TIEN NGUYEN (VIETNAMESE)
1 I am Tien Nguyen
2 This is Tien Nguyen. And he is going to talk about . . . Let’s start with your childhood. Tell us where you were born and who your parents were and what they did for a living and a little bit about your home.
I am Tien Nguyen. I was born in 1950 in South Vietnam in a city called Saigon. My father who was a Army, a South Army person, so he moved around a lot in South Vietnam, moved from state to state.
I didn’t get what you said. An Ahkmee? What is that?
Do you want me to redo it?
Yes. It’s okay, it’s okay.
He was an officer in the Army.
Oh! An officer in the Army. I didn’t understand.
So my family move around a lot, because you know the army life. Right? They move from another station to another station. In my childhood, I move around a lot. And finally we go back to Saigon. And he stayed over there until he died in 1966. And my mom start her own business with the family and she did really good in the business.
How many brothers and sisters did you have?
I had only one sister who died when she was really really young, around 7 years old she died.
So you were an only child.
Yes. So when I graduated from high school in Vietnam in 1968, at that time the war really start, really really heavy war between the communists from the north and the south army.
What evidence of war did you see in Saigon?
Yeah, we see a lot because like I said in 1978, we have the TET offensive from the north Vietnamese army.
Did that hit Saigon?
Yeah, that hit Saigon, and it hit my house, too.
Your house was bombed?
No, it wasn’t bombed, but the fighting between the north Vietnamese north army and the south army and the American people who came to help us to fight with the communists.
Where you in the service at that time, or were you living at home?
I living at home. I not go to the Army at that time yet.
How old were you when the TET offensive . . .?
Eighteen years old.
So did you see people being shot? Did you . . . What?
Yeah, the picture now still in my mind. It around 5 AM, early in the morning, and one of the car carried whole family, that the jeep, from Army, and move across very fast in front of my house. The people who stayed around the tree shot them. And the car stopped behind the tree and around 7 PM, I look out and I saw the whole family in that car: The wife, the husband and two children get shot in front of my eyes. And the thing that stayed in my mind until now is the children who laid underneath his mother. That really stuck with me until now.
So the mother tried to shield the children with her body.
When I say something like that, then say yes, she did . . . whatever. So let’s try that. So, the mother did what?
Yeah. I saw her lay on top of the child, try to protect the child but she didn’t make it. So all of them were killed at that time. I didn’t know when they shot, but around 7 when I see everything clear, I saw the whole family. And that get killed from the North Vietnamese Army. I know that the war kill people, but you can not stay away from the picture of the mother trying to protect the child and they got killed because of that.
So how soon after that did you go into the army?
About three months after that I joined the army.
Did seeing that, those people killed, did that kind of firm your decision to go to the army and to fight?
That’s a lot of it, that’s a lot of it, but I know in our country at that time the war really, really increase in a really, really high level, and if the people like me did not join the army, we will fall and the communists will took us over, and we understand that. But like you said, I agree, that’s one of the reason that push me to go to the army.
So you went into the army, and what did you do in the army and how long were you there?
I in the Army almost 7 years. Yeah. Because I go into the army in 1968 and Saigon fall in 1975.
And what did you do in the army?
First I was trained in South Army for nine months before they sent me out to go to the what they called the Army fifth division and after that they transferred me around around.
Did you work with American soldiers?
Yeah, we do. Because every South Vietnamese have the fighter from the American people come to help us and they go with us when we go to fight the communists or when we go to outside, we do get help for fight from American.
Did you make friends with any?
Yeah, I have a couple of friends. We talk and at that time because Army life, all the Army people, we are really close friends.
Even though you don’t speak the same language?
Yeah, broken English. I learned a little bit from when I was in high school and I talk with them. And that English is broken, but we understand together.
Can you remember one particular American that you got to know?
Yeah. I remember that I have a couple. I don’t remember exactly what is his last name because the time is too long, but I know like I have one I see most of the time, a John Berryger, something like that. I don’t remember exactly his last name?
What was he like?
He tall, he big and he fun. And he really hate the hot in Vietnam, so he make fun of the hot in Vietnam. He went to Vietnam twice.
Oh, so he was a career type soldier, then.
So that’s great that you got to know some American people. So when you came over here you had some idea of what we were like.
Yes. Yeah. Not exactly clear idea of what look like but I know and understand a little bit of culture American how people treat people and what need to be done because the Asian culture and the Vietnamese culture and American some completely different.
S’true. They are different. So Saigon fell and how, what happened to soldiers? Right after Saigon fell? I mean, you knew that the North Vietnamese were coming, and you were in Saigon when it fell?
Yeah, right outside of Saigon.
So what was that like? Were there bombs? Were there shooting? Were civilians killed or what was that like?
In 1975, we have the fight between the south army and the north army, but I still remember now we don’t have a really big fight. We have a couple of big fights in ?(name of place) and in LongKhan. I think that’s some big fight. Otherwise, it’s really small fight between . . . but the south army they fought upon (?) because all the leaders all the people in high-rank people in army they drop us, they run away. I think.
I have to take the clock down because I can hear it ticking, if you can believe that. Stupid thing . . . It’s so surprising because it blah, blah blah.
So like myself. When the higher ranking officers than me, they drop, I don’t know what to do, and the people below me, they don’t know what to do, too. So we just run, we run and we drop? I remember late in April 27 or 28, nobody control us, nobody give us the order what to do.
