A Daughter of South Vietnam - A Journey From Guam to America
Profilers: My-Hanh Dinh
What was your parent’s life like before you were born?
I hear stories from my parents. My dad was born in North Vietnam and he came to South Vietnam and met my mom. He came before 1954. He joined the military and went to the south. When the country was divided, he got stuck. He stayed in the south, and they got married, and then, he stayed. For them, I think, back then both my parents were schooled in French. They did all their schooling in French. French schooling was a prominent thing back in their generation. They built their lives with their kids after that.
Where were you born?
I was born in Ho Chi Minh City, “Saigon” at the time
What was your earliest memory in Saigon?
Going to school. Our house was right across from our elementary school, I remember that. I remember going to school, learning stuff. I still remember this one memory very much to this day, you’ve probably heard about the Tet Offensive in 1968. The attack was a couple blocks from our house in Saigon and I remember it very well because it was very scary at the time for us. We were hiding in our house and we saw people running by the house and heard gunshots and stuff like that. We were fine but it was a little scary. I guess in 1968 I was 6 years old. I remember huddling in the closet.
Was your day to day life normal in Vietnam?
Oh yeah. After that, all of that was forgotten about very quickly. We went to school, and my parents worked. Yeah, everything was normal. We couldn’t travel far though because there was always the threat of war outside of the city, being attacked or whatever, so we stayed most of the time in the city vicinity.
Why did your family decide to leave Vietnam?
Well my dad was in the military so therefore my mom decided that we had to leave because they were afraid we would be persecuted for staying behind. We left with the fall of Saigon. We rushed out to one of the ports near Saigon and then got on one of the boats and then that was it. But for us at the time, my mom had everything packed for us, we had the little knapsacks and everything was prepared, but we were not told that we were fleeing. I guess my mom wanted to make sure that was kept a secret because what if right? We thought we were going on a trip. My sister was thirteen years old, I guess my parents wanted to make sure we didn’t talk about it. So we thought we were going on a trip but didn’t understand too much at the time of what was happening. Probably because maybe they kept a lot of it from us and we didn’t pay attention to a lot of that at the same time. My older brother I’m sure probably knew a lot more but for me and my younger siblings, I don’t think so.
How did your family end up in Guam?
It was a long story out in the ocean. The American ship picked us up. We were on a barge floating and there were a couple American ships that stopped by to pick up people. I think our family was split into three different pickups. I guess at the time they picked us up and took us wherever they were going, their destination. Actually they took us to Subic Bay and then from Subic Bay I think we got reunited with my dad and my younger sister and then from there we got flown to Guam and then we stayed in Guam for a week or 10 days and then from there we went to Canada.
Why did your parents choose Canada?
They chose Canada because at the time, by default, everyone was going to the states and the queue to get into the States was very long. You could end up staying in Guam in those military camps and barracks, sleeping all together in a big tent. It was not easy. My parents talked to people that were there for weeks. My parents didn’t want to do that and didn’t see us doing that for weeks. At the time, going to Canada was an easier route because there was a long list of criteria you have to be eligible for so not a lot of people were eligible to go to Canada. But my parents had all the credentials so we got accepted to go to Canada very quickly. It was within a week or 10 days I recall. It wasn’t long.
Did you know English when you arrived in North America?
Yeah. In Vietnam I was already in grade 8 so we learned english as a second language but my dad also had good foresight and wanted all of us to have a second language and he chose english. So we got tutored on the side for English. I guess he thought eventually maybe we would do schooling abroad or something like that so I knew a little bit of English. When I got to Ottawa, we got there in mid May, right away my parents enrolled us in school through the Ottawa city and through the federal government because we were refugees. They have this really good refugee program in Ottawa. I think we were one of the first Vietnamese families to arrive in Ottawa. Right away we got enrolled in school to make sure everything would be kind of a normal routine for us. In that sense, it was okay. It was good. You know when you’re a kid, language wasn’t much of an issue per say because we knew a few words and I’m sure when we were speaking, because of our accents, a lot of people didn’t understand us but as a kid we just moved on. We didn’t seem to have a lot of issues. In school, we all excelled. We did well in math. It was just one of those things. That helped us and propelled us along the way and made school somewhat easier for us at the time. The schooling was really nice at the time. My younger siblings and I, we were all in the same elementary school together. It was a Catholic school. One of the nuns had set aside a couple hours a day to teach us english. Just us, just my family alone. It was very nice. We caught up very quickly.
How did your parents adjust to life in North America?
It was harder for my parents to get adjusted I think because in Vietnam they were well established and at that age, bringing six kids and fleeing the country, that was tough for them. They started out working at minimum wage to support the whole family. It was very hard for my parents to start our new lives in Canada.
What jobs did your parents have in North America?
My dad went back to school to get his credentials for French teaching. He did all kinds of stuff but in the meantime while he was going back to school, he worked as a parking attendant. There were very minimal jobs for him but he did it because that was the only job he could get at the time to support a family. My mom did two jobs. She worked as a cook at a hotel and then she also worked as a waitress on the weekends. She worked seven days a week. My parents had six kids ranging from ages five years old to seventeen.
