The Escape From Saigon
Profilers: Zachary Emge, Luma Oliveira, Anna Bachand, Michael Villalobos
My name is David Nguyen. I am 58 years old, and I live in Simi Valley California. I have been living in California for almost 40 years now. I left Saigon on April 30th, 1975, which is exactly the day South Vietnam fell to the communist. I grew up during the war.
At the time, the only way is going to Thailand or Malaysia. So, at the time, Thailand government couldn’t control the pirates. So the pirates were attacking the Vietnamese left and right, raping people. I know my wife, her friend committed suicide because she was raped. Her brother was killed, younger brother. So, that’s why I said my story is nothing compared to these people. I did not go through any hardships at all, so my story is almost nothing. And people were like eating each other because they were starving to death, but most of these people don’t want to talk about it because it is too hard. Too hard to recall the stories again.
Escaping South Vietnam
I was in high school. I was in the 11th grade, and at the time the only way to get out is either you work for the government, the U.S. government, or you have money. If you have money you can go buy an airplane or buy a boat, and then you just sneak out of Vietnam. We were poor, so there was no way for us. And we did not know any Americans at all, so there was no way for us to get out. I have two brothers. The oldest was a doctor in the military and the second one was a pastor. He used to communicate with American pastors because he was a protestant. A lot of American pastors went to Vietnam to preach the gospel.
So, on the morning of the 29th, he (his brother, the pastor) lived in a different house, so he came to our house. He said, “Let’s go to the church in Saigon. There will be helicopters coming to pick up the American pastors, and we can go with them.” And my brother said, “Okay, if that is the case then we go.” So, there was curfew. The government gave curfew. No one can go out on the street, but my brother he was a military doctor he says to us “Okay let’s go because if the police could stop you I will tell them I’m a doctor, and I’m taking patients to the hospital.” I was on a bicycle. My brother was on a moped and we, on our different mopeds and bicycle, inched our way along to the church. But it turned out it was a false rumor. There was no helicopter landing.
Everybody knew at the time that there are secret locations everywhere, but because we don’t work for the government we just don’t know where. Right? The secret code was the radio station will play the Bing Crosby song “White Christmas”, and it would say “the temperature of Saigon is now something like 101 degrees” something like that. Okay? So when you hear that, you move to that location. Right? So, when we were at the church until two or three o’clock, there was nothing. There was nobody picking us up, and so a friend of my brother, he lived near the river. He rode a motorcycle to the church, he said, “You guys should go to the river bank because I see many boats over there”. So we decided to go.
We decided to go to the river because if we stayed at home during the night, the communists they shot artillery inside Saigon, everywhere. In the morning you would see [that] it is not safe to stay in the house, so it’s better to go stay somewhere anyway. So we agreed with him. We all went there. So there’s a boat, with two American GI’s on the boat, [that] was going slowly on the river. So, my brother said “Let’s go. Let’s follow that because there is an American person on the boat, and that is our best chance to get out.” So, we followed it. It was running on the river, and we followed it on the street.
It went for maybe, I would say, thirty minutes, and then it stopped and disappeared inside. From the outside we saw two huge gates, and maybe ten or fifteen American GI soldiers were guarding the gate with M-16 rifles. And at that time we knew that that was a secret location for people to evacuate. Right? Because we saw, we stood there and we waited, and we saw every time there’s a bus – like a yellow bus – came with Caucasians on the bus, the GI’s would open the door. The bus went in, and then they closed the door. So, we knew right there, right then, that was a secret evacuation location. So we waited. We said, let’s wait for another bus to come, and then we just got in with the bus. So, when the second bus came in, that is exactly what we did. We all rushed in and there was no way for the GI’s to stop us. So, we got inside. Once we were inside, we could see that – I think there were three barges – and we can see people getting on the barge.
My brother, the minute he turned off the engine of the motorcycle, a guy came over and just demanded the keys. Took the motorcycle right away. Everything in the van – actually it was a little van – when the van was open, people rushed in. They took everything inside. Whatever valuable they took, nothing we could do. My sister-in-law, her necklace was taken from her. Some guy came over and just went like this – he took it off.
