My father’s family reunion after a decade apart.
A Slice of Orange
As Told By: Anthony Nguyen
Things worth doing are worth planning. Orchestrating these escapes takes time, money and a lot of patience. It rarely ever goes exactly to plan. But persistence and focus on the goal of making a grand escape is on the hearts and minds of those who want it badly enough.
This was the early 80s and tensions were high between neighboring countries of Vietnam, and the destruction that was left from the Vietnam War. Vietnam was under lockdown trying to limit any attempts of people fleeing out of the country. The future uncertain and continuous civil unrest in Vietnam shaken families and their lives. My grandfather contacted a distant uncle who owned a small fishing boat. This uncle had been planning for months to get his pregnant wife out of Vietnam. He had also trained 5 other young men for this pursuit for about 6 months. My grandfather then asked my father, who was seventeen at the time, to go and train under this distant uncle for a few months at sea in preparation to escape. My father, his distant uncle and the other trained five men took a small modified fishing boat out to sea during the wee hours of 2:00 am and pretended to be fishing in order to ward off any suspicion from the authorities. They gathered rations to last for a few weeks along with some small compartments on the boat to hold drinking water. My father’s distant uncle had planned meeting points along the escape route, with several other boats, where they would get oil cans to fuel the engine. They were very cautious about creating any suspicion for the authorities. So much so that they had bribed someone to distract the guards and policemen by inviting them out to have drinks. Despite all this preparation, they had one false start as the fuel that was promised to them was not delivered at the meeting point which delayed their launch by a month. They had to forcibly toss whatever rations they had saved up for the trip into the water.
During the Summer of ‘81 in mid-July, they attempted to launch on their destined voyage to sea. On a small boat meant to take 30-35 at most for close relatives and some friends, however doubled in capacity on the day of. The sea was rough, the nights were cool but the days were unbearably hot. The rationed water in those compartments all spelt over within 2 days due to the rocky turbulence which made everyone’s thirst on the sea greater than their hunger. My dad was so desperate and thirsty that he tried a drop of seawater and regretted the salty bitterness of it. People became selfish in the act of self-preservation but one woman decided to split an orange with everyone. Exhausted and dying of thirst, a slice of orange can feel heavenly in contrast to all the dryness and saltiness. Everyone was tired but the boat pressed on with 60 lives aboard.
On the 4th day, near the international waters where several large ships frequent. They tried hailing those ships but none of them stopped to help. My dad recalls one ship having a Belgium flag and someone at top-side looking out at them using binoculars but were reluctant to come to their rescue. By mid-day the worst had just begun, the engine pump’s rubber wore out which stopped bailing out water. My father, his uncle, boat steerer, and the 2 other crewmen took turns bailing out the water to prevent the engine from stopping. From morning ‘till 3p in the afternoon, after tireless efforts trying to bail the water, the steerer and 2 other men gave up and admitted defeat. My father and his uncle couldn’t do anything to convince them otherwise and the other 3 crewmates were suffering from seasickness which became useless. However, my father continued bailing out the water with his uncle. By 7pm the engine stopped and the boat started to drift back inland towards Thai borders which were known to be infested with pirates. Despite their efforts, the top part of the engine had been ruined by the seawater. My dad’s uncle lit some incense at the front of the ship and asked everyone to pray. The prayers were met with cries throughout.
They attempted to revive the engine using whatever materials were around to help sand down the uneven parts that prevented it from starting. The uncle announced that this will be the final attempt at restarting the engine, “please pray for us this works”. Miraculously, the engine started up faintly but was running again! They steered slowly through the night, not to put more pressure on the weakened engine. During the night (well past midnight), there was a star that kept getting bigger and brighter. By morning, it was clear that this was some kind of oil refinery ship/platform. They set course to it but were interrupted by 2 bigger Malaysian fishing boats who signaled them to follow. Fearful of pirates, they reluctantly followed and were asked for a small fee to get rescued. After 4 days and 4 nights, my father, his uncle, those 5 crewmen, and families aboard this small dying fishing boat were saved!
A day later, a storm hit but they were safely settling on land in Pulau Bidong, Malaysia. My father was later moved to Bataan, Philippines and a few years later sponsored by my grandfather’s friend in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1983. My father was the first to arrive in the states. He picked up a new language, attended college, met my mother and built a family. The picture attached is of my father’s return to Vietnam after over a decade apart from his parents and siblings. In 1992, my father proudly sponsored my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins from Vietnam. They currently reside across the US in California, Texas, and Georgia. My father resides in California with my mother and me. He still remembers that salty bitter taste in his mouth, but most of all can never forget the journey that brought him where he is today.