After the 30th of April 1975, the fall of Saigon, the country changed. I was just eighteen at the time. Even then, I knew in my mind that I would not be able to continue living with the irreversible changes happening to my country.
I decided to leave. My father was also very worried about this, and looked for ways for me and my siblings to find our freedom. There were many attempts because many of the people who were creating these opportunities to flee could cheat or trick us at the last second. It was very frustrating because we knew this, and could do nothing. Who could we report to? To become a boat person was illegal, we were betraying our country in the eyes of the regime. We couldn’t go to the police; we would be arrested on the spot.
It hurt us deeply to be cheated this way, but we carried on. It took many attempts before we were successful, but that’s why I am here living in Germany today.
My boat was very small. At 13 meters long and 3 or 4 meters wide it was a riverboat, not one made for the sea. There were maybe fifty or sixty people on board. We left from the harbour at My Tho, and the seas were calm. We were on the sea for two days, and two nights, when we ran into an offshore rig. The workers there gave us some supplies, food, and showed us the way forward. They told us to go South, towards Singapore, and not towards Thailand because the seas there were full of pirates. We thanked them and made our way.
Just Sea and Sky
The next day, our engine gave out. Looking around us, in every direction, the sea stretched as far as the eye could see. All around us, just sea and sky. We began to lose hope.
We wanted to return to the offshore rig, but we had left it far behind and weren’t sure where it was. We took apart the roof of our boat, and made it into some paddles and did what we could to continue, but wherever we paddled during the daytime, the sea would push us back at night.
[Nam:] What day was this now? When did the engine give out?
[Duc:] At this point it was four days, four nights. The engine was dead by the third night. That night, we saw the lights of a ship in the distance. Immediately we collected some clothes, poured gasoline on them to build fires to use as signal lights for the ship to rescue us. We heard a helicopter go overhead, but in the end no one came for us.
The next day, we found a buoy. We knew that underneath it, there would be a fishing net. We pulled the net out, and since we were out of food, we ate the fish in the net. Someone had to come for the net, sooner or later, so we decided to move from buoy to buoy and just wait for someone to show up.
Luckily, that evening, a Malaysian fishing trawler came and found us. Two of their crew came to speak to us, but they couldn’t speak English. When they found our broken engine, they knew we were Boat People.
We communicated by drawing on some paper. The people on my boat wanted this trawler to bring us to the mainland, and we collected any gold or money we had to give to the fishermen. He thrust both his arms forward, trying to show us that if he did so, he would be arrested. We would draw land, with houses and people and point to tell him that’s where we wanted to go. He would counter by drawing an island, with no people on it. I remember we drew people on his island, but he would cross them out! He would only deliver us to an uninhabited island. So we had no choice, we couldn’t refuse or we would be left to starve at sea. We boarded the trawler, brought along our fuel, and left our boat behind. We must have left around five or six in the evening, and kept going until the early morning where we reached a an island. Just a single tiny pier welcomed us.
The fishermen told us to disembark. We were worried that on this uninhabited island, we would perish anyway! With no water, and no food, and no one coming to save us, we were worried. When we brought our concerns to the fishermen, they forced us off the boat using their fishing spears. We had brought cooking utensils and a bit of food with us from the old boat, and we took these with us onto the island.
We soon discovered a large source of fresh water on the island; it happened to be where Malaysian fishermen would come to resupply. If we stayed on the island, sooner or later, someone would find us! We stayed the night on the island, making congee and passing what little we had around. The next day, another fishing boat found us.
Now, out of all fifty or sixty people from my boat, we were a very diverse bunch: anything from children to grandparents, and married or single people. I was in with the singles crowd; I was about 22 or 23 at the time. I had two older brothers with me and they had families. There were about eleven or twelve pretty single girls in our group, and the young fishing captain immediately took a liking to them. He could also speak English and communicate with us.
Again, we collected any money or gold we had and begged him to take us to the mainland. At first he refused, he knew he could be jailed for helping us. Finally, we convinced him to do it. He would take us in two trips, and he told us to meet him that night at ten o’clock. He was to have his boat off the coast, a bit farther from any other boats. We were to swim to the boat at the appointed time, and he would return the next morning for the others. Our group decided to send three people first: me and two other young men were to go and find help and decide what to do next. So at ten o’clock, the boat was anchored off the coast, and we swam off to meet the captain. He pulled us aboard, and we were on the move from then until about three o’clock in the morning. Soon, we saw the lights of a city.
