Books

04.30.14

Remembering the Fall of Saigon and Vietnam’s Mass ‘Boat People’ Exodus

On April 30, 1975, American troops withdrew from Saigon as the city fell to the North Vietnamese. One refugee remembers the chaos of the day and her long odyssey to freedom.

In the waning days of April 1975, Carina Hoang and her family hunkered down inside a cramped bomb shelter and listened to the rockets scorching the skies above Bien Hoa. From time to time the children dashed outside, to go to the bathroom or grab a morsel of food, and then retreated to the bunker. North Vietnamese troops had already advanced within three miles of Saigon, just half an hour’s drive away, and the U.S. military had launched a frantic evacuation of the capital. “When things started to quiet down, my mom put all of us in the car and started to drive to Saigon,” says Carina. “At that point, we had lost touch with our father”—a lieutenant colonel in the South Vietnamese military—“we didn’t know what had happened to him and we couldn’t wait for him. So we went to Saigon and stayed at my mom’s friend’s house and started to look for ways to leave the country.”

The mood, Carina says, “was fearful. You just never knew what might happen next and there’s all of this speculation—people cannot trust each other, people cannot say anything without being worried it will be used against you. There was no hope, there was no freedom. It felt as if somebody pulled a rug from under your feet. Everything just changed.”

A few days later, on April 30, General Duong Van Minh surrendered to the Viet Cong and the Fall of Saigon was complete. For the Hoangs and hundreds of thousands of their fellow South Vietnamese, it was the beginning of a decades-long nightmare—one that prompted one of the largest mass exoduses in modern history as political refugees fled, year after year, in rickety boats across the South China Sea. Thousands perished en route to safer shores or fell prey to marauding pirates. Many more died on uninhabited islands, victims of tropical diseases, hunger and heartbreak.

For the past 16 years, Carina Hoang—who made her own successful escape in 1979—has been helping refugees return to these remote islands to find the graves of lost loved ones. Along the way, she started to collect the stories of Vietnam’s so-called “boat people,” to bear witness to a migration that her daughter’s generation knows little about and that modern Vietnam seems to easily forget. The result, Boat People, Personal Stories From The Vietnamese Exodus 1975-1996, showcases the determination of men, women and children who risked everything—home, friends, family, even life itself—for a chance at freedom.

It would take 14 years and multiple escape attempts before Carina was able to reunite with her parents and all of her siblings. How could her mother have known what lay ahead as she drove her children into the heart of Saigon on April 29, 1975? First, the family headed for the airport and discovered a tableau of absolute chaos—panicked citizens running about, wailing, chasing down cars, pleading for a flight. Then they made for the waterfront. “When we got there, the scene was even more scary,” Carina says. “People were jumping on the boats and falling into the water. There were people who were crushed by boats; people were screaming and crying; children were running around, they had lost their parents. It was like watching a movie. Smoke was everywhere. We could hear gunshots…so my mom turned around and drove towards the American embassy.”

“Before disappearing from our sight, the last of the soldiers shot tear-gas bombs at us, and then slammed the doors closed.”

En route, they happened upon a man selling fake identity documents. Carina’s mother shelled out some gold for the papers, pulled the children out of the car, and pushed toward the embassy on foot. Carina and her older sister carried their sisters on their backs and guided their little brothers by hand. When they reached the embassy, they saw a violent crowd trying to scale the gates. Carina’s mother waved her papers frantically at the guards. “Two military soldiers came out and parted the crowd to try to let us through. But even so, people grabbed us and pulled us back and were kicking us. My mom managed to get us through, to get inside the embassy.”

Once inside, the Hoangs waited for 22 hours in line for the roof, where helicopters were airlifting out Americans and South Vietnamese sympathizers. At some point, it became clear that the U.S. government only intended to rescue the remaining Yanks. To prevent a stampede, U.S. soldiers shot tear gas into the crowd as they withdrew.

“I don’t remember which was worse,” Carina says, “trying to get in or trying to get out.”

