An ID card made for me at the Singapore refugee camp.
From Sóc Trăng, Vietnam
From Vietnam to the Central Valley: Hoang Thai
Hoang Thai was born in Sóc Trăng, Vietnam where he lived until he left at seventeen years old in 1981. He has fond memories of climbing coconut trees, swimming in the ocean, and fishing in rivers in Vietnam. However, his family knew they had to leave after the Communists took over in 1975 and they lost all freedom.
This story was collected by Alexa Tran in 2022 as a part of her Girl Scout Gold Award Project.
Alexa [00:00:02] 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 Vietnamese boat people from all over the Central Valley. So today, I have Mr. Thai with me, and just to do a quick introduction, can you talk a little bit about who you are and what you do?
Mr. Thai [00:00:25] Oh, I was a, a machinist, I was a machinist and CNC programmer, and I work for the JBT Corporation in Madera, California.
Alexa [00:00:39] Awesome. Thank you. So, just to get all the way back to your childhood, where were you born and where did you grow up in Vietnam?
Mr. Thai [00:00:47] I was born in Soc Trang, that's a city southwest of Vietnam.
Alexa [00:00:55] Is that where you grew up too?
Mr. Thai [00:00:57] Sorry?
Alexa [00:00:58] Is that where you grew up, too?
Mr. Thai [00:01:00] Yes, I grew up in that city.
Alexa [00:01:02] And what do you remember about living there? What, what were some of your favorite things or what were some challenges?
Mr. Thai [00:01:13] I just, I remember used to, when I a kid climb in a coconut tree and swim in the ocean. And also go fishing in the river.
Alexa [00:01:28] What were some challenges about living in Vietnam?
Mr. Thai [00:01:34] Is, I think at that time when as soon as Communist takeover in 1975 and there were no freedom and no democracy. And they control all the everything, like food and, you know, even your time. Yeah, they, they try to, you know, want to you to do what they want.
Alexa [00:02:05] Mhmm. So how old were you when you left Vietnam?
Mr. Thai [00:02:11] I left Vietnam in I was 17 years old.
Alexa [00:02:15] And what year was this? What year?
Mr. Thai [00:02:20] In 1981.
Alexa [00:02:26] Okay. And where did you leave from? What city?
Mr. Thai [00:02:31] I leave from Cần Thơ, they call it Cần Thơ, the city of southwest of Vietnam.
Alexa [00:02:37] Okay. And what do you remember the most about leaving?
Mr. Thai [00:02:42] Oh, I fear, I fear of get capture when I, when I escaped, left my country.
Alexa [00:02:55] So, even though you were afraid of being captured, what was the motivation for leaving and what was the hope?
Mr. Thai [00:03:03] There is no hope for the future with the Communists controlling my daily life and I wanted better, you know. And the main thing is the freedom. And I got better education and opportunity to opportunity elsewhere.
Alexa [00:03:25] So who did you leave with? And did you leave anybody behind?
Mr. Thai [00:03:29] I leave my younger brother and my father, my father and my younger brother. And also my, my , my mom, sister, and my two other brothers escape in 1979. That two year and they still in that refugee camp in that time.
Alexa [00:03:52] Oh, wow. So that must have been very difficult. Would you say that was the most difficult part about leaving?
Mr. Thai [00:04:00] Yeah, yeah. It's leaving behind everything I knew, like my family, home, the culture for an unpredictable journey.
Alexa [00:04:11] And can you describe the day you left? Like, did you know you were leaving for good? Or were you kind of just, like, told that, "Hey, we're going somewhere"? Like, what was it like?
Mr. Thai [00:04:25] I attempt escape more than ten time.
Alexa [00:04:29] Oh, wow.
Mr. Thai [00:04:30] I, it was unsuccess and I was unsuccessful during my, my unsuccess attempt I got in a small boat. First time I get in a small boat and, and after about a couple hour the engine would broke down. And we got, we got a spot. Our, our engine broke down in Cà Mau. That is a part of the South Viet down all the way to Vietnam. They call the Cà Mau province. And the Vietnamese Coast Guard was spot us. So everyone had to flee, had to flee off the boat, out of the boat and we end up in the U Minh, they call it U Minh Forest. That is the, the forest all the way down in Cà Mau.
Alexa [00:05:41] Oh, wow.
Mr. Thai [00:05:42] And while some of the other people they, they stay on the boat, people on the boat, surrender. And the Coast Guard, they just got speaker and yelling that every people got to come out otherwise they, you gonna die. And I and another guy decide to run away. You know, we will, yeah we run all the way to the jungle.
Alexa [00:06:20] So what was, oh, sorry. Go ahead.
Mr. Thai [00:06:22] Yeah, and eventually it's, we are hiding, we escape and hiding in the jungle for three days. We live without food. And, you know, all the saltwater. Yeah.
Alexa [00:06:40] Oh, my gosh.
