Reflecting on the journey of a South Vietnamese refugee to the United States.
Profilers: Ryan Hemerick, Michael Ruiz, Katrina Dang, Agastyaa Gupta
Life During Vietnam War
Q: What is your relationship to the war?
I was the son of one of the military person. My dad was in the service for very much all of his life until he left Vietnam in 1975.
Q: How old were you when the war started?
At that time, I was three years of age. So… And do I remember three years of age? Probably not, but four or five, I can remember a little bit, but not a lot.
Q: What are some of the key memories that you have about the war?
I was with my dad, and because my dad was in the front line, we interfaced directly with the Viet Cong, which is the communist version of Vietnamese. Ok so, in the front line there are a lot of weapons, cannons, booming. Uh well, not every day, maybe every other day, but very much every weekend I have to stay in the… my dad call home and say: tonight you have to stay in the bunker because the Viet Cong, you know, are bombing us, that kind of thing. So just prepare. So that’s the time, usually the weekend, Saturday and Sunday, I sleep in the bunker. Our home has a bunker.
Q: How old were you when you were experiencing the front lines with your dad?
I just described to you, at that time I was nine and ten. That’s the only two years I was with my dad on the front lines. The rest of the time I stayed with my grandparents and stayed with uncles in the peaceful city.
Q: Do you remember if you were old enough to kind of comprehend or understand what was going on around you or did you basically kind of follow what your parents told you?
Well, [my] parents told me. I learned something. Just be careful, when I… For example, at the time I was on front lines, I go to school every day, but like he said, when you hear the explosion, grenade, or bullet, you know, shooting, lay flat on the ground. Because the lower you are, he said, the lower you are, the safer you going to be. If you stay up high, you may get hit by bullet or the object from the grenade or bomb or whatever it is. So whenever I hear that, I dropped the bike and laid flat on the ground, until everything quiet again and then get up and continue. And it’s not just me, if I look around everybody did the same thing.
Q: What did your teachers and classes tell you about the war?
The teachers in Vietnam, they just teach about the history of the country, but they do not really say bad either side. So they just say, oh at that time we have many years war with the Chinese, the French then come to the, you know, the Viet Cong. Ok. So we had just a long history of fighting with the outside and also the domestic. And so that teachers just say, but they don’t say so deep, or reporting with what’s going on for this day or this month or this year, there’s something going on with the country. They don’t teach that kind of thing, no.
Q: Being the son of a Vietnamese soldier, how do you think your dad’s role in the war affected you and your family?
He is a parent in the war, the parents took a lot of responsibility in teaching the kids how to handle dealing with the war, prepare for the war, and give us, teaching us a lot of “what ifs”, if this happen this what you do, if this happen you have to do this, and that, and this taught me a lot, when I apply in a normal daily life, too, when I grow up over here in this country, the same thing. As a man, I have to take a full responsibility for my family, protect them, guide them, lead them, you know, financially, stability, thats the thing. I took a lot on myself, because that’s what I learned from my dad. So in the war, it’s probably harder, because you deal with daily people, you know, get attacked and people died. We see it regularly, back over there.
Q: Jumping forward but, can you describe your most significant memories about your journey to Guam?
That’s April 29, my dad had received a final message from the US Embassy saying that, this is the last moment you can leave Vietnam with some US protection. If you don’t leave now, after that you’ll be on your own. So that’s the, I believe, is the hardest decision for my dad. Have to leave and take the family with him. And so, he did, and we are on the boat from- uh the capital of Vietnam is Saigon at the time, now they call Ho Chi Minh City. Uh, so we left there on the afternoon of the 29th, and we arrive at the Phillipines first, in Subic Bay.
In the Philippines that’s one of the major military naval base of US over there. It took, what, almost five days to get there. Ok, and that’s a special boat from the US. And then the next day, we continue on a military boat from the Philippines to Guam, and that military boat it is a very good experience for me, to know about the… the powerful US Navy as well, because it’s very huge, very big boat. Well, I would say it’s as big as a cruise boat today, it’s big. It’s five, six thousand people on the boat. On top of that, they pick up another three, four thousand [Vietnamese people] on top of the boat too, and it shipped from Philippines to Guam and took seven days, because military boat is very nice, super powerful as I explained. It’s a big boat, it arrived so fast, I couldn’t believe it. After the speed that, first time in my life I had seasick. I never have seasick in my life. I left Vietnam on a week before the other boat. The boat is small, but they ride really slow, so because of that, I had zero feeling. I don’t have any feeling on that. But military boat is so fast. On top of that, because military boat is much more well equipped, food supply, water, everything, all the necessary stuff for the family, they have it. So, very much every day, we eat and we sit in front of the boat to watching the dolphins racing with the boat. The dolphins swim in front of the boat for a little while, and the dolphins get tired, so they split up, and the boat continues on.
