"Thank God, We Made It" - The Recollection of Huynh Van Tran
Profilers: The Thinkers
Huynh Van Tran Interview
Introduction/Life in Vietnam
Q: Could you introduce yourself and describe your life in Vietnam before the war?
A: Hello! My name is Huynh Tran and before the war, I was a student. I remember that time before 1975, I was in college. My first year of college was at a big medical school. Yeah, actually, I was just a student. The reason I didn’t have to get drafted into the military was that in my family, we had two brothers, older brothers. They both joined the military so I didn’t have to go. That’s why I kept going to school.
That’s why the rule is the same like in the United States right? In your family, if you have three brothers and two of them get drafted into the military, you’re eligible to not go. You know that? That is the rule, kind of like the international rule. You’re the only one left in the family so you don’t have to go because two older brothers joined the military already.
Q: How did the war affect your family?
A: Oh, oh, actually, there’s no change I thought, because it’s kind of like you grow up in the war, right? So you understand it, because the war meant that you had to leave anyway. Actually, my family was prepared already. Either way, soon or later, you had to go join the military, anyway. Actually, I don’t think so, my father and my mother are… they were almost prepared already and they noticed, sooner or later.
Plans of Escape
Q: When your father made plans to escape, how did it affect your family?
A: My father and mother….they were from North Vietnam. Right in the year, 1945, after Viet Nam separated into the North and South, my grandfather took my father to go to the South. So actually, my father noticed the Communists right? He noticed how worse it is with the Communists and we can’t stay with the Communists. That’s why my grandfather moved to the South, right on the year 1945, after they divided Vietnam into two pieces.
They gave my family a lot of hard time. They kept pointing to the people getting property and saying they are not good citizens. Every day, they kept going to my house, giving us a very hard time. They ask a lot of questions, “Where did your money come from, how did you get the house, how did you get the car, whatever.” So my father noticed, sooner or later that he had to leave, he cannot stay. I remember that in 1976, a group of about five people knocked on my house door. They come in, they tried to get in the house, and tried to search for something. If you hid something, any money or property, you had to keep hiding it from them. My father, was not home at the time, only me and some younger brother and sister. I tried to fight against them. They point at my face and said, “You’re not a good citizen at all, you give us a really hard time.” I tried my hardest to say, “No, you don’t have permission to search my house at all.” Then they left. A week later, they sent me a paper, that said, I had to go to re-education camp. That’s what it said because I’m not a good citizen. My father was surprised and tried to complain to them, but no, we have no choice, we can not do nothing. Two days later, the police come and brought me to the camp. I had to stay in the jungle for two years. Two years in the jungle. They said I had to learn every day how to be a good citizen. Then the third year, they said I’m good enough so my father got permission to take me home and that day is absolutely… we cannot stay with them no more. So my father was planning, that’s the day I remember, 1976 no, 78, he was planning to try to escape. Finally, they told my family that we had to move to a new place and that I cannot stay in the house no more in the capital of Vietnam, because Saigon, they say that we cannot stay. We had to go to the new lands. Something like that. That’s what they said. Yeah, so on that, when my father moved, I had to move everything, left the house. They took over the house, everything. My father had a property, a hotel in Dalat, a higher place in the mountain, they took everything also. That’s the reason why my father said he had to leave and cannot stay.
Life as “Boat People”
Q: When you escaped to Malaysia, what was it like?
A: It took us, actually just my father, myself, and younger brother planning to escape. It took us about a week and they called us… you know they called us the “boat people.” It took us about a whole week in the ocean without food and water. Finally, we were lucky we had no problems on the boat.
Oh, I didn’t tell you that the boat was about 12 feet long and 5 feet wide, but they carried almost… I don’t remember exactly the number, just thinking about 90 people. Can you imagine? 12 ft long and 5 ft wide only? It took a whole week. No food. The first day we went out to the ocean, we got a big storm, I remember that night. We didn’t think we could survive it because the storm was very, very big, but we were the lucky ones. After six days, a week, we landed in Malaysia. Three months later, finally we got permission to get to the United States. The reason we got it quickly, about three months only, is because, before that, my sister, my older sister escaped also. But different time, different boat. She went first in 78 and she got into the United States. So, that’s why we got in quicker because she sponsored us. If the people in the islands had something, relatives, in the United States, you get eligibility quicker to get to the United States of America. So yeah. Finally, in 1980, we landed in the United States of America.
