Leslie Nguyen

Escape from the Fall

Profilers: Brent Robbins, Ze Khai Wong, Wan-Ching Wu

Escape Processes

Brent: During your time in Viet Nam, who were you with or who did—in terms of family—whose support did you have?

At that time I was married and with two young children. My daughter was four years old and my son was eight—no, six months old. And that’s when we escaped—with the baby. But we formed escaping right from the beginning of the fall of Saigon and it took six years for it to come…To become reality.

Ze Khai: How did you guys figure out how to escape? How did that work?

It took a long time. Like I was saying, it was six years because they had to study very carefully. Every wrong move could be life and death matter. So it took a long time. They—I’m sure the organizer had connections to work with people who lived low to the sea that owned the boat and then they would, you know, share the news with family members, and then family members would, in turn, share with close friends—very, very trusted friends. We were lucky that we get to know one of the members in the family. So they trusted us. And then, negotiations—how many ounces of gold for gold for each member—each person to reserve a spot in the boat. So that was planned very carefully and they would give us instructions to disguise ourselves. I remember at that time my husband disguised himself into a farmer. And of course, we probably didn’t do a good job. I mean, you see a farmer look different than a doctor or a blue collar or white collar workers, right? But we did the best we could. And most of the time people would either use the very, very bad timing at sea because that is when the coast guard would not pay much attention, or the time when the big holiday that everybody was kind of more relaxing or not paying attention to you. And so we picked the second occasion which was Lunar New Year.

I was disguised into like a street vendor—wear very simple clothes—old—pretty much like rag. And the children would pretty—kind of like poor people. And I carried the baby, and with one hand hold hands with the four year old one. And then my husband would carry stuff like a farmer—dry fruits or vegetables. Something like that. And we boarded a boat—um, not a boat, but a bus. Like a charter bus—to go to very small village next to a river of the south side. Very, very deep south side that is close to Cambodia ’cause you want to take a short boat ride—as short as possible—to go to the next country. So we stayed there and I remember when we got off the bus we were instructed to look across street by the telephone pole—at that time was no telephone but electric pole. We saw a man who was standing there dressed in a certain type of clothes, wearing a hat that tilted down a little bit. So when we saw that—what we were supposed to do—we either tilted the hat or, you know, we made a signal to let him know that we’re the one that he’s waiting for. And, in turn, he would do something to signal us—That I’m the one to pick you up. So imagine that—it was so tense!

It seemed like children get more mature when they were growing up in that situation. My four year old one was very, very smart. She knew we were doing something, so she was very well-behaved. She did not cry or question anything.


Waiting for the Boat

And so with that we followed the man. We walked and we kept distance from him and he led us to a very small hut by a river. So we walked inside and we were greeted by the owner and then she instructed us to go into the next room. Which we say next room, but it’s very much the wall right there and behind that. And when we passed that wall, we saw tons of people who were already there, lying on the floor just like sardine. And we just looked at each other—we don’t say “Oh hello, how are you in here?” You know, we don’t say anything. So then, we find a spot and lied down, sit down and rest. We wait until whatever they instructed us to do.

So we waited for several days and we became restless because it was so tense. You could not leave the house! You just stayed there—only go to the bathroom in the afternoon or when it’s safe. When they say, okay, then you go outside to do it. So we were living like that—I think for a week. Then one evening somebody came and gave us sleeping pill, to distribute sleeping pills and tell us to give to young children. And they want—he said, “If the children happened to be crying, you know what to do.” You understand? Because, that would be a life and death matter. You could kill one child and save a whole—over a hundred people. So, I felt chill in my spine. And thank God, I think everything happened for a reason. The baby—the six-month old baby was so quiet. Amazingly, he was so quiet and he was asleep at all time. And he wasn’t like that [before].
(I’ll show a picture of what he looks like now.) [laughs]

But that’s what happened and so I guess it was so intense the sleeping pills didn’t work. My daughter was stayed awake the whole time. She knew. And then, by midnight, we were instructed to leave the house. And we walked quietly, very softly. So anyway, so we walked through the small village in the middle of the night to go to a river. And there, they already had a couple of boats—small boats, like a canoe. And, God, the canoe was so small! Couldn’t fit a whole family. So, anyway, my husband and his nephew and his mother were in different boats. Just me and children were in that [different] boat. And thank God that we made it to the ship—the big ship that [was] waiting outside. You know, out in the middle of the river.

