We Were Boat People

Warning: This is not a fun post.

Vietnamese boat people refers to refugees who fled Vietnam by boat and ship after the Vietnam War, especially during 1978 and 1979, but continuing until the early 1990s. The term “Vietnamese Boat People” is often used generically to refer to all the Vietnamese (about 2 million) who left their country by any means or method between 1975 and 1995.
–Wikipedia, Boat People

Once in a while in Boston, a man learns that I am Vietnamese and says, “I am sorry for what we did to your country.” Each time, I can only tell him what my parents would say, “We are grateful and sorry too for all that you went through.”

Below is my story. It is not meant to offend or hurt anyone, either Vietnamese (from the North or the South or abroad) or American, or Vietnamese-American. There has already been too much suffering. I hope that one day, we can move beyond taking sides as to allow room for compassion, from one human being to another.

30 April 1975 / 1981

The North Vietnamese army continued to advance. Evacuation plans were already in place to get American troops and thousands of South Vietnamese out of the region. Eventually, “enemy tanks rolled down the main avenue and burst through the gate of the Independence Palace,” my mom would recall in a sorrowful voice. “The Americans left… all hope was gone… it was over.” The Fall of Saigon, April 30th 1975, has two names. Most call it “Ngày thống nhất” (Reunification Day) but in my family, it was known as “Ngày mất nước” (the day we lost our country).

Me shortly before leaving Saigon

This morning, 33 years ago, my parents, two aunts, and four uncles—ages ~11 to 26—left their homes without the authorities’ knowledge. I was only a few months old, and my mom was already pregnant again. I still cannot imagine how my grandparents decided which of their children would go, and which ones would stay. Goodbyes were done in private so that nothing would look suspicious once exposed to daylight. We must have left in several groups. My parents and I got in a car (or bus?) and left as casual passengers, without luggage. My paternal grandfather biked along next to the vehicle for part of the way, pretending not to know us. When it was time, my dad and his dad exchanged one last furtive look, a tacit goodbye, before my grandfather took a turn as to not raise any suspicions. (That was the last time the two men would see each other alive.) Amidst the anniversary celebrations of the Fall of Saigon, we traveled to a hiding place where we waited for nightfall. Counting down the hours in the dark that evening, my parents couldn’t keep me from crying. Everyone was nervous that I would blow their cover and compromise the entire operation. Thankfully, I became quiet and, in the night of May 1, we made our way to the boat that had been clandestinely prepared for us.

The journey

Just last weekend my dad promised to tell me play-by-play how everything unfolded since I was now “old enough to know”—but he will have to do this in person. I only know the bits and pieces that my family has been brave enough to share so far.

According to my mom, we had to travel through the woods (jungle?) to reach the dock, and we were ambushed on the way. We were robbed of whatever we had managed to carry with us, although three people were able to hide in the darkness: one man with previous military training who remained motionless in the water, and my mom, who held me close to her behind the wild vegetation. Making herself as small as she could, she prayed that I wouldn’t cry. I was awake. She said she saw me look around, but I didn’t make a sound. My dad had been caught along with everyone else.

What happened on the boat the next few days is something that my family doesn’t talk about much, and the specifics that I know, out of respect for their healing process, I will not share here. I will only mention dehydration, hallucination, and desperation. The boat was overcrowded with people who had sneaked into our group at the last minute. Regardless, we were lost, robbed of our supplies, and at the mercy of the elements.

Once in a while, the perfectly flat line between the sea and the sky was disrupted by the hint of a boat. Everyone held their breath. It could mean salvation, or it could be pirates, or Russian / Chinese boats, allies of the new Vietnamese government. Once the boat was deemed friendly, hands went shooting through the air. The two babies on board, a boy and me, were held up high so the potential rescuers could see there were children on board. A few times (I’m not sure how many), the large boat “took a look at us and left.” The hurt could still be heard in my dad’s voice.

A knight to the rescue

This is my favorite part of the story, the part when a mighty French knight (“chevalier”) comes riding in and delivers us from the dangers of the open seas, which included pirates, sharks, storms, starvation, and the cruel burning sun. (With all this, my dad once mentioned struggling to keep my baby skin from cracking.) This time, waving hands and babies in the air seemed to work, and we were taken into safety. A French sailor snapped pictures of this fateful day.

Chevalier Valbelle was its name, though the handwriting on the back of the picture spells “Chevalier Valbel.” This cargo ship was featured in 2004 in a France 3 Thalassa documentary, which touched rescued folks and rescuers alike, and prompted families of naval officers and former refugees to try and reconnect through the program’s online forum. Chevalier Valbelle is mentioned again in “Boat People: Bateaux de l’Exil,” a report for a 2009-2010 exposition in France (page 9 of the document). In fact, I just learned that this ship would continue to save many more lives, as the French had made it a point to methodically zigzag the area in search of more Vietnamese refugees.

According to the United Nations High Commission of Refugees, between 200,000 and 400,000 died at sea. My family was among the 700,000 boat people who were resettled.

The wait

Our lives were now safe, but our future was yet to be determined. And none of it was in our hands.

