In 1989, my great aunt escaped Vietnam with two of her sons in tow. She had a couple of false starts, and was caught and would get thrown in prison. She had invited my mom to run as well, but my mom was afraid of encountering pirates who were known for raping women.
My great aunt was 39 at the time and her sons were 14, 12, and 6. The 6 year-old was too young to take on the trip, and so she had to leave him behind in Vietnam with her husband. She didn’t want him to cry when she and his brothers left so she gave him a 500 bill. Nowadays, the 500 has no spending power. But then, the 500 could buy a day’s worth of food. He was so ecstatic and went to buy a bánh mì that he didn’t notice them leaving.
They left by cyclo to the bus station. From there, it took them a week to get to Cà Mau, the southernmost province of Vietnam. They left on a dinghy for 6 people. After an hour, they transferred onto another dinghy. At this point, two more kids were added to my great aunt’s care, the children of the people who operated the first boat. After another 7 hours, they boarded a much larger vessel that carried 89 people. She parted with a suitcase along the way, but still carried with her a bottle of water, medicine, and papers. Some people were able to bring rice so they ate that while supplies lasted. There wasn’t enough water either, and those who drank seawater would throw up. They had tied a tarp to catch the rainfall.
After boarding, the people learned that the boat had no navigation systems or map. Luckily, there were a few men aboard the boat who served in the South Vietnamese Army and they used the constellations to help steer the boat in international waters. The 14 year-old hung out with the crew above deck but it was too dangerous for my great aunt and the 12 year-old. Below deck, people sat with their knees pulled up, side by side one another, relieving themselves where they sat. It was 20 days before they reached Malaysia.
4 Malaysian policemen with machetes boarded the boat. They said it was impossible to dock the boat so people had to jump into the water to swim to shore. My great aunt couldn’t swim, so 2 men about my age hoisted her up and brought her to shore. They were sent into the jungle for 4 days. And weren’t given food until the second day.
However, Malaysia would not be their last stop. The refugees were forced back onto the boat; they were told to return to Vietnam. The policemen followed on both sides to steer their boat back to Vietnam. They were told if they strayed from the path, the policemen would open fire.
Once the Malaysian police left them, they turned course and headed southward again, in hopes of landing somewhere that’ll take them in. If they returned to Vietnam, they’d surely be sent to prison. And a lot of money had already been invested into this trip. When boat people left, they’d sell all of their possessions and kept their money in gold; something that’s portable that’ll help them start their lives in their new countries. The gold attracted the pirates.
The next 4 days, they weathered a monstrous storm. Below deck, they laid down like sardines to prevent the boat from capsizing. The man captaining the boat left the helm unmanned because it was safer to not fight the waves. They saw another boat in flames but did not stop to help because taking on more people would result in their boat’s demise as well.
When they reached Indonesian waters, the storm still hadn’t let up. The rain was so strong, that you couldn’t see where the sky ended and the sea began. Indonesian policemen boarded and indicated that they needed to pay their way onto the island. People gave what money and jewelry they had. In truth, the supervisor of the island did not want to take in more people. But because he knew there were children aboard and because of the storm, he allowed them in. The next morning, the policemen guided their boat through the rocks onto shore. When people got off, they were fainting left and right from exhaustion and starvation.
They harvested plants, papayas, and potatoes on the island. And people harvested crabs; in fact they overharvested and there were no more crabs after a year. But people were happy to be at Galang Refugee Camp. My great aunt and her sons lived there for 2 years and 6 months.
After they were approved for resettlement in the United States, they were moved to the Philippine Refugee Processing Center where they stayed for another 7 months. While there, she received English lessons and cultural training. Part of the bureaucratic requirements was an interview and they interviewed my great aunt for 4 hours.
My great aunt’s father was a serviceman for the South Vietnamese Army, hence her family faced discrimination from the new regime. She told them that until she was 8 years-old, she had lived in Saigon. Then she had moved to the countryside. But when she moved back, she had residency issues. Her sons couldn’t attend school. She didn’t have a ration card and couldn’t buy food. When asked why she wanted to go to America, she answered that all she wanted was for her sons to have the opportunity to get an education.
She arrived to the United States in June of 1992, 3 years after she took off in that boat in Cà Mau. Her youngest son later joined her in California, while her husband stayed in Vietnam.
This was the part of the story that surprised me the most: In 1986, my great aunt found the remains of an American pilot who crashed over Bến Tre. She burned the remains so that all that was left was the bones. She buried them among other new graves but was later told that no graves were allowed in that land so she exhumed the bones. She kept them in her house even though she ran the risk of being discovered. When she left Vietnam, she brought with her the skull and a few of the bones from the rib cage. After a month in Indonesia, the authorities asked them if any had any American remains since it was a high priority at the time to account for those who went missing in action. She turned over the bones and told them where the remaining bones could be found. She didn’t learn this until much later from her husband, but about 10 years later, 2 Americans and the Vietnamese police came to retrieve the remaining bones. (Remember, relations weren’t normalized until 1995.) The police said the remains were not Americans, but she doesn’t understand why the 2 Americans would come out all that way if that were the case. My great aunt wished she had gotten the name of the official at Gulang so she could have some lead to find out what really happened.
This is the story of my kinda sorta great aunt from Sacramento. I’ve also kinda sorta already mentioned her in my blog. My mom’s visit last August was to say goodbye to one of her uncles who was terminally ill, this great aunt’s husband. He passed away and left the property to my great aunt and to a few other people. And unfortunately, it is a very long process to transfer the title solely to my great aunt and she can not leave the country until the paperwork is done or she forfeits the property. Doubly unfortunate, the end is no where in sight and she’s been living by herself for months now. (She has family outside of the city, but she can’t leave the house for long, or else she forfeits the property… Vietnamese government has no chill.)
And shout out to my 11th grade AP U.S. history teacher, Mr. MacKay, who taught me so much about the war and who assigned us to conduct oral history interviews. I had interviewed my father and learned that there were so many untold stories to be discover within my own family. Six years later and I’m still so inspired by that assignment. Thank you.