So it was just chaos.
Did you have a uniform on?
Yeah, I do have. A lot of soldiers under my command, they have their on, too, and they have their gun and they have everything but we don’t have any orders what to do. Finally, we talk together, we let go home, and we drop everything and we go home.
So did you take off your uniforms then?
Yeah, at that time in 30th of April, that mean everything fall. At that time, the president of South Vietnam, General Minh, he give up everything. So he give the order we have to surrender. That why we drop everything. And at that time, I still remember now, we just took off our uniform, we drop our gun, and we walk like dead people.
You must have been devastated.
Yeah, and we don’t know what to do at that time. Always in my mind, we lose the war. We lost it. And now we lost everything. And I don’t know what next after that. Only thing I know on my mind: Get home!
4 Now at that time you were married?
At that time I was not married yet. I just arranged it and I get married about two days later, after that.
After the fall of Saigon?
You went home and got married!
Because the marriage already arranged before, but because the war increased so much, so I cannot go home. I should be home at that time about two weeks before the wedding, but because of that time I cannot, my commander won’t let me go home.
So exactly, we don’t have the wedding, we don’t have the real wedding. We just have the family get together, and we do a little bit stuff between family to family.
I remember the pictures that your wife looked very beautiful.
We hope we have better one, but at time because everything is so scared, so we just try what we need to do at that time.
5 So you decided you’re going to get married, and then did you know what you were going to do, you were going to work or what did you plan?
I don’t have any plan at that time because we still worried what they’re going to do to us. We don’t know yet; we so worry about that. We just stay at home. And for the first 10 days it’s nothing happen. But after that they call us go to the office and they told us we just go to learn the new system, learn what we did it were wrong. Now you need to change it and build a new life for the new country. And they said only for 10 days. And we believed that. Everybody . . .
Now what do you mean soldiers?
Yeah. The officers different from the soldiers.
Were you an officer?
Yeah. I were an officer so I have to go to the, I don’t remember what you call it that time, but like you go to the school side, the campus, something like that, and you learn for 10 days. And after that you go home and you begin your new life and continue to contribute to the country. And we believe that. And we said, okay, we lost the war. What can we do now? So just go to new life. That’s what we, all us believed that. And after we went to that campus and they talk about what we did were wrong, what we did that we follow Americans, we let the army control our country and some bad things our people, something like that, and we have to learn about what the communists is and what the country need to be do, something like that, for 10 days. And after that, they move us, to the camp – away from the city.
But I thought they said only 10 days. How did you, did you ask them, ‘Well, I thought you it was only said 10 days?’
They told us 10 days before we get to the campus. They announce in the radio; they announced in the television, about that news.
So did you go every day, or did you stay there for 10 days?
Stay there. They told you have to bring your clothes, your food for ten days. And we think, “Okay. Ten days. Not much.” So you bring a little bit, and a little bit food, and you hope you – before that, they called the soldiers first, the people who were in the army with lower rank, go to the campus, something like that, and they said 3 days. And they did exactly three days. And all of that people go home, and nothing happen to them.
So just regular army soldiers went home. It’s you guys. . .
And now it our turn, we think ‘Oh, okay,’ only 3 days, we 10 days? That’s it. We so happy about that. And we believed that. That’s our big mistake. When we believed that.
So they took you in trucks further into the jungle, or what?
6 Yes. They took us on the big trucks over and around everything, and they move us.
Did you get chance to tell Que, ‘I’m going, they’re taking me somewhere else?’ Or did she not know?
No, she did not know. I only told her, “Okay, I will go for ten days and after ten days, I will be home with you.” That’s what I told her.
I’m gonna move – easier, etc. So Que doesn’t, hasn’t heard from you for the ten days
After 10 days, she doesn’t hear anything from me, and I cannot contact my family after that. When they move around. They moved me out to the country, but not really far. Just outside the city. And after that for few months, I think they need to set up something. They need time before they move us to the jungle.
I see. Oh, it was such a trick.
Yeah, and after that we move to the jungle. We have to build all the house and everything for us to live, and we have to do everything to feed us. They won’t feed us or like when the first 10 days. The first ten days, they feed us really good. They make food from some restaurant or somewhere, but after ten days, different, it completely different.
So what kind of food did you get?
And after that we have to eat the food, very small amount of food, and we have to plant rice, plant all kind of food. To get food to eat.
And this is not too far from Saigon, this first place?
The first place is not. And the first place they move us to about, I think 15 miles from Saigon. And they, that the area very close to Saigon, very close to Saigon. But after that, they moved us farther and farther. And some of the, some of the people I know, they moved to the north.
They did move them to North Vietnam?
Yeah, a lot of high-ranking officers or high-ranking people who work in the government to the North. And some intelligent people, some of the Buddhist people, some of the army people, they move to the North because they scared of them.
Buddhists, too? Monks?
Yeah. The monks, too, and all kind of people, of religion, leaders have to go, too.
So each time you went to a new camp you had to again build your housing and places to stay, and so forth, or were they built for you the second time?
The first, about the first few years, we have to build ourselves. And after that, some camps, when we move in, they already build it for some different groups, they already have and we just move in. But in the first few years, every camp we go, we have to build.
And tell me what a day was like.
The day over there, every day the same day. Early in the morning, they have the bell to get us, wake up. And we have to get out of the house. They lock it outside, they close and they put the ( c )lock it outside, they lock us inside.
