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Photos in a Japanese newspaper taken when we left the ship that rescued us.

Photos in a Japanese newspaper taken when we left the ship that rescued us.

Three Attempts

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From Vietnam to the Central Valley: Nathalie Ngo

Journey

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My Story

Dr. Nathalie Ngo was born in Saigon, Vietnam where she lived until she was nine years old. She has many fond memories of Vietnam, especially ones of going on vacations to the beach, but at age nine, she and her family felt that they had no choice but to escape due to the oppressive communist regime. It took them three attempts to escape before they successfully fled from Vũng Tàu, a southern Vietnamese city that sits on a peninsula. 


This story was collected by Alexa Tran in 2022 as a part of her Girl Scout Gold Award Project. 


Alexa [00:00:01] 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 Dr. Ngo with me, and just to do a quick introduction, can you talk a little bit about who you are and what you do? 


Dr. Ngo [00:00:27] My name is Nathalie Ngo, and I am from Fresno, California. I am a dentist here in Fresno. I was doing clinical dentistry, but now I'm doing consulting work for the state of California. 


Alexa [00:00:45] Okay, perfect. Thank you. So where were you born? 


Dr. Ngo [00:00:49] I was born in Saigon, Vietnam. 


Alexa [00:00:52] And is that where you grew up? 


Dr. Ngo [00:00:56] I grew up there until I was nine years old, and then we escaped from Vietnam to the United States. 


Alexa [00:01:06] And what do you remember about living in Vietnam? Like, what were some of your favorite parts and maybe least favorite parts? 


Dr. Ngo [00:01:15] My favorite part was basically remembering some of the vacations that the family went to because we went to the ocean a lot, which was a little bit of a drive. And we went up north in Vietnam, not way north, wherever we can go at the time because of the demarcation, where it was a lot cooler and a kind of woodsy area. I don't, I did not enjoy when the communists took over because there was a lot of rationing and curfew that we had to obey. 


Alexa [00:01:57] So, like you mentioned, you didn't like when they took over, what were some kind of immediate changes that you felt? 


Dr. Ngo [00:02:06] There was a lot of restrictions as to where you can go. There was food shortage. And then there was also since my dad was, he was involved with the military before the war. So he was, basically, took to their prison and, you know, and they tried to question him about his involvement. He was not in the military, but he does do some contract work with them. 


Alexa [00:02:42] Okay. And did you say you were nine years old when you left? 


Dr. Ngo [00:02:47] Yes, I was nine years old. 


Alexa [00:02:48] Okay. Did you leave from Saigon? 


Dr. Ngo [00:02:52] We actually, we took the, we drove from Saigon, from our house to the coast, which is, I believe, about half an hour to forty-five minutes away. And it's called Vung Tau. And then, we actually got on a fishing boat there to escape by sea. 


Alexa [00:03:16] Did you know you were leaving, like, permanently that day? 


Dr. Ngo [00:03:21] I had no clue. Was clueless. My brother and I, I have a brother that's younger than me. So we have a family of seven, and we're joining a group of total of fifty people on this little fishing boat. So my family of seven, my mom, my dad, I have an older sister and three younger siblings. So my mom was, has my youngest brother, who was two at the time, I guess, on her back. My older sister had my younger sister, who was three at the time on her back, and my job was to take care of my younger brother. So we thought it was an adventure because we were only nine and eight. 


Alexa [00:04:04] So what do you remember the most about leaving? 


Dr. Ngo [00:04:09] I remember, so we tried to leave three times. The first time the, the moon was too bright, so when we were walking along. So we have to get onto this little boat to take you out to the main fishing boat. So this little round boat, the moon was too bright. So they were afraid of the military police walking up and down, you know, the coast to actually look out for people like us and arrest us. So they aborted that one trip, and we went back home. Our second trip, we actually made it out into the ocean, but we were took. We were taken as prisoner because they found our boat, and they took us, and kind of imprisoned all the adults and let the kids just roam wild in the area. And we made it on our third trip out of Vietnam. 


