Diane Pham

Profilers: Christine Nguyen, Justin Sado, and Joshua Mar

Before the American War in Vietnam

Q: Where in Vietnam are you from?

A: I’m from North Vietnam, Hai Duong. I went to the South by an American ship that took people from the North that did not want to live under the Communist regime and preferred to live in the South to have more freedom.

Q: What was it like traveling from North to South?

A: My father was a landlord and wealthy so we could not travel as a whole family. My dad and one of my other brothers left first and I went with one of my relatives. I left to countryside, Hai Phong, to go to the city of Ha Noi to take a boat to the South. Two of my relatives and I took a cyclo but we were both caught on the street and each of us were taken to three separate rooms. We were all asked why we were leaving Hai Phong. Before that we were warned to say that we were leaving to visit our sister that just gave birth. All three of us said the same thing. Since our stories were consistent they let us go. Also, at the time I was 6 or 7 years old so there was no reason to catch me. They could have been catching adults not children. [My dad] went with [my brother], the one who now lives in Australia. [My mom] went with my [other brother]. We could not go all together. If we went as a group they would know. So, we went separately then met together at a designated location. The Americans brought a ship to take whoever that wanted to go to the South and vice versa.

Q: Do you remember anything during the French occupation?

A: No. When the French were in Vietnam, I only heard stories about them because I was only about 5 or 6 years old. I did not know what it was like. I heard a story that when the French came to Vietnam, in the countryside, where [my dad] was living, the French forced every young man from age 15 and up to buy two liters of alcohol every month to drink. For example, your [two younger brothers] would have to buy two liters of strong alcohol each. At first, people would not drink it. They would buy the alcohol then dump them in the ponds but after a while they started to try it. I heard that the French’s reasoning was that they wanted only young men to buy it. Only men had to buy it not women and young girls. Even if we dumped it we still had to buy it. The method was to drug all the males to impair their judgment and brain function so you would not have the ability to resist them. If we are drunk and drugged how are we to do anything? We could not fight back or resist. That is what the French did to the Northerners.


During the American War

Q: How old were you when the Vietnam war started and do you remember anything about it?

A: When the North came into the South I was only 6 or 7 years old. [My dad] was afraid to go to jail so he wanted to move to Saigon. That is what I remember. I was too young so I do not remember anything at that time about the French war either. I only remember my dad took us from the countryside to Ha Noi so we can leave to the South by an American ship.

Q: What do you remember when the Americans first came to Vietnam?

A: When I came into the South in 1954 the Americans were already there. Around then I was still young. I only ate and went to school. According to [my dad] living in the South was better than in the North.

Q: How do you feel about Americans being in Vietnam?

A: During that time, I worked for the Americans. I had an opportunity to work at an American company. I did drafting which is drawing architecture designs. Someone would give us a design and we would redraw it so that we could give it to constructors to build homes. In my opinion, the Americans helped South Vietnam develop a lot better than the French. The Americans helped us financially and taught us skills, unlike the French. The French stayed in Vietnam for 80 years but the Vietnamese did not adapt to them. The Americans were in the South for 20 years but more than half the country wanted to migrate to the US. Many people wanted to migrate to the US but could not get the necessary papers to do so.

Q: How do you feel about the Northern government during the war?

A: Life in the North was very difficult. Lots of people were starving. There was no rice. People would have to mix rice and potatoes to eat. People were really poor. Life in the South was more prosperous with an abundance of farming and food resources for the people. The US also helped build the Southern economy so life was more comfortable. In the North, they concentrated most of their resources for the army instead of taking care of the civilians. All their young men from 14 and 15 years and up were drafted to go to the South in large numbers holding guns pointing to [the South]. Even if you did not want to go, you had to. That’s how they started the war between the North and South. The government only sacrifice the civilians but not themselves. Government officials would not sacrifice themselves but only the civilians. 

Q: Did you witness any fighting during the war?

A: I lived in Saigon city but most of the fighting happened in the countryside. Near Saigon there was no fighting. They did not fight in Saigon, at least where I lived. I just heard that South Vietnam had surrendered. I did not witness any of the fighting.

Q: What was it like after war ended in the South?

A: At the time, at home I opened a small smoothie business to save up money to escape. Life was very hard for other people. But, I was very clever so life was not too hard for me. Right after the war the Communist opened a food supply warehouse where people would come to get rice but it did not last long. People could only eat for a few months but life after that was really hard because life was unstable. The government could not hire people to work and people were out of jobs. Everyone sold everything they had at home, even their own clothes. During the transitional period, whoever was smart could survive but many were poor. There were even families that would cook porridge and put poison in it to kill their whole family so they would not have to continue living such a hard life. There was nothing to survive on. Those with strong will or had big families had small businesses and would buy and sell. People would go to the market and train or bus stations to find jobs. The whole country was like this.


