A Memoir of a Modern Odyssey
With Leslie Alan Horvitz
"Being a refugee is being a name and a number on lists. It is being in a mass of people shuffled from one point to another, not knowing what you have to do next or where you are going. It is being a child fearful you will be separated from your parents. It is being an elderly woman too weak to walk without help, but not too weak to smile luminously at a small act of kindness. It is having faith to believe that wherever you go will be better than where you have been. When you are a refugee, hope is the last thing you dare let go."
-- Dr. Kenneth Wilson of World Vision International, a refugee organization:
After Saigon fell to the Communists in the spring of 1975, hundreds of thousands of conquered South Vietnamese, desperate to escape the country out of fear of political persecution, slipped out of ports in small, rickety wooden fishing boats, headed into the open sea in hope of finding refuge in a new land. The refugees became known as the "Boat People."
The crews manning these craft were mostly fishermen, used to navigating rivers and coastal waters; who had never been to sea before in their lives. Buffeted by typhoons, torn asunder by high winds, boats went down by the scores, their passengers vanishing without a trace in a watery grave. Packed together in unsanitary conditions, refugees succumbed to disease and exposure and became easy prey for Thai pirates who robbed and brutalized them, raping and abducting the women. Many of the kidnapped victims were taken to Kra Island off the southern coast of Thailand, where they were hunted down like animals.
It’s estimated that over a quarter of a million of Boat People perished at sea. The true number will never be known.
In spite of these daunting odds, more than 1.6 million Vietnamese eventually found new homes -- 250,000 of them in the West, mainly the US. Some, however, ended up settling in such improbable places as Iceland and Bermuda. Strangely enough, though, until now, the saga of the Boat People has largely gone untold. Many of the Vietnamese refugees don’t want to speak about their ordeal, whether because of guilt or simply because they find it too difficult to dredge up painful memories.
Some former Boat People, however, are determined to bear witness to what they saw and what they endured. In one sense, this story is a dramatic account of one survivor – Paul Truong, who was 13 at the time he set out with his father Tien on the harrowing journey to America. But while this book will be told from Paul’s perspective, as a first-person account, it also aims to present his personal narrative in the larger context of the saga of the Boat People -- the largest mass exodus of asylum seekers by sea in modern history.
The older son of a top Vietnamese supply officer liaising with the US Embassy in Saigon, Paul was raised to be excel at everything he attempted – in the schoolroom, in soccer or in swim metes. But the one skill that Paul mastered above all others was chess, a game his father encouraged him to play even though he didn’t know the game himself. By the age of eight Paul was already a national chess champion, easily beating experienced players many years his senior. Chess taught him several things: self-confidence, the ability to focus and think several steps ahead of his opponent, skills that would later prove crucial to his survival at sea.
In April of 1975, as Communist forces lay siege to Saigon, Paul’s father tried to get his family to safety. A wiry nimble teenager, Paul slipped into the US Embassy compound as the last evacuees were being lifted off by helicopter from the embassy roof. But in the chaos Paul’s father, mother and baby brother were barred from entering the compound by MPs. Unwilling to desert his family, Paul turned around and left the embassy grounds to rejoin his family. Fearing arrest because of his connections to the Americans, Tien went into hiding. For the next four years he plotted to escape the country with Paul, relying on a clandestine network of dissidents and smugglers to obtain information and false papers.
Armed with false documents identifying them as Chinese refugees, Tien and Paul made their move the night of April 30th, 1979 – four years to the day that Saigon fell – knowing that security forces were likely to be distracted by celebrations in honor of the Communist takeover. Even apart from concerns about their safety, their departure was a wrenching one; with no chance of surviving an ordeal at sea, Paul’s mother and baby brother had to stay behind. Paul and his father had no way of knowing whether they would see them again.
It wasn’t until June that Tien and Paul finally put to sea. Their boat, which could safely accommodate 20 fishermen, was jammed with well over six hundred men, women and children. Provisions were meager – some water, dried fruit and bread and for most people a single change of clothes. The only sanitation was in the form of a bucket passed from hand to hand.