With your parents working, did you take care of your younger siblings?
Yeah we did that. My younger siblings and I were all enrolled in the same Catholic elementary school so we walked to school together. My dad made our lunches every morning. Winter, summer were the same thing. Winter was tough but as kids we were fine. We learned how to skate. Ottawa, we have the canal, the longest outdoor skating rink in the world apparently so we learned how to skate.
What did you do after High School?
After High School, I went to University in Ottawa. I took Computer Science. And then afterwards I graduated and started working.
How did your family end up in Coronado, CA?
After a few years in Canada, it was really cold for my mom. For us, we were young. I remember the first May we got there, we thought it was so cool to see ice on the road. We never saw that in Vietnam. But for my mom it was a different story altogether and she thought it was really cold. In the early 80s, she decided to immigrate to San Diego because she had a cousin in San Diego, twice removed or something. Somebody she knew. So she found a way to San Diego. I was in University at the time so I didn’t want to move with her right away because I didn’t want to change. So I stayed behind but my younger siblings came to San Diego.
Have you been to Vietnam since you left?
No not yet. I just haven’t had the chance to. I’ve been working and busy. I’m thinking of going back to visit sometime within the next couple years.
What are your thoughts on the war in general?
I thought it was such a shame that so many people died. It was too bad there was a war. It started off as a civil war. At the time when I was in Vietnam, I didn’t understand much and we were all in the South and the North was the enemy. That’s how it is with war you have an enemy. When I got older and I looked back, it was such a sad situation. That we were in a war torn country and so many people died and for what. And the people died as young kids. My nephews and my sons, I couldn’t imagine them getting drafted to go to war in another country. It’s very sad. I read a couple books on the Vietnam war and the books were written from both perspectives, the North Vietnamese and the South Vietnamese. I just thought it was such a sad situation because we were all human, and just the politicians had to fight for stuff, but at the end of the day just the soldiers got killed. It’s very sad. Now I’m happy it’s one country now so no more war which is a great thing. Let the people live. At the time, I’m sure everything felt justified. But all said and done and you look back, and you say, yeah well y’know mhm.
Is your life still impacted by the war?
For me, no, I don’t think so. I don’t think about it unless someone talks about it or I see something on tv. I don’t think about it. This is life and this is my home now. North America is my home because I’ve lived here a lot longer than I lived in Vietnam and I don’t remember a lot about Vietnam. However, every now and then, sometimes you are stressed or have anxiety about certain things. It hasn’t happened for a while now but maybe a couple years ago, but sometimes I have a nightmare. In my dream I would be fleeing, running, people chasing after me, running from the communists, something like that, running with my family. Every now and then I still have that dream and wake up. I think it’s probably related to that, but other than that, nothing.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
No, nothing really other than war is a bad thing. It’s unfortunate and it’s such a sad thing to see young people get drafted to war. It’s just really sad. But like I said, I’m glad it’s one country. I have friends who visited back in Vietnam and they had a wonderful trip. It’s a beautiful country and I’m happy about that.
Did you know about the war/violence before the Tet Offensive?
No. I was six years old at the time. If I heard anything about the war it would’ve been on TV or radio but we didn’t experience anything personally. Until that time, I remember we were having dinner, it was new years eve, the Vietnamese new year, and that’s when it started with the gunshots. My parents thought it was firecrackers but the shots got louder and then we saw people running down the street. Then my parents realized it was not firecrackers. As a family, we didn’t talk about the war. I guess it was enough seeing on TV but we didn’t talk about it as a family per say.
Was your older brother particularly affected by the war?
No, not really. He was older so he was more exposed through school or friends and understood it more through TV and listening to stuff on the radio and newspapers and that kind of stuff. Nothing seems to affect him. We left Vietnam when he was I think 16, 17 and yeah, everythings okay.
Could you elaborate more on your daily life in Vietnam?
Both my parents worked when we were growing up. I would say we were maybe middle class. They both worked and we had a modest home, a two story home because there were six of us, six kids. Growing up, we didn’t think anything of the war other than we couldn’t travel because it was not safe to travel far. But everyday life was going to school, coming home, dinner, that kind of stuff. I remember playing badminton on the street till dark when we couldn’t see the lights anymore. It was pretty normal I recall. Both my parents worked so we had a nanny. My sisters were five years old when we left so we had a nanny to help take care of us, house cleaning and that kind of stuff.
How did your father have the foresight to have his family learn English?