So they locked you in your barracks.
Every barrack we have about, I think about 60 people in one barrack, and they lock it at night. And in the morning they open and let us out and counting every head to make sure nobody escape at night.
Can you hear that? That’s an eagle. We have some eagles that hang out around here. We have a bird again, Tien! Can you believe it. We do. We have a bird. I can hear it. Let’s see. It’s okay. Okay, so you get up at about what time in the morning?
Usually about 6 o’clock in the morning. We get up, clean ourselves up a little bit and get some food from the kitchen. We have one people go to the kitchen to take it back to us, and divide for us, for everybody to share the food.
What kind of food?
Potato and some, how to, I know we have here, but I don’t know the name.
Corn and something. Depend on the day. But mostly potato.
Mostly potato, huh. White potato or sweet potato?
Sometimes sweet, sometimes white.
White which has no nutritional value at all. And what to drink?
To drink, hot water, they cook down in the kitchen and we just carry back to share to all people every people get one gigo. You know the gigo?
A container. A small container.
A gigo, okay. Garbage in, garbage out, it sounds like. Laugh.
Okay, and so then and now it’s about seven o’clock and now what?
And they ring the bell again and you go on the big place in the middle of the camp and everyone line up in your group, and they would call every single group get out and work. And you have to work, like labor work. Mean, you have to out into jungle, cut wood, or you plant food or something like that. And you work until noon and you go back to the camp.
When you were working, did they watch you?
Yes. They would have two officers follow you, every group. One to control the group and another one have gun to control people. Nobody can get out of the area, their position. And if you want to talk to them, you have to stand away from them five meters.
Five meters away.
Five meters away. And you had to stand up and talk to them.
Could you talk to each other?
We can talk when we work. When we work, we can talk together.
Okay. So you go for lunch and what is lunch usually?
Lunch is usually one bowl rice. And you have one small bowl of soup, uh, they call soup, but exactly only the vegetable and water, and salt. They put it together.
And you would work together from one to when?
To five. We go back after we get lunch and we have to go back to the group again, line up again, and they call name, and you go out again and work until 5 PM. You get back and before you get to the camp you go to the usually the camp have the river or something next to that so you could clean up yourself.
So you would clean yourself in the river.
Yes, before you get back to the camp. And get food again, eat again, another bowl of rice and around 6 PM they put you back into the barrack and they lock outside. You stay inside, and you can do stuff for yourself, talking, do thing, everything, clean up, do sew or something. And at 9 PM everybody have to go to sleep, they turn off the light.
So you’re still wearing the clothes that you had taken for the 10 day, what you thought was going to be the 10 days. Right?
So you’re wearing your own clothes.
Own clothes. And when they give us the prison clothes. Different color and they have the number on. And so you can use. But you cannot use that for labor work, because they will wear out right away. So we just have that when you stay in the line, and when you get out of the camp, you take it out and you put on something else.
You put on your old clothes.
So you used your own clothes for seven years you were in the camp?
7 No. No. Because in the first two year, we cannot contact our family. We had nothing. They not allow us to do that. After two years, then they allow us to send the letter to our family to tell our family where we were, how we doing. That all you can say. You cannot say anything bad about that. You say, ‘Okay. You live good. Now you learn something good and you try to be better person. You try to be good person. And you will be home soon. That how the letter can go. If you say something different, the letter won’t go to your family. And after the first time, they let us send the letter to our family and they allow the family member to come to the camp to visit us and give us food and clothes, medicine, whatever you can bring. But not a lot. They allow . . . I remember the first time, it about two or five kilograms, that’s the maximum you can bring in.
Not very much then.
So for those two years, Quy and your mother, what was your mother’s name?
My mother is Tran.
So they didn’t know whether you were alive or dead?
No. Nobody know.
So two years go by. Then they get a letter from you?
Yes. That’s correct. After two years they get the first letter from me and know where I am at that time.
So then, were they allowed to come, at that two year period, they were allowed to come to the camp?
Yeah. They were allowed to come to the camp every two months or three months. And if you were doing good, you didn’t violate any policy of the camp, you can go. If you like you do something, they say ‘Okay. You violate the policy of the camp.’ They cut it. They won’t let your family to see you six months, three months, or whatever they think.
And when they came to visit, would you be able to go off with them by yourself, or?
No. Every time we have family member come in, they will have one officer bring
Wait just a minute. There’s a train. We got to wait for that. Here take a drink of tea. It’s nice and cold. I put a little sugar in it; I hope it’s okay. Oh, look at that. There’s a train on TV. That’s at Bamf in Canada. Etc. Talking about Webshots on computer. Okay, let’s try this again. Let’s see. Where are we? So Quy and your mom come and now Que, in the meantime, has had a baby.
That you’ve never seen.
I’ve never seen my baby.
Wait. Train whistle. Have a grape. We’re waiting for the train. Gee, train! Haven’t you said enough?
In the first two years, my family didn’t know where I am. And I didn’t know I have daughter, either.
Did you even know that Quy was pregnant?
No, I didn’t know, I didn’t know my wife pregnant at that time when I go to the camp. I didn’t know. Because we just lived together about I think about ten day or something after we married.
We’re going to have to do that again, because you could hear the train. So we’re going to start again. Okay. So when you left, you did not know that Que was going to have a baby.
