The situation in Vietnam grew worse. We didn’t have enough to eat; so through the years, we sold off most of the things we had to buy food.
Then, in 1980, five years after the Vietnam War ended, my father suddenly showed up at our front door. He’d been released from the North Vietnamese prison. I had just finished high school and planned to go to college for a de- gree in business. Dad pulled me close one night and whispered in my ear.
“We can’t survive here,” he said.” It was my fault that we didn’t leave five years ago.”
He had been naïve to trust that the North would have a heart for fighters captured in South Vietnam. Now, he realized our family would never have a future—no education, no freedom—in our homeland.
“You need to leave,” he told me.
The charge shook me. Yes, I wanted a future. I wanted an education and to be successful. I knew I would have no future under the Communist regime. I had seen photos of people living in America and Europe and dreamed of being able to live in such places. We knew families with relatives fortunate to leave Vietnam before the Communists had taken over the country. Every few months, those who remained behind would receive packages with clothes, medicine, and candies. I thought if I left Vietnam and found a job somewhere, I would be able to help my family back home. I thought I could help my younger brother and sisters, so we could all be happy. Before, I had always thought, even after the war, success would come in Vietnam. I, too, had been naïve. Now, my father was steering me toward another way—a route that I had never planned to travel.
He had already made a deal with a local fisherman to get me out of the country, along with other refugees who faced potential persecution from the new government. He planned for me to travel by motorboat for free with a group of others who were also escaping. My father would flee as well, but on a separate, smaller boat. At some point, Dad would pay the fisherman and jump onto my boat, so we could be together. He didn’t want to leave my mother and siblings behind, but he couldn’t allow me to travel to a foreign country alone. We would go to the United States together, and later, he would send for the rest of the family to join us there.
“You will be okay,” he said. “I will be next to you the whole time. Don’t be scared. Think about Mom and your younger brother and sisters. They need to be freed.”
“Yes, Dad,” I said. “I have to be brave. I have to survive. I will fight for my future.”
I saw pride in his eyes when he said, “Never give up?”
I straightened my back and answered, “Never give up.”
I had no idea exactly where we would go or how long it would take to get there—and I didn’t know about the dangers at sea.
Shortly after the Chinese New Year, February 11, 1981, the day came for us to fight for our freedom. At eighteen years old, I carried the weight of my family’s future. My father and I left what had been our sweet home of Saigon. Mom held me tight. She cried and told my father to keep me safe. She had heard stories of the danger involved with an escape like ours—people drowning in the South China Sea. She said she would pray until she heard from us.
Dad told her not to worry. He would watch over me every minute. Somehow, I wasn’t scared, at least not in that moment. An amazing sense of strength came over me. Perhaps it was genetic, from the kings and rulers in my family line. Or maybe I just didn’t realize the true dangers that awaited.
After leaving my mother and siblings, Dad and I arrived at Can Tho, the small city west of Saigon where Dad had been stationed in the Air Force. I felt both excited and nervous. I was hopeful for a new horizon but also sad about leaving the rest of my family behind. I wondered if I would ever see them again.
It was early in the morning. I stayed at the home of my great-uncle for most of the day. We did activities together, and I tried to enjoy my last hours in the only country I had ever called home.
Dad took me to an outdoor market, where we ate fish soup, but I accidentally swallowed a fishbone, causing excruciating pain. As the bone stuck to my throat, I felt badly for my father. I saw pain in his eyes because he didn’t know how to help me. He never knew how to help when it came to situations like that. His job had always been to provide financially while my mother stayed home to care for our aches and pains. The bone eventually worked itself loose, and the pain subsided.
Then, in the early evening, Dad took me to the Ninh Kieu port, where a small boat, about thirty feet long and no wider than six feet, had docked. It had a roofed cabin in the middle to which we were directed. About twenty-six of us had gathered, including my two younger cousins, Tuan and Tuyen, who were seventeen and fifteen at the time.
Before getting into the boat, Dad pulled a metal chain from his pocket. On the end hung a summoning tablet, or a dog tag, that had his service number from when he’d worked with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency during the Vietnam War. The chain also held a tag with my aunt’s address in Anaheim, California. She had escaped on the plane to Guam in 1975.
Dad put the chain around my neck, just in case we were separated.
“That won’t happen,” he assured me. “Don’t worry.”
The boat was to head to Pulau Bidong, a refugee camp in Malaysia. The Americans would have a big boat waiting for refugees entering international waters. All I had to do was show those in charge my necklace with Dad’s service number, and they would help me get to the United States. More specifically, they would help me get to California and my aunt. I held tightly onto my father’s hand that afternoon, just before the sun went down, and tried to sound brave.
“Okay, Dad. I’ll see you soon,” I said in Vietnamese. “Be careful.”
He grabbed me and hugged me. “I love you.”
I stepped onto the boat and immediately felt seasick. I had never been on a boat before, and I vomited right away. Eventually, my stomach and my nerves settled. As the boat sailed along, I sat inside the covered area beside my cousins. Everyone on the boat was quiet, with not even a whisper to disturb the silence. We huddled in the cramped cabin in two rows, one on each side of the boat, facing each other.
By late evening, I looked outside and saw my father in the smaller boat sailing alongside ours, just as planned. I lay down to relax. The sky above me shone like a black blanket. No light from the moon or stars made it a good night for our escape. All the lights on the boat were off, and it seemed as if everyone held their breath and prayed silently.
I don’t know how much time passed before loud sounds of gunfire awakened me. Boom! Boom! We turned and saw a coast guard boat slicing through the waves, quickly moving toward us. The captain screamed, “All women and children get down to the bottom! Hide!”
We moved as fast as we could. The captain of our boat revved the engine to full speed to make a run for the sea. The shots came from Vietnamese authorities in another boat. The crackle of bullets sounded like firecrackers. I tried pulling one of my cousins along with me to a lower part of the boat, even as he was throwing up.
Bullets volleyed back and forth for a long time, and I feared our journey would end before it began. Then, out of nowhere, came a huge rainstorm, which was very unusual for February. Our boat bobbed up and down through the waters of the Mekong River that empties into the South China Sea. The storm scared me, but it also helped our escape. The rain and constant whipping of our boat made it a tough target for shooters. They didn’t give up easily, however. Shots rang out sparingly for a few more hours as we sailed on. As the rough winds nudged us farther from the Vietnam border, the shots eventually ceased.
By morning, a man came to the lower deck where my cousin, Tuyen, and I had crouched down beneath a cover. “We made it into international waters approximately two hundred nautical miles from the shoreline,” he said. “We survived.”
But it was unknown if everyone had survived. I looked around, trying to spot the smaller boat with my father inside.
“Where’s my dad?”
The man looked at me intensely, then shook his head.
“I am sorry,” he said.
The smaller boat had gotten away from us amid the shots and the storm. He had no idea what had happened to it or the people onboard.
“We lost him,” the man said.
At that point, I did not know if my father was still alive—if he’d been swallowed by the sea or shot down by the country he once fought to save. My only certainty was I would need to be brave and complete the journey alone.