2000 VOL. 26 NO. 14 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK
Four weeks before the end of the war, frightened South Vietnamese
try to storm aboard a plane leaving Nha Trang
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imprisonment and finally escape. One family's story of life in Vietnam
By LAN AI TRINH
Lan Ai Trinh was just five years old when Saigon fell. A third--generation
Chinese Vietnamese, she remembers well the difficulties her middle--class
family suddenly faced adapting to life under the new regime. Today, Trinh
is a producer for an American network TV station. The courageous and moving
story of how she and her family escaped from Vietnam and made their way
to the U.S. is told in the book A Little Exile, which she is currently
finishing. This is an exclusive condensed extract.
After a life that had blessed me with many ordinary things, my family
decided in the fall of 1975 that it was time to leave Vietnam. With investments
from four other Chinese families, my father (Ba) contracted a boat big
enough to fit a hundred people. Over the next few months, the men from
these families planned escape routes and tried to predict the weather
around the waters of Cam Ranh, a small coastal town north of Saigon where
we had lived before liberation. Despite bad omens during these preparations,
it was finally time for us to make our escape in the last week of February
Since the government's policy was to confiscate abandoned homes, we felt
it was too risky for all of us to disappear at the same time. The plan
was that my mother (Ma), my older brother by two years (Ah B), Ba's younger
brother (Uncle An) and I would wait on an island with the other families,
mostly women and children. Five men, including Ba, were to pick us up
when the time was right. Nobody told me anything. All I knew was that
we were sneaking out of Vietnam and going to America. Bad weather meant
we had to wait four days on the island. We kids killed time by playing
Hide and Seek in the papaya orchards. With the weight of all the jewelry
Ma had hidden in the seams of my clothes, I couldn't move around very
fast. During one game, the "it" person began humming "Vietnam, Ho Chi
Minh!" This reminded me of the first time I had heard this strange new
anthem: on Liberation Day, April 30, 1975. The words were still in my
head. It's as if Uncle Ho is here/On this victorious day/His words are
now a reality/Victory, splendor . . . /Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh!
HELLO, UNCLE HO
After Saigon fell, Ba decided we should stay there. We had moved to the
city from Cam Ranh a few weeks earlier. Cam Ranh was a small place, and
Ba feared that if we stayed there, he would be identified and forced into
a re--education camp because of his former service in the U.S. army. Being
a Chinese "capitalist" wouldn't help either. We moved into Big Auntie's
(Ma's older sister) house in the Chinese district of Cholon. Ba continued
to run his fishing hardware business from Saigon, but Ma stopped her teaching
Ah B and I enrolled in second grade. "Stand up and repeat the Liberation
Song after me," the Vietnamese teacher instructed us on the first day.
Other than the singing, the teacher's words were a mystery to me. Her
accent was so Northern it was like a foreign language. Northern and Southern
Vietnamese sounded very different, and, of course, I spoke mostly Cantonese
at home. Worse yet, the teacher had no textbooks. Everything had to be
copied by hand and I couldn't read a single Vietnamese word she wrote
on the board.
Before liberation, like most Chinese in the South, my brother and I had
attended a private Chinese school. We had just begun to learn the Vietnamese
alphabet when Ma abruptly pulled us out of school and took us to Saigon.
"I can't understand anything!" I complained to Ma when I got home from
my new school. "It's like that everywhere now," Ma tried to calm me. "There
are no more Chinese schools, so just do your best." Weeks later, I was
kicked out of school, considered an "illegal resident" in the city. Because
the four of us had not lived in Saigon before liberation, we were unable
to get our own ho khau (a family registration book filed with the police).
Expulsion took me away from "Miss No Textbooks," but not from her accent.
Whenever I heard Northern Vietnamese spoken around me, my antennae went
up. It told me that a Cong San (Communist) was nearby. I tensed up. Now
just six years old, I understood that we were on the side that had lost
the war. But other than Uncle Ho, with his gray beard, I had no idea what
the winners looked like. I gathered though that I should be afraid and
cautious around this new breed of Vietnamese. And since I'd never met
a Northerner before liberation, I concluded that they were the Cong San
I should watch out for. Then one day, an incident completely shattered
A Vietnamese boy next door got hurt while playing soccer with Ah B. "I'm
going to tell my dad you tripped me!" the boy cried as he limped home.
