My coworkers think that I’m rich. The rumor of my alleged wealth began the day I wore a brilliant diamond ring to work. One coworker commented, “Kristen’s got her bling on” while another coworker asked me if I “needed” to work and assumed I was working “for fun”.
Gazing at my ring, I think about my coworkers’ assumptions. They probably surmised that I bought the ring as a status item to impress people. Little did anyone know the real reason I wore it. Nor did any of my coworkers know that this remarkable diamond had a secret life and carries the story of an extraordinary journey that begins with my mother.
SURVIVING THE FALL OF SAIGON
By outward appearances, Mom was considered a delicate woman and my father adored her. As a symbol of his love, he gave her an exquisite diamond. Its sole intended purpose was to be a dazzling gem that perfectly accented Mom’s stylish wardrobe. That is, until the fateful day that turned their lives upside down – April 30, 1975, later be known as the Fall of Saigon.
On this day, a country that had already seen decades of turbulent conflicts looked more ominous than ever before. Fear and hopelessness permeated the air. Freedom, as my parents knew it to be, suddenly became a thing of the past. Saigon transformed into a tumultuous tableau of desperate, frightened people, screaming, running, crying, arguing, and fighting amidst confusion, panic, betrayal, hysteria, violence. Everywhere, you could hear it – the sounds of war. You could see it - the heartache in people’s faces. In this disturbing atmosphere, my family and I fled the country amid a chaotic mass exodus of people hoping to escape by any means possible.
Our original plan had been to leave the country on the last flight out of Saigon. Unfortunately, the moment that plane took off without us, our sense of hope quickly eroded and the terrifying realization that we may not survive this coup began to crystalize. The communist forces later attacked the airport with heavy artillery, solidifying our denial to air passage. Nor were we able to board any of the dangerous impromptu helicopter evacuations happening throughout the city. We watched in horror as the helicopter hovering over our neighbor’s house was pummeled by bullets. By now, it became crystal clear that leaving by the precarious sea was the only choice left.
However, passage by sea required payment, and the Vietnamese currency had become virtually worthless. Knowing the great uncertainty, we were about to face, my grandmother grabbed some gold and my mother grabbed her jewelry, including the diamond ring. An expert seamstress, Grandmother sewed a secret compartment into a handbag. We stashed the gold in this secret compartment and hid the jewelry at the bottom of a coffee tin. The hidden gold literally saved our lives. Without it, we could not have made it through the various military checkpoints that were established. At each stop, we traded the gold or “coffee” for life-saving permission to continue on. At any one of those checkpoints, we risked being detained to face dire consequences. Each exchange was like a scene straight out of a Hollywood thriller. To this day, I can still remember the smell of that coffee.
By the time we reached the harbor, grandmother had sewed my mother’s diamond ring into her clothes, a convenient hiding place given the turbulent evacuation it was about to embark upon. Decades later, my mother told me that in the event of an emergency, she was prepared to sacrifice the diamond in exchange for food, medicine, or supplies if things got “really bad”.
Words cannot describe the absolute chaos that was happening all around Saigon’s harbors. Ships that were equipped for 200 people were packed with 2,000 people - everyone was desperate to leave by any means. After much hysterical pleading, we were granted access to a fishing vessel bound for immediate escape.
Miraculously, we made it out just one hour before the communist takeover and began a harrowing three-week ocean journey. At the time, violent sea pirates notoriously boarded ocean vessels much like ours, assaulting the helpless men, women, and children. Mom feared that she would be robbed of her diamond the entire time we were on the vessel. Regrettably, fear of theft was not the only concern. Besides the lack of adequate supplies of water and food, the debilitating seasickness, and the harsh weather conditions that made sailing the ocean dangerous at best, our journey was precarious in a multitude of ways. The people who chartered our vessel did not know in which direction they should navigate, much less how to operate the steering controls. With limited options, we drifted aimlessly until an American ship spotted us and guided us towards Singapore.
Upon arriving in Singapore, we stayed at a refugee camp while my mother’s ring kept on with its secret life. Two weeks later, our next destination was charted out: Guam. Unfortunately, our vessel was confiscated by the Singaporean government, leaving us and the other escapees no other option but to cram ourselves onto a small ship that was bound for a two-week ocean journey to Guam.
In Guam, Mom’s ring again stayed in its hiding place until we were transported to California’s Camp Pendleton to await processing for assimilation into our new lives in America. There, my mother kept the ring incognito for three more months knowing that our future would lead us into completely uncharted territory. Eventually, we were sponsored by an American family who we stayed with until we were able to live on our own.
Prior to April 30th, my father had already sent my oldest siblings to America to attend college. Having had no means of communicating with us during or after the evacuation, for five months they did not know if we had perished during the madness. It wasn’t until we arrived at our American sponsor family’s home that my father was finally able to call my oldest sister, to let her know that we were still alive. I imagine that must have been the most dramatic phone call of our lives.
In the years immediately after arriving in America, we rebuilt our lives through determination and resilience. In those first lean years, Mom was again prepared to sacrifice her precious ring as a last resort, in exchange for survival. Thankfully, that sacrifice was never necessary.
A few years before she passed away, Mom gave me her ring. Whenever I wear it, I believe that her strong survivor’s spirit speaks to me through it, urging me to follow in her footsteps. And I try my best to do just that. Life may knock me down sometimes, but I always get back up. Just like my indomitable mother did.
Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees risked their lives to reach the safety and freedom of America, may their stories of hope and survival never be forgotten.
Kristen Mai Pham is a published inspirational author and screenwriter. She has written eleven autobiographical short stories that have been published by the iconic Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies. Her autobiographical essays have also been published by the Orange County Register, Coast Magazine, and the Camp Pendleton Historical Society. Her autobiographical short stories, WELCOME TO TENT CITY and THE WALK HOME, have been accepted for inclusion in the University of California, Irvine Libraries Southeast Asian Archive for preservation.