My family escaped Vietnam. Others in their boat were not so lucky
I was 6 or 7 years old. And I didn’t want to go to swimming lessons at the YMCA.
Like, I really didn’t want to go.
The locker room was gross, and I hated the smell of chlorine. The teacher made us swim one-by-one while the rest of the class watched. I wore the same blue bathing suit every week. And I was bored.
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I thought I could already swim just fine. Why keep going?
One night, in the midst of my complaining, my mom sat me down in the family room of our house in Olympia. I don’t remember her exact words, but she said I had to learn to swim, because she couldn’t. And that mattered.
Years ago, it was a matter of life and death.
My mom left Vietnam with my dad and my sister, who was one and a half at the time. They fled by boat. There were no life jackets. And lot of the people on that boat — including my mom — didn’t know how to swim.
Not everyone survived.
I never complained about swimming lessons again.
Kristie Nguyen is a dear friend whom I’ve known all my life. She was a little girl when our families fled by boat in 1978.
Her mother, Co Huong, was one of the key planners of the escape. But she didn’t make it, and neither did another of her daughters.
“I remember my father discovered that my mom and my sister were gone,” Kristie said. “And that was the first time I saw my father cry.”
In the face of such an incredible loss at a young age, Kristie has become an incredibly resilient person. And despite the painful memories, she’s gone back to Vietnam many times.
She’s even revisited the village our families fled from decades ago.
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And a while back she asked me — would you like to see it, too? She had some lingering questions, and she wanted answers while the people who remembered were still alive.
Maybe I’d learn something about my family’s escape too.
‘A DARK, SCARY TIME’
Our first stop on our journey in Vietnam was to a place called Ca Mau. It’s a city near the southernmost point of Vietnam, and Kristie went to school there at a Buddhist temple as a little girl.
As we were riding there on a bus, I asked Kristie what she remembers thinking our families were getting into when they escaped.
“I thought we were just going on a trip to a beautiful place,” she said. “Something you read about in fairy tales … dark clothes. I chose a red sweater. I was ready to go on a tour, not an escape.”
In Ca Mau we visited a colorful Buddhist temple where Kristie lived nearly 40 years ago. Even so, she instantly spotted the big tree she used to play under as a little girl.
We found a healer who remembered Kristie, but he couldn’t recall many details. One day, Kristie and her sister were there. The next day, they were gone.
Maybe we’d have more luck on our next stop: a tiny fishing village called Song Ong Doc. This village is Kristie’s hometown, and she still has family there.
After a day of traveling and a short walk, we arrived at Kristie’s uncle’s house. She calls him Cau Tu — Uncle #4 — so I call him that, too.
Kristie’s uncle, aunt and cousins welcomed us with open arms and fed us mantis shrimp, a local specialty. As we crowded around the coffee table and peeled the seafood with our bare hands, I felt a connection with this place.
Then I remembered something. Before I left for Vietnam, my dad told me to check on two people — two former students he’s always wondered about.
He told me he always saw something special in them and hoped his escape would inspire them to do the same.
I asked one of Kristie’s cousins about them, and her response shocked me. A funeral we’d walked by on our way to Kristie’s uncle’s house was for one of those two students, a man named Phuoc. His wife, Nguyet was the other student.
His funeral was still going on the next day, and I went. I had so many questions. I introduced myself to Nguyet and told her who my father is.
“You look like him; you really look like him,” she said.
She said those years after our families escaped were hard — and that the loss of Kristie’s mom was shocking. She said it was seen as a warning for others who were thinking of escaping.
“After your dad and Co Huong’s families left, and we found out she had died, this village lost a piece of its soul,” Nguyet said. “Everyone was scared … and couldn’t believe that a vibrant person like Co Huong and her youngest daughter could lose her life. No one was allowed to talk about what happened. No one was allowed to memorialize her. It was a dark, scary time.”
My dad had wanted to inspire people with his escape, but the opposite had happened.
There was something Kristie wanted to show me: the route our families took when they spent their last night in Vietnam.
We headed down the Song Ong Doc River by boat, and Kristie recalled how crowded it was the night of our families’ escape.
On the day of the escape in late October 1978, my mom was told to get on a boat and pick up Kristie and her sister at the Buddhist temple in Ca Mau.
Kristie’s family used to grow rice on a farm by the Song Ong Doc River. This farm, so unassuming and peaceful, this was the spot where they all left Vietnam nearly 40 years ago.
I don’t know what I was imagining when I envisioned my parents' escape. But it wasn’t this humble spot of land by the river, covered in mud.