Two days out at sea, with only a single compass to navigate by, the boat was set upon by Thai pirates armed with knives and pistols. After robbing the terrified passengers, the pirates dragged several women back to their boat. They were never seen again. Only four hours later the refugees suffered a second attack. These pirates were even more ruthless. Paul, who knew next to nothing about sex, watched in horror as the pirates stripped 12-year old girls and elderly women alike and proceeded to rape them. He couldn’t understand why the men wouldn’t jump the assailants rather than stand helplessly by. No sooner had the second contingent of pirates gone then a third pirate launch bore down on them. By the time pirates came for a fifth time there was practically nothing left to take. In retaliation the pirates sank the boat.
With no land in sight, surrounded by sharks attracted to the body parts floating in the wreckage, Paul and his father managed to stay afloat. Even when all seemed lost Paul was determined to survive: he had a mission – he was going to reach America and find a way to get his mother and brother out of Vietnam. He wasn’t going to allow anything –sharks, Thai pirates, or even the South China Sea – to swerve him from his goal. Almost miraculously, the survivors – about 300 in total – were rescued by a passing US oil tanker.
The refugees’ ordeal was not over, however. The tanker deposited them on an island off the coast of Malaysia. They were then placed in a squalid refugee camp where disease was rampant and where guards distributed the most generous rations, not to the starving or infirm, but to the women who slept with them. The Malaysians, like many other Asian governments, looked on the boat people as a nuisance to be gotten rid of as quickly as possible. After a few months, the authorities herded the refugees on another fishing boat that was in even worse shape than the one they’d begun their journey in, with barely enough water or fuel to last a single day. A naval patrol boat towed their vessel out to sea, alternately speeding up and slowing down, putting such strain on the lumbering craft that it would have broken in two – which was the navy’s intention – if it weren’t for an act of heroism by a teenage girl who saved the boat from sinking.
But saved for what? Reduced to a ration of one Coca Cola bottle cap of water three times a day, the refugees began to die off at an increasing rate. After drifting for days, they finally came within sight of a deserted island belonging to Indonesia. But as they approached the island, Indonesian patrol boats interceded, threatening to blow them out of the water if they came any closer. Paul’s father, because of his fluency in English, tried to negotiate – to no avail. Tien then came up with a desperate plan to deliberately sink their boat and dare the Indonesian navy to stand by while they all drowned…
The gamble paid off. The refugees were allowed to go ashore. The first group, nearly delirious from lack of food and drink, scrambled towards a nearby stream to slake their thirst. By the time Paul and Tien reached land in the last launch scores of people lay dead – the water turned out to be poisonous.
With world attention suddenly focused on the surviving remnants on the island, the Red Cross began delivering desperately needed provisions. Official delegations from several countries followed in their wake to interview the Boat People for the purpose of issuing visas. Over the next several months Tien organized the makeshift camp, making certain that everyone had what they needed to survive. Tien’s principal concern was to ensure that every refugee had a new home to go to. The US delegation was the last to arrive. Because of his past service to the US Government, Tien had no trouble securing a visa for himself and Paul. In addition, they had family members living in the States.
After an exhausting journey that took them nearly halfway around the world, from Indonesia to Singapore and then to LA they finally reached their final destination: Newark, NJ. They were still wearing the same T-shirts, shorts and sandals that they’d left Saigon with. This is how Paul describes his memory of his arrival: “When we got to Newark Airport at four in the morning it was snowing. This was the first time I’d ever seen snow. My uncle and aunt met us and drove us to their house. I remember sitting in his 1969 Plymouth Satellite and thinking what a huge car it was. It was December 1st 1979. We’d arrived right before Christmas. The streets were full of decorations and lights. And I thought, Wow, this is America.”
It would take several years struggling to scrape money together and dealing with red tape before Tien was finally in a position to bring his wife and his younger son to America. “No matter what happens to us I swear that we will never be divided again,” Tien declared during an interview with a local TV station after his family’s emotional reunion.
Over the next several years Boat People continued to flee Vietnam in h hope of reaching safe haven. For a while their plight drew the sympathy of the world and more nations including the US opened their doors to them. By the end of the 1980s, however, the Boat People, who were now seen as economic, and not political, refugees, began to wear out their welcome. Thousands of them were forcibly repatriated to Vietnam. By the early summer of 1997 all but a handful of the refugees were flown home by the United Nations, bringing to an end the saga that had began in secrecy with the fall of Saigon in 1975.