Ok, so that’s a memory on the ship from that to Guam. When we landed in Guam, I believe it’s called Anderson Base, that’s the name, the Air Force base. That’s where they set up the military tent for all the refugees. And at that time, we all stayed in the tent. The weather, not too bad because Guam is tropical weather so, it’s not that cold, it’s not that hot. Warm, a little bit warm but not super hot, anyways, because that was in April timeframe, so we stayed there.
Q: How was your life like in Guam?
Basically, every day we listen to news to hear what’s going on back home in Vietnam. Viet Cong do this, do that. Besides that, we can eat and relax, that’s all. Because, it’s ten, fifteen thousand people there. So, everyday we get in line and go and get food, then after finish the first breakfast and then it’s close to lunch. So we eat, relax, and you know, go sleep everyday. So it’s not that, um, for me because at that time I was seventeen. So seventeen, I probably don’t have as much as like, um, strong emotion, like my dad, my mom. Because they left Vietnam, they have no more home, you know. We had a comfortable home back in Vietnam. Everything, the transportation convenient for us. But now stay in a tent, very much temporary, and they’re old also, well old in the sense of us, they’re fifty. I think my dad forty eight years at that time. And he’s sad that he needs to start his life over, from military, now become a normal citizen and going to be in US and do different things. You know that kind of thing, he cannot be back in the service anymore. So, I think from the older generation I can see there’s some sadness in them, that’s understandable because you give up everything for the freedom. You know, you have to walk away. But for us, me and my siblings, we’re still young. We still have a good time, relaxing. Play ping pong, volleyball, whatever we did throughout the day, keep us busy, day by day.
That is in Guam for how long? We stayed in Guam probably another ten days, two weeks, something like that. Then we got an airplane, took us to Pennsylvania, and we stayed at the army camp, I believe called Indiantown Gap, close to Harrisburg. That’s the name of the base. We stay in the camp, when we get to US. For us, we’re used to the tropical weather, we feel like warm weather, but when we get to Pennsylvania, even in spring time, but for us it’s too cold. You know, not used to the weather. But for us, that’s, oh my goodness, too cold. So we always request extra clothes, extra jacket, you know. When you in the base, you need a supply blanket, extra clothes, we just tell them and they provide it to us. And also in the Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, we stayed in the barrack. It’s not a tent. Because the weather was more extreme. At that time it rained quite a bit too, it was springtime, it rained quite a bit. And the same routine, we just, uh, eat and sleep, eat and sleep, and playing, for young people. Then um, we got a sponsor. Because in order to get out of the camp you need a sponsor, and we had the church in Ohio, Zanesville, Ohio. There’s a Lutheran church over there, they sent a letter to the refugee camp, they’re willing to sponsor a family, and they sponsored all of us. And so, well at that time, late August, so we stayed in the camp for one or two months, in the Pennsylvania camp.
The reason we stayed so long there was, because our family so big, it’s, uh, difficult to have sponsor, because like, if the people have like one or two, just a couple with a kid, two or three people, they get sponsored fairly quickly. Because my family was around, total eight people, they need a bigger group, multiple families in the Lutheran church, to sponsor us. Then we moved to Zanesville, close to September 1975.
Living in America
Q: After coming to America, what do you think was the biggest challenge in adjusting to American society?
At the beginning, super challenging, because we don’t speak English. We do a lot of hand and finger, you know, I do this, do that, a lot hand signal. A great challenge for me ,yeah, was the language at the beginning. As soon as I arrived in Ohio, three days later, the sponsor family, they have connections with the McDonalds. They told me, work there. So I did. So, three days as soon as I arrived, and because I couldn’t talk on the hand signal, so they assigned me to work in the kitchen, do cleaning, because that’s easy. Cleaning, they just give me signs and I know what to do. Clean and put and dry out, that kind of thing. So that’s what I did. I worked part time. Well, as soon as I arrived in Ohio, they signed me up for high school to finish my senior high school in US. So I study in day time, and in night time and afternoon I went home and went to McDonalds, worked there. Yeah. So, and I do part time, four, five times a week, about three, four hours, something like that. And the rest of the time I go to school and help out my parents.
Yeah, that’s a great challenge because you don’t speak the language. And the same thing when we were in high school, the same thing. But, thank God, we have a lot of nice people, probably the small town USA, I guess, Zanesville, a lot of nice kids always come up and cheer us up and always ask for help. They extend the help out all the time about the language, and just similar like you, they ask us questions. Oh, What do you eat? What do you do? Here and there, what do we do, action, you know, so very nice. They helped us quite a bit to learn English. But, uh, one unique thing, the language was difficult, but the school was not hard for us at all, because in Vietnam, the education level may be equivalent to a college level here.