Mr. Thai [00:06:41] And we're starving. I almost feel I almost died because no food and I couldn't. We eat all the, you know, the leaf, the tree leaf to survive. Yeah, and finally, I just got somebody, I go back to the ocean, back to ocean and gets a fishing boat people rescue me rather than, you know, the Coast Guard. If the Coast Guard gets me, get me I got to go in jail. And that time I feel when I come back, I say, well, I never go to escape again.
Alexa [00:07:22] And so what was the rest of the journey like after that?
Mr. Thai [00:07:25] Yeah, after that I got I could, I was in the success one it was in, we was going to, and travel to Cần Thơ. That's the city of southwest of Vietnam. And I stay at the floating market they, they called it a floating market. And about three day, until they put me in a small, small, the small boat with about six and seven people who and we won for, we wait for the night time and to escape through the river. And then on to the, went through the ocean. And they transfer us to the bigger boats that a fishing boat. And after all I can see a crowd of about hundred people and big crowd in there. We were extreme happy because when we passed the checkpoint, they got a checkpoint, the coast guard checkpoint when you go, go out to the ocean from the river. And we thought we would be, that would be the hardest part of our escape. After about eighteen hour go, go out to the ocean, we got stopped by the, we got stopped by the coast guard of the, they call the island Côn Đảo. The island, that the island that used to they hold all the prisoner. And we got caught by them.
Alexa [00:09:28] So...
Mr. Thai [00:09:28] Yeah, yeah they come up and they ask us to, to give them all the belonging and all, they took all the compass. The compass, you know compass right? And the coast guard make an agreement with the owner of the boat owner for the money so they let us go. And after, I think five day, throughout the, without a compass. And I think we, that time we lost. But on the way we went, we ran out of food, water and are more people on the boat was sick. Finally, I think we see a lot of the trading ship went by that I count it that is number forty-fivee that are holding, called the Netherland trading ship and they rescue, rescued us. And they take us up to the boat, uh ship. And they sent us to the Singapore, that the refugee camp in Singapore.
Alexa [00:11:00] So you stopped in Singapore. How long were you there?
Mr. Thai [00:11:04] I was there about, I think it's almost three month in Singapore since from May I think to almost September.
Alexa [00:11:17] And what was it like there?
Mr. Thai [00:11:20] Oh the life is okay, but a lot of homesick and all because I was by myself.
Alexa [00:11:30] Mhm. Did you, did you stop anywhere else? Or where did you go after Singapore?
Mr. Thai [00:11:37] After Singapore I go straight to, to USA and San Francisco, the first stop is San Francisco and transferred to Fresno.
Alexa [00:11:49] Did you have a sponsor to bring you to the U.S.?
Mr. Thai [00:11:54] Yes.
Alexa [00:11:55] Who was the sponsor?
Mr. Thai [00:11:58] Oh my aunt, I have an aunt she was, been here since 1970. And that is my, that why I, I get, I can get to the USA.
Alexa [00:12:12] Mm hmm. So first you went to San Francisco. How long did you stay there?
Mr. Thai [00:12:17] At one night.
Alexa [00:12:18] Just one night?
Mr. Thai [00:12:19] Just to, just to where they transfer.
Alexa [00:12:26] And then you came to Fresno?
Mr. Thai [00:12:28] Yeah, I come to Fresno in September 1981.
Alexa [00:12:37] Oh, how old were you when you... Were you still 17?
Mr. Thai [00:12:39] I was 17 years old when I get in here, yeah.
Alexa [00:12:43] So what was it like being in this new country, this unfamiliar country?
Mr. Thai [00:12:49] Uh, extremely difficult because of the different language. You got to learn the language, the lifestyle. And also hard to start from scratch to build our way up, you know?
Alexa [00:13:11] What do you remember the most about this time period of adjusting?
Mr. Thai [00:13:16] I, yeah, I, and I would work extremely hard during the hot summer month and would go to school to earn enough money to survive and feed myself.
Alexa [00:13:36] Where did you find strength in these difficult times?
Mr. Thai [00:13:41] It keep me going the possibility that I could create a successful future myself. Kept me motivate to continue fighting even through the, through is was extremely hard.
Alexa [00:14:10] And kind of growing up or living in the Central Valley, did you feel like you had a lot of people to relate to? Like, were there a lot of Vietnamese Americans.
Mr. Thai [00:14:23] In that time with the Vietnamese community, I think it's less than five hundred people around the Central Valley. It's not like right now.
Alexa [00:14:37] Mm hmm.
Mr. Thai [00:14:39] Yeah and we do, we got the, still got some organization to help you do all the paperwork and new. Yeah.
Alexa [00:14:50] So did you have, like a lot of people you could rely on, like a big support system?
Mr. Thai [00:14:56] Yeah, I got. So I, I live with my aunt she been here for awhile, for long so it that's the one that support me the most when I first came here.
Alexa [00:15:12] So that's all the questions I have. But is there anything else about your story that you want to share or talk about?
Mr. Thai [00:15:20] Um no, that's it.
Alexa [00:15:24] Okay. Thank you so much for your time.
Mr. Thai [00:15:26] All right. Thank you.