The Lights of the City
As we got closer, the captain told us to jump out of the boat. From our point of view, in the middle of the night, it looked like the coast was still far off! When we refused, he pushed us off. We fell in the water and panicked, before the three of us quickly realize the water was shallow enough for us to stand. We walked to the shore and dried off. Now, one of us still had a few dollars, and we were so hungry we decided that we should find some food before figuring out what to do next. We found a cafe, and sat down. What we didn’t know was that there was a policeman in the dining room with us, watching us. He saw the three of us, dirty and wet, and came over to speak to us in English. When he asked us what we were doing here, we had no choice to admit that we were boat people, fresh from the sea. He told us to stay put and went to call for backup.
We were taken to station to talk to the chief, and we waited until the morning for him to come in. While we were waiting, we planned with each other. Knowing that the chief would ask us some questions, we made sure that we got our stories straight before he came in.
When the chief finally came in, he asked us which of us knew English. I told him I did, and he took me into his office and closed the door. He sat me down and opened up his cabinet, pulling out his gun and pointing it at me. He said that he knew I was Viet Cong, that I shouldn’t lie because he would know. Shoving the gun into my temple, he told me if I lied he would shoot me.
And so the questions started: How did you get here? Who picked up you up? What was the boat number of the fishermen who brought us ashore? The three of us together had already come up with our answers and so I recited what we had prepared. We were boat people from Vietnam, I said, and that we were picked up by a fishing trawler. When they saved us it was dark; it had been impossible to make out the number of the boat. All we knew was that they were Malaysian. He was convinced I was lying, and that I knew the number. He made it clear, as he asked over and over, he would shoot me if I kept lying.
Of course, I could vaguely remember the number of the boat. But I didn’t dare say it in case they found the fisherman, who in turn could give up the rest of our group. When the chief finally relented, he let me go and took the second man in. The same process happened three times, but we had already got our story straight, and so the chief finally decided he wouldn’t get anymore out of us. He was satisfied that we weren’t communist spies, but that we really were refugees from the new regime in Vietnam.
He put the three of us in a car. We were sure he was driving us back to the coast to throw us back into the sea, but he told us he would take us to a place full of our people. We were in the car for about an hour when we reached a camp by the sandbanks with a little over a hundred Vietnamese refugees. The camp was for refugees waiting to be processed and moved to Pulau Bidong (a famous refugee camp.)
The Makeshift Camp
We didn’t know how long we had to wait. The three of us asked around to see how long people had been around for. They would say, anywhere between one or three weeks, and boats would come to take them out to Pulau Bidong.
The makeshift camp was supervised by a malicious officer, who was abusive and did not like the refugees. He would take us out at noon, when the sands were at their hottest, and make us stand and salute him barefoot. He would pace back and forth, cursing us and accusing us of being VC, or of taking advantage of the kindness of Malaysia. He would remind us that we were lucky his government was feeding us, because if it were up to him we would be eating the sand. Soon, he would get bored and relent.
Malaysia was hotter than Vietnam, but the nights were colder. We made due with the makeshift camp, but the officer knew that we couldn’t ask for more..
The fisherman that had brought us to the city honoured his promise to return to the island and take a second small group to the mainland. The same thing happened to the second group, the police found them, interrogated them and so on, before they finally ended up in the same place as us. We were reunited for about a week before we were all loaded onto a set of busses that drove us to another camp. The second camp was also on the beach, but this one was much larger than the last, with refugees who had been there for about a month. We waited there for a couple more weeks before we were taken to Pulau Bidong.
Meanwhile, the rest of our group, mainly the families and elders still on the uninhabited island, were looking for food when they came upon some graves and tombstones of refugees who had died. They also found a couple of guns, and some of the group decided to take their fate into their own hands by stealing a boat and leaving the island. They took a boat and set off in the direction of Singapore, leaving its crew bound on the shore. Of course, the next morning when their fellow fishermen found them, the crew told the authorities and the Malaysian Coast Guard stopped the boat thieves.
The Malaysian fishermen convinced the police that the weapons had been brought along from Vietnam. The refugees denied this, but the police didn’t believe them. During their interrogation, they told the police that others from their group had made it to the mainland before them. The police figured that these people must be my group, at the second camp. They came and asked me if I was part of this group, and I said yes. Around ten people and I were immediately taken to Terengganu, a province of Malaysia, and put in prison.