Alexa [00:05:07] And what year was this? 


Dr. Ngo [00:05:10] This was November of 1975. 


Alexa [00:05:13] Okay. So what was your family's motivation for leaving or what was, like, the hope? 


Dr. Ngo [00:05:20] The hope was just getting out into, into a different country so that there was not so much oppression. The main reason they were worried about was my dad's involvement with the U.S. troop when they were in the country. So he would probably would be taken to as a prisoner of war and all that. And who knows what they're going to do with him. 


Alexa [00:05:47] So who did you leave with and did you leave anybody behind? 


Dr. Ngo [00:05:52] Um, we, we left with my immediate family, all my siblings and my brother and sister and my parents. We left our grandparents behind. We had one, my father's dad. He did not want to go. So he, he was left behind. And then my mom's side has an older sister and her kids, but that's about basically all. 


Alexa [00:06:18] So what was the most difficult part about leaving for you? 


Dr. Ngo [00:06:25] You know, at nine years old, I can't remember anything that was, you know, that was I thought it was kind of fun just going on an adventure, but I can't remember what was difficult back then. 


Alexa [00:06:41] Yeah, that's definitely what I've heard from a lot of people just listening to stories online or even the people I've interviewed. So it's interesting how when you're young, you just think you're going on a vacation or something. 


Dr. Ngo [00:06:54] Exactly. You know, it's just, you know, you're going on this boat. And, you know, the adults were all stressed out because they don't know what the future is. But us kids were, just like, "Wow this is kind of fun." 


Alexa [00:07:05] Do you remember seeing your parents stressed out and being like, "Oh, I wonder what they're stressed about?" Or what were the thoughts? 


Dr. Ngo [00:07:13] I have, because it was... On that one particular day, we were out, out in the open in the open sea for about five days. And it was raining really, really hard and it was like a little storm. I mean, to me, it seems like a little storm, but I guess it was a big storm. So the boat was like, you know, going all weird and they were all stressed out that, you know, we might die. And my brother, my brother and I were like, "Oh, this is so cool. It's kind of fun, you know?" But yeah. 


Alexa [00:07:44] So can you describe the journey a little bit? 


Dr. Ngo [00:07:49] So, when we actually made it out to sea, we, we were out... I guess there's a bottom deck to the fishing boat and the top deck where it's wide open. So my family was actually on the top deck, which is, according to my parents in hindsight that it was better because when you're down below, it's, there's no air in, there's no windows and stuff. So they, people get seasick really easily down there. So when we're up on the upper part, but we're wide open to the sun and the wind and whatever that may be. So we were on the boat for seven days. We were supposed to head to the Philippines, but I think the guy who ran the boat didn't know where he was going. So we actually were out in the middle of nowhere. There was no direction. But we got rescued by a commercial trip, I mean ship, from, from Denmark. The, the shipping line is called Maersk line. And they were, I guess, transporting goods to different countries. So they, they actually rescued all 50 people on the boat onto their big cruise ship. Not a cruise ship, it's more like a commercial ship. They carry goods to different country and deliver 'em. 


Alexa [00:09:21] So, did you land in different countries or refugee camps during your journey? 


Dr. Ngo [00:09:27] So our ship, the ship that rescued us, was heading to Japan. So they brought us to Japan. But at that time, we were the first refugees to even land there. So we were on the ship while the, the Denmark government was trying to talk to the Japanese government to let us into their country. Which the government, the Japanese government, refused to, unless there is someone who can sponsor us because they did not want to take the responsibility. So the Catholic Church came up and actually volunteered to take all in fifty people and kind of just, you know, gave us a place to stay and such for. We were there for two years, my family. Waiting for paperwork to, to go either to United States or France. 


Alexa [00:10:29] And so you were there for two years and then you went to the United States? 


Dr. Ngo [00:10:34] Yes. My, my dad went to school in France. So he, he went to college and high school in France. So he, he knows the language fluently. He also speak English, but he doesn't have too many ties over here. Just a few people that he worked with in the, in the old days. And actually, a family that was a friend of his back in Vietnam. His family sponsored us to come to Colorado, and that's how we came to the U.S. 