It was mainly because of the American exposure at that time. My dad was born in the early 30s so during that time from what I understand, French was taught in regular schooling and that’s how my dad followed all the french programs throughout his schooling. He was very much a linguistic kind of person and when the Americans came he learned english. He did all his schooling, post secondary education, law and all that. When we came around, at the time, there was the American influence and my dad saw the trend so he had us take English as a second language in school. We all went to regular public vietnamese school with english as a second language. It was hard because even though English was a second language for us, we didn’t speak much. Learning in school is not the same as conversing in it everyday. So we almost had to relearn again. When we got to Ottawa, right away the next day I was enrolled in grade 7. I remember it was the latter part, the last few weeks before the school year ended. After the summer, I started grade 8. During the whole summer we were put in summer school to learn english so that helped. I remember some challenges, we would say things to the students and they wouldn’t understand us because of our accents at the time, that kind of stuff. As a kid you pick stuff fast. I remember in school, we always did well in math and those kinds of subjects but history and geography were a bit rough. I remember doing those subjects, we had special help. We ended up going to a Catholic school in Ottawa and a couple of the nuns took us aside, my siblings and I, and they taught us english during those hours instead of learning history or geography because of the vocabulary we didn’t have. All those resources really helped us.
Who was on the barge leaving Vietnam other than your family?
Thousands of other people. There were so many other people on the barge. And from what I can remember it was just floating in the middle of the ocean and we were waiting to be picked up by american ships. It was refugees at the time. Lots of families and singles. It was a huge barge. I was 13 so maybe looking at it today it wouldn’t be that big but at the time I remember it was a huge barge. Everyone was worried and afraid and didn’t know what would happen next and we were all waiting for American ships to pick us up. I remember it was so warm and we didn’t have water so we were pretty dehydrated at the same time. When the American ships came by, I remember there were 3 ships that came by at different times to pick us up. We must’ve been floating, my family for sure, two nights I think. I remember dark and light again and that kind of stuff. When the first ship came by, and every time it came by, they picked up people who were sick, people who had passed out or couldn’t take the heat. One of my younger sisters passed out because of dehydration so they picked her up and my dad went with her. That’s how the family started getting separated. There was no planning, it just kind’ve happened. And then, must’ve been a few hours or the next day I can’t remember, but my brother wasn’t feeling well and passed out. A friend of his went with him and got picked up by the next ship. The rest of us were picked up when my other younger sister passed out. My mom was the only adult in our family so we all went. I remember being very tired and very sleepy and all I wanted to do was sleep. But my mom didn’t want us to sleep and kept waking us up because she was afraid that we wouldn’t wake up. All I remember was being very tired in a sea of people and everybody wanted to get onto the next ship. I remember you had to climb up a ladder to get to the ship. With my family, I can only speak for my family, we got split because people passed out so we were split into 3 different ships but we all eventually met up in Guam. Once we were in Guam we traveled again as a family.
Did you feel any stress or tension in your family as a result of the war?
No, I don’t recall. We were busy going to school. It was a different experience for us going to school here. I remember in Vietnam we only went to school for half days, you go in the morning or afternoon, but when I came to Ottawa, we went to school the whole day. That was long, 8 hours in school. So we were busy going to school and doing our own thing and my parents were busy either working or doing homework with us in the evening. I remember my dad used to do that. We all sat out at the kitchen table and did our homework. That’s what I remember, it was kind of normal. We just went along and did what we had to do, and didn’t think much of anything when we were growing up. I recall my dad would be doing the laundry and stuff like that for us and I don’t remember him ever having to do that in Vietnam. But in Canada he did the laundry, the cooking, and packed lunches for us.
Did you meet other Vietnamese families in Canada?
Yeah. We were one of the first set of families to arrive in Ottawa from Guam. I think the Government put us all in temporary hotel housing and then we got our own housing. When we were in the hotels, we connected with the other families. It was good. You felt a little more familiarity. Once we settled in Ottawa, they ended up being in different areas. We stayed pretty well in the central town of Ottawa so we went to different schools.
Does your family ever talk about the Vietnam War?
No. For some reason we don’t talk about it. For the longest time I did not know much about the Vietnam war. I almost didn’t care, because I was busy with this and that. As I got older and got more free time, I started asking my dad questions about it and I started watching documentaries on it and I read books. I started that in my 40s I think. Prior to that I was too busy. The Tet Offensive, at the time we didn’t know it was that. It was years later when I watched the documentary series, that’s when I was able to associate a name to that.
Do you have anything else you’d like to share?
I remember when we were in Guam, it was chaotic. It was so warm and everything was communal. We stayed in one of those barracks with 20 people in a tent and a communal toilet. It was really tough for my parents and all of us because we had 4 girls and 2 boys and the youngest one was 5 years old. Everyday I remember we lined up for food, breakfast, lunch, dinner, and that was all we did, there was no schooling. For the most part we didn’t mind that at the time because we didn’t have to go to school. We played all day. But my parents didn’t want that for us. They found out going to the US would’ve been quite a few weeks instead of going to Canada. At the time they didn’t factor in the cold weather or anything, they just wanted to settle as soon as possible so we could go on to schooling. Going to Canada, you have to speak at least one of their official languages, English or French. If you have post secondary education it’s a plus and my dad had all those credentials so we didn’t have to wait. I think within a week we flew from Guam to Montreal then to Ottawa. For us, coming here, my dad was very well educated. To him, you got to go to school, get a university degree, and then work. So that was the path he put us on and we didn’t think twice about it. This is what you gotta do and that’s what we did, all 6 of us.