"But I didn't do it," Ah B defended himself to Ma. "He fell on his own."
Big Auntie quickly stepped in. "Take some oranges over and apologize to
his parents," she told Ma. "We don't want any trouble. His father is a
Party official." I had played with this boy many times in the past. His
Vietnamese accent was no more Northern than mine. How could his father
possibly be a Southerner and a Cong San at the same time, I asked myself?
Have they been here all along? This realization rocked me like an earthquake.
How was I supposed to tell who was a Cong San now? From that day on, I
began to think of all Vietnamese as potential Communists.
In September, rumors began to spread: A currency change was coming. Everyone
was in a panic. Like most Chinese, Ma bundled up her Vietnamese dollars
and bought gold. But the price had skyrocketed so much that her entire
savings converted into just a few measly taels. The rumors proved to be
true. Overnight, old money became worthless. Regardless of how much you
had, each family was allowed to exchange only up to 200 new dong -- at
a usury rate of 500 to 1. This limit produced a "looking for the poor"
marathon, where the wealthy scurried around seeking poorer friends and
relatives to exchange money for them. Some simply burned their cash rather
than let the government know how rich they were.
The problems with the currency confirmed the people's unease about the
new leaders. Added to this was the fact that the economic situation was
sliding downhill fast. Around this time, a government program was enforced
to deal with the capitalists and unemployed, regardless of ethnic background.
They were shipped out to cultivate land called New Economic Zones (NEZ).
Slogans such as "Labor is glorious" and "Build a beautiful new life in
the NEZ" appeared in newspapers. We were all terrified of being sent to
a zone. And stories we heard from those who escaped from them validated
our fear. They said it was like going to a death camp. In the "people's
paradise," there was no water, no food and no shelter. The only abundance
was malnutrition and diseases. Everything had to be built from scratch.
Ba wondered when we would be next on the list. "You must leave now," grandpa
said to Ba. "They'll kill you if you stay. There is no future here. Don't
worry about us."
in the morning of the fifth day on the island, the sky clears and the
sea is calm. The men decide it is too dangerous for all 30 of us to stay
in one place. The kids are making too much noise and it's feared our extended
stay on the island may attract attention. The men tell my family and a
woman named Chi Chi to hide up in the hills. Halfway up, Uncle An, walking
ahead of us, suddenly stops and says: "Sshh! Don't move!" We all freeze.
I hear a sound like a leaf crackling. I look down and see a long snake
slithering past us. I hold my breath as it curls away. "A snake is a bad
omen," Uncle An comments. Ma looks distraught, but no one says a word.
We finally stop at the top of a hill and sit beneath a tree. The ocean
and cloudless sky stretch infinitely before us. Ma asks me if I can see
a boat, and though I squint as hard as I can, all I see is water. Ma says
that Ba is out there somewhere, and he will come and pick us up soon.
We wait for hours. There is nothing to do. Ah B and I munch on our favorite
snack: uncooked instant noodles. A bee buzzes by. Every little sound startles
me. The adults look worried. I keep quiet.
I hear that crackling sound again. But this time, it's much heavier. It
seems to be coming closer. "Don't move," Uncle An whispers. Can it be
that snake again? A bear? Did I drop some food back there? Suddenly, from
nowhere, two scrawny young cadres step out from behind the bushes, pointing
their rifles at us. "Oh, my God! We're dead! Ma! Ma!" we all scream at
once. "Put your hands up and follow us!" one of them orders us brusquely
in a Northern accent. I tug at Ma's shirt with one hand and raise the
other. Also pointing his rifle at us, the other cadre walks behind us.
Communists, they must be Communist soldiers, I think to myself.
We stop on the beach. Will they shoot us? I cling to Ma. One cadre walks
away and aims his rifle at the ocean. I look out and finally see a tiny
boat approaching. Is that Ba? The cadre fires two shots at the water.
It is louder than any New Year firecracker I'd ever heard. I cup my ears;
the shooting stops. "Watch them while I get the others," the "Shooter"
shouts to "Second Cadre." The boat quickly turns around and begins to
disappear. Then two small speedboats pull up on the beach. "The three
of you, get on board!" one of the cadres grunts at Ma, Uncle An and Chi
Chi. "But what about the kids?" Ma asks. "They stay here." I plead:"Ma,
take me, take me!" Ah B joins in: "I want to go too." Ma insists:"Stay
here. Look after your sister. And, here, keep this pillow!" "Come on!
