Me (bottom right), my parents, and two of my sisters in Vietnam before leaving.
We Left Sài Gòn in 1980
From Vietnam to the Central Valley: Phillip Tran
Dr. Phillip Tran was born in Saigon, Vietnam in 1968. He has many good memories of growing up in Saigon and remembers riding bikes, swimming, and doing other outdoor activities with the neighbors’ kids. However, when Saigon fell in 1975, his parents began to realize that there was no hope for a bright future for the family in Vietnam. So, seeking opportunities, Tran, his older sister, and his father escaped in 1980.
This story was collected by Alexa Tran in 2022 as a part of her Girl Scout Gold Award Project.
Alexa [00:00:00] Hi, everyone. My name is Alexa and I'm a high school student from the Central Valley of California. I'm currently pursuing my Girl Scout Gold Award, the highest honor a Girl Scout can earn, and for this project, I'm collecting and sharing the stories of the Vietnamese boat people from all over the Central Valley. So today, I have Phillip Tran with me, and just to do a quick introduction, can you talk a little bit about who you are and what you do?
Dr. Tran [00:00:23] Hi, everyone. My name is Phillip Huy Tran. I am a radiologist living in Fresno currently. We've been here almost twenty years. I came to America when I was twelve years old. And then I grew up on the East Coast, and I joined the Navy who paid for my medical school scholarship. And then after the Navy, I was stationed out in Oakland, California. That's where I met my wife, and that's how I found California. And here I am.
Alexa [00:01:05] All right. Nice. So where were you born? Or, like, where did you grow up in Vietnam?
Dr. Tran [00:01:10] I was born in Saigon, Vietnam. 1968. And our house was just like five minutes from the international airport. Yeah.
Alexa [00:01:27] And what do you remember about living in Vietnam? What was your favorite thing about it? Or what was the hardest?
Dr. Tran [00:01:35] I remember Vietnam was, actually growing up as a child was a fun time. I mean, I was less than 12 years old, so my memory, it was just playing around with the neighbors' kids. You know, we ride bikes around, we go swimming, we catch crickets, and we do a lot of outdoor stuff. And, um, playing soccer, just a lot of fun stuff. I think I was too young to know all of the political, all of the restriction that the adults has to face. For me it was just a good time.
Alexa [00:02:27] So how old were you when you left?
Dr. Tran [00:02:31] I was twelve years old when I left. It was 1980.
Alexa [00:02:36] 1980. And, what, did you leave from Saigon?
Dr. Tran [00:02:41] Yes, we left from Saigon, and we, it was my dad and I and my sister. We escaped on a boat. We were boat people, and we escaped. We went to Thailand, and from there, we went to Indonesia. And from Indonesia, we went to Singapore. And from Singapore, went to the United States to Virginia.
Alexa [00:03:16] So what was the motivation for leaving? Why did you leave? And what was the hope for coming to a new country?
Dr. Tran [00:03:26] Well, as we all know, Saigon or Vietnam fell to the communism in 1975. So, you know, people lost their freedom. They couldn't do what they want to do, and I think my parents at the time think the future is, doesn't look very bright for us. So, you know, their goal was to get us to a country that's, where we can have dreams and, you know, we can make dreams a reality, like the U.S. So, you know, my father took my older sister and me, the oldest son. We have five siblings total. I was the third one. My older sister and my dad, we left. The reason why we left not with the whole family because if you get caught, then, you know, we will go to jail, and they would confiscate our house, and we'll have nothing to return to. So my parents' plans were: "All right. So Dad's going to take the two oldest kids, and then the rest stay back and try later." Because, you know, most time you actually don't make it. But luckily, we made it on the first trip. So, you know, through a pretty incredible journey, we made it to, over to Thailand and eventually the U.S.
Alexa [00:05:17] And was the goal to come to the U.S. specifically, or were you just trying to leave Vietnam?
Dr. Tran [00:05:25] We were trying to leave Vietnam and go to Thailand. And then my dad's brothers are in the U.S. So, you know, our plan was to get over to Thailand and contact him and he can sponsor us over to U.S. We're lucky, we're lucky in terms that we have relatives. If you don't have relatives, then you would have to be sponsored by these organizations like churches or, you know, random people sponsor you over. But luckily, you know, we have, my uncle's over here already. He left in 1975, so he sponsored us over. So we were at a refugee camp for, I believe, about seven months, and yeah.