So, we went on the car, my brother’s father in law – he did not want to leave. So, we were arguing back and forth and my brother, he was so mad – I’m talking about the oldest one. He said, “Let’s go.” So we all climbed onto the barge. So everyone on my second brother’s wife’s family, they all stayed. And then when the barge was leaving, we were all screaming – especially my brother’s wife -because her family is in the van. She was yelling, screaming. She was begging for her parents to leave. They didn’t want to leave, so the barge left and we all cried so hard. But it’s funny because we found out later, the father – he stayed back. He tried to convince his wife and his son and his daughter-in -law, “Let’s leave”, and they didn’t want to leave. So he said, “If you don’t leave, I leave” because they also came from the north like my parents in 1954. He was afraid of the communists, so he got on the barge later. He left by himself. Only by himself. He left his wife, he left his son-in-law, his grandchildren because he was so scared of the communists. Later on we met him in the United States. So we went onto the barge, left.
It was like 6 o’clock in the evening, and it was on the ocean. During the daytime I can see zillions of fishing boats already waiting out there. Because at that time the Seventh Fleet from the Philippines and from Japan, they went to Vung Tau, which is a city near the coast, and they waited outside. All of the helicopters were flying from the Seventh Fleet into Saigon, picking up people, and then fly out again. So, they were flying, I don’t know, maybe thousands of sorties. Because every time maybe thirty people can be put inside a helicopter. So, helicopters were flying back and forth from the Seventh Fleet to Saigon. I think that maybe from helicopter it maybe takes like thirty-five minutes. But the fishing boats, they didn’t know where the Seventh Fleet, where the ships are. Right? So they were waiting, and when they saw us, when they saw the American GI’s, so they all follow us. And that was a sight I still, at this day, I still do not forget. Thousands of fishing boats, and were following us, the barge because the barge was trying to get into the ship.
And maybe three, four hours later we got to the ship. The minute we got to the ship, the barge would then attach to the ship. They secured it with a rope and they lowered a ladder from the ship to the barge. And at that time, all of these fishing boats would try to get close to the barge, but then the GI’s on the boat, they were shooting. They said “Everybody get out” because they were afraid! We didn’t know who the communists were, who the civilians were. So they were shooting on the ocean to prevent all the fishing boats to get close to the barge. And during this time, the communists, they were shooting rockets from the coast, because we can see the coast. And they shot, and I think it killed quite a few people. Quite a few people. And because when they were shooting like that, the fishing boats were afraid because their target was the ship. So, all of the boats were scattered randomly. So we got on the ship, and it took us to the Philippines, and from there we went to Guam and then to refugee camp in Pennsylvania.
The church that my brother, the second brother, was communicating with sponsored us, and they were in San Diego. So that is how we went from the camp to San Diego.
On Returning to Vietnam
I didn’t want to go back. As long as the communist government is still in power, I do not want to go back because, even right now, you cannot talk freely like this. The minute they find out, there will be a knock on your door at night.
I remember I cried because it is still my country. Even though right now I am an American citizen, I remember it is still my country. When I met my friends, I felt so bad because there are some many friends of mine that got stuck back in Vietnam. There were 60 of us, only like 5 people got out. So there was 55 of us, I’m talking about my last grade, which is the eleventh.
Reflections and Words of Advice
My words of advice: try to help people. I think in my family, we, in a way, we all did it. I told you, my oldest brother stayed in the camp to help other people until the camp closed, which was four years. In four years, had he left the camp earlier, he would earn much, much more money. Right? But he didn’t care. So his goal was helping people. My second brother – all his life was missionary work. If you help people I think you can penetrate their head, and then one day, they will turn around and help others. I’m very sure. We will create a much, much better society for everyone. And when you help others, you will not put yourself as a priority. You will not be selfish at all as long as you think of others first, which is a good character that we have. And once you do that, everything will fall into place.