Alexa [00:11:14] Okay. So did, did you go to school in Colorado? Is that where you grew up? 


Dr. Ngo [00:11:21] Yes. So we were there for, so we were in Colorado for about a year. So I did go to school there. And then my dad got a job in San Francisco from that same ship that rescued him, the Denmark. So they have an office in San Francisco, so they hire him to work. My dad has a business degree, so he worked in their business department. So then we moved to California, but we moved to Oakland, California. 


Alexa [00:11:55] So what year did you finally settle in Oakland? 


Dr. Ngo [00:11:59] I think that was in nineteen seven, oh, 1981, around there. Yeah. 


Alexa [00:12:07] And what was life like for you or for your family trying to adjust in a new country as a refugee? 


Dr. Ngo [00:12:16] For us, for me, it was hard at first because of the language barrier. We didn't know any English, so we were basically thrown into, I was in third grade, so they, you know. But the school in Colorado, the teachers were really nice because it's a smaller town, so they were very receptive to us not learning. So they spent extra time kind of help us. But as kids, we picked up faster than adults. My mom, she has a little bit more problem because she, she wanted to work, but because of the language barrier, she, she couldn't. So, she was pretty much stuck at home doing nothing. And that kind of, I think, drove her a little crazy a little bit, because she was out, used to out doing things. 


Alexa [00:13:12] What do you remember most about this time growing up? 


Dr. Ngo [00:13:17] I really, we really enjoy, enjoy, I like the days off in Colorado when it snowed and when you get to take the day off from school and then we just go to the backyard and do our sledding and stuff at our sponsor's house. They have a nice, big backyard. It was really snowy. And then when we moved to California, I just, you know, being a kid, you just don't realize the magnitude of all the, you know, all the stress that the parents are going through, try to provide for a family of five kids, two adults, and just finding a place for them to live and stuff. But for me, it was, it was life as usual. I don't remember any hardship or dealing with any hardship because I think either my parents shielded pretty well from us, or I could be just clueless, you know. But I think they, they tried to hide, you know, the stress and the worries from the kids. 


Alexa [00:14:19] You said, so your parents hid a lot of the struggle kind of from you and your siblings. Do you remember anything difficult about adjusting in school or like socially? 


Dr. Ngo [00:14:33] In school, no. Socially not so much either because we, we went to. So when we got to California, we went to a Catholic school, and it was like eight blocks from our house. So we would just walk home every day, the four of us. My older sister was in high school, so she, she's a bit older than me. So, at school itself, we didn't have any problems. But sometimes when we walk home from school, the neighborhood kids around would make fun of us saying that word. You know, they're saying terms like "ch****" and, you know, like, "why are you dressed so funny?" Because when we're outside of our uniforms, we would wear clothes that my mom made because we just didn't have the extra money to buy clothes. So, you know, the clothes she made was not very hip and the kids would make fun of us with that, you know? 


Alexa [00:15:35] So where did you find strength in some of these difficult times? 


Dr. Ngo [00:15:40] You know, you just. You just move forward. Well just for me, I just think that, "hey, you know, I don't care what they say. I am who I am. And, you know, I might dress differently," but we, all my siblings, like we did really well in school, we all excel. So we were like top of the class. So we always had that with us. Like they can say whatever they want, but we have something that is over their head. You know? So we, for us, we, we didn't care. We were just like you say whatever you say. And then, the funny thing is, every time we walk home, we would pass this neighborhood and there's a lot of older people living there. And they were always just like, you know, bring out cookies and stuff for us on our walk home. And they would chat and stuff and, you know, and that kind of deters some of the kids around the neighborhood that, "hey, you know, these older people, they like these kids, so it can't be that bad." So, yeah. 


Alexa [00:16:39] Mmm, that's good. 


Dr. Ngo [00:16:41] Yeah. 


