The Vietnamese Boat People (A Refugee’s Story After the Vietnam War)

On the morning of April 30, 1975, the Vietnam War ended as North Vietnamese forces invaded Saigon and the last US helicopter departed, leaving behind a fallen city now known as Ho Chi Minh. This marked the turning point of the lives of many South Vietnamese, and the birth of the Vietnamese “boat people.”

During the weeks that surrounded the defeat, all Cam Truong—a 13-year-old girl at the time from Rạch Giá of Kien Giang—could remember was the chaos and the devastation as she watched the livelihoods of those around her and the life she once knew be stripped away piece by piece. “You could hear gunshots and explosions everywhere,” she said, as we sat on her family room sofa. Her husband, who was also a refugee during the war, was washing dishes in the background. “No one was allowed out the house. It was really scary.”

Even after the gunshots and battles ceased, the damage caused by war remained.

She remembered North Vietnamese men rampaging through and taking control of businesses, including her family’s. Like many ethnic Chinese living in Vietnam, her parents were merchants and owned a wholesale and fabrics business. People were stripped of their homes and money, only to receive a fraction of what was taken by the communist regime.

Many people were also taken away and detained in re-education camps to be “trained” and have their minds “cleared.” They were made to surrender their property, sent to prison-like camps, and forced to undergo strict communist indoctrination. Cam’s uncle was one of many taken away, detained for several months before being released.

Her great-uncle, who knew of the horrors of these camps—the torture, the severe malnutrition, the executions—became one of many who committed suicide before he could be taken away too. “He was the one whose wife was friends with the president’s wife,” Cam explains. “We don’t know what happened to her.” This uncertainty was a reality for many South Vietnamese whose family members were also taken away.

Whether by suicide, untreated injuries, failed escapes, or leftover bombs and landmines, many lives were lost even after the Vietnam War ceased. To this day, thousands of live bombs and mines still remain in Vietnam and surrounding regions, leaving people with severe burns and lost arms, legs, and eyesight. Nearly 40,000 Vietnamese lives have been lost due to remaining bombs alone.

“The scariest thing I see was a burned body,” Cam said, looking out the window with a frown. “It floated in the water. I never forget that.”

After living under the oppression of the communist regime for almost three years, with their lives as a shadow of what it once was, her father urged her and her five older brothers to escape. Their aunt, his sister, had been living in Hong Kong and was their chance at a new and better life—one of freedom. Her father, mother, and three younger siblings would remain in Vietnam, as her younger siblings were too young to make the journey. Failure to escape meant imprisonment and even death. Regardless, it was worth a shot.

Thus, in February 1978, after months of planning, Cam traveled 32 miles alone by bus to her older brother’s house before they traveled another hour to get to another house closer to the water. They waited until it was dark before heading out to a small fishing boat that would take them to their own boat, one that was large enough to make the trip to Malaysia. However, the trip did not come without a cost: they had to pay the fisherman two ounces of gold per person to reach their own boat.

It would have been a success, that is until her brother-in-law decided to join them. With an additional person, they did not have enough gold. One person would have to be left behind, and that person was Cam.

With failure not an option, as the risk of capture was too high, her brothers unwillingly left. And under the cover of the night, Cam walked back to her brother’s house—a three-to-four-hour trip by foot—before taking a bus back home, where she told her parents the news. All seemed lost, as no one knew what happened to her brothers. No one knew if they were successful, if they had been captured, or if they had perished at sea. Their only options at that point were to either stay or leave as well.

Not wanting to go through the fear and heartbreak of being separated again, Cam refused to leave anyone else behind when urged to try again. Either they all escaped or they all stayed. With hope for a better life and freedom away from the oppression and fear that surrounded them in Vietnam, they chose to escape together.

Two months later, in April 1978, they tried again. Taking what they could carry, they left behind everything and everyone they knew. Passage to Malaysia had increased to 10 ounces of gold per person, but that didn’t stop them. For three days, with nothing but water to fill their stomachs, they traveled across the Gulf of Thailand, journeying through perilous storms and near-death experiences, before finally reaching Pulau Besar—an island situated on the east coast of Johor, Malaysia.