Alexa [00:06:18] You mentioned that you made multiple stops, but what, between those stops, what was the journey like? What was it like being on the boat and crowded with everyone?
Dr. Tran [00:06:29] Our journey was, you know, it's, it was, it was scary looking back. It's, you know, I was young, so I didn't think much about it. But know, knowing what we went through now, I'm not sure I would be comfortable taking that route. So basically, we left in a little, small boat. I remember that morning my dad came in, wake us up. And my sister and I, and he's kinda "Shh, don't say anything, just follow me." I think they already packed our clothes. And we just snuck out some time, like I believe in the middle of the night, three in the morning. Then now, we got to this little town. We stayed in the woods and the rice fields. At nighttime, this little small boat come pick us up. It's me, my dad, my sister, and whoever was driving the boat. And then we were just cruising down the river comes morning, you know, we're just cruising down. And I just remember every time we passed the police station or the guard, they would all say "Duck! Duck! Just stay down there. Don't move, don't talk." You know, because they can randomly check any boat for anything, anytime. So, luckily, you know, we didn't get stopped, so we made it out to this open space at night. From there, at night, we came out, and we met another boat. And I remember climbing on. The boat wasn't that big. I'm thinking about ten meters in length and two, two and a half in width. And then I remember the boat was so crowded. As we walked on, there were children, women, men. Everybody was already on the boat, and it was so tight. You know, so we barely found a place to sit. It was so tight that you can't stretch your legs. You kind of have to like, fold your legs so you can have room to sit. The way it works is that, you know, these people who run an underground operation, you would pay them, and they will put you on a boat like this and head over to Thailand. You paid them in gold. So that's what my parents did. And so, you know, for them, it's like a business, so they don't care whether we live or die. So they make money by stuffing as many people on the boat as possible. So therefore, you know, with the size of the boat, eleven meters in length and two meters, wide, I think we had about 114 people on it. Um, so we cruise out. And then the first day we hit the storm, the storm was huge that when I looked out the boat, these storms, it looked to me like a two, three stories high. And our boat was getting thrown left and right like a little toy. Everyone's getting seasick. People were throwing up. People, kids were crying, woman is crying, everyone is praying. If you're Buddhist, you're praying to Buddha. If you're Catholic, you pray to Jesus. And, uh, it was chaotic. Apparently there were two boats. One other boat that also went with us decided to turn around because they thought it was too dangerous to keep going. But for our boat, we took a vote, and we decided that we were going to keep marching on because if we turned around, we got caught, and we go to jail, chances are, we lose everything. So basically it's either do or die. So, we keep proceeding. And then, you know, just when you think it's, can't get any worse, it got worse. Our boat's engine died because, I guess, somebody's clothes fell overboard and got stuck in the propeller, and then it just died. So we were just floating. And, like all storms, you know, eventually it passed. And then I remember the water is calm again, sun's out. At this time, we didn't have an engine. We ran out of food and water because some of that stuff just got thrown overboard because the storm. So we're just floating there and by now, everyone's just tired. Now nobody's talking, everybody's just was sitting there. We're just floating, floating, just hoping a miracle happens. Couple of days floating in the ocean, we saw a boat from far away. And so we decide to wave them over. Some people were reluctant because there are stories of Thailand fishermen who are considered pirates. They kidnap women, girls and rape them and put them on an island, and then they rob people, take people watches and jewelry. But we figured what we got to lose at this point, because we, we're dying anyway. So Grandpa, so my dad came out and talk to the captain of that Thai fishermen, and they invite us up to their ship, their boat. And I remember climbing up on one of those ladder and, you know, ropes, looking down to our