Alexa [00:16:42] How did you end up in the Central Valley? 


Dr. Ngo [00:16:45] Well, I grew up in the Bay Area. So after we were in Oakland for a few years, my parents bought a lot and built a house at San Mateo, and we moved there. And then I went to school at college at UC Davis, and then I went to dental school up in San Francisco. And I met my husband at UC Davis, and the reason I moved back to Fresno was because his family's from Fresno, and he moved back to Fresno after dental school. He went to dental school at USC because his parents were still in town. So that's how I ended up in Fresno. 


Alexa [00:17:25] And what has it been like as a Vietnamese American refugee here? Do you feel like you have a strong sense of community or people to relate to? 


Dr. Ngo [00:17:36] In Fresno, not really because the community here is... Well, it used to be back in the days, it was not a whole lot of Vietnamese people early on, but now there's quite a bit that moved into that area. But back in the day, it was a little harder. But being in Fresno, I did experience a lot of discrimination just randomly. And I don't know if it's linked in just with the fact that, you know, I'm Asian in general and not just specifically Vietnamese, but I have experienced kind of discrimination here in the Central Valley. 


Alexa [00:18:16] What kind of experiences, exactly? 


Dr. Ngo [00:18:20] So, for example, like, I went back in the day, so they have a department store called Gottschalks. So, it's comparable to like a Kohl's now or a department store. So I went, and I got this t-shirt. They were on the sale rack, and they were $5. So I took it to the register. And the lady basically, the lady at the cash register is an older Caucasian lady, and she basically accused me of changing the price on those. Like I marked out the price down to $5. So I got really upset. So I said, "I need to talk to your manager" and there's a whole carousel over there with that same t-shirts at that price. And I didn't appreciate being accused, you know. So I, I talked to the manager and I think they resolved, but things like that, you know. Why look at me and accuse me of doing that, you know? 


Alexa [00:19:19] Do you feel, was that like kind of a lot different from back home in like the Bay Area, because? 


Dr. Ngo [00:19:27] Oh yeah. I feel like in the Bay Area people are more open-minded, you know. And then in another situation, I was at Target. And this was not that long ago, maybe ten years ago. So I put all my stuff on there, you know, that conveyer belt thing. And then the lady in front of me was a Caucasian lady, so another girl, another register, opened up, and the girl came over and said, "Hey, you know, can you, you know, if you want to, you can take all your stuff over to my counter because I'm opening up." And then at that moment, I were just looking down on my phone and then the lady in front of me says, "Oh, she probably doesn't understand English." And I was just like, "What?" You know? And so I just told her, I said, "I understand English perfectly." And you know, I don't think I have an accent when I speak. So she realized, you know, okay. But yeah, that was her, her comment that she made. But things like that would never happen in the Bay Area because I think they're, you know, just a bigger and more, more acceptance, you know. 


Alexa [00:20:44] So have you carried any, like, Vietnamese traditions on with your family, like with your daughters kind of growing up? 


Dr. Ngo [00:20:54] Yeah, you know, we would do, you know, the Vietnamese New Year, Tết. We would do the lì xì and we would actually set up like the little, if it's not religion, it's more cultural. We'll set up like a little, I guess like a little altar with all the relatives, the older relatives that's passed away, like the grandparents, the parents, great grandparents. And we'll do our little respect and bowing and stuff like that, you know. So we'd do that when they were growing up. And then we would do, we would celebrate, you know, like most of the major holidays, like the New Year, the Vietnamese New Year, things like that. Yeah. And the day of the, they call it Ngày Giỗ. I don't know if you know, but that means that the day of that your relative passed away, like, say, your grandfather passed away on this day, so you kind of light a little incense and kind of pay respect to them. Yeah. 


Alexa [00:22:01] That's about all the questions I have for you. Is there anything else you want to share? 


Dr. Ngo [00:22:06] No, no. That's basically it, and good luck to you. I think it's a great project that you're doing. Have fun while doing it. 


Alexa [00:22:18] Thank you so much for your time.

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