[Image 1]: Hop (second from left) on the island of Tarempa
[Image 2]: Hop going back to school in Hamburg
The sea is very dangerous around monsoon season, from September to March in Vietnam. If you leave around that time, you’re dead for sure. After March, the weather is warm, that’s when you leave.
You had calculate very carefully when to leave, because the wind and currents could push you off course. If you left in Spring, and left early, the Northern winds blowing south would take you to Malaysia or Indonesia. Leaving later meant the Summer winds could turn around and you would end up in Hong Kong or the Philippines, for example. Not planning beforehand meant the wind could even blow you back to Vietnam if your engine was broken!
In the Spring, the winds blowing south meant you had to leave from the Mekong Delta, in the South, so you could meet the water immediately. In the summer, you left from Nha Trang or Than Thiec, and the winds there would take you to Hong Kong or the Philippines.
I left in May, from My Tho in the Mekong Delta. We had to bribe all the coastal guards and they would leave their posts to go drink and eat. From My Tho, we knew to keep going South. You had to be careful; if you saw a ship with a metal hull, you knew it was a Soviet boat that would pull you back to shore. Vietnam didn’t have any metal boats at the time. If you saw a Russian boat, you turned your lights off.
We ran into an offshore rig, and they gave us some supplies. They told us that we should go to Singapore, but we knew Singapore wasn’t accepting refugees. But on the way there, there were some small Indonesian islands, and we stopped at one.
The island we landed on was remote; the population was mainly Indonesian aboriginals who took us in after we sold them our boat. It took some time for us to get in contact with the actual government. Three months passed on the island before the Indonesian government registered us as refugees, but two months after that the Cap Anamur came for us.
[Editor’s note: The Cap Anamur had many functions, and while it’s mission to save refugees at sea was very exciting, equally if not more important was its mission to navigate international law and red tape to find new homes for the refugees.]
The Cap Anamur came to the island to help us find new homes. They helped us draw up papers for wherever we wanted to go. Now, at the time, we really only knew of the US, or Australia. Germany didn’t exactly come to mind!
The United States was very hard to get into, they were busy taking in the the Vietnamese that had helped them and the old regime, as well as their families. Australia wasn’t taking in bachelors, only family men or women with children! Refugees peppered the tiny islands in Indonesia, and so they would have to collect them on larger islands every once in awhile. Since I had nowhere to go yet, I was taken with many others to another island, named Tanjung Pinang.
They told me that if I wanted to go to the States, it meant waiting a year or two. But Germany was accepting us; I wanted to go back to school and they would let me. All those leaving for Germany were taken to an island called Galang, where we were put to work building shelters and barracks for incoming refugees. After that, we were off to Jakarta where they checked us up before sending us to Munich.
The government of Germany was distributing the incoming refugees equally by province. We were processed and taught German in a small mountain village near Torstein in southern Bavaria. I had a brother who had made it to Germany beforehand, and he came to visit me. He warned me that the courses I was taking at the school in Torstein would not take me to a university, they were courses for trades.
Germany had a lot of refugees, but many were from Eastern Europe (trapped after World War II). I moved to a school with many of them, where I took a diploma that would take me to a higher level. The incoming refugees were of all ages; the younger crowd like me strived for the universities because we could adapt faster, those above thirty had a much harder time and more or less became tradesmen, and the oldest received welfare from the government.
In Vietnam I was an engineering student at Phu Tho Technical School. But coming to a new country, our education was reset to a much lower level. Education in Germany is an issue at the state level, and trying to move to a higher tier of education in Bavaria was very difficult. My friends told me to go to Hamburg, where the system was internationally inclined and entering a university was much easier for more “foreign” students. Because of this, many of us Vietnamese refugees ended up in Hamburg; this is also where I met [Tuyet & Duc, sitting at the table].
The people who worked for the Cong Hoa (Vietnamese Republic) government had no choice but to leave. It was that, the re-education camps, or even worse fates. Although my family didn’t really work with the government, some of my relatives had scholarships and went to school abroad. The communist regime was very suspicious, and they spied on the general population. They were in our schools, they dropped by our homes… The way they made sure you were telling the truth was by asking you the same questions over and over, sooner or later you would trip up and forget something, or tell a different story and they would catch it. We didn’t all leave because of food shortages etc., we left because we couldn’t accept the new regime. It would have broken our spirits to stay. And if we didn’t have our freedom, then there was no chance for our children to have it either.
I left Vietnam in 1978, and arrived in Germany in 1979. My oldest brother was studying in Australia, I had another brother in Germany and a sister and brother still with me in Vietnam. It took me two attempts to leave, it was very rare to get out on your first time. I left from the Mekong Delta, which was full of rivers. They called them the Nine Dragons. If you were caught leaving using one river, you just used another one the next time.
Getting ready to go was always very nerve wracking. We never knew the “captains” of our ships, you usually got a spot by knowing the right people, and through introductions down a line. A time and day was given, and you had to be there. You had to buy fake identification, so that if you were caught no one knew who you really were. After getting on the boat, you were kind of on your own. Usually you had very few people who could drive the boat, or navigate.
Our boat had 300 people aboard, spread out over two levels - the boat was about twenty metres long and four metres wide. While we were still inside local waters, we left all of the women and children on the upper level while all of the men went below so the boat seemed “innocent” to the Coast Guard. But when the boat hit international waters, all the women and children went below and the men came up, bare chested and looking as strong as they could. We wanted to make sure that potential pirates saw us as too much trouble to attack!
We also traded with these boats; we would trade gold and food cans for water or gas. When you left, you only wanted to buy just enough gas to make it out to sea, because if you bought too much at once, they would catch on to your plan. You bought in small amounts and pooled it all together, you brought sails in case you ran out.
It took us five days and four nights to reach the island. The distance is only about 1000 km, but we were just following the sun and the moon!