Living in the United States
Q: How was life adjusting to the United States?
A: Oh, that’s tough. You know actually, when we landed we don’t have any penny, no money. Three of us, my father, myself, and my younger brother, got nothing. So yeah, I had a big adjustment. Actually, in high school, most of us learned French. In the last year of high school, I joined the English as a second language class, so not much. You learn in school but you don’t practice at all, so actually not much. That was very tough. We needed to adjust our life a lot. Everything was new, everything was different. If you look at the big tall buildings, everything in every city, I only saw it in the movie. And then I started back with my English class at night, about 6 months. I started learning back again, English. After that, I joined the school, they called it the traffic school. It was a private college, I had to get a loan from them. It took a lot of time to adjust, it was not easy at all. You had to learn English, learn a new career, you know. Finally, I was the lucky one to be able to get a new job in 1985. Finally, I got a job, but it still took me a while to understand English. I had to watch tv, movies, and stuff to learn… something like that.
Q: How did people in your new community treat you?
A: Honestly, it was a big surprise. The people were very nice and helped me a lot. I remember some story one day, I walked and a lady in the neighborhood tried to talk to me, but I didn’t understand much, just a few words. I’m guessing, but she was very nice and she took her time to listen to me when I answered her. Most people, they were very helpful. They had everything I need, they said “Don’t worry, just ask me, whatever you need,” mostly from the church people. They were very nice. They brought new clothes for me, asked me if I needed something, or asked if I needed a ride because I didn’t know how to drive yet. No actually, I knew how to drive in my country, but it’s totally different. A year later, I got my license and learned everything and things went back to normal. No complaining, people were so nice and they helped a lot. And that time, people from the Third countries were coming in, and I didn’t see any discrimination or anything. For me, no complaining and that’s good.
Q: Have you been able to return to Vietnam? If so, what were your reactions?
A: Actually, every night, I still get the bad dreams because of the two years in the camp. It’s hard to erase your mind. I remember that, it took me like whole years. In my dreams, I still think about, “Oh my god, I’m back, why, they took me back?! In Vietnam, in the camp.” So I wake up in the middle of the night and I have to think for some time that it’s not true and that I’m in the United States right now, I’m not in the camp no more. It took me like two years to go back to normal.
No, I haven’t gone back to Vietnam until…. I came to the United States in 1980 right? So, I just went one time in 1995, 15 years later, I went back to Vietnam. They’re asking me how you’re feeling? Actually, I’m not feeling anything. I feel normal. I went back to visit my cousin. One thing I was surprised by is that after 15 years, there was a little bit of change. Even the policemen were not acting like the first time. They’re different. I think they’re learning or getting the order from the top guy who says don’t give people a hard time anymore. I think it’s because, at that time, they needed the tourists and they need the money, so they’re more open-minded, not like the first time they took over in the South. I was just joking with my friend and would say, “Right now, I can breathe better, not like 15 years ago. I’m acting normal, nothing. When you’re back there, you have to register with the police. You have to go to the police station and tell them, “hey here I am. I’m here for about 2 weeks, something like that,” show them your passport, they put your name on the list and that’s it.
Q: Do you have any closing remarks?
A: Actually, I just want to tell them is, if they were asking me how I’m feeling about the war or how can I show them the war… absolutely I told my daughter, Emily, when she was young, I kept telling her that the war is bad and nobody wants a war. But the thing is, you have to think about right and wrong. Because I know that you guys are the new generation, you guys are born here and whatever. You guys don’t understand what’s right or wrong. If you go directly back to Viet Nam right now, of course, they will always show you their side only and not the other side. Of course, they’ll always say they’re right because they were the winner. The winner always says they’re right. But I want to tell the new generation if you want to learn about the war, you don’t want to learn one side only. You have to look at both sides and compare it to understand it more. You can search it in the library about the Viet Nam War right now. You can go back to Viet Nam and search/study more, but I recommend that you don’t believe it 100% on that. I don’t think you can read one book and understand everything about why the war happened, why people try to forget the war, something like that. You have to search and learn more about both sides and from that, you can get a clear answer. You should learn both sides. The more you get information, the more you understand. I’m not recommending you go back to Viet Nam directly and ask them about the war. I bet you they can tell you a totally different story. Take the time and learn more, if you want to.