When I left we just get married about 10 days. That’s why I didn’t know my wife get pregnant at that time when I went to the (re-education) camp. And during the first two year, we didn’t have any contact, so I didn’t know I have the daughter until my wife and my mom went to the camp to see me and let me know. That time, my daughter so teeny and so small, so my wife didn’t bring her to the camp. But I saw the picture.
So they brought pictures at least. Weren’t you just delighted to hear that you had a baby?
Yeah, I’m so happy. And when I went back to the camp after the visit, I tell everybody, Hey! I have my daughter. A daughter! I didn’t know for two years.
So you were happy to see them.
But you must have been terribly sad when they left.
Ah. I did not sleep for at least four or five days because I still try to hold them, or something. I just don’t want separate again. That’s what was in my mind. That’s why I cannot sleep. Every night I think about that, what happen next, when I come home and what I do at home. How can I survive? That all kind of questions come up in my mind.
How was Quy surviving? Did she have a job?
She did not have the job. But my mom, like I said from the beginning. She really good business woman, so she make a lot of money and she hide the money, and our family live on that one, and that why she have the money to go, bring to the camp. But something happen to my mom after that. Because all the people who have money at that time, the communists, they want to take it away. Like our house, they come to our house, and they say, because this is a big house, mom worked for the government and make money from people. You know. Now she should pay it back! They will take the house away. But they don’t say away; they want my mom give the house to them. So they do something else. My mom say NO! I worked the whole of my life to build my house. I didn’t do anything wrong. I don’t give any house to anybody. This is my house. They say, ‘Okay, fine!’ And they put her in jail.
How old was she at this point?
At that time, I think she was born in 1920. At that time, ‘78 or something.
So she’s in her fifties, huh?
Yeah. And after four months in jail, she give up. She say, ‘I sign away everything. Let me go home. I cannot stay here any more.’ So she signed the paper, and they let her out and they took her house. The house really expensive in Vietnam.
Have you been back to Vietnam?
I went back one time.
Did you see the house?
I come back to the house. I saw the house. I stand in front of the house. I look at the house and I say, ‘This is my house, but not anymore.’
What is it now?
They use it for the kindergarten children.
So it’s a school?
Yeah. That small school. Not really the school, but small school for kindergarten kids.
8 My goodness. So you’re in, we’re back in the camp here, and you’ve gotten to about between six and nine, you just are with the men, in your barracks. Right? Did you make some friends there?
Yeah. We have some friends over there. Because you know at that time, we don’t have family any more. We just have people around you, have same thing like you, same thinking, same every day. So we make some really good friends. Because you live or die with your friends. Nobody around you; no family around you; no mother, father or wife or brother, sister, anything – only your friends. So we have pick some friends, really close. And we share everything together. And sometimes, some friends, they can do anything for you to save your life, something like that. It happened in the (re-education) camp.
Really? How? Can you give me an example?
Like myself. When I was, couple times, I was sick. Really sick. And I do have a friend who work in, how you call?
Infirmary. And they report to the officer, I need to go over there – if not, I will die. So I go over there. And over there, it better than – you do not have to go to work, the first. You have more to eat, the second. That’s really important in the camp.
Yeah, food. So I went over there for one week, and I get back to normal. But they still report, I so sick. I cannot go back. They want to keep me over there. And by doing that, they really endangered. Because if they find out, officers find out, that person will go to special, how do you call, they put people over there for 24 hours?
Punishment? A special room?
Uh huh, special room.
You called it something when we were taking before – the dark room, or something.
Yeah, the dark room. You don’t see anything. And the more important thing, they have to go back to work. They can’t stay in the infirmary. That mean they don’t have luxury life in the prison like they have.
So if you work in the infirmary, it’s a really good job.
Yeah, really good job. You don’t have to do labor work and you have more food. And you have easy life. That’s very important over there.
So they, he sort of jeopardized the possibility of his staying there by letting you stay in the infirmary longer than you maybe needed to. But it got you well.
Yeah. And I have a couple friends. I work in one group that don’t have any food to eat. But there were another group, like they can make vegetable, or they can make do ?, and they hide every day to bring back to the camp, to feed me. By doing that, they gamble things. They will lose everything if . . .
If they’re caught bringing you food?
If they are caught. Yeah. But only friends can do it for you. So sometime when you have the family member come and bring food to you, food and medicine to you, you share with them.
Did you ever help someone else who was in trouble?
Yeah. We have to help together, in trouble, try to survive. And one thing really bad one of my best friend in the camp, when he get out back to Saigon, he die.
He was the one, I think you told me, worked in the kitchen?
What was his name?
His name is Kung.
Yeah. And he was your good friend.
He was my best friend. He feed me all the time. That’s one of the reasons I still alive.
Yes, because Quy told us that when you got off the plane, she hardly knew you, you were so thin. And you’d had some time with your mom by then so you’d probably gained some weight.
Yeah. When I get out of the camp, a lot of people didn’t recognize me because I so skinny.
Do you know how much you weighed?
I think when I get out of the camp, I weighed about 75 pounds, something like that. And stay about six months before I escaped from the country in Vietnam. And after that I spent another year in Indonesia, ? Refugee Camp, but I get here, I weigh only about 110, or something. I remember that.
So you’re there for seven years. You move from one camp to another.
Yes, I moved, I think one, two, three camps.
And one day, what happens?