Pulau Besar was one of several refugee camps, reaching peak capacity of over 40,000 inhabitants in the summer of 1978. Refugees lived in makeshift huts made of logs and palm fronds with beds made of salvaged timbers and a nearly nonexistent sanitation system. Its crystal clear waters and white sandy beaches were a clear contrast to the conditions the refugees faced.

By some luck, upon reaching the island, Cam and her family found her brothers, who had arrived at the island two months prior, and ran towards them in joy. With hope and a perseverance that continued to grow each day, they worked to make their stay as comfortable as they could, while waiting to be matched to a country they could call home.

With their identification papers lost at sea, it wasn’t easy finding someone to sponsor their resettlement. “I remember going with my dad to an interview where they asked me all these questions because we didn’t have our papers. They got wet, so we don’t know what they were and just threw them away. We didn’t know any better,” said Cam as she shook her head, leading back into the sofa and smiling. “Luckily, they believed me.”

Being more fortunate than most, Cam and her family soon received news of a sponsor from the United States only four months after their arrival to the island. After endless paperwork and interviews, they were soon transported to Kuala Lumpar, the capital of Malaysia, for physical exams. Within a week, all 16 members of their immediate and extended family were sent on a plane to the United States. This was the beginning of their American dream.

By 1980, her family became one of many Vietnamese immigrant families living in the United States, hoping to reach their American dreams. Other countries that participated in the resettlement of Vietnamese refugees during that time included Australia, Canada, and France.

Sponsored by a church in Oklahoma, Cam and her family settled in a town near Tulsa. They knew no one and did not know how to speak a word of English. Everywhere they went, they carried a Vietnamese-English dictionary, taking it out each time they needed to converse with someone. “You really learn the language quickly that way,” Cam said, chuckling. “There was not much Vietnamese where we lived, and, oh, I hated to go to church [sic]. We don’t understand anything they say.”

After less than six months, they moved to Chinatown in San Francisco, with the help of her brother’s friend, traveling almost 2,000 miles via Greyhound buses to get there. With the little money they had, her family rented a two-bedroom, one-bath apartment, one that could barely fit all eight of her siblings and her parents. She, her mom, and two sisters shared one bedroom, while her six brothers shared the other one; her father slept in the living room. It was vastly different from their three-story house in Vietnam. “You only had space to sleep.”

Like many other refugees, Cam and her family received monetary support from the government, but it wasn’t enough. To support her family, Cam worked in one of Chinatown’s many garment factories, sewing from morning until late at night on weekends and everyday after school until around six to sometimes eight at night. “The more you work, the more money you make,” she said. She stretched her fingers as if remembering the hours of sewing.

“You quick, you done faster, and I was quick. I made the most money out of everyone in the family,” she said smiling proudly.

Earning around $500 per month, and sometimes even $150–200 on weekends, she helped her family start a wholesale bakery from their tiny apartment kitchen. The apartment soon smelled of sesame balls, Chinese donuts, and a multitude of different Chinese buns. Each day, she and her brothers would take the bus to deliver them to local bakeries around San Francisco before going to school or returning home. Like many refugees living in Chinatown during that time, they knew that they had to work hard to achieve their American dream.

Eventually, they made enough money to move to Sunnyvale, CA, purchasing a four-bedroom house and opening their own wholesale bakery in San Jose. There, Cam and each of her siblings graduated from Homestead High School, most going off to college, some at San Jose City College and others at San Jose State University, becoming engineers, accountants, a computer scientist, and a chiropractor. This was their American dream, one much deserved.

Today, Cam lives in northern California with her husband, her son, and her daughter, me, comfortable and happy. Her story, while over 40 years old, is one of tragedy and hardship, but also one of hope and perseverance. It is but a single chapter of the continuously growing story of refugees, one shared by thousands.