boat it looks so tiny, it's like a little toy. And I was like, "oh my God, I can't believe that's our boat." And when we get up there, you know, we see all these fishermen guy tattoo up. They look like pirates. But they were nice. You know, they gave us food, soup, and water. So we thought we were golden until after we finished eating and they said, well, you know, give us all your jewelry, watches, earrings, gold rings, whatever. Or any money. They will rescue us, pull us to land. So we did. But as soon as they got all our possessions then they told us to go back to our boats. And we're like "No, we're not going back to that little tiny thing" so we refused to. And that's when they're starting to threat us, threatened us by shooting in the air. And then um so we had no choice um crawl down there back to our boat. So we all went down. Well, at least we got a nice meal out of it. So we float around for a few more days, mostly two or three more days. Again, no water, no food. Everybody's tired again, one meal doesn't last that long. I think we're just floating, just waiting to die. And then we saw another boat. Again, we took a vote and say, well, you know, we got, we got to get someone to rescue us. I know it's risky, but we gonna die anyway. So this boat came. My dad came out spoke French with the captain, and the captain invited us onto the ship and he fed us. And he gave all his crew's cabin to women and children. And he said that I have three more days of fishing, come fish with us, then after that, I'll, you know, we'll pull you to land. Unlike the other ship, he didn't ask for any money, he didn't ask for jewelry, so we went fishing with him for three days. It's kind of fun. The weather's nice. I remember watching the fish. It was entertaining. Then one night, he said, "Okay, we close to land, you see that lighthouse down there? You can head straight in it's about a mile out. I can't rescue you. I can't bring you all the way to the land because illegal I'll be arrested, but I fix your boat. You got a new engine. The waters are calm. You just go there straight into that lighthouse." So, we thanks him and we all, we all came down to our boat and did what he said. Drove straight to the lighthouse and maybe we get on there. Then all the Thailand cops came and picked us up, and they drove us to the refugee camp the next morning. And, you know, there's a refugee camp right by the beach. The name is Songkhla, I believe. And then that's where all of the Vietnamese refugees are staying, waiting for sponsorship to go to whatever country that they go into or where the family is. So we're lucky we made it. But lots of my friends didn't have such fortune. Yeah.
Alexa [00:17:10] Do you remember how you felt or what you were thinking when you finally made it to the camp? Like, was it just this huge feeling of relief or did you still feel like you still had a journey to make?
Dr. Tran [00:17:25] It was a sense of relief. You go in there you see all the, you know, people who are in your shoes and so you know you're safe now. So, I mean, I, you know, camp was fun. You know, it was like, I went to church, I went to school, learn a little bit of English. We went fishing, we flew kite, we swam at the beach. While all that was happening, you know my dad contact his brother and did all the paperwork. But for me, as a twelve years old, it was just a good time you know Yeah, it was fun.
Alexa [00:18:17] And how long were you at that camp?
Dr. Tran [00:18:20] I was at Songkhla for four months? Then after that, they transferred us to Indonesia, it's another camp think it's called Galang. There's Galang 1 and 2. We were the last batch to stay at Galang 1. Stayed there another two months or three months, two to three months., You know, it's it's much bigger camp. Lot more people that, you know, school, church. I remember like at nighttime we would all walk to this outdoor place and we all watch TV, it was fun. Yeah. And then we stayed there for two, three months and then after that we, we got an okay to fly to U.S., so we left Indonesia, flew over to Singapore, stayed there for one day and then flew to Tokyo. And then flew to California. And then from there, we flew to Virginia, which is which was where my uncle was staying and he sponsor us so, so basically when I came to America, I grew up in Virginia.
Alexa [00:19:43] What was life like for you and your family trying to adjust in a new country as a refugee/immigrant? Like, what do you remember the most about kind of being in this new environment?