You don’t really know much about moving because they keep it secret, they don’t want us to know about that. Though sometimes you may heard the rumor, to talk about that, but you don’t know exactly. And sometimes, you don’t know anything. At midnight, or early in the morning, they just call you. They go open your barrack, and you know something wrong, something happen. Because if they open at night or early in the morning, that’s sign it’s going on. And they call you, or you can hear all the truck coming in and you know, okay, we’re moving.
So, after seven years, they come into your barracks and or they call your name, or how did you know you were leaving?
After about three four years they start to let people go home. I still remember the first way that they let the people go home the people have technology or you have the education, like doctor, engineer, or some people have technical skills. Because they need that people to run the country, to do all kind of stuff. So they let them go first. After that that turn, and every year they let some people go home, some people go home, some people go home, and you never know when it your turn. You don’t know. Suddenly one day, they call your name stay home, and if they call your name stay home, three reasons, exactly three reasons: First, you do something wrong, you’re in trouble; the second, your family member come to see you; the third, you can go home. And very, very few cases, special cases, they will move you.
9 Now, before you left, did you ever see Christie? Did you see your daughter?
No, I did not.
They didn’t bring her to the camp?
No. Because I don’t want to bring her to the camp and because the camp is far away from Saigon, so I don’t want the young baby go transfer, and when you go, my mom and Quy, when they go from my house, they can take the bus go to the province where the camp is. But from our side, you have to walk about 40 miles, 30 miles before you get to the camp. In the jungle. And not like, in the United States. So the young children cannot go.
It would be too hard for a little kid.
Too hard for a little kid. And they have to carry food and everything, too. So it’s really tough to go to see us.
Wow. I didn’t realize that.
The camp in the jungle. And we don’t have any car to go there, anything like that, except for the police officer.
I guess I was thinking they took people in trucks or something, but no way, huh?
No. You have to do by your own. And the bus, the transportation bus, they won’t go over there. They just go on the highway only, and they drop you there, and you have to hire some people help you, show you where to go. And you have to walk.
Oh, my goodness.
Walk at least a couple hours, at least, at least, before you get to the camp.
Now, after four years did you say that you told Quy to go, to get out of Vietnam?
Yes, I told her try to get out, don’t stay here because I know everything really communist, not really good for us if we stay. And Quy said no, she doesn’t want to go because she want to wait for me. She said, “What, how about you?” I say, “If you wait
here, you die. Better if you and Christine go because that the best for us now. That what I told her.
So she obeyed you.
I told her in 1979 or something like that and she didn’t get out until 1981. At that time her whole family try to get out, and she follow them.
And what about your mom?
My mom still stay over there, but like I said before, she doesn’t have any house to live; she had to move around, but she . . .
Where did she live?
She live in friend house, or relative house, she just move around. Because I said before she still had some money to feed herself and to go to the camp to feed me. So that what she did to survive around.
10 So you got out, and tell me about the day you learned that you were going to leave. I mean it was just a regular day. Right?
Just a regular day. But before that, about 2 or 3 day, we have the rumor about okay now, in this week they will let some people go home but we don’t know who it is. Everybody hope they will call your name. And every morning, you wake and you hope, and nobody come to call and you just go to work. And I still remember that day, they call and they call about 40 people name, and my name is about half of them to call my name. That why you stay home, and you will go, you go home.
And how did you feel when you heard your name?
When they called my name, I don’t feel my legs stay with me. I feel like I fly. That how I feel at that time. I fly.
You’re just so happy.
Yeah. So happy. But only thing at that time, before that, my wife and my daughter already get out of the country. And I didn’t know it for at least seven months, six months, because nobody come to see me. My mom didn’t come to see me and my wife didn’t come to see me, and I think in my mind, they already left. That the only thing to happen, I know for sure, because my mom already give up everything. My wife didn’t have anything so I don’t think ? do anything to them. Only thing they were scared of. And finally, after around seven months, then my mom come to the camp and told me your wife and your daughter already escape. And I so happy they escape. But I still worry a little bit. I don’t know where they are now. And I don’t know I can see them again. After two months, my mom came again and say they are in America. I say oh. And she bring me a picture, too. Because Quy sent a picture back to her and she bring the picture. And I bring the picture to the camp and at that night, I look at that picture all the time. I don’t have any light, so I have to go to the window and look at the moonlight, through the window. We have the bars around and just look at the picture, and in my mind half I’m really happy for them, but half I’m really sad because I know I never see them again. You don’t when you get out; you don’t know you can survive to get out or not because people die around me every day, and if you get out, how can you get to America?
It must have just seemed impossible.
At time, impossible for me, that can only happen in my dream. That why I said half of my self I just look at picture – never see you guy again. And I cry.
I believe you.
11 So you’re on your way in a truck. Did they take you in trucks back to Saigon?
No, they did not. They give us the paper to relieve you and they give us a little bit money and go by yourself.
You’re on your own.
You’re on your own. You get out of the gate, you’re on your own.
So you have to walk back to Saigon. (Tien laughs.)
How long a trip was that?
That take me almost 3 days to get back to Saigon, almost 3 days.
And you didn’t know where your mom was.
I know because she came to the camp to tell me, and I came to my relatives’ house to ask for her. And when I get back to the city, that a different story.
12 I cannot go to work because nobody hire you when they know you come back from a re-education camp. And you have no skill to survive. I just go to Army after I finish high school.