Q: Can you tell us more about your escape from Viet Nam?
A: I remember the day we start to leave Viet Nam, I think 1980. And after my father planned everything, finally I think around 12 o’clock at noon he sent me a signal that we would start leaving from Saigon and going to, about 120km from Saigon, to a fishing village called Vung Tau on the Southeast side of Viet Nam. The way we go to the fishing village was a little bit scary because at the time there was a lot of the booths. They built up security booths for policemen to control and keep track of everybody going in and out of Saigon city. But I don’t know, lucky us we go through and nothing happen. The village took us and split us out into each family. We just stay about 3-4 people at each house to make sure that the police don’t pay attention to us. I stay about 2 days, a lot of nervousness because we don’t know what happen. I don’t see my faher also, because that day nobody know anybody. The third day around 1 o’clock in the morning they wake us up and say time to leave. Everything was dark because we were right at the ocean. You just see the waves of the ocean only, nothing else. One of the local people they guide us to go through the field of rice in the dark. And we get very wet and we don’t know where we’re going because we city people, we have never been in that kind of trip like this before. Finally, they took us to the small boat because the big one cannot go inside or the police will know. So the big boat was way outside. And we start in the small boat. Not really a boat, I don’t know how to say. In the fishing village they had very small boat that can carry only 5 people only. And they row about 15 minutes. They hid us way down into the bottom of the boat so I don’t know, I just hear the sound of them rowing. Finally we get into the big boat and everyone jump up and we start to leave. Everybody was wet but who cares right. Then the boat started leaving and everybody said “Thank God, we made it.” But we were lucky. Now they started to leave. In the dark of the ocean you don’t know where they’re going, you don’t know what’s happening. It’s just “Let’s go”. At that time, we know that this trip we were going on was 50/50: could be we land or we die.
I could see a very big storm. Everybody lay down and they threw up- everybody. I can smell everything on my body, smell people throwing up. But it was a miracle. Finally the captain said we got lost. After the storm he didn’t know where we were going, he didn’t know where we were now. On the 5th day, I remember that on that time I start getting tired now. Because for almost 6 days i didn’t eat nothing at all. No water, nothing. I think I remember the morning. I think I slept around, I don’t know how long. When I was awake the first I saw was a seagull right on the boat. And I remember I read a book that said if we see a seagull it means we can see land very close. And it’s true. I am the one in the boat that woke up everyone- the first one. And I saw far away— a little I don’t see much— because it’s very far away. But I could feel it. This is kind of an island. I wake everyone up and I said “I saw something! I saw something!” but no one believe it because everyone tired, no food at all no drink no water. Everybody pray to god for no more- maybe we die soon now. But I said “Wait a minute, this isn’t Malaysia right.” The captain said he didn’t know, because we planned to go to Malaysia because before we left we knew Malaysia had a camp for the United Nations for the refugees. And the boat cannot go inside the island in case we hit a rock. So I with two more guys and the captain, we jump into the water and we swim inside there. And the island was empty but beautiful, very nice, white sand and coconut tree. But we don’t see people. And we keep going inside and finally we see 4-5 people there. Maybe they were Thailand or Malaysian but we don’t know and we try to use signals to talk. Finally a boat with the flag of Malaysia, the police, two of them came out and told us to stop, they don’t want us to land. And they said something in English. One of the gentleman on my boat understand a little bit and said they don’t want us to land, they want us to stay wherever we were right now. And it took about three hours, finally another boat from the police came out. They gave us a signal to let us land and finally after 6 days and 5 nights I landed. I stepped onto the land of Malaysia finally. Finally. After that I found out the name was Pulau Tengah that belonged to Malaysia. That is my journey.
Q: What was your reaction to the captain getting lost?