Dr. Tran [00:19:55] Um. It was, looking back it was, it was a, I mean, you can call it a struggle, but it's not really a struggle. Whatever it was back then, it's still a whole lot better than what we would have had in Vietnam. You know we, we stay with another family. We share a little townhouse. My dad and I share a room. My sister share a room with the other family's daughter and they have one adult, one child, and one son. And, they stayed in our bedroom four people. For the first couple of months we were on welfare, you know, food stamps. So, you know, we went shopping grocery with food stamps, you know, from the government. And my dad was an engineer in Vietnam. So he tried to look for an engineering job, and eventually he found some but I don't think it was paid very high. So, but he took it anyway, and then I remember going to school. I started out seventh grade the school called Luther Jackson. I think I went, I only have one month left before school over. So I went there, and my favorite class was English as second language. It was just because there you, well I, you know, met all these kids, international kids in the same boat as I am, or same situation. And we're trying to learn English, we're just new to the country. And, you know, like there were Korean, there were South American, there were Chinese, there were Vietnamese. So, you know, I have good friends back then and we start out the school with like three English as second language period a day. As your English gets better, it goes to two periods a day and then one period a day. And when you're good enough, then you don't need to take any more English as second language. But, you know like, at junior high, kids are kids, you know. I remember, you know, gym, you know, these guys would come up, and I thought it was my friend and say, asked me to say the word, you know, "F" you. And I said, "What is that?" And they like, oh, it's like saying hello. So I said, F-you to some stranger. And they start laughing. That's when I went home and asked my cousins, what does that mean? And they told me it's a bad word. And so that's funny, I remember that. And also on the bus, you know, bus driver we took public transportation to school. Yeah. There's a little segregation there, you know, when you sit on the bus, there's no, no other kids would sit next to you. You know, they. So, which is fine most time I have the chair to myself. Kind of what you see in the movie, you know, or, or they would try to scoot out so you don't sit next to them. But, you know, they're kids at that time, so. Yeah, so school was, school was a little struggle. We tried to learn English to navigate through all that and that. I watch a lot of Sesame Street. The birds. That's how I learn English. And, um. Yeah. And Dad was working, and he was taking public transportation. Virginia, the winter is brutal. It's a, it's um can get cold, snow, icy. You know, every morning we don't have a car. Dad walks out to the bus stop. Rode all the way to DC, I don't know how long it took, probably at least an hour, an hour and a half. And every day come home and, you know, it's just that's just life. And, and, you know, before school every day, I would have to, you know, I would go around the neighborhood, deliver a newspaper, Washington Post, around the neighborhood. I would wake up at five and go deliver like a hard papers around the neighborhood, come home, have breakfast, walk to the bus stop. And sometimes in the snow, ice, you know you still have to do it. I was dragging them with a shopping cart in the snow, but I got pretty good. You know, I can throw those papers to people's porches like nobody can. People are nice so at Christmas they would leave me gift in the little trash room where the, I usually go to put the papers to gather the ads in the front page, the sports page together and before I deliver. So, I did that before school and yeah. And in summer, I worked at a fast food restaurant, like, Hardee's. And one of the fond memories was, you know, like I would work late and we would close at eleven. And technically, all the burgers supposed to be thrown away after, I don't know, twenty minutes or so, thirty minutes or so. So, despite it's late, nobody's coming, I was a cook, I kept making it, hamburgers, and cheeseburgers, all the sandwiches. So, after twenty, thirty minutes time expired, I throw in the trash, instead of throwing in the trash, I throw in my own trash bag. So, when it's done, I bring it home. And then all my cousins stay up wait for me, and we just have a blast eating all those sandwiches. It was fun memories. Yeah.
Alexa [00:26:52] So the rest of your family was still back in Vietnam for some time. What was it like being separated from them for so long?
Dr. Tran [00:27:02] It's, you know my, the rest of the family, my mom and three other siblings. They try to escape ten times, and they never made it. They got caught all ten times. Luckily, my youngest brother was young, so they didn't confiscate the house, they didn't keep my mother that long because of young child. But she kept trying and kept trying. You know, I'm like, guess we made the first time. Ten times, ten tries she still didn't make it. So, we were separated for five, six years. Pretty much I didn't see her until when I about to graduate from high school. You know, during that time Dad worked and then I remember I wanted the pair of shoes, Nike, it was 20 bucks at that time. Because everybody was playing basketball with Nike, I wanted a Nike pair. And Dad was like, "Well, you know $20 we can send home. Mom and your siblings can live like a month on that." So I said, "Okay, fine I don't need $20 shoes." So, Dad bought me the Kmart shoes Trax. And then I remember came out of ballpark playing with my neighborhood friends, and one game the sole came off and then, that was, that was that. So, yeah back then it was like it was my dream to get either Nike or Reebok, you know. They weren't expensive. They were 20 bucks, but for 20 bucks for us that's a lot of money. So, I didn't have it. So, because I deliver newspaper, I made some money. So, I bought an Atari, and I found some bikes that people threw away, fix it up. And there it go, that's, that was my transportation around neighborhood with friends. You know, sometime after school we would bike to 7-11 play game, bike the neighbor's house. Um, bike to my classmate's house and play football. You know it's, it's, it's actually was really, really fun growing up. I don't think to me, we weren't suffering I mean. I thought we had a good life. Yeah.