My Time in Prison
Again, we were interrogated. The Malaysian police needed to know if the weapons had come from Vietnam. However we knew that this couldn’t be the case. During our time at sea, a young couple had lost some gold or money, and were convinced that someone on the boat had stolen it from them. As a solution, everyone on the boat emptied their pockets in a pile; no one was carrying weapons. The weapons had to have been found on the island, we told the police. We were jailed for two or three days, and after the police was satisfied with all of our testimonies they released us and brought us back to the camp.
When we were in jail, every person had their own cell. A concrete bed, surrounded by walls that were completely covered in Vietnamese writing. There were drawings, poems about the boat people, letters to loved ones, written evidence that many Vietnamese refugees had seen the inside of these walls. To be honest, life in the prison wasn’t all that bad. We had three meals a day, each meal was different, and each was better than anything we could get at the refugee camp. I even made a Malaysian friend! When he asked me how I had ended up in, I told him I was a Boat Person, that some of my group had ended up stealing a Malaysian boat, and that I was completely innocent. I asked him what he was in for. He said he sold cigars [laughs]. Now in those years in Malaysia, if you were carrying more than a certain amount [of tobacco], it was a serious offense. We became close and we confided in each other, though we only knew each other a couple of days. The men in Malaysia wore sarong, and as a parting gift on my last day in prison, my friend gave me one as a gift. That was my first prison experience!
The officer escorting us back to the camps was very good to us, and pitied us. On the way back, we passed some restaurants, and he treated us to some food. I think we had fried noodles; I can’t totally remember, but it was so delicious because it was the first time we’d had real food in what felt like forever.
One or two weeks later, a boat took us to Pulau Bidong. That must’ve been, June? We were there until the end of December of ‘79. At the time Pulau Bidong was the most populated camp, at around 40,000 to 50,000 people. We were given food, including fresh produce once a week, and we cooked ourselves.
All of the men had been taken to prison because of the boat stealing debacle, but the women were taken to the camps to await sponsorship. At the time, a Swiss group was moving through the camps, interviewing people to see if they could take anyone back with them. Specifically they looked for anyone who was sick, orphaned, or had no relatives abroad who could sponsor them to a new home. When the Swiss group came upon the women of our group, they told them that all of their husbands and men were in prison, and so the Swiss took them in!
I actually had a younger brother who had left earlier, in ‘78, and had made it to Germany. When he heard that his brothers had made it to Malaysia, he started the sponsorship process to bring us over to Bonn. Germany was accepting many refugees at that time, and so the process went smoothly. While my family ended up in Germany, most of my boat were accepted to Switzerland.
In December we made our way to Kuala Lumpur, to a transition camp. The camp was filled with Vietnamese people on their way to a new life in America, or Europe, or anywhere else in the world. We were taken to a hospital to be checked up, especially to check that our lungs were healthy. If you weren’t sick, you were good to go. Germany distributed bags with clothes, shoes, and books and told us what day to be at the airport to go to our new home. We were in that new camp for two weeks before leaving for Germany. I remember the day clearly: January 7th 1979. From KL, to Frankfurt, to Stuttgart for a reunion with my younger brother. The Germans had repurposed an old hospital as a waystation for incoming refugees. They checked our health again, and assignments were given to those who had no relatives in country and nowhere to stay.
My brother lived in a town called Freiburg am Breisgau, and lived on campus. We started taking German courses; we took our classes with many Eastern European expats that could speak the language because of German backgrounds, but were not as well versed in writing and grammar. We took the course for about eight months, and then there were groups that helped us move to the university level. To move on, we had to go to Hamburg for another language course, and a year long ‘refresher’ course; basic subjects like math and the humanities. Taking our diploma from that school, I moved on to university where I studied computer science for a year before switching to Mathematics.
While studying, I met my wife, who was studying pharmacy. We started a family and had a child, but we were both still i school. Though the German government had given us bursaries, it wasn’t enough to also support a child, and so I stopped my schooling to take care of our young son. I opened a grocery store to support us. My wife continued school. My son Tu’s grandparents helped raise him while I minded the store. After my wife graduated, she started working at the pharmacy she still works at now.