You went to the army after high school.
Yeah. So I go to college for one year only, so I don’t have any skills to survive in the city to do stuff like other people. Another thing is nobody hire you. And the third thing is your life is really difficult. You have to go to the police station where you live to report what you did for the past week, and what you plan to do for the next week. And after that in two weeks you have to come back again to report.
What if you had a job? And you couldn’t get off work to go do that or would they make you do that if you had a job? If you’d gotten one.
Doesn’t matter what you do you have to go over there. If you cannot go in the working day, you can go on the weekend day.
How long does that take. I mean to go to do what they want, say what they want. And then how long is that? An hour, two hours?
Yeah. Maximum an hour. If you don’t have any trouble. Like I said, they have your old report. Right? And now you’re making new report. They compare. “Okay! I see something not right here. Like what you say you do.” You just explain to them. That process take longer because you have to if you have the copy in your mind you report exactly what you say before and continue to do it, you’re okay.
Oh, my goodness. So how long was it after you got home that you realized that you wanted to try to escape?
I tried to escape right away, I told my mom, I cannot live here because the first thing is I was in South army and they called me, and nobody can hire you. You don’t have your citizenship; you don’t have your identification; you don’t have anything. You have only a small paper get out from the camp. That all you have. So it really hard to get a job that way. And they want me to go to ??? That mean
They want you to go to new ???
They call new economic ? Can’t understand this. The are?
They send a lot of people go to that side to do labor work to plan to do something by your own. You cannot live in the city.
They don’t want you to stay in Saigon?
They don’t want it. If you can get a job in Saigon, you can stay. If you don’t have a job you have to go ??
And the second reason is because my family in the United States, I want to get out. I want to see them again. And the third thing is, I want my freedom back. I cannot live that life. I cannot live without job. I have to go to report all the time. I cannot go anywhere I want. They not allow you to do it. So I want my life back. I want my family back. I want my freedom back. That’s why I have to escape. I tried to escape right after I get home one month.
13 So tell me about the first time you tried to escape.
The first time I tried to escape, you know at that time they have a lot of boat people who go on the sea or walk to Cambodia or Thailand and get out. And I have a couple friends who do the boat thing. And the first one, we pay the money so we can get onto the boat. I remember that day, they took us go down to Bungtow, that mean another city down by the sea, and they hide us in one house, and they wait until the dark.
Wait until it’s dark.
Wait until it’s dark so we can get in the small boat before you get to the big boat.
Oh, so there’s a big boat out in the ocean?
No, no. The boat in the river, but you cannot go to the boat everybody. You have to . . . I call big boat, but it not really big, small one. But you have to divide the group of people, go to the really small one, before you get to the main one.
So we wait until 8 PM before we start, people to take us. And I heard the gun shots. And I heard people run. And the landlord of the house say, “Quickly! Follow me!” And they took us and another girl and another person, three person in that house go back to his back yard and into the brush outside. And we hide over there until 4 AM and the landlord come to us say, “You guys need to go back to Saigon; all the people get caught. Fifty people get caught, and three people like myself and another person, another man, and another girl, get out, because we got lucky, we hide on a different side and fifty people hide one side, and they got caught.
The gunshots: Does that mean that some of those people were killed?
No. I didn’t know some people killed because the landlord told me they just got caught, they didn’t say anybody get killed.
But you heard gunshots.
I hear gunshots, I heard people because people run so they shot. But the landlord didn’t say anybody got killed. That first time I get out but I didn’t make it. And I lost my money; I cannot get my money back. And the second thing, at this time, my mom paid for me too, I don’t have any money to pay for that. We into the boat; we get out to the sea for one day one night, but the storm is so big – the storm is up and down – and our boat is so small and the leader of the group told us now we have to go back. We still have the chance, even we get caught, we got a chance to do it again. Even we continue to go nobody has any chance to survive, and we all die. What do you guy want to do? So a lot of people say, Okay we go back. And they say, if you go back, what are your plans? And the leader say, we just drop people and every people just run and I say, oh no, I don’t want to go back to the camp again because how do you run? So finally he said we come back for seven hours, and we wait outside in the dark, and we get inside. And he said, “Now if we get caught, we get caught the whole boat and if we can escape we get the whole boat.” So everybody hide underneath the . . .
Where the boat was?
Yeah, and they will go back to where they got out, around 9 PM 10 PM, I think, something like that. We lucky we didn’t get caught. So he took back to the house and he drop us at 4 PM 5 PM to the bus, go to the highway and get bus back to Saigon.
You went back to Saigon? Did you think by this time I’m never going to get out?
No. No. No. No. I told you doesn’t matter how much they caught me, how much I fell, I do it again. And a lot of people feel the same way. I know a lot of people they tried to escape five times, ten times. I know that. And some people get caught, too. They put in the camp, too. But then they get out the camp. At that time, some, some funny thing they tell about the boat people. They say about people get out of the country. They say, “If the electric pole know how to walk, it walk, too. Don’t want to stay!”
Say it again?
Electric pole. If the electric pole know how to walk, it walk, too.
It would leave, too
Will escape, too. If you see the Vietnamese people, the boat people, they will tell you that. Because nobody want to stay. People don’t want to stay – not because of economy, but because of freedom. I tell you one example. You live in your area. Right. Three house live next together, have responsibility together. Like your house, my house and Quy’s house – let’s say example. I have to know what you’re doing, who come to your house, what happened to your family. Same time I have to know Quy’s house, too. And you have to know what happened to my family and my house and Quy’s house, too.