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The Vietnamese Boat People (A Refugee’s Story After the Vietnam War)

On the morning of April 30, 1975, the Vietnam War ended as North Vietnamese forces invaded Saigon and the last US helicopter departed, leaving behind a fallen city now known as Ho Chi Minh. This marked the turning point of the lives of many South Vietnamese, and the birth of the Vietnamese “boat people.”

During the weeks that surrounded the defeat, all Cam Truong—a 13-year-old girl at the time from Rạch Giá of Kien Giang—could remember was the chaos and the devastation as she watched the livelihoods of those around her and the life she once knew be stripped away piece by piece. “You could hear gunshots and explosions everywhere,” she said, as we sat on her family room sofa. Her husband, who was also a refugee during the war, was washing dishes in the background. “No one was allowed out the house. It was really scary.”

Even after the gunshots and battles ceased, the damage caused by war remained.

She remembered North Vietnamese men rampaging through and taking control of businesses, including her family’s. Like many ethnic Chinese living in Vietnam, her parents were merchants and owned a wholesale and fabrics business. People were stripped of their homes and money, only to receive a fraction of what was taken by the communist regime.

Many people were also taken away and detained in re-education camps to be “trained” and have their minds “cleared.” They were made to surrender their property, sent to prison-like camps, and forced to undergo strict communist indoctrination. Cam’s uncle was one of many taken away, detained for several months before being released.

Her great-uncle, who knew of the horrors of these camps—the torture, the severe malnutrition, the executions—became one of many who committed suicide before he could be taken away too. “He was the one whose wife was friends with the president’s wife,” Cam explains. “We don’t know what happened to her.” This uncertainty was a reality for many South Vietnamese whose family members were also taken away.

Whether by suicide, untreated injuries, failed escapes, or leftover bombs and landmines, many lives were lost even after the Vietnam War ceased. To this day, thousands of live bombs and mines still remain in Vietnam and surrounding regions, leaving people with severe burns and lost arms, legs, and eyesight. Nearly 40,000 Vietnamese lives have been lost due to remaining bombs alone.

“The scariest thing I see was a burned body,” Cam said, looking out the window with a frown. “It floated in the water. I never forget that.”

After living under the oppression of the communist regime for almost three years, with their lives as a shadow of what it once was, her father urged her and her five older brothers to escape. Their aunt, his sister, had been living in Hong Kong and was their chance at a new and better life—one of freedom. Her father, mother, and three younger siblings would remain in Vietnam, as her younger siblings were too young to make the journey. Failure to escape meant imprisonment and even death. Regardless, it was worth a shot.

Thus, in February 1978, after months of planning, Cam traveled 32 miles alone by bus to her older brother’s house before they traveled another hour to get to another house closer to the water. They waited until it was dark before heading out to a small fishing boat that would take them to their own boat, one that was large enough to make the trip to Malaysia. However, the trip did not come without a cost: they had to pay the fisherman two ounces of gold per person to reach their own boat.

It would have been a success, that is until her brother-in-law decided to join them. With an additional person, they did not have enough gold. One person would have to be left behind, and that person was Cam.

With failure not an option, as the risk of capture was too high, her brothers unwillingly left. And under the cover of the night, Cam walked back to her brother’s house—a three-to-four-hour trip by foot—before taking a bus back home, where she told her parents the news. All seemed lost, as no one knew what happened to her brothers. No one knew if they were successful, if they had been captured, or if they had perished at sea. Their only options at that point were to either stay or leave as well.

Not wanting to go through the fear and heartbreak of being separated again, Cam refused to leave anyone else behind when urged to try again. Either they all escaped or they all stayed. With hope for a better life and freedom away from the oppression and fear that surrounded them in Vietnam, they chose to escape together.

Two months later, in April 1978, they tried again. Taking what they could carry, they left behind everything and everyone they knew. Passage to Malaysia had increased to 10 ounces of gold per person, but that didn’t stop them. For three days, with nothing but water to fill their stomachs, they traveled across the Gulf of Thailand, journeying through perilous storms and near-death experiences, before finally reaching Pulau Besar—an island situated on the east coast of Johor, Malaysia.