Table of Contents
Prologue: Treading water in the South China Sea, surrounded by debris from a sunken boat and body parts of its drowned passengers, threatened on all sides by sharks, with no land in sight, a fourteen-year-old Paul Truong waits for deliverance.
Chapter 1: The child of an important South Vietnamese official working at the US Embassy, Paul is taught to excel at studies and sports. His father, Tien, believes that Paul needs to be trained rigorously because he is destined to make a significant contribution to his country.
Chapter 2: At the age of five Paul discovers chess and only weeks after learning how to play the game achieves an improbable victory in the National Junior Championship (under 21) against youths as much as four times his age.
Chapter 3: As Paul captures one chess title after another, becoming chess champion of South Vietnam at the age of eight, he is poised to become Asia’s first Grandmaster. His chance to test his mastery of the game comes when he is invited to The World Junior Championship (under 21) tournament in Manila scheduled for September 1975. It is a tournament that Paul will never get to play in.
Chapter 4: In early spring of 1975 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces break through South Vietnamese defenses. For the first time in the war Saigon is seriously threatened. Emergency drills are carried out at Paul’s school. In spite of the deteriorating military situation the US Embassy and the Saigon government insist that there is no danger of collapse.
Chapter 5: By the end of April Communist forces have reached the gates of the city. Panic grips Saigon. Tien scrambles to evacuate his aunt’s family but remains convinced there will be sufficient time to get his wife, Paul, now 13, and infant son out of the country before the North Vietnamese seize Saigon. He books a commercial flight to the US for May 1st. On the night of the 28th violence intensifies inside the city.
Chapter 6: On the morning of the 30th Tien’s family reaches the gates of the US Embassy where a panicked crowd has gathered in hope of being evacuated by US choppers from the roof of the embassy. Even though Tien worked at the embassy he cannot prove his credentials to the MPs guarding the gates. Paul slips in with a surging crowd but in the crush his family is left behind. Rather than abandon his family he goes back outside. In desperation the family tries to find alternate means of escaping – there is none.
Chapter 7: That night Paul’s family waits out a pitched battle being fought beneath their apartment windows as defenders of his mainly Roman Catholic district try to stave off conquest by Communist forces. Realizing that he faces arrest and deportation to a ‘reeducation camp,’ Tien goes into hiding.
Chapter 8: Life under the new Communist regime grows increasingly unbearable. Paul’s mother becomes the sole breadwinner, working as a knitter. Paul chafes at the new rules imposed on him at school, refusing to wear the mandatory red scarf of the Communist youth organization, even resisting when he is threatened at gunpoint by a Communist officer in front of hundreds of his schoolmates.
Chapter 9: Refusing to give up hope for freedom, Tien, relying on trusted friends, makes contact with the captain of a fishing boat who is willing – for a price – to smuggle refugees out of the country. Arrangements are made for Paul to accompany friends to a port in the south of the country. But the captain fails to show up and the mission is aborted.
Chapter 10: Undaunted by this disappointment, Tien secures false identity papers – one for him and one for Paul. The trouble is that the papers are intended for an older Chinese man and a younger Chinese boy. Even so, Tien and Paul study Chinese and hope that when the time comes their papers won’t be too closely scrutinized.
Chapter 11: Tien chooses the night of April 30th 1979 – four years to the date from the fall of Saigon – to make their escape in the belief that security forces will be too distracted by anniversary celebrations to pay much attention to two Chinese refugees heading south. Because neither Paul’s mother or baby brother would have much chance to survive at sea they have to remain behind. Father and son have left just in time. Only hours after their departure, police come to the door of their apartment, prepared to take Tien into custody.
Chapter 12: Just as Tien predicted, guards at the checkpoints on the road south are too drunk to realize that the papers are fraudulent. In the morning Paul and his father board a fishing boat with hundreds of others fleeing the country. But no sooner does the boat put out to sea than engine trouble develops and the boat has to be towed back ashore. Paul and Tien are detained in a stockade near the port for the next three months until they can raise $50 to buy their way out and secure passage on a second boat.
Chapter 13: With 650-700 people packed together on a boat never designed for journeys at sea, Tien and Paul embark on a fateful journey they hope will bring them eventually to America. Tien reminds Paul that he must survive, whatever happens, so that one day he can get his mother and baby brother out of Vietnam.
