Vietnam News

Talking to my mum about escaping Vietnam

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“Do you know what day is coming up?” Mum asks me in one of our regular phone conversations.

“It’s April 30,” she says. Forty-five years since the end of the Vietnam War.

It had always been a traumatic month for my parents.

“It’s the first time I don’t feel anxious, or sad … or angry,” Mum says.

It’s taken her almost five decades to get to this point.

I’ve heard snippets of how my parents came to Australia as refugees my entire life.

But lately, I’ve been paying more attention.

My dad passed away last year. With his death, I found myself wondering about all the questions I’ll never get a chance to ask him.

How did he learn to sail? When did he learn five languages? Was he scared as he navigated the boat from Vietnam to Malaysia?

This year, I’m also the same age my mum was when she escaped.

As I approach the same life milestones my parents have passed, I often ask myself, “Could I have managed the same things they did?”

What would I have done if I was in their position?

Memories of war

Growing up in the Mekong Delta village of Ca Mau, my mum was mostly protected from the realities of the Vietnam War.

She was a talented mathematics student, with aspirations to one day study law.

But the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, brought any life plans to an abrupt end.

“I was so young,” she says. “I was barely out of school and I hadn’t even had my first boyfriend yet.”

The daughter of a high-ranking South Vietnamese military official on the losing side of a decades-long war, she still remembers the sound of parents “crying for their children” in her neighbourhood.

“For their sons who were still on the battlegrounds,” she says. “And for those who were far away from home.”

Under the new regime, assets were seized, and family members and friends were arrested and put into prison.

As the youngest member of her sprawling extended family, mum was old enough to work, but young enough not to have a paper trail linking her to the former South Vietnamese Army.

So began years of working under fake names in various roles, with the constant anxiety of having her family connections discovered by the new communist government.

At the age of 19, mum had the burden of looking after her parents and siblings, and later, her own growing family.

As a child, I’d often wonder what my own 19th birthday would bring.

While I had a humble upbringing in a housing commission in western Sydney, I never once felt unsafe, nor did I ever go hungry.

My biggest concerns then were about wading through huge law and journalism textbooks, as I began a tertiary education my mum never got a chance to do.

The escape

It would take almost a decade and 11 attempts for my parents to finally escape Vietnam.

“For every 10 boats that left the country, we’d hear that nine of them didn’t make it,” she says.

The journey came with the risks of being shot, drowning, piracy and rape.

By the 11th attempt in 1983, my mum was 28. The same age I am now.

She had two boys under two by that stage with my dad, who she’d married in her 20s. She was also nine months pregnant with my third brother, Thanh.

“It was our last chance,” she says. “We had no money left. No assets. And the government would never trust us again.” 

Over a series of months, my parents had managed to get a fishing boat, hoarding and burying petrol and supplies when they could.

They agreed to take some people with them: an extended family of seven who helped pay for the boat. One of the women in the family was a midwife, who’d be ready to help my mother deliver if she went into labour.

“When you’re trying to sneak away in the night,” my mum tells me, “everything is agonisingly loud”.

As they sailed out towards the sea, police quickly followed and shot at the boat for an hour.

“I thought, ‘Oh God, if they keep shooting at us at this rate, how will we survive?” Mum says.

Her voice is remarkably calm as she chats to me on a weekend visit home. But she hesitates every now and again, showing the trauma she still feels.

I press record on my phone. I had taken to recording our conversations over the last few months (with her permission), whenever she felt comfortable talking about her past.

“Why are you recording me?” she laughs. “No-one is interested in my story.”

“I am,” I say to her.

‘We are all capable of compassion’

When my parents were sailing towards Malaysia, my father navigating with nothing but a compass, mum gave birth to my brother Thanh.

“There was blood everywhere,” she said.

“Your father threw the placenta overboard and washed equipment in the spray of the surf on the side of the boat.

“And then the sharks came.”

It took them almost two days to sail from Vietnam to Malaysia, navigating a rocky fishing boat as sharks followed.

When they arrived on a Malaysian island, they took shelter under the shade of a tree in the tropical heat.

As they waited to be taken away to the Pulau Bidong refugee camp, locals approached them.

Adults brought condensed milk, children came running with cakes and sweets to leave at their feet.

Another would bring an umbrella to shade them from the sun, while someone else brought blankets for my newborn brother.

“Everyone at their core is the same,” Mum tells me.

“No matter what skin colour; no matter what nationality.

“Ultimately at our core we are all capable of compassion.”

Why my family’s story has been on my mind

Like so many others across the globe, I’m facing the prospect of a birthday under physical distancing. I’ll turn 29 later this year.

But unlike my mother at the same age, I won’t have three kids under three.

I’ve been lucky enough to finish two degrees, and a graduate diploma.

I’ve lived in four countries, and I work in a field that relates to my education.

Their story is becoming more important to me, the more I navigate the usual trappings of adult life — and lately, our new reality under the coronavirus pandemic.

My family’s lives are a constant reminder to me that ordinary, flawed people are capable of overcoming the most difficult and unexpected challenges.

By Angelique Lu – Australian Broadcasting Corporation Life – April 30, 2020

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