In 1999 I traveled back to Vietnam to visit my family that stayed behind when we fled the country by boat in 1979. I was just 5 years old at the time. My two older brothers and an older sister stayed behind because they had families at the time so my father made the decision not to include them in the plan to flee the country. I have no memory of my brothers and sister or the town that I was born in. I grew up in the states and as I got older I started learning about my family who were left behind. At a young age I never understood the reason why we had to leave Vietnam or the situation that we were living in during that time. We rarely talked about my mother and I never understood how she died. My mother took her own life in April of 1978. She struggled to adjust to the new way of life under the communist rule. She wanted my father to take the family and leave but that she would stay behind to keep the family house. My father didn’t want to leave her behind so he couldn’t make a decision. Soon after she died my father had very little choice but to make the decision to leave. He was also pressured by other relatives to leave. It was a year long plan made in secrecy that few people knew about including close family members.
We fled Tuy Hoa in the darkness of night. There were 40 people on the boat, men women and children from different families. Most were our relatives and some were people who paid my father to help them escape. After 6 days out at sea we were soon running out of fuel and water. *We have been trying to wave down passing ships to help us but during this time many ships could not help us because they knew that if they rescued us it would be difficult to find a country that would let us in. They had a job to do. They were not on a rescue mission. We had pretty much had given up when a tanker which we thought would not help us decided to turn around after passing us. We knew they were coming back to help us. My father decided to disable the boat engine so that it would seem like we are more in dire distress than we already are to ensure a rescue. After trying to explain our situation to the ship crew they decided to send down a mechanic to take a look at the engine. The mechanic was able to repair the problem much to the men’s disappointment. They decided that they couldn’t take us aboard due to the fact that its an oil tanker. They had a job to do and they didn’t want to take any risks of having any accidents on board. It didn’t help that they also threatened to shoot a lady that was with us for smoking after they clearly told us not to smoke near the ship. This happened after they gave us food and water plus candy for the kids and cigarettes for the men. It was obvious the lady didn’t understand a word the ship crew was saying. After resupplying us with fuel and water they gave us directions to where we wanted to go which was the Philippines. They said it would be about another 3 days before we can reach land. We finally reached the shore of Philippines but we had to wait before getting off the boat. We had heard of the dangers of how local people did not want refugees entering their land and would violently attack them. We waited for day until we decided it was safe to go to shore. The locals there welcomed us and contacted the local officials for further help. We were fortunate that at the time the government in the Philippines was planning on building a new refugee camp near where we landed so they had the system in place to process us for resettlement.
I came back to Vietnam after 20 years to find out what I can about my family. My two older brothers were still in Vietnam but my older sister was able to leave Vietnam with her family to live in America. My father was able to sponsor her after she became a widow. My brothers met me at the airport when I landed. I didn’t know what to expect. I knew their faces from family photos but I didn’t have any memory of them growing up to really have a connection. We drove from Ho Chi Minh City to Tuy Hoa on Highway 1, one of only 2 main highways in Vietnam. It was a long 13 hour drive in a jam packed van. My brothers and I were mostly quiet while a cousin of mine who came along did all the talking. When I arrived in to town it was late evening. Everyone was really tired from the long drive so we all went to bed early. The next day relatives started arriving to see me. They all heard that I was coming so they wanted to see what that little 5 year old they remembered had become after 20 years. An older cousin asked me if my mother had come to visit me yet in a rather normal question way and I said no, not yet. From then on every evening I would wait for my mother.
My mother was from the north. She had 7 siblings but 4 were killed during a bombing campaign the French waged on the North Vietnamese, bombing her village. Her father decided to take the family south to avoid any more deaths and a chance for a better life. They chose to settle in Tuy Hoa. My mother was 5 years older than my father when they married. By family trade my father was a fisherman. Mother would help with selling the fish that was caught that day. She had this routine each day, selling fish in the morning and taking care of the family the rest of the day. When the war ended in 1975 way of life changed for everyone in town. People who once sided with the South Vietnamese army had to go into hiding. Many of the men were forced into re-education camps. This was especially hard on my mother because she had 4 grown sons that were routinely taken away to these camps. Fortunately my two younger brothers and I were too young at the time to be picked. During this time many people were fleeing the country hoping for a better life. There were also many who could not leave and had lost all sense of hope. My mother was one of them.
I went to see the house that I was born in. Growing up I had somehow had a memory of it being a red brick house with a small courtyard where I fought with my brother over a toy pedal car. Seeing the house now I realized it was not a memory of mine but perhaps something that was fed to me when I was growing up in America. Not sure where that image of a red brick house came from. The house is a small grey one level house. A gate that opens in to a tiny yard before the entrance. I couldn’t enter because it was currently occupied by another family. The government took over the house soon after finding out that we had fled the country. Over the years it had changed tenants numerous times.
The only existing photograph of my mother had accidentally burned up when the incense sticks on her altar for some reason, perhaps because of a gust of wind, had fallen on to the photograph and burned it up. Some people would say that mother came back and burned it up herself for some reason. For this reason she only exists in the memories of those who are old enough to remember her. Years ago a friend told me that is probably why you have a family of naturally gifted artists. Perhaps one day someone will be able to paint an image of her likeness.
One evening after coming back from the bar with my brother I decided to go for a walk. It was a nice moonlit night.. not too hot. I started heading towards the beach. Tuy Hoa has a very long stretch of beach and I decided on a spot to sit down. There was no one around so I sat there for a good thirty minutes just looking up at the moon and listening to the sound of the waves.. The next day I met up with my other brother. He asked if I wanted to take a motorcycle tour around town. I agree and we got on our little Honda bike sped off. We started in the direction of the beach and I remember it was the same area I went to the other night. As we were riding along my brother pointed out a certain area and we got to that point he said” That’s where we found mother”.. I didn’t say it to him but in my head I was thinking that was exactly where I was sitting last night. I felt at that moment that perhaps mother had called me to her and I just didn’t know it. I felt like it cant be coincidence. I remember sitting there thinking about how calm and comfortable everything is at that moment. I really felt I met her that night.