We were dropped off at a refugee camp in Hong Kong, which—Wikipedia tells me—had a “first port of asylum policy.” This is another part of the story that is only told in shadows. The picture I get from gathering fragments of stories throughout the years shows families crammed together into what resembles prison cells. People stood in line for hours in the sun for food, and women weren’t safe. “Things were done,” I understand.

After several months, a French officer in pristine uniform appeared one day with a list of names. These were the names of those who would be granted asylum in France. Often, my mom has vividly described the moment when she heard her name, and she stepped forward with nothing but a baby in her arms and the clothes on her back.

Priority for resettlement in a Western country was given to families, so single men often were left behind. My dad remembers with amusement that there was this one fellow who got to go to France anyway. My dad claims that this guy stood out because he had previously wowed the French with his ability to produce origami for everything the sailors could think of. Could the ability to fold paper really change the course of an entire destiny? What was this young man’s name, and where is he now? What about that baby boy on our boat, I wonder.

Foreigners abroad

First Christmas in France. I am not sure if my parents ever saw a Christmas tree before.

First Christmas in France. I am not sure if my parents ever saw a Christmas tree before.

My family flew to France—“on a Boeing 747!!!” my dad always added. Despite the thrill of flying on such a large plane, my parents still sounded embarrassed that they had to take turns hiding me in the bathroom, to keep my cries from bothering other passengers. I would remind them that, at least, I had not cried while we were hiding in the jungle.

We arrived in Paris where we began our days in shelter, before being relocated several more times. This was the beginning of a new life, although “foreign” is a more suitable choice of word than “new.” A foreign language, foreign food, and foreign customs in a foreign land where we were the foreigners.

Foreigners at home

Việt Kiều is a name that people in Vietnam reserve for those like us, ethnic Vietnamese who left and now live abroad. In Vietnam, I am not really Vietnamese; I am Việt Kiều. The locals don’t identify with us, and the Việt Kiều are treated differently. My mom concluded that, in some ways, we really did lose our country.

Today—Wednesday, April 30th, 2014—is a holiday in Vietnam, for Liberation Day or Reunification Day. Between the Vietnamese around the world who are accused of having forgotten what happened and those berated for having moved on, there are those who were too young to remember, those who have learned to heal, and those who are still trying to understand what happened, and who they are. I don’t always know where “home” is, and I’m okay with that. We were boat people, and we survived.

Minnie's family at a refugee camp in Hong Kong

Minnie’s family at a refugee camp in Hong Kong

“They Call Us Việt Kiều” is a collection of 28 illustrations by Minnie Phan, daughter of boat people, as she explored her own identity on a trip to Vietnam (reference).

This post is dedicated to my parents, the rest of my family, all those who have been affected by the Vietnam War, those whose lives were lost or destroyed, and those who were born after the War and are still searching for a sense of identity. For all the tears, the hurt, and the scars, I am really sorry; and for all the humanitarian endeavors rushing to aid a nation in crisis, I am so deeply grateful. 

7 thoughts on “We Were Boat People

  1. djdig

    Wow Marina! Thank you for sharing you story.

    I’m so glad you didn’t cry. I was a baby that had colic so I would not have survived if our roles were reversed. I held my breath reading that part of the story, even though I know you in real life, so I know you made it out!

    *huge hug*

    1. Marina Post author

      Thanks Danielle.
      This was by far the hardest post I’ve written yet. I often wondered whether it made sense for me to share something so intense and traumatic with the world, something that still feels raw sometimes, but in the end I believe this is important. I did my best to be as authentic as I could, and I am glad to hear you found the story engaging. *hug back*

  2. Anonymous

    Marina. This is such an amazing story. I still have the chills after reading it!

    1. Marina Post author

      Thank you for your kind comment. The nature of the story makes it hard to share, and it can be difficult to receive as well. I hope I didn’t shake you up too much.

  3. huy

    maybe we have traveled in the same boat people in 1982 November 20, i was 16 years old
    i don’t speak english very well because i live in Toulouse (France) but i try my best
    i remember we were 106 people on the mall boat , after 36 hours on the sea, we were saved by chevalier Valbel and arrived to hongkong in the night.
    i’m very happy and sometimes your story make me laught because you say exactly what has happened to me

    1. Marina Post author

      Huy, votre anglais est très bien–pas de soucis sur ce plan-là. En tout cas, quelle surprise! C’est la première fois que je “rencontre” un autre réfugié sauvé par le Chevalier Valbel. Il semblerait en effet qu’on ait fait des parcours très similaires, et ça me fait plaisir de savoir que vous avez aimé mon petit récit.

  4. Duc

    Bonjour Marina et Huy,

    Je vous écris en français c’est beaucoup plus simple pour moi.
    Moi aussi C’est le Chevalier Valbel qui m’a sauvé en 09/1984 puis 3 jours après arrivé à HongKong (Camp n°3 à kowloon : trại cắm Hồng Kông n°3 ở Cửu Long) arrivé en France en début 1985) Le numéro d’ordre de mon bateau arrivé à HongKong est 2070
    Huy votre bateau a plus chanceux que le notre car on était 20 jours en mer, 95 personnes au total mais seulement 90 personnes vivantes.

    Avez vous des nouvelles de ce porte contener Chevalier Valbel ?
    A bientôt

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