Chapter 10 – Arriving Alive
THE WATER STILL SEEPING INTO our damaged boat, we sailed through the night to Pulau Bidong. Tuyen was still alive, but barely. Our ship had gotten off-course, and we were forced to stop at a small fishing village. Lights beamed against the black water and the even-darker sky, making the village look like a small city settled on top of the sea. Our captain asked for directions to the island of Pulau Bidong. The fishermen looked at us and smiled but offered no information to help. The captain held out a twenty-four-karat gold ring to encourage them. They took it and suddenly remembered the way. One of them pointed us in a different direction than we had assumed we should travel.
I hoped the man was right. My body, covered in damp clothes, shivered in the night air. My cousin Tuan let me borrow his t-shirt to wear outside. I admit that I closed my eyes and thought about death that night. I figured we had a ninety-nine percent chance of dying if we didn’t reach the island soon. The other one percent, I left open for a miracle. Where were those God-sent whales that had pushed us along?
At some point, I had stopped caring about my destiny or whether I lived at all. I still had no idea what had happened to my father. I imagined Mom’s sadness if she lost both of us. Yes, she would cry and grieve for a long time, but she still had my brother and sisters. Eventually, she would recover. Life would move on for them in Vietnam, just as it had after all the other devastations we’d suffered during the past decade. With those hopeless thoughts in mind, I soon fell asleep beneath the vast darkness above, unsure of whether I would see that sky again.
The songs of birds awakened me the next morning. I opened my eyes to a bright, clear sky—clearer than any sky I could remember—and the sight of birds flying gracefully overhead. They sang the most peaceful melody, as if holding a classical concert just for me. For a moment, I thought I had died indeed. Is this Heaven? A beautiful mountain range dotted with tall trees and flowers in a variety of vibrant colors surrounded us—a white sand beach in the distance. On the shore, I made out ghostlike figures moving through the dense morning fog. I realized that we’d reached the island. A few smaller boats carrying Vietnamese and Americans circled our boat and helped push it onto the shoreline.
“Welcome to Pulau Bidong,” someone shouted.
On the island of Pulau Bidong, off the coast of Malaysia, a refugee camp had been established. It was one of the happiest moments of my life. We would never forget this day—a day written onto the lining of our hearts. It was the beginning of a new journey for us. We’d arrived with the clothes on our backs and nothing else. But we held the promise of a better life!
On the island, smiling faces greeted us and welcomed us to our new future. People lined the shore, other refugees looking for friends, parents, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters—anyone they knew. Workers for the American Red Cross wheeled over stretchers for those who couldn’t walk. I pointed to Tuyen and let them know his dire situation. They rushed him to the island hospital. The rest of us got off the boat one by one.
When my feet touched land, I felt like I was walking on air. The earth actually seemed to move beneath my feet after so many days at sea. After everyone disembarked, we all stood together to watch the boat that had carried us to this new world sink into the sea. Only a few minutes passed before the water overcame it. We’d made it just in time.
Leaders on the island later told us that ours was boat No. 46 to dock on the shores of Pulau Bidong. It was February 17, 1981. We had been floating on the open sea for almost five days. We were lucky to have arrived alive. Some of the boats that left Vietnam were lost at sea for months while searching for an open port. Other boats simply disappeared.
The leaders guided us to an office, where we met workers who were with the United Nations. I was surprised that they all spoke Vietnamese very well. I showed them my necklace that my father had given me. I gave them the information about his service record and my aunt’s whereabouts in the United States. We filled out paperwork. We were told that we would be able to receive mail and phone calls. The workers gave us clothes and food and assigned us to a makeshift hut that four people shared. I was so grateful for the shelter, still better than a cracked boat with no future. My body stank, so I couldn’t wait to bathe, change into clean clothes, and rest.
The refugees, thankful to have survived, jokingly referred to Pulau Bidong as “Buon lau, Bi dat,” meaning “a sad place.” It was a stepping stone for everyone to reach their desired destinations. The island was probably less than a mile square and divided into sections labeled A through G. The refugees lived in makeshift huts made of wood from the forests and sailing fabric, tarps, or whatever washed up on the beach. They built beds from flotsam, bamboo, or salvaged timber from wrecked boats.
After settling in, I walked around the island to see the other “boat people” and how they lived. Despite the island’s small size, it looked like a little Saigon to me with a hospital, school, church, food markets, a jewelry store, café, and even a tailor. In time, I ran into old friends and classmates from Vietnam who had escaped on one of the forty-five other boats to arrive before ours. I was told that some people created businesses on the island because they had no one in America to sponsor them. They planned to make new lives for them- selves in this location.
I set my hopes on a more stable life on the other side of the Pacific on the West Coast of the United States. Representatives from Western countries including the United States, Germany, France, Norway, Sweden, Australia, England, Denmark, and others came and interviewed people. Those who were lucky received an offer to settle in one of those countries. Others remained on Pulau Bidong for years because no country wanted them.
At night, most of the shelters glowed with candlelight, except for the longhouse section, which had neon lights. My first night on the island, and on many occasions in the weeks to come, I stopped at a Vietnamese sandwich shop, just to look at the food I longed for from back home. Some of the sandwiches, sweets, and drinks I hadn’t tasted since before the war ended and Communism left us poor and eating cassava and cheap barley. I had no money to buy anything in the shop, but just the sight of it all satisfied me, reminding me of another way of living that wasn’t all about struggle, danger, and survival. One day, I would have that kind of security again with a family of my own. In America.
I spent most of my days exploring, watching other people. There were English classes to prepare people for resettlement that were taught by Vietnamese volunteers who knew some basic English. I never bothered to attend those, having known some English from back home.
I made some friends on the island, and we shared stories about our journey to Pulau Bidong. I heard many tales of people dying from starvation and dehydration when their boats were stranded on the ocean for many weeks. I was astonished over just how fortunate we were.
My cousins and I sent a telegram to our family back in Vietnam to let them know we had arrived. A few weeks later, my name sounded over a loudspeaker on the island. I had received mail. It was a letter from Mom. I cried as I opened it. I was afraid of learning how my family fared and whether or not they had heard from Dad. As I read, my trembles turned to shouts of joy. My father lived! His small boat got lost in the storm, but he’d made it back to Saigon. I could barely contain myself. I missed my father so. His survival strengthened my determination to do what he had said: Never give up.
I didn’t know how to make it on my own, but I knew I had to try.