Chapter 14: On the second day at sea the fishing boat is set upon by Thai pirates who rob the passengers and abduct several women. A few hours later the boat is attacked again; this time the pirates rape the women while their husbands and sons are forced to look on helplessly. Before the terrorized refugees can recover from this assault they suffer a third and fourth attack. By the time the fourth group of pirates climb on board the refugees have nothing left to take. In retaliation the pirates sink the boat.
Chapter 15: Several hundred Vietnamese are thrown into shark-infested waters. There is no land in sight and no apparent source of help. Then, miraculously, the survivors – about 300 in all – are rescued by a passing US tanker.
Chapter 16: To the disappointment of the refugees, the tanker can only take them so far – to an island belonging to Malaysia. They are crowded into a squalid refugee camp inside an old abandoned soccer field where their numbers are further reduced by disease and starvation. Like other Asian countries, Malaysia regards the Boat People as a burden. Then the refugees receive word that they are being taken out to sea once again in a boat no sturdier than the one that had sunk.
Chapter 17: It soon becomes obvious that the Malaysians aren’t just trying to tow their boat out to sea – they want to kill them. The Malaysian naval launch alternately speeds up and slows down with the intent of putting so much strain on the refugee boat that it will rip apart and sink. Only the audacious action of a teenage girl who severs the line with a knife spares the refugees from certain doom.
Chapter 18: With no food, no fuel and barely any water, the boat drifts farther south until it comes within sight of a deserted Indonesian island. But any hope of landing is shattered by the appearance of three Indonesian patrol boats. The Boat People are warned that if they approach the island they will be blown out of the water. Both because of his natural leadership abilities and his fluency in English, Tien takes charge.
Chapter 19: Tien tries to negotiate with the Indonesian captain – to no avail. In desperation, Tien orders the captain to ram their derelict vessel against one of the patrol boat in hope of sinking themselves and forcing the Indonesian navy to rescue them – basically it’s a mass suicide attempt in which suicide is not the object. When that fails to work, Tien asks refugee families to throw overboard the bodies of relatives who’d succumbed to exposure and disease in order to drive home to the obstinate Indonesians the gravity of their plight. Suddenly they hear the rumble of an aircraft overhead – it’s a Red Cross plane.
Chapter 20: Although he vehemently denies it, the Indonesian captain in all likelihood has experienced a change of heart. Whatever the cause, the refugees are permitted to land on the island. Tien waits with Paul until all the refugees have gotten off the boat safely before getting in a launch himself. By this point he is so weakened from dehydration that he faints. Paul fears that he might not make it.
Chapter 21: Hours later, though, Tien recovers, only to discover that scores of refugees have died as a result of drinking from a stream on the island that turns out to have been contaminated. From that point on the survivors take the precaution of boiling the water. Little by little, aided by Red Cross emergency deliveries, a camp is established under Tien’s direction. He is too busy to find food for himself; that job falls to Paul who soon becomes an expert in foraging the woods and streams for dinner.
Chapter 22: With the refugee crisis now on the world’s radar screen, delegations from several Western countries begin arriving on the island to interview refugees with the aim of distributing visas. Tien is determined to ensure that everyone has a home to go to. Because of his past association with the US Embassy, he has no trouble obtaining visas for himself and Paul, granting them permission to live in America.
Chapter 23: In December 1979 – eight months after setting out on their odyssey – Tien and Paul begin the final leg of their journey that will take them from Indonesia via Singapore and ultimately to Newark, NJ. Still wearing the same T-shirts, shorts and sandals that they had on when they left Saigon, they are picked up at the airport by relatives they haven’t seen in years. Bewildered by lights up in the streets for the Christmas holidays, Paul is stunned to see something that he had never experienced before: snow.
Chapter 24: Tien and Paul struggle to adjust to life in their new home, sharing apartments and taking any work they can get. (At one point Paul holds down no less than seven part time jobs simultaneously while going to school.) In their own way, each succeeds in realizing the American dream. But their greatest achievement comes seven years after their arrival in the US when they are finally able to get Paul’s mother and brother out of Vietnam. After being cruelly divided by war and geography the family is finally reunited.