“My mom, she totally lost it. She didn’t know what to do. We clung to her and pushed each other out of the gate. We saw people stepping on each other on the ground, we saw money, we saw jewelry on the ground. Nobody cared. People were just running, trying to save their lives. And finally, we got out of the compound. There were so many cars abandoned on the road and my mom still had her car keys in her pocket. So she took her set of keys and went to every single car, trying to start the engine, but none of them worked. Then we walked to my mom’s friend’s house, and a few hours later, the president of the country announced the surrender.”

Another refugee, Thu Minh Nguyen, was also in the U.S. embassy with her six children that evening, hoping to hop aboard an outbound helicopter. Like Carina, she remembers a ghastly scene once the American soldiers withdrew. “Night closed in, heavy gunfire could be heard around us, and it became clear that we were trapped as the soldiers formed a line and pointed their rifles at us while they retreated slowly into the building,” she writes in the book. “Before disappearing from our sight, the last of them shot tear-gas bombs at us, and then slammed the doors closed. We couldn’t see and could hardly breathe. People were running in all directions, screaming and stumbling over those who’d fallen.”

In the weeks and months following the war’s end, life changed irrevocably for the Hoangs and other families with ties to the former South Vietnamese government. The new Communist regime confiscated the Hoangs’ house, froze their bank account and shut down the family business, forcing them to beg relatives and friends for a place to stay. “It was hard, because nobody could take 10 people and keep them,” Carina says. “So we really suffered—and on top of that, we didn’t know what had happened to our father. We didn’t know if he was dead of alive.” Carina’s mother started to peddle goods on the black market, risking imprisonment every day to raise enough money for food. As punishment for the family’s political sympathies, the older kids were barred from attending high school. Meanwhile, Carina’s mother got word that her husband was in prison. She and the children managed to visit him once, for 20 minutes, before he was shipped off to a jail camp up north, where he would remain for the next 14 years.

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By 1978, Vietnam was sending troops to fight in neighboring Cambodia. Carina’s mother feared that, with her husband’s background, her children would be at the top of the draft list. Meanwhile, as one refugee recalls, in Saigon—rechristened Ho Chi Minh City—“things were really, really bad. Escape was on everyone’s mind and a popular saying at the time was that if a power pole could escape, it would do so.” Desperate residents were paying massive sums of money to be smuggled out to sea. Often, they left in the middle of the night without a chance to say goodbye to loved ones who stayed behind. “I just went missing without a trace,” one man writes, “I just disappeared cruelly from their lives.”

“Living in Vietnam became unbearable,” remembers another refugee. “We’d forgotten what it was like to have freedom, hope and happiness. Our determination to leave the country strengthened. I was nine months pregnant with my second child when we escaped again…we were given only 24 hours to pack our belongings.”

Carina’s mother was loath to part with her children, but she feared the Cambodian killing fields even more. In 1978, two of Carina’s siblings managed to flee. Finally, in the spring of 1979, Carina saw her own opportunity. The government had issued a decree to exile all of Vietnam’s ethnic Chinese citizens. Carina’s mother purchased fake birth certificates and Chinese names for Carina, her 13-year-old brother, and her 12-year-old sister. The children secured passage on a wooden boat, some 80 feet long, along with 370 other people. When the day of departure came, Carina and her siblings pretended not to know their mother as they marched toward the port alongside the crowds of ethnic Chinese. “People knew my mom was Vietnamese [so] we could have been stopped,” she says. “When I passed her, I had to look away. I couldn’t say goodbye.”

As the boat sailed out into deeper waters, “I was very confused and I was very sad and I just wished that I could return to be back with my mom,” Carina says. Within a few hours, though, as a massive storm bore down on the dinghy, the refugees’ thoughts turned to sheer survival. “It was the kind of storm that, with each wave crashing down, we all thought the whole boat would go down to the bottom of the sea. People threw up on each other, people were screaming and crying…it was horrible. The storm carried on for hours throughout the night. And then I started to hear people pray and all of a sudden, everybody on the boat prayed to their own gods …  all of us chanting all of a sudden—it just came on at once. It was a sound that I would never, ever forget.”

The boat made it through the deluge and headed straight for Malaysia, only to be turned back by soldiers who confiscated the passengers’ valuables and then forced the vessel back out to sea. On the sixth day adrift on the waves, four refugees died and their bodies were tossed overboard. “At last, on the eighth day, we reached a small fishing village on Indonesia’s Keramut Island, where our boat’s owners decided to sink the vessel so we could not be sent back to the ocean,” Carina says. From there, the local authorities transported the group to Kuku, an uninhabited island, and left them there. The new arrivals survived on coconuts, jungle fruit and seafood while waiting for the U.N. to come to their aid. Many succumbed to malaria and diarrhea. “During the first few months, at least one person was buried in the jungle on most days. I used to sit with skeleton-like children and old people in a small hut, feeling helpless as I watched them die,” Carina writes in the book. “What would I say to Mum if this happened to [siblings] Mimi or Saigon? And if they both died here, how could I live? … If we must die, then let us all die.”

After 10 months on Kuku, Carina and her brother and sister were awarded refugee status by the U.N. and set off to join their two siblings who had been resettled in America. But not all refugees were so lucky. Many boats ran into trouble with the Thai pirates who prowled the South China Sea at that time. The brigands launched terrible raids—they would strip the men naked at gunpoint and yank out their gold teeth, and rape the women for hours on end. As they retreated, the pirates would empty water drums and sever the boat’s anchor. Often, each new day brought another attack and the ordeal would begin again. “No-one, of whatever age, should ever have to witness what we saw,” one refugee writes. “We felt defeated, humiliated and completely helpless. And we were riddled with guilt for being so ill-prepared, for not fighting back hard enough, for not being able to protect our women.”

“In the process of researching for the book, the [stories] that troubled me most were the women who were raped,” Carina says. “But the ones that I think were even more difficult to cope with were when loved ones were abducted by pirates and the family didn’t know what happened to [them]. Sometimes they wished they knew the loved one had died, at least they could mourn or grieve the loss. But they don’t. They never know. And that’s one of the worst tragic consequences of this exodus.”

Other families lost children overboard in the middle of the night, or languished for years in refugee camps waiting for resettlement. In February of 1979, the Skyluck, a Panamanian freighter, arrived in Hong Kong’s harbor bearing some 2,600 boat people. The refugees spent 155 days aboard the ship in squalid conditions, begging to land, as the Hong Kong authorities scrambled to negotiate a solution. Eventually, it was discovered that the Vietnamese government had extorted the refugees for money and then trafficked its own people, profiting off of their desperation. After five grueling months, the passengers cut the ship’s anchor and crashed the freighter into Lamma Island, forcing a massive rescue operation. Other ships drifted into the harbor with no living souls on board. A German vessel, the Cap Anamur, and a French freighter, Le Goelo, plowed the South China Sea during those years, scooping up thousands of boat people as they drifted from inhospitable country to country.

“At the time one could not but reflect on how so many of these poor people, in their flimsy overloaded boats, would have been perishing in unimaginably horrific circumstances,” writes a former British employee of the Hong Kong government. “I recalled that, during a stint dealing with war crimes in Venice as a 20-year-old way back in 1947, I knew that I was living history, and in my new role I had the same perception.

“I remembered also something said by General Dwight D. Eisenhower … when he saw the Nazi concentration camps at the end of the war: ‘Take as many photographs as possible, because some time in the future some SOB will say “It never happened.”’ So I took lots of photographs, encouraged others to do the same… I could foresee that this tragedy would be either played down years afterwards or declared, by the successors of the perpetrators, as having ‘never happened.’”

For Carina, the need to document the boat people’s history before it faded away became a driving force for her book. “I realized that it’s not just my daughter and nieces and nephews, but the younger generation of Vietnamese who live overseas don’t know much about the exodus. And then, at large, the public doesn’t know much about the exodus,” she says.

More than a decade after she left her mother behind in