The Boat People: Escape from Vietnam

November 5, 2010 Jan Larson No Comments

By: Laura Sukowatey

The Boat People: Escape from Vietnam, Part 1
The Story of Vinh Vo

The cost of freedom is an indefinite calculation.

It has been just over 30 years since the people of Vietnam began finding out exactly what that cost might be. The price would range from giving up precious valuables, to a house, to life itself. All for a 50-50 chance at a life free from communism.

Those who paid the price are called “the boat people”  - Vietnamese refugees who traded anything they could to secure their spot on small boats headed out of the country.

At age 8, Vinh Vo was one of these refugees.

“I didn’t know where I was going, all I know was that I was going on a journey,” said Vo. “By the time I realized it, I was halfway across the world.”

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, Vo’s father, a former soldier in the French and Vietnamese war, feared for his family’s life and moved them from their home in Danang, South Vietnam into the jungle. In 1979, Vo’s grandmother died, leaving behind enough money for one of her five grandchildren to escape the country. The eldest brother of the family chose not to go, and Vo was asked next. He said yes.

Vinh and his older brother

Vinh (L) with his older brother, who is still living in Vietnam

“People ask me, did I know that I was going to be leaving my family behind? No, I didn’t,” said Vo. “Until I was actually in the fishing boat, then people say…once you left home, you never come back again. Then it sunk in.”

As a child in Vietnam, Vo attended school in the morning. In the afternoon he was in charge of tending the water buffalo – livestock nearly every family owned as part of their livelihood. He said as a child, being offered the opportunity to go to the city seemed much better than working.

“At that age, 8-years-old, you don’t know what fear is about. I don’t think you really rationalize all that,” said Vo, on not fully understanding the danger of what he was about to do.

In the 1950’s when the Communist revolution began, the idea was thrust upon the people of South Vietnam that it was inevitable the Communists would take over. The communists tried to destroy their faith in the government.

While many may have succumbed to their power, more than 839,000 did not. These are the boat people.


Out to sea

Vo’s trip began with a six-month stay with his relatives in Saigon. He would travel with his two cousins, who were both in their early twenties.

“I left in 1980 in a little fishing boat,” said Vo. They call us the boat people. My journey took me from South Vietnam all the way to Thailand. The journey was about three days and two nights in the ocean. And I didn’t know the survival chances were 50-50, that’s what people tell me after.”

Vo said the boat was no longer than 30-feet. Nearly 137 people were stuffed into its bowels, a lid and fishing net covering their hiding place in an attempt to disguise the boat as a fishing vessel. Once they were out into the open sea they could move around a bit more freely, but the danger was far from over.

The rough waters of Southern Asia claimed many lives, and without proper navigation there was great risk for ending up lost at sea. There were also pirates.

“We were captured by the pirates twice. Everybody was [taken],” said Vo. “Their boat was bigger than our boat and basically they order everybody to get out and onto their ship. They search every one of us for anything, usually jewelry – gold, diamonds… they take any valuables you have. We were fortunate that they were better pirates.”

Some pirates murdered the boat people. Others kidnapped and raped women. Vo said they were very lucky to only be robbed. One of their motors was stolen by the second set of pirates, but they were near land and at that point it didn’t matter. They had reached Thailand.

“The only thing I can say is I was relieved, because I was on land and not in the ocean anymore. Being able to drink fresh water, that was a big relief. Our ship ran out of water about halfway through the trip,” said Vo. “If we were to stay in the ocean for another day or two a lot of people would have died. A lot were getting really weak, and some were thinking of committing suicide.”

But everyone on the boat survived.

The Refugee Relief Program

In Thailand, Vo and his cousins were put into the Refugee Relief Program. From there, they needed a sponsor to travel to the United States, Australia, Germany or anywhere they could go that wasn’t southern Asia.

Refugee programs existed all across United States. The U.S. has been an international leader when it comes to refugee relief programs and has taken in about 755,000 boat people since the 1980’s.

After one year in Thailand, Vo finally had a sponsor: St. Bridget’s Catholic Church in River Falls, Wis. He travelled to the Philippines where he and his cousins underwent a series of procedures for the sponsorship, like health tests, language classes and cultural training.

On Feb. 2, 1982, Vo arrived in River Falls where he lived with his cousins and a host family. A few years later his cousins, Vo’s legal guardians, wanted to begin school outside of River Falls, so Vo was officially taken in by the family.

When Vo first arrived, he began kindergarten at St. Bridget’s. He was four years older than the other students but didn’t know English well enough to join students his own age. Once he reached third grade, school officials moved him up three grades because of his improvements. He progressed through middle school and into high school. After graduating from Hudson High in 1991, Vo attended college at UW-River Falls for graphic design.


Forgetting the past

Throughout his time in the U.S., Vo began to lose touch with his Vietnamese family. In the beginning when he was living with his cousins, he still had some contact with his father, but fully lost communication around 1986.

“When I was living with my American family I kind of forgot about my real family, because at that age and the stage I was in it was a transition stage for me,” said Vo. “That’s when I started to become more Americanized and I forgot about my past.”

But one day during his senior year of high school, a Vietnamese woman in New Orleans telephoned Vo. She said she had contact with his family and they wanted to know if he was OK, or even alive. The woman had recently visited her family in Vietnam, and happened to meet Vo’s family while she was there. They told her of their situation. By chance, she worked for the INS and knew of ways to locate people.

“It was a really strange phone call, because I didn’t know who she was, to this day I have never met her. I wish I did,” said Vo.