A: People start praying, some people Catholic, some people Christian, and some people Buddhist. And they start praying because that’s it, because what can we do now? We don’t know what to do. He’s still the captain, he knows how to run the boat so we just let him do it. At that time we have no choice, we were on the ocean already. What can we do? Kill him? No nothing, so we just keep doing, keep going. That’s why I say this was a miracle I don’t know why we made it, I don’t know. Even right now if people ask me how could we make it. Maybe God protected us, just say we’re lucky.
Q: Who came with you to Malaysia?
A: In my family, just myself, my father, and my younger brother. Besides that I have some people that were not related with my family but were in my Saigon neighborhood. Because before me, my sister and older brother had made it already. They escaped in 1979 so they landed in Malaysia also. On the trip it was just myself my father and my younger brother. My younger brother, oh my gosh, he slept all 6 days. He threw up everything, he don’t know nothing. He a lucky one because he don’t know what happened during the 6 days. Because during the 6 days he couldn’t stay awake. Even when we landed in Malaysia I had to carry him and take him to the island. He cannot walk. Even my father, he’s strong too, I can’t believe how strong my father was. But when he got to Malaysia- that’s it. He totally broke down. I had to send him to urgent care. He was totally out. I thought he was gone. It scared me a bit, I thought he was okay but when we made it to the island of Malaysia he totally passed out. He didn’t know anything. He had to stay in urgent care for about week so I thought he wouldn’t make it but finally he woke up and started recovering. You know, 6 days with no food or water, it was terrible. But for me it was a miracle, I was still okay. I still don’t know why. Maybe God just sent me down to protect my brother and father. On one side I had to care for my father and another side my younger brother. He totally gone too. It took them about a month to recover.
Q: What was life like in the reeducation camp on a daily basis?
A: They took me to the re-education camp I think for 2 years. But the reason was because I fought with them- they tried to give us a hard time after they took over South Vietnam. They went house by house to search the rich families. They tried to kick us out. They gave us a hard time for so many reasons. They said “How you make this money, how you get this?” They came to my house, they saw the TV, they said “How did you get this? Did you get the money by working from the American CIA? Are you CIA? Is that how you got the money for all this stuff?” Finally, I fought with them and they sent me to the camp called re-education camp. Far away from Saigon, I think about 300km away. In the jungle. At 5 o’clock in the morning they would wake people up. They split people up. They don’t want to put whole groups of people together. They split people up in groups of about 50 people. They split it out, they make sure we’re not together. Every morning 5 o’clock they wake you up and give you a job to do depending on what you could do. Like some people weren’t healthy, they could do local work through the camp like cut trees or clean up the camp. Some people thought they had more skill, like I volunteered to go to the jungle to cut the bamboo. And they would send 4 people to go to the jungle and give you a number of bamboo trees. “Okay 4 of you, you have to cut at least 25 bamboo or 30 bamboo everyday and take it back” And some people cut the big tree to build for houses inside the camp. 4 people could go deep inside the jungle to cut the tree. Each person had to carry 3 or 4 big trees back to the camp. And some people would cook if they didn’t have much health. Everything they could make you do. This was our daily work. And the next day they could give you a different job.
In the morning there was no breakfast, no nothing. Only until noon, if you got enough of the number of trees they assign to you you can go back to the camp early and you can take a rest. And for lunch they give you a little— in that time I remember, because it was after the war they said there wasn’t enough rice for everybody so they just gave you one bowl of rice and half a corn stalk and some flour. Don’t even think about meat, there was no meat at all, just some vegetables only and that was it. And if you don’t make enough of the number they assigned you. You have to stay in the jungle and do whatever it takes and take it back to the camp. At night about 6 o’clock after the dinner— the dinner was the same thing! everyday was the same. Just small bowl of rice and half of the corn. But the corn you cannot chew it. It was very hard, I remember it would damage my teeth. It took out almost all my teeth. At 6 o’clock they said we had to have a meeting and we had to tell the communists what we we did. The one that controlled our group of 50 people, maybe he was a policeman. After the end of the day everybody had to tell him about their work today and how we appreciated them, how they changed our minds for the better and how we would work harder and harder to gain honor. At 8 o’clock people had to go inside the camp and they locked the doors. They locked everything in the camp and we had to stay in there and sleep. That was the everyday.