We made it there in pitch dark night. You put your hand in front of you you didn’t see anything. So at that time I heard a lot of noises. I noted that we already made it there to the big boat. And I saw people already in the boat, on the boat, so he threw down—he lowered down the rope ladder and [we] climbed up. And I was holding one hand—one child one hand—one hand was climbing up. Thank God that the baby didn’t slip off and [fall] into the water. But that did happen to somebody. And I heard that. The woman’s [pause] scream pierced into my heart. Imagine your child fell into the water. But I didn’t have time to think more because I was worried about my own business. And, with that, I was able to get on the boat. When I got on the boat I could not land my feet down because it was so packed! It was so packed and the man who was pulling my arm said “Let go of my arm” because he had to help other people. But I couldn’t let go of his arm because I couldn’t find a spot for me to land my feet down. And I had to, you know like, find a way. And finally, I was able to lower one foot down and I let go of that man and I landed on someone’s head—just to tell you.

The thing is the news broke down on the last minute and so a lot of people who were waiting there—maybe villagers—they got on the boat free.


On the Boat

And that’s why we didn’t have enough room. So once everybody was inside, on the boat, we were instructed—because it was too tight, too packed—we were instructed to throw away all our belongings. And at that time my husband was carrying two canisters of milk powder for the baby. He had to throw them away. Bag of clothes too. He could only save, IDs, important paper works, so that we can prove to other people—officials—when we get there. And that’s all we could bring along.

So it was fine. When everybody was inside, safe, the boat started to take off. And that’s when coast guard discovered and they shot after us. They were firing after us. And since it was well-planned, I think we were armed. I was inside so I didn’t see. But I could hear we were armed so we fought back and we were able to take off. But I think the engine get shot—get hit, so it broke. And we were drifting at sea like that for a week. Once we passed the international water everybody was shouting and screaming and applausing because we knew—well, at that time we don’t know that there would be more danger at sea waiting for us—but we only know that at that moment we already passed international waters. We’re safe!

So then, we passed that part right? Now we’re facing the next part. Facing danger at sea with no food, no water, no running engine. So more than ever everybody would think, you know, putting their life in God—hoping that God would guide us to a free land. Safe. So we were lucky. We were drifting like that and then started to use sheets or any clothes that they can find to make something to sail by the wind. And we were like that—and a lot of regular ships or military, I don’t remember, commercial ones passed by. They saw us. But not many people stopped by and helped us. Maybe one or two stopped and gave us some food like fruits and water.

Pirate Invasion

Until the seventh day, we were chased by pirates. All of a sudden I heard commotion—so much commotion in the boat. I didn’t know what was going on. And I saw people were scraping stuff on the floor to put on their face to disguise themselves, to make them look dirty and ugly. Thus, I learned that the pirate boats were really close to us. And we knew if they get us, that would be it. We would be either be raped, killed, or be sold to a place that would make us a prostitute. So I heard young girls cry to their mom or father. It was a very, very emotional moment. I was very weak at that time because drifting at sea we only had a very little—very thin rice soup to eat just to keep us alive because there wasn’t enough food. They used rice to make soup—and very, very thin soup though—and we each had about two table spoons full a day just to keep us alive and maybe a few sips of water a day. So, ladies didn’t even have a period. Nobody even needed to go to the bathroom because there was no food!

Malaysian Military Rescue

And my sixth-month old baby started to get sick from day one. He had diarrhea. He was lying on my husband’s chest the whole time because his back was starting to have, you know, open wounds. And he was basically waiting to die. So when [a] Malaysia military ship passed by, they were looking at us. And then, we didn’t know if they were planning to rescue us or not. But we could not take a chance and wait any longer so somebody suggested that I take my baby up—just to make them feel sorry, feel bad—that they could rescue us. So they did and I let them do whatever they want. So they picked him up just like you pick a rabbit. He was so skinny and they saw that. And I noted that they were talking on the phone, probably getting approval to rescue us. So, we were rescued in time and then they tied—they captured those pirates and they tied them and then had them sit on their own boat. They tied the boat to their ship.

And our own boat—what did they do? Once we all get safe inside their ship, they hit our boat to sink it. And at that time, everybody was looking at that boat and realized that it was such a tiny boat! It was 11 meters long and I don’t know how wide that was. The width, probably enough for one person to lie down. And it carried 127 lives. It was so flimsy! We looked at it, we appreciated it so much we couldn’t believe it. That tiny thing that carried 127 lives to a free land. And when it was sinking nobody said anything to anybody but all of a sudden we sang…a national anthem for one last time…sort of like a tribute to it. That’s what happened. And then we were taken to a refugee camp. At that time it was a Malaysia refugee camp.

Malaysia Refugee Camp

And that was the best time of our lives ever since the fall of Saigon because the camp—the weather there—was like heaven, very, very nice. Like in Hawaii. And we were given food and some freedom. We were able to walk around. We were there for a month and they were very generous to us. They gave us a lot of food—nutritious food.