Reflecting on the War
Q: So since you’re older now, and you’re able to look back on your life and all your memories and experiences that you have shared with the war, do you feel that the Vietnam War has left a significant impact on who you are today?
Absolutely. When you live in a war, life very cheap, because you can live and die very quickly. But in US, life is so valuable, you know. You hear a little shooting here and there, and people scream like crazy. But over there, people live and die so quickly, so easily. So, I learned a lot on that and I see in US the value of life very very high, versus the life back there. But, the life back there you live in a war, just like any war going on right now around the world. So, always hard when you live in the warzone, and it has many sad memories because you see some of your friends, you seen them there, but you know. Well, lets say, one or two years, whatever, in the school, and happen to them, and they die, so you know. That is sad. Then that’s the reason, you know, teaching us in the US, you have to value your life, you have to work hard, do the best you can, you know, to protect and maintain your family. So, that’s all.
Q: Do you hold a positive feeling or a negative feeling towards the war, overall?
Oh absolutely, a positive way. Thing about this, if I continue stay in Vietnam, I may end up become a soldier someday, and live and die. Can happen to anybody. And number two, the opportunity to live or to survive in Vietnam is harder, because it does not have a big, strong business like in US, so. And even though, let’s say if I graduate as an engineer in Vietnam, I may have a tough time to find a job also, because they don’t have that many industry out there. They may give you a job, but just for the title, but you are not actually really do the work because there is no interaction. In US, you have the degree, you can go to work basically any tech company, and you can do things. You can produce things, you know. But there, you want to produce something, you can’t, because the environment, the situation is not the same. You want to do but you couldn’t, that’s the limitation. But over here, it looks like the limitation doesn’t exist. Is always available for you do to what you want to do. If you want to do something, you just mention to the company. They will get you what you want to do.
Looking back, I retired now, looking back to the company I worked, you know, anything I do, they always find a way get me to do better every day for myself, well because over here… I’m thinking it’s capitalism. If I produce something good for the company, company will make money, then the company will reward money back to me. Over there, I cannot produce anything, so I cannot, you know, do anything. It’s hard enough to reward me if I don’t produce anything, so. But in here, I work hard, and I know the company reward me quite a bit. Very good, very decent.
Katrina: I think that was actually my last question I had for today. Thank you for all of your answers and all of your stories Uncle Thuy, that was really amazing to hear and to learn from all your experiences.
Being on the Front Lines
Q: So what city did you and your family live in when you were a child?
Three of them. When I was young, from one to, well when I was born to about six. I was in the town called Cao Lãnh Kiến Phong. That’s from one to seven. Then seven to nine, that’s the time I come to stay with my dad, that’s where I called the front line. This town is crazy. A lot of fighting going on constantly, and the name of the town is Tiuc Giang. These are some of the names of the early days, okay, I don’t know if you can find it on today’s map or not. Then, from after seven… nine… I stayed there, then ten to the time I left Vietnam, that’s eleven to seventeen, I stayed in Giadinh that’s next to Saigon, the capital. Okay. Okay, so that’s the three main towns that I lived in since I was a kid to when I left Vietnam.
Q: So in the last interview you mentioned being on the front lines with your dad. Do you think you could elaborate what you mean by that?
Okay, let me define what I call “front lines” means. Okay, “front lines” means that’s where a lot of fighting, a lot of attacking between the Viet Cong, that’s the Communist side, and the other side. Okay, so during the daytime we just like normal, because there’s not much really going on during the daytime, but when the sun sets, sundown, that they usually start, you know, the Communist side starts attacking the military base. And I lived only recall it’s about less than 300 yards from the military base. Because so close there. So at night time when they attack the base and the soldier inside the base, you know shooting out their weapon to the other side, and I hear, you know, a whole bunch of running going on outside the house. So that’s what I mean by the “front lines.” You can hear the gun, the grenades, and people running and screaming, all kinds of things. So that’s what I mean by the “front lines” okay.
So, then in that house, so close to the base, but sadly one night it got burned down, okay. So then my dad evacuate the family. Not the family, just myself, because at that time it was just myself. The rest of the family members stayed at another location. So, then we moved to another home, and this home kind of interesting as well. It’s separated by the river, but the same thing. At night time, the Viet Cong on the other side of the river make all kinds of noise, propaganda, all kind of things, and we’re on this side of the river, and the same thing, they shooting over from time to time. But at least this time there’s half a mile separation, on the river, so it’s not as dangerous as the previous. But still bad, so that’s why my dad suggest that: “Hey maybe night time ,you should sleep in the bunker. Don’t sleep outside. Just in case, you know, they shoot, something happens, and the roof drop down.” So he said, daytime go to school, but night time sleep in the bunker. So that’s how I did. So that’s true, that period of time, it’s quite a long time. I’m talking about five, six months, long, continuously. Every weekend there’s activity, a shooting. Crazy. Yep.
