Escape from Vietnam

May 08, 1994|By DAN THANH DANG

April marks 19 years since my family fled Vietnam during the fall of Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh City), and thousands of other Vietnamese escaped to find a new home in America. I am the narrator of my family's history, but I am not the one that holds the memories. I was 3 years old when we left Vietnam. These stories are from my sisters and parents. Although they are not my own, they are a part of me.

When it was his turn in 1975, my father stood opposite a Navy midshipman -- one foot on one ship and one foot on the other ship -- straddling the two vessels, their legs like wishbones. Both men cautiously picked up one child at a time and placed him or her on the second ship.

With beads of sweat falling from his face, Trong Van Dang was ever so careful not to drop any of his children. Not like the woman next to him who screamed and fainted when her daughter slipped out of a tired soldier's hands, and was crushed to death between the ships as everyone watched helplessly.

His heart tightened and his arms grew tense as he thought about the woman's pain, determined not to let that happen. Not saying a word until he finally counted five girls and one boy. He and my six-months-pregnant mom, Duom, silently gave thanks and climbed aboard the ship to join them.

It was April 29, 1975, during the fall of Saigon to the Communist troops of North Vietnam. Wearing army fatigues with only his name sewn above the pocket -- no identification at all to show that he used to be an army colonel -- he watched as the land became smaller in sight.

As the ship moved into international waters, this proud man who was my father stood quietly next to my mom. Both looked back with sad, brown eyes, and wept for a lost homeland. It would be one of the few times any of us would see them cry.

My sister told me that no one wanted to leave but that some had no choice. Like my dad, many were career military men who fought beside the Americans against the northern Communists. He could no longer stay in a country that did not want him, a country that would either kill him or put him in a re-education camp for the rest of his life.

Although this is my family story, it is a familiar story for many of the refugees (about 130,000) who left in 1975. Most of them were of the Westernized intellectual segment of society and of the military elite. They were people who could no longer feel safe in Vietnam because of their political stance and loyalty.

It wasn't until 1979, during the second wave of refugees, when a more diverse group of people -- fisherman, schoolteachers, villagers, etc. -- secretly planned their escape and left by the hundreds of thousands. Most of them crammed into fishing boats and were later called "Vietnamese boat people."

As many people like myself (Vietnamese-born, college-age students who have lived in America for most of our lives) look back, we only hope and pray that some day we, too, can return to the home we recall through stories we have been told by our relatives.

With the lifting of the crippling U.S. trade embargo on Vietnam by President Clinton in February, that dream is becoming more of a reality.

Many Vietnamese now see a brighter economic future for our country that was ravaged and left poverty-stricken by the war. Within the last year, over half a million Vietnamese refugees returned home for the Vietnamese Tet, the celebration of the new year.

And as my family members begin to return to Vietnam -- my mom visited two years ago, and my sister visited with my mom in December -- we remember the past.

We remember the long, frightening journey and the people we left behind. We remember the people who never made it through the trip. We remember the many friends and strangers who helped us to get here, and we remember those who helped us survive in our new world. And for many of those children of Vietnam, we remember everything our parents did to help us get to America safely.

My 33-year-old sister, Thanh Liem, who has the same gentle demeanor and soft, brown eyes as my dad, remembers the night of our leaving as if it were yesterday. She remembers a once-vibrant city turned to a "dark, ghost town."

"When we left, I remember Dad giving the keys to the neighbors and telling them that we would be back in three days," my sister said. "Only we didn't go back. We snuck through the city in the dark -- it was about 9 p.m. -- hoping to make it in time for the last ship leaving Saigon."

In what seemed like an eerie, dead calm, the only noise to be heard was gunfire and fighter planes chasing each other through the sky. The only thing seen was the silhouette of tanks and soldiers patrolling the city. Not a light was on because of the 24-hour curfew.

As the ship was about to leave and the ladder already hoisted up, a stranger generously threw a rope ladder down and the family climbed up the side of the ship.

Behind us, thousands of Vietnamese pushed against the gates of the naval yard, some trying to climb over to get a chance at freedom.

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