Pulau Bidong Refugee Camp, Indonesia


And unfortunately, they were closing that camp. So, again, we were all packed up and be taken to another camp that was called Pulau Bidong in Indonesia. And the transportation there…It was somewhat…not very pleasant. I was sitting in a cabin with my mother-in-law on one side and my four-year-old one and six-month old baby on my left. Well, at that time, he was seven-month old. And then, the uh—what do you call it? There’s a rail from where I sit to around the border—what do you call it? Like a walkway? And my husband was leaning to that rail because everybody was having terrible seasick. And he was throwing up like crazy.

So he was leaning against that rail and I was sitting here in the cabin, comfortably. And then…it was [an] armed guard. He was patrolling the whole, you know, area around the boat to make sure, whatever, and he was taking advantage of me. And, he touched me all over…And I was so upset. I feel helpless—because I know that wasn’t appropriate. And my daughter was having seasick and my mother-in-law was having seasick. I figured I have a seven-month old baby I have to stay alert to protect him because if he fell he could roll into the water. And the man’s hand traveled all over my chest. I was so hurt. I could not share this story with anybody and I kept it for many decades…until…until I read a book called The Dark Side of The Light Chasers that encouraged people with painful memories to let it out. Otherwise, it would be hard to move forward. Thank God for that book now I have the encouragement to share with you this not very pleasant memory.

And when we moved to—we were transported to the second refugee camp where we stayed for eight months. And, I don’t know what Hell would be like, but those eight months were like living in Hell. I thought of committing suicide at least once because it was so dirty. It was so dirty and so miserable. When we first arrived there I needed to go to the bathroom and they took me to the bathroom. There was a whole row of about 20 to 30 stalls. And every single one I opened—well I didn’t go to the whole row because I opened about seven or eight—it was full of human feces! All over. When you opened the door you don’t have a spot to put your foot in so I don’t know how to do that. And I opened the next one and I said “I can’t!” And the person who escorted me said “Do it! You have to do it. They are all like that!” I said “My God, I can’t!” So I turned around I said “No, I can’t do this!” So he escorted me back to my hut.

Because we were a family and my husband is an educated man—because of that he was able to get a job—helping the camp’s president. So he was given a decent place to stay. They built a wooden bunker—a very long one. And then, you know on the bunker, they built a long bed. Then, they gave you a certain amount of space. You can sleep there, you can eat there, you can throw anything underneath, but at least you don’t stay in a hut that people built by their shirts or something like that. So we had a roof over our head. But that bunker was right in front of a—what do you call it. Cemetery? So everyday you see people being buried.

Like, you know, just like right there! Right at that wall. That close! In between the wall there would be a…what do you call it? It’s not a lake but they dug the line to let the water go through…yes, just like that. I can jump over that. What do you call it? That’s a lake or brook? And then I could go to the cemetery right there. And one night, no actually almost every night there were people escaping and they arrived in the middle of the night, or people who lived there for so long they did not have any family members to sponsor them. There were many different reasons they stayed there for quite long. Over a year or two years. So they started to find a way to make a living. And what they did  was go fishing—to get fish and then sell it to make a living. And of course, they didn’t have proper equipment for fishing. So oftentimes, they get killed. They get sunk, and then killed. And then three days later the body floated up. And that’s when, at night, the coast guard guarding the area find those bodies, bring them up. In that case, they would call people who were in carpentry profession to come up to build coffins and bury them. The way they set up there was the people who have a special skill would be requested to dedicate their skill to serve the community.

So, in the middle of the night, when you here the paging system call so-and-so: “Please, someone [go] to the office.” And they called many times. Nobody dared to come up. The reason why? Because by the time they pulled the body in the body would look so horrible. I was so scared to see it. You know, either part of this gets eaten by fish, or an eye get pulled out. It’s too scary to face that! So they don’t dare to show up—until they say “One more time if you don’t come up we’re gonna call your name. And if you don’t show up, your name will be off the list to be qualified to go to third world country”. Right? This is the third country. The country we arrived was second country. The original country was from Viet Nam. At that time people had to report themselves. So that’s the kind of life that I lived for eight months.

And one time, one mother escaped with six children. Her husband was in the death camp. She knew that she could not wait for him to come home. She would not know when. Because the length in the death camp—they don’t tell you how long. But people sort of know, based on how you’re involved in military at that time—if you were holding a low rank, you very much have a hope that you can get out in [a] certain year. But if you hold like a high rank in military, God help you. So she realized that and she took her young children to escape with her. But she was raped so badly, that when she got to the camp, she died. And she left six children. The youngest one was so young. She needed a mother at night. So the baby would cry all night. [She] would say “Mother, where are you?” And nobody could speak. It pierced through your heart. And I lived like that for eight months.

My youngest daughter started to have like a pin worm because it was so unsanitized. The food was so terrible! It seemed like they gave bad food—overdue food or something like that. But of course nobody dares complain. We knew we just had to be patient and we won’t have to stay there forever. Just be patient and wait till the day that we get out. And the time came. We were able to come to the United States and that was August 25th, 1981. So we get to heaven.



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