And how often would they ask you?
They check it every week. And if something happened to your house. Like some people come to your house and stay in for the whole day, or something. But I did not report to the police officer, I am in trouble.
Because you didn’t tell.
Because I didn’t tell. I cover up something. And if you want to go to visit your daughter, you have to ask the permission of the local police officer. If they allow, they sign it. If he doesn’t like it, he say no, you cannot go. And even he allow you to go, you have to go to Nico’s house and report to that police officer over there that you come and you stay for how long, for what reason. If they don’t like it they send you back. That why everybody want to go.
It’s not like that now, though?
Not now. Now it different.
14 Now a lot better. Now you can go anywhere in the country you want. Because now time has changed. And the communists know if they continue to do that the first thing they kill themselves, the economic kill themselves, the freedom of people they want, will kill them. Same thing like in Europe or in Russia. That why they have to change – to survive. They let people do things, do, and do what they want and like better now because of that because that. Before, doesn’t make any difference you work hard or you lazy, you got the same thing. And nobody want to work.
When you went back to visit Vietnam, did you think well, now maybe I would like to come back here and live?
No, I didn’t think it that way because the communists still control is why. The reason I come back to Vietnam was because of family problems. I have some to be fixed. My dad who died in 1966 – they not allow him to have in that – we have to move him. That’s why I had to go back.
You had to move his body? From one cemetery to another?
To another one. That’s why I go back. I see it different from the time I left the country, a lot different, but the difference not like that. They said they still have people have money to go do something, but in 80 million people, they have a maximum of a million people can have that life. But another 79 (million) people, when I go to the country, when I move my dad’s body too, they still so poor.
Yeah, so poor. And they don’t change like the way they think. And you see it around Asia, Southeast Asia, too. Another country, like Thailand, like Singapore – before that South Vietnam, same level. We not below them. And now, even you change a couple steps, the other countries they change 20 steps or 10 steps before you, so you still behind. Vietnam now changing fast, growing fast, but still behind.
Would you ever go back do you think now?
I didn’t think I go back now. If the communists lost or left, I would go back.
Really, you would go back?
Really. I want Ngue to stay here, our kids to stay here, for . . .
You need to explain who Ngue is.
Oh, Ngue is my son. Because he, my son, can learn things, and can be the person with all kind of stuff here, the knowledge he can learn here and if he want he can go back to Vietnam or he can stay here. It’s up to him.
Is he interested in going to Vietnam? Has he been at all.
When I went back to Vietnam, I took him over there, so he can see life over there.
Did you take Christy, too?
No, not yet Christy. Because at that time we tried to get my dad’s body so we don’t want to go but two people. I just took my son Ngue.
And what did Ngue think of it?
He see the real thing. Before that, he heard all of the time we talk about Vietnam. We talk about communists, we talk with our family members, our friends. But he didn’t see it. He didn’t have any real picture and when I took over there and I took him over the country side and he played with the children over there, and he would see over there that they have nothing. They have to make the toy by themselves, they have to play with the butterfly, they have to play with the fly dragon or something like that. They don’t have anything like here. And he see a little bit more, he understand a little bit more what we’re talking.
15 So the third time, the third escape?
16 So finally you get on the plane?
That’s another really really, a thing I never forget. When I came to United States first in
June 13, 1985, I remember because of the plane late in schedule so I have to stay in SFO for two days. And I don’t have money, I have about a couple dollars, but they send us to the hotel and they send food to us, we just stay until another scheduled flight from SFO to Portland. And I call Quy and told her I here. And she said she go down, and I said, no, I will connect in one day, don’t spend your time here. And I say I want to talk to Christy. And I heard her voice on the phone, but she didn’t know what to say. She just say yes, here, yes. That’s all she say. I still remember now. She didn’t know who I am even Quy always told her, and she didn’t know what to say because she never say anything to me. That’s what I think. And I just told her I’m your daddy and I’m here to be with you. I will take care of you. I love you so much. And she say, yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s what she said. And the next day, I get the flight and I get to Portland and when I get out of the terminal and I saw Quy, one of her younger brother, and her niece and Christy people who come to see me. And I so happy at that time. And I look at Christy and she looked at me and she didn’t say anything. And Quy push her to me – go to your daddy. And I kneel down and I hold her and I hug her. That’s the first time. That memory I never forget. And she hug me. She didn’t say anything, but she hug me, she hug me and she tap on my back a couple time. And I told her, you so beautiful, I love you so much. That’s all I can say at the time. I cannot say anything. That’s all I can say at that time.
(We’re both crying at this point.)
So your dream had come true!
I didn’t think I can make it that far. I did not think. Because a lot of my friends who didn’t make it, didn’t make it out of the camp, or even they went back to their normal life, their family ? Some of family, they just tried to survive, so they have to move on with their life. They cannot wait for their husband, or something. So they didn’t make it. Or even some of friends who make it to United States, same way. But I’ve still got Quy, I’ve still got family. So in my life sometimes my life, I go down to the bottom – I lost everything! And sometimes I get back everything. I think I so lucky about that.
Well, you sure are in good shape now!
17 So here you are in the United States. You have zero money, zero skills because you’ve been in a re-education camp all this time. You went in the Army when you were eighteen years old. Yes? So what did you think was going to happen to you in America?