Pulau Besar was one of several refugee camps, reaching peak capacity of over 40,000 inhabitants in the summer of 1978. Refugees lived in makeshift huts made of logs and palm fronds with beds made of salvaged timbers and a nearly nonexistent sanitation system. Its crystal clear waters and white sandy beaches were a clear contrast to the conditions the refugees faced.

By some luck, upon reaching the island, Cam and her family found her brothers, who had arrived at the island two months prior, and ran towards them in joy. With hope and a perseverance that continued to grow each day, they worked to make their stay as comfortable as they could, while waiting to be matched to a country they could call home.

With their identification papers lost at sea, it wasn’t easy finding someone to sponsor their resettlement. “I remember going with my dad to an interview where they asked me all these questions because we didn’t have our papers. They got wet, so we don’t know what they were and just threw them away. We didn’t know any better,” said Cam as she shook her head, leading back into the sofa and smiling. “Luckily, they believed me.”

Being more fortunate than most, Cam and her family soon received news of a sponsor from the United States only four months after their arrival to the island. After endless paperwork and interviews, they were soon transported to Kuala Lumpar, the capital of Malaysia, for physical exams. Within a week, all 16 members of their immediate and extended family were sent on a plane to the United States. This was the beginning of their American dream.

By 1980, her family became one of many Vietnamese immigrant families living in the United States, hoping to reach their American dreams. Other countries that participated in the resettlement of Vietnamese refugees during that time included Australia, Canada, and France.

Sponsored by a church in Oklahoma, Cam and her family settled in a town near Tulsa. They knew no one and did not know how to speak a word of English. Everywhere they went, they carried a Vietnamese-English dictionary, taking it out each time they needed to converse with someone. “You really learn the language quickly that way,” Cam said, chuckling. “There was not much Vietnamese where we lived, and, oh, I hated to go to church [sic]. We don’t understand anything they say.”

After less than six months, they moved to Chinatown in San Francisco, with the help of her brother’s friend, traveling almost 2,000 miles via Greyhound buses to get there. With the little money they had, her family rented a two-bedroom, one-bath apartment, one that could barely fit all eight of her siblings and her parents. She, her mom, and two sisters shared one bedroom, while her six brothers shared the other one; her father slept in the living room. It was vastly different from their three-story house in Vietnam. “You only had space to sleep.”

Like many other refugees, Cam and her family received monetary support from the government, but it wasn’t enough. To support her family, Cam worked in one of Chinatown’s many garment factories, sewing from morning until late at night on weekends and everyday after school until around six to sometimes eight at night. “The more you work, the more money you make,” she said. She stretched her fingers as if remembering the hours of sewing.

“You quick, you done faster, and I was quick. I made the most money out of everyone in the family,” she said smiling proudly.

Earning around $500 per month, and sometimes even $150–200 on weekends, she helped her family start a wholesale bakery from their tiny apartment kitchen. The apartment soon smelled of sesame balls, Chinese donuts, and a multitude of different Chinese buns. Each day, she and her brothers would take the bus to deliver them to local bakeries around San Francisco before going to school or returning home. Like many refugees living in Chinatown during that time, they knew that they had to work hard to achieve their American dream.

Eventually, they made enough money to move to Sunnyvale, CA, purchasing a four-bedroom house and opening their own wholesale bakery in San Jose. There, Cam and each of her siblings graduated from Homestead High School, most going off to college, some at San Jose City College and others at San Jose State University, becoming engineers, accountants, a computer scientist, and a chiropractor. This was their American dream, one much deserved.

Today, Cam lives in northern California with her husband, her son, and her daughter, me, comfortable and happy. Her story, while over 40 years old, is one of tragedy and hardship, but also one of hope and perseverance. It is but a single chapter of the continuously growing story of refugees, one shared by thousands.

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