Two weeks later, he received another call from the woman. She sent him photos and translated letters for him from the family.

“I think it would have been a lot harder to be reunited with my family if it wasn’t for her,” said Vo. “Because when I was that age, I was getting done with high school and going to college. It just happened to be she came to me at the right time and she reminded me that I still have my other family.”


The return home

In 1994, Vo’s senior year of college, he started thinking about his family more and decided he wanted to travel to Vietnam. Having been told as a child that he would never be able to return to his homeland, Vo said it seemed like a far-fetched idea. However, since the fall of the communist regime, Vietnam was more open to tourism and travel over the years.

“I just bought an airline ticket and went. That’s how easy it was,” said Vo. “I was so excited and I tried to recall all the memories that I had as a child growing up in Vietnam. And the week before I [left], that’s when it really hit me. I worried…will they recognize me? Will they accept me? There was so much going through my mind.”

When Vo arrived in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), he wondered who would be there waiting for him. The airport was tiny and crowded, and on his way out he saw his father from a distance. Although he was only about 15-yards away from the exit, he said it felt like hours as he tried to make his way through the crowd to reunite with the man he had not seen in more than 14 years.

His emotions were mixed when he finally made it through – happy to see his father, but wondering where the rest of his family was. His father explained the bus ride from the jungle was a two day trip, and very expensive; too expensive for everyone to come along.

It was a long bus ride into the jungle. Vo wondered how the people of the village would react to his arrival. Expecting nobody to care, Vo was shocked at what he saw as they got nearer to his family’s house.

“When I got closer to home you see people running, literally drop everything they were doing,” said Vo. “By the time we go there the whole front yard was packed with people. There were hundreds of people standing there.”

Over the heads of the people, Vo searched for his mother. She had been waiting for days and after thinking her son wasn’t actually coming home, went back to work in the rice paddies. Once she heard the rumors spreading throughout the village that a visitor had arrived, she quickly made her way back home.

“It was the hardest moment actually standing there waiting for my mom to get home,” said Vo. “Finally when I did see her everything was so silent, like everything was in slow motion when I saw her for the first time. I hold her in my arms…then everything went back to normal and I felt safe again.”

The luck and the chance

Since then, Vo has been back to Vietnam 10 times. His parents traveled to the United States for Vo’s wedding to his wife Mai Yi in 2007. Vo said with today’s technology he is able to keep in close touch with his family, and they have a strong relationship. He now resides in Hammond, Wis., with his wife.

Vinh with his wife, Mai

Vinh with his wife, Mai

Vo said despite what he has been through, the experience has taught him a lot about life, and he is thankful for everything.

“I [had] a lot of mixed feelings when I was growing up. There was the feeling that I was rejected basically from my family…wondering why I don’t get to live with my family, why I’m so far away from them. There were so many questions. When I finally realized the reason behind the whole situation, then I appreciate it. Once I learn to appreciate the reason behind it, then I appreciate what it has offered. I have the best of both worlds.”

More than 89,000 boat people have returned to Vietnam over the years, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office in Bangkok. Many still fear of persecution if they were to return, however Vietnam now advocates a market economy and has won respect internationally as it is now part of the political and economic mainstream.

The Boat People: Escape from Vietnam, Part 2
The Story of Hung Nguyen

Like Vo, Hung Nguyen risked his life for freedom. However, being at an older age of 13, Nguyen said had a better idea of what risks the journey involved.

“When you turn 18 I have to go be a soldier, I die no matter what,” said Nguyen. “Death or freedom. I’d rather take freedom.”

The boat Nguyen boarded was set to travel around a time they knew pirates would not be sailing the seas. But it also meant facing the most treacherous winds of the year, about one month after Christmas in 1980. Nguyen said while pirates claimed many lives of the boat people, the weather claimed more.

Nguyen, who was traveling with his aunt, said after floating for three days, they ran into a large ship of sailors who were kind enough to guide them to Malaysia. They lived there for one year, and were then sponsored to travel to the U.S.

Nguyen had a refugee sponsor when he arrived in Minneapolis, Minn., however he was able to live with relatives who came to the U.S. in 1976. Over the years, Nguyen has been able to sponsor three of his sisters to travel here.

But despite the life he has made in Minnesota, Nguyen said he hopes to one day live back in his home country since the Communist control is not as severe.

“In my future, when my kids grow up I go back to my country and live. I have a lot of memories, I want to go back there to enjoy the rain, drink the coffee, walk back and forth [everywhere]. The weather very nice; the climate very nice. You can do anything you like.”

Asian Community and Assistance Programs

Although it has been more than 30 years since the Vietnamese began fleeing from their country, community relief programs that were established for refugees in the 1980’s still exist to help keep the Asian community together and raise awareness about the culture.

Some organizations in the area are the Hmong Mutual Assistance Association in Eau Claire, and the Vietnamese Community of Minnesota (VCM) in Minneapolis.

Phuoc Thi Minh Tran, a refugee and member of the VCM, has a project in the works titled “If My Shoes Could Talk.” The project includes a series of videos that depict the stories of refugees, and what their “shoes would say” about the experience…including her own.

“I am very proud to introduce these to generations in our community,” said Minh. “Mostly [the stories are about] boat people, who left Vietnam at very young age. The memories regarding the fall of Saigon are still vivid and unforgettable.”

Video Links:

Escape from Vietnam, Vinh Vo’s Story

If My Shoes Could Talk – Part 1

If My Shoes Could Talk – Part 2

Words of Wisdom, Achievements of the Vietnamese Refugees

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