Escaping Vietnam

Q: Why did you want to leave Vietnam?

A: I left Vietnam to go to America because living under the Communist government you cannot speak your mind. Your next door neighbors could be members of the Communist government and they could spy on your every action and word. They can arrest you anytime they feel you have resistance towards the government. Also life in Vietnam was very hard at the time. I only had [my daughter] so it was somewhat easy for me to save up some money to help us escape Vietnam to go to America. There were many reasons to leave. Life was not suitable under the new government.

Q: How did you escape Vietnam?

A: The first time I tried to escape Vietnam, I was caught with [my daughter] and put into jail for two months. Since I was a woman and [my daughter] was only a few years old at the time they let us go home. Actually, there were many organized escapes that were set up by the government themselves to trick you into giving your money. They would lie to you and take you to a place to stay that was really owned by the government and there they would catch you so they could take your money. It was really really difficult.

Then, a few years later, I saved up two bars of gold to bring [my daughter] and [nephew] and escape. They took us to Ba Ria shore, Vung Tau where the owners of these houses would let us into their home. There was one family per house. They would call us chickens. On the night we escaped, at midnight they took us to the fields where there was a huge hole in the ground to hide us before taking us to the boat to escape. Every two or three meters there was a person to alert us of when the boat would come because back then there were no phones. So each person would tell the next person in line to communicate with the group that was escaping.

One person would take one or two others to the boat to escape. The boat was docked far away, it could not be close to shore. Everyone had to wade into the water to the boat. At the time, [my daughter] was only 10 years old and [my nephew] was 11 or 12 so when I saw the water I was worried, I held both of their hands. I watched the people in front of me and behind me to see how deep the water was. If the water came to their knees, I would follow them as I held one child at each hand.

There were some people in front of me that were scared and ran to the boat quickly. There was one woman who sunk into the sand and luckily there was a man next to her. He was actually holding the food for us to eat on the boat. He dropped everything and snatched her by her head to pull her up. If that was me how would one person pull up three people? People would only be able to hold onto one person. So, I was very alert and smart. I knew I had to go behind people. People said that if you were given the opportunity to escape, you should go early but once you are in the water you should go behind others so that you can watch those ahead of you so you can avoid where others sink and go somewhere else.

Q: What was it like on the boat?

A: When our boat left the shore there were strong waves hitting the sides of the boat. It felt like someone was hammering the boat so it was very scary. We were on a small fishing boat that could only carry 39 people. Luckily, after two days we were rescued by a Norwegian ship then took us to a bigger ship to take us to a Singaporean refugee camp for five months.

Q: What do you remember about the refugee camp in Singapore?

A: Being in Singapore was nice. People called it the “Heavenly Refugee Camp.”  At first they give you money to send telegrams or letters to Vietnam. They also give us food and clothes. Life in Singapore was comfortable. After five months, we were transferred to Indonesia where we were taught English and got acclimated to the American way of life so that when we came to America it would be easier to adjust.


Coming to America

Q: What was it like when you first came to America?

A: [My husband] picked me up from the airport and took me to Houston, Texas because [my husband] felt that Houston has a lot of Vietnamese people where it would be easier for us to adjust than other States because our English was not good.

Q: What year did you arrive and what was the transition like for you?

A: I came to the US in February 1985. My first job in the US was at a Vietnamese restaurant for 12 hours a day. After a year, I found a job at a [convenient store] but I was scared because it was a very unsafe environment where there was a lot of robbery at gunpoint. So, I then went to get my cosmetology license for a year. I left my [convenient store] job and began working as a hairdresser.

Q: What was immigration process like?

A: When I first arrived in the US I was just worried about making a living. I did not really think about citizenship. But, after 10 years, me, my daughter, and a friend of mine all decided to go apply for citizenship.


Going back to Vietnam

Q: Have you been back to Vietnam since you escaped?

A: I went back after being in the States for 10 years in 1995 with [my daughter] and [nephew]. We went back in the summer to visit relatives and friends.

Q: What did it feel like going back to Vietnam for the first time?

A: When I went back to Vietnam, I saw that life for the Vietnamese there was very difficult because everything was controlled by the communist government. There were no private businesses. There were people that asked me that if they were to give me half a million dollars to go back and live in Vietnam, would I do it? I said no, I would not take the money. I would rather do labor work in the US instead of having money in Vietnam but with no freedom.

Q: You are going to Vietnam for vacation soon, what are you planning to do?

A: This March I will be going to Vietnam. On YouTube, I saw that a lot of new tourist developments were built so I wanted to go visit and check it out. I also want to go to temples and anything interesting that I see and come back home. Just simply travel to look back.

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