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Asiaweek Pictures
Four weeks before the end of the war, frightened South Vietnamese try to storm aboard a plane leaving Nha Trang

Goodbye, Saigon
Fear, imprisonment and finally escape. One family's story of life in Vietnam after reunification

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 1976.

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!


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 job.

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 my theory.

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."

Early 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 other.

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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