The plan was to take a couple of boat rides and make it to a refugee camp in Malaysia. But despite the careful planning, everything went wrong that night.
The story I’ve been told — one version of it anyway — is that people in the party showed up late. Once they finally got started, the weather turned for the worse.
“But the last thing I remember was that this huge giant wave came, and I looked at it and I say this is really big,” Kristie recalled. “And that was my last thought before the boat got capsized.”
Everyone was hurled into the water.
My mom remembers being in the water, swallowing water and fuel, and clinging to my dad’s neck. He screamed at her to loosen her grip so that he could swim with one arm and keep my mom and my sister afloat.
And then miraculously, a nearby fishing boat heard the sound of children in the water.
My family was saved. So was Kristie, her sister, her younger brother and several others. Everyone gathered on the boat, and started checking on their loved ones.
“And then when we get there, we were asking, mom, you know, but we couldn’t find anything,” Kristie remembered.
The survivors were taken to Kristie’s dad, a fishing boat captain who waited for them on his vessel nearby. Kristie still remembers the moment he realized his wife and youngest daughter hadn’t survived.
“He literally broke down and cried,” she said. And at first he didn’t want to go. He was the captain of the boat, and we need him to go.”
‘THEY BLAMED ME’
After this happened, a lot of people blamed a man called Gia, one of Kristie’s cousins. He was entrusted with delivering our families directly to Kristie’s dad’s boat. There was some kind of miscommunication or misunderstanding, and Gia didn’t take them straight there. Instead, he dropped them off with a different boat.
Kristie and I wanted to hear Gia’s side of the story. On our last day in Song Ong Doc, Kristie’s uncle tracked him down.
Gia is in his sixties now — thin, bald, and tanned from working outside for years.
We visited him in his spacious house, which has a large garden and his SUV parked nearby. His wife lead us outside to their patio and served us kumquats and tea.
We asked Gia about what happened that night. What went wrong?
He swore he’d fulfilled his duty that night by dropping them off at the right boat. He thinks that if the storm hadn’t hit, everyone would have survived.
“I tried to fulfill my responsibility,” he said. “That boat sunk and people died. It made people lose confidence in me. They blamed me. The rest of the family blamed me. In my mind, I wanted to do the right thing. I thought I fulfilled my responsibility.”
Gia said he’s lived with guilt from the death of Kristie’s mom and sister ever since. He looked down at times, but he answered our questions. He even drew a map of the route they took that night.
This conversation would end up haunting me for months. At that time, in that moment, I took what he said at face value. He seemed so ready to answer our questions and to share his version of what happened that awful night. Today, months later, I think he might have been trying to convince me of a story he’d been telling himself all these years.
As we were walking back to our car I asked Gia about the pictures hanging on the walls of his home — children and teens. He said they were his grandkids in America.
It turned out that Gia later went on to steer other members of Kristie’s family out to sea, and he got his own kids out, too.
He tried to escape several times as well. On one of those trips, he even made it all the way to a refugee camp. But by that point — years after the war, South Vietnamese refugees were starting to overcrowd camps, and a lot of people weren’t allowed to seek asylum.
Gia was sent back to Vietnam.
Our trip wouldn’t be complete without another stop along the Song Ong Doc River: Kristie’s family’s plot.
For the first time, I saw where Kristie’s mother and sister are buried. Her dad is there now too, brought back so that he could rest in peace next to his wife and child.
I looked over at Kristie and saw that she was calm. I asked her how she was able to come to terms with this over the years.
“It’s not sad you know,” she said. “It’s just something I’ve accepted. So it’s nice to be back.
She said that on a previous trip to her hometown, it was more difficult.
“I remember the first time I came back,” she said. “I was in denial, I was hoping that she was still alive, that they kept her in a secret place ... Then I spent a whole week there, and on my last day, I was still hoping she would show up, but she didn’t.”
I asked Kristie if she learned anything new about her from this trip.
“It just made me proud, you know — to have a mother like her,” Kristie said. “It made me sad that she lived such a short life.”
If only Kristie’s mom knew what her sacrifice led to — that her four surviving children and numerous grandchildren are some of the most resilient people I know who’ve built amazing lives in America.
And without Kristie’s mom’s enduring friendship and willingness to include my parents in her plans — and without her father’s courage during the worst moment of his life — my family might not be here.
I might not be here.
Editor’s Note 2/16/2018, 9:35 a.m.: This episode has been edited from its original version to clarify a comment Thanh made about the man who was involved in the escape of her family.
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