Let's go!" the cadre says as he pushes the trio onto one of the boats.
Where are they taking my mother?
On the shore, they separate the kids from the adults and pack all 15 children
onto the other speedboat. Ah B and I are the youngest ones in the group.
We are all silent. After a couple of hours, we reach land. The place doesn't
look familiar. We get off and the cadres tell us to walk in single file,
with one soldier at each end of the line. I am toward the front, trailing
behind Ah B. It is hot and I worry that my sweat will make the "secrets"
in my clothes show through. People spill out of their homes and shops
to stare at this progression of children marching between two soldiers.
"You poor things," they sigh.
The long walk takes us to a tall brick building fenced with spiraling
barbed wire. The guarded gate opens to an empty courtyard. We pass many
empty rooms, one with a woman's dress of Ma's size hanging on the wall.
Is it Ma's? Is she here? At the end of the hallway, the soldiers put us
in a big room and lock the metal door behind them. The room is damp, reeking
of mildew. Except for a small window -- our only source of daylight --
the rectangular room is completely bare. Against the two long walls are
knee--high benches made out of dark and dirty cement. This is our "furniture."
At the other end of the room is a squat toilet, with a tank of murky water.
Brother and I plop our pillow in the corner nearest the door. After a
meal of fish and rice so rotten that none of us touches it, a soldier
comes in and leads us one at a time to an interrogation room. Ah B is
the first to go. He reappears looking pale and numb. Then it is my turn.
In the room, an officer is sitting behind a desk. He looks very stern.
Other than his desk and chair, the room is empty, leaving me nowhere to
sit. "Kneel down and face me!" he orders. From where I am, he seems like
a giant. "What were you all doing on the island?" he asks me in Northern
Vietnamese. "I don't know. No one tells me anything," I reply with my
eyes fixed on the ground. "How many people were there?" "I don't know."
"Where are your parents?" "I really don't know."
After several rounds of the same questions, I can tell he is losing patience
with me. Raising his voice, he says: "You must confess everything you
know! Your brother has already told us everything. And if you do as we
say, we'll let you go." "If you already know everything, then why do you
still need to ask me?" I blurt back without thinking. He is not impressed
by my attitude and slams his hands on the desk. "Take her back!" he waves
at the soldier standing by the door.
In the evening, they bring us another bucket of the same foul food. This
time, I am too hungry to be picky. I swallow the rice and fish almost
without chewing. I am tired and long for a shower, but there is only filthy
water in the bathroom. I want to go to bed, but the officers are back
again. One by one, they search our belongings and clothing, keeping anything
they like. Ah B is quivering with fear. He lies down, his head on the
pillow. An officer shakes him up by the shoulder while a female officer
body--searches me. The officer pushes Ah B harder, but he does not move.
His eyes are tightly shut, his body like a corpse.
The female's hands slowly investigate the "hard" areas of my clothes.
The next thing I know, all my jewelry sparkles in front of my eyes. Even
the male officer gives up on Ah B and turns to me. Piece by piece, the
officers inspect the jewelry with glee, as if they too have never seen
such delights: baby bracelets, necklaces, rings and Ma's wedding gifts.
"Are there more?" the officer asks me. His lips continue to move, but
he's all blurry now and I cannot comprehend anymore. I kneel down and
start crying. Everyone is circled around me, staring down at me. My tears
drip over the jewelry on the floor. Then, finally, the officers scoop
up all the valuables and leave. "Why are you crying?" the other kids ask
me. I ignore them. The lights shut off and I slowly lie down beside my
brother. I pretend to drift off to sleep. We do not say a word to each
Lan Ai Trinh and her brother were held for a month. Separately from them,
their mother was imprisoned for a year. After making several failed attempts
to escape Vietnam by sea, Trinh and her mother finally crossed the land
border into China in July 1978, six months before China invaded Vietnam.
They spent two years in China before being accepted into the U.S. The
brother, Ah B, escaped by sea in 1978. Their father had earlier made it
by boat to Thailand, and reached America in 1976. The family was finally
reunited in 1983. Now 30, Trinh, frequently returns to Vietnam for her
work. She says she has put the past in perspective and wants a prosperous
and more open Vietnam to be part of her future.
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November 30, 2000