
When we were in the transit camp we were told we were going to Iowa. I didn't know where Iowa was. They said, "Here's Iowa in the Midwest." Okay , that won't be too cold. I don't care as long as I'm getting out of here. I didn't know anything about Iowa.
So we waited for three days and got our physical examinations and everything, x-rays. People who were ill were kept behind.
A charity paid our air fare. And we were on a chartered plane. The seat was broken, couldn't get it back. Twenty some hours, non-stop except in Guam to refuel and Honolulu. I was so tired, the seats were broken.
We went to Iowa. When we landed in Iowa, from the window we looked out and see nothing, just fields and fields. No houses, no nothing, just fields. So we landed in Des Moines airport and the buses took us to some sort of camp.
Q. How many Vietnamese were there on the flight?
Altogether three hundred and some.
Q. Did anybody say anything to you when you got off the plane in Iowa?
No. Everybody was bewildered. It was cold and we didn't have warm clothing. We came there on a Sunday, the 28th of April, and the governor was there to welcome us. The sponsors were matched to the refugees.
When I was in the transit camp in Kuala Lumpur, I got some used clothes, some t-shirts, another pair of pants. I used the money we had left in the camp, Malaysian dollars, because I didn't have anything to wear. And Vietnamese are like that. The don't want to lose face. They want to present themselves to their sponsors not at bums.
Q. Who were your sponsors?
A church. They were all engineers.
They matched us up in that place and they drove us back through Iowa. I remember going through this town on a Sunday evening, not a soul in the streets. It was beautiful. It was cold and grayish. We wondered where are we going? How come there are no people?
We were shown to the apartment. They rented everything for us but we had to pay them back later. So we were owing them five hundred a month. I was so mad. One week they took us to the social security office to obtain numbers and the people were asking us if we were needing food or anything they would give us food stamps. I wish they would have told us that I was owing them money . . .
((END OF SIDE A, TAPE 4))
Q. You were never afraid again?
No. I couldn't sleep at night. Nightmares. Every time a bike was passing (the noise) in the middle of the night, I would freeze. The noise of the motor of the pirates on the sea -- I would wake up and freeze and sweating. It happened to me for at least two or three months.
Q. What happened to the girl the pirates raped?
She got to the camp and was examined. Lucky she never got pregnant.
Q. What happened to her?
She's now in Canada. Last time I heard she was going to get married soon. She is such a sweet girl.
Q. This has got a happy ending we are coming too, aren't we?
Yeah. I'm here.
Q. In Iowa you all three got jobs.
My brothers are still in Iowa. One is going to graduate this December with two majors, from Iowa State. He's a really good student. He came here not able to speak a word of English. The first day that we were taken to Iowa, they had a party for us, and my sponsor was talking to my brother and since we were understanding English they assumed my youngest brother would be able to talk with them. One guy started talking and said something and my brother just answered, "Yes". It happened that "Yes" was the appropriate answer to that question, so they kept on asking more questions and he kept answering "Yes", "No", "Yes", "No", and after a while they found out he didn't understand a word of English. It was so funny.
But that brother is intelligent, but he got A's all the time. Now he is going to be an electrical engineer and communications systems.
The older one has an A.S. in computing. He's not as smart as the other but he's working hard. He's going back to Ames in the fall.
Q. What about you?
To this day I am still afraid of the ocean. It's just too much looking at the waves makes me feel sick.
Q. Did you ever think of killing yourself during any of this?
No, I'm too chicken.
Q. Jumping over the side when the pirates were there?
Well if they were going to rape me?
Q. Even after they left when you were off the coast of Malaysia did you ever think of just ending it?
Q. Does it seem unreal?
It seems unreal. That's I wanted to go back to work in a refugee camp. It's just a way not only to help other people, but to let them know that there is a future, but also to heal myself. That period of time, I was living, but like a dead person, just functioned, with no emotions.
That's why I went into social work in the first place. I learn fast, but I didn't have any idea of what I was going to be when I was in Vietnam. I changed from my experience in the camp. I went over here and found out about the Social Work and I thought it was great.
Q. What next for you?
No one knows yet.
(((End of interview.))