Q: So why did your dad choose to separate you from your family during that time?
Yeah. Most of my other siblings, they stayed in a boarding school, but I think I get a problem with the education. Maybe a rascal. So my dad said “you stay with me.” So, that’s the main reason, he trained me, controlled me, whatever it is. I was very much only by myself, but I learned so much. I learned so much in life, because I stayed at the warzone. You know, you can see things, you can hear things. So that’s probably the main reason, other siblings, they studied really well. They have very… successful, and they’re in a boarding school. But I couldn’t. I recall I couldn’t get in.
The Warzone Through the Eyes of a Child
Q: As a child, how did that experience feel to you, being close to a warzone? Like, were you scared, or was it more of, you know, you were just trying to understand what was going on around you?
I can share with you the feeling that I have. When I was young, the feeling not as bad as when I’m getting older. Young, when I looked at, “oh just another dead body,” you know. Because, like I said, at the end of the night, fighting, the next day when the soldiers come out to accumulate the dead, bring the dead all together. So that’s why, I was just a little kid myself, just curious. Well, my dad not around the house, he’s in the base, so. So I then just run out, and look at those dead bodies too, and look at that, and I say “what happened?” The night before, shooting, bloody. I’m sorry to say, now looking back at it, yeah scary thing. But at that time I said: “Oh bad guy, get killed.” So that’s all I did. One time I looked at at least ten or twelve dead bodies accumulated all together. So that’s when I was young, and not as scary as now. Looking back, when I get older now, mature and grown up. Looking back, wow, the warzone is no fun, you know. Dead people and, you know, either side. Dead someone that side and dead someone the other side, as well. So, it’s not that good. So, looking back, yeah, it’s dangerous and scary. Yep.
But at that time, little kid, I had little feeling. That’s what it is. Yeah. And one time, one of my friends also, I hadn’t seen him, but I heard from the school say “Yeah, he got killed by the grenade. They drive motorcycle and they throw a grenade at the motorbike, and he got killed.” But, I hadn’t seen the detail, but kind of sad. The kid from the class is now no longer… Well the teacher just report, say okay he’s not longer with the school because what happened the day before, that kind of thing. And the same thing, my dad always remind me: “Wherever you go, wherever you go, you see the big crowd, try to stay away from the crowd, because that’s where the bad guy wants to go after the group, not the individual.”
Q: Do you think that the deaths of these classmates and these individuals that you knew when you were younger ever affect you now? Do you find yourself thinking about their deaths and does that change the way you view life now?
Well, just like I shared a little bit earlier, now I’m a little bit older, mature, looking back. The life is so valuable, especially now living in US, the value of life very very important. But back in the war, in Vietnam, not quite. You know, the human value very cheap over there. So that’s why a lot of people get killed, not many people bother to pay much attention. Now looking back, it’s sad, but the old days: “Yeah, just another thing happened. Just another thing happened.” That was in my mind. Now we think that life is so meaningful, you know. Nobody is supposed to die for no reason, you know.
Q: Besides that one classmate that you mentioned before, do you remember anybody else who was close to you that died during the war?
No. That’s the only time one of the kids from school, yeah in the class, happened to him. Other than that, no, I don’t have any. One of the kids, not the kid, young adult, and the neighbor, they joined what’s called the special force. And the special force is really dangerous. And I recall that the parents said “oh, he’s gone in the service.” And it’s just about four months later, that they delivered the coffin home. So that’s kind of shocking, yeah, at that time, I was twelve. That’s kind of scary. That’s the only. Yeah.
Ok. Thanks. And it’s a great opportunity for me to talk to you, to recall some of the things in my life as well. It’s an opportunity for me to think back, look back, what the life I’ve grown up from, from a young kid, to how I am today.
Q: And do you enjoy recalling all of these memories, or is it a little harder to kind of think back on these important times?
It’s both. It’s happen both. Joys, in terms of, yeah growing up, learning life is difficult back there, and when it comes to the US, life more meaningful, the value of life very important, and the opportunity always available around here to getting also better. But then the sad thing looking back, there’s something happen in the past, may not happen to me, but many other people, you know. You probably already hear some scary stories such like the boat people, you know. They left the country through the boat, crossed through the ocean. A lot of people died. A lot of sad stories, it’s really aching the heart when you listen to those stories, and I understand that’s how difficult it is. Like, for me it’s not, you know, left the early days, before the war ended, and everything with the help of the US, that’s why we get a little bit better. Yep.
Katrina: Well, thank you so much Uncle Thuy for all of your stories!
No problem. I’m glad… anything I can help.