When I came here I know for myself because I had a lot of time when I were in the camp to think about that. When I were in the (refugee) camp I go to learn English I go to learn training stuff, I want to prepare for myself a little bit. Even I know it won’t have much, I have to start over again. When I got here, Quy told me, at that time she just graduated from Clackamas Community College in accounting. And she told me okay, now you go to school, I go to work. But I know, I know I need to go to school but if I want our family our life getting better I need to have education. But you already take care everything for a long time when I not home, and you have to try to survive here and raise Christy here. I have to do my part, too. And you know in Asian country, in Vietnamese culture, the man have to do, the man cannot live with somebody else take care of him. So I went to school, I went to college at that time in the day time and go to work in the night time.
One of your first jobs here was at my house, do you remember?
Yes! The first one, when I get here, that the first money I get from the new life here is from you! I still remember I paint the house for you and besides the money, you give me the TV, too.
I forgot that.
I still remember the TV. At that time we had nothing. When I come here, Quy and my daughter lived with my sister-in-law and we moved out after two weeks here. And when we moved out into the apartment we had nothing. We have only two mattress on the floor, that’s all. And my sister-in-law gave Quy a couple kitchen stuff and one of my friend, Quy’s friends, not my friend, let she borrow a table and 4 chair, dining table. That all we have. We have nothing.
So this is America. And you’re a rich guy. (Both laugh)
So when you give me the TV that all we can have our family.
Did that TV work very long?
It worked for about a year, something before I buy the new one.
I remember first year when got here, and Christy birthday come up. I got to the United State in June ’85, and Christy birthday is September 10. And I ask her do you want to invite your friend to here to have a party? She said no. I a little bit surprised because the young kid they want it, they want to have a birthday and invite friends. And I said why not? She told me because we have nothing in our apartment. I cannot say anything at that time. That’s really true, she didn’t want her friends coming to the empty apartment. So I told myself at that time, I will buy the house for you Christy. And I tried really hard. And after three year, we bought the house.
You did? After three years?
After 3 years. We bought the first house in 1988.
So you got a job doing what?
I got a job doing the kitchen. I work in the kitchen. And I work, exactly, it look like I have three jobs. The first is go to school. The second is work study at school – I go to school from seven o’clock until noon. And I work from noon to two work study at school . And I work in the kitchen from two to eleven PM.
In a restaurant?
In a restaurant.
How long did you do that?
I do that for three years. Minimum wage. And that not enough, that’s why in the summertime I have to took the janitor in Red Lion to work, too.
So you worked four jobs? No. Well, three jobs – you were still doing work study at school.
It’s really hard. I don’t know if I can do it now because too old, but at that time I know I have to do it if I want my life better. And I know it not take long. If I work hard for a few years, when I have a degree, when I have a better job, that not like I do it for the rest of my life, I know that. And another thing, lucky, I know I have a lot of good friend, some like you, a lot of friends, help me some way or another way, and at school I have a lot of good teachers there help me a lot. I never forget.
We were inspired by you, I’m going to tell you that. When you came, you were very thin, and at time you’d had a lot of dental problems, I remember. And I think you were in some pain with that. But you didn’t complain once. And Quy just happened to tell me, he’s just been having a terrible time with his mouth. And you were in my house, and Tien, I was just in awe of what you had been through. And you always were smiling, you always seemed happy, you never seemed down, you always seemed just kind of balanced, just, I was just in awe of you. I couldn’t believe what you had been through . And I didn’t know as much as you’re telling me now. I had to guess. But I knew if you’d been in a re-education camp that you had had it hard. And that you hadn’t been able to meet your child all those years, I just thought this man is very special. He’s very special. And I have to tell you I’m honored to know you and I’m honored to say that you’re my friend.
Thank you, Anne. For myself, I think, like I said before, I went through a lot of stuff, go to bottom up and down. But Vietnamese people, a lot of people, they went through same thing I did. I remember when I went to school here, a lot of American friends they know about my story, say, you have a good story. Why don’t you write it? Write it down. It for me, first thing it a sad story; second thing is because you guys didn’t have to spend terrible time like that and you think it good story, but a lot of Vietnamese people, a million Vietnamese people, have the same like that.
Oh, they have many stories, yeah, I’ve heard some. I talked to Chuck Pham the other day and his mother was shot when he was 13 years old. He was away. Thank god he wasn’t there, but he was at school, and they came to the school and said your mother’s been killed and for what? Just they came and shot her because she seemed to be doing too well. And they at least, the one good thing he was able to tell me was that they told him where the body was so that he could go and get it. And I thought and you think that’s good? You know? It was just so awful. Anyway. Yeah. I know there are stories and I know they’re hard, but I don’t know many people that are my friends that that went through that, and I’m glad that you’re telling it to us. Because I think we need to know this. This is a part of our history now. Your history is part of our history. And so it’s important that people know it and hear it.
Okay, so you get your degree in graphics.
Yeah, and I get my first job downtown in Portland and I work there for one year, and after that I looking for a better job and I got another job with ODOT.
What is ODOT? Oregon Department of . . .
So now I am a state worker and my life’s okay now and I really know I cannot make it if I were in Vietnam. And I really think United States give back a life, etc.
Now he want to go to Oregon State and learn I think in the health field. He have in his mind now that he want to be a pharmacist.