Alexa [00:29:43] And what was it like seeing your family for the first time again?
Dr. Tran [00:29:49] By the time we reunited with my mom and my siblings, I was pretty much full grown. You know, I went from being a 12-year-old boy to you know, a 17-year-old senior in high school. I was grown. And remember meet 'em at the airport. They came out, it was just so, you know, it was emotional and we hug, we laugh. Can't believe it happen. But, unfortunately, I was about to graduate, too, so even when our family reunited, I wasn't home very long until time to go to college. But, you know, for the first time, you know, we had the whole family together. Oh and we bought this government housing, it's really cheap for a small townhouse. No garage, no backyard. It was small, it's like 1100 and six of us living there. And to me, it was like, it was so big back then. You know, now looking back and thinking, how do we even, like, fit in there? But it was, it was our first home. It's a townhouse. It was cozy. And then whole family's together and, you know, it's, it's like the beginning of the American dream.
Alexa [00:31:37] So you grew up in Virginia. You went to college in Virginia. How did you end up in the Central Valley?
Dr. Tran [00:31:47] So, I grew up Virginia, graduated University of Virginia in 1990. And then I went, I went to medical school at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk. After first year, I figure by the time, because I was taking loan for the med school, I figured by the time I graduated, I would owe over a hundred thousand, which seems a lot of money. So, after class, I was walking by the hallway, and I saw this table was of a Navy, Army, Air Force officers sitting there promoting their scholarship. Swung by and talked to them and I'm, I'm thinking, hmm, okay if they pay for my all my medical school and all I do is just give back time and after I graduate, not bad. I get to travel, I'm single, and I don't owe any money, so. I picked the Navy because I think the bases are in general good location near the water, near the beach. And I like the uniforms the most. So, you know, and after I graduated, the Navy sent me to Oakland Naval Hospital, and that's where I did my internship. And then I met my wife, who was a senior at UC Berkeley, and we dated and we hit it off and two years later, we got married. Engaged, married. And then we moved down to San Diego where I finished payback time, and I paid back three years in San Diego. And after that I left the Navy, went back to Virginia, did my radiology residency in Virginia, Richmond, Virginia. And actually, my wife didn't want to go to Virginia. She said she doesn't want to live anywhere but California. But I told her, just come over here and live, over in Virginia a few years with me and, you know, be close to my dad and after that we can always go back. So, after I graduate from radiology residency, we went back to the Bay Area, did my fellowship in San Francisco and got a job in Fresno. And here I am twenty years later, still here and living the American dream. If it wasn't for the risk that my parents take, I would not have what I have today. I'm always thankful. I don't take any things in life for granted. We're blessed. So. Yeah. I'm living the American dream. This is a dream that everybody's talking about.
Alexa [00:34:56] And what has it been like as a Vietnamese-American refugee in the Central Valley? Do you feel like there are a lot of people that you can relate with or?
Dr. Tran [00:35:07] Um, yeah. I mean, I do meet some people at work, sometimes some patients, sometimes some of my residents are Vietnamese boat people and we talk and kind of share our stories. We all have our own struggles. But, we all work hard knowing that we risk our life. Our family risk our life, risk everything for us to be here. So, we just work hard and make sure our American dream come true and yeah, people in the Central Valley and yeah they, they have the same background as I do. There's dentists, [00:35:49]there's [0.0s] doctors, there's engineers, and they're all successful, and they're all living the American dream. We're all thankful for, for what we have.
Alexa [00:36:01] All right. Thank you so much for sharing. Is there any, are there any last words that you want to leave off on?
Dr. Tran [00:36:11] Last word is never take anything for granted. You know, things like just a simple thing, like a meal with your family. You know, like just to be able to have a meal with the whole family together, don't take it for granted because a lot of people can't do that. And I wasn't able to do that for over five years. So, and the food you eat, everything you have in life, you know just, even on your bad days don't think that you're having a bad day because somebody's, someone else out there is having a worse day than you. So, always look at the glass as half full rather than half empty, and then just live your dream out, and work hard, and nothing is impossible.
Alexa [00:37:11] All right. Perfect. Thank you so much for sharing.
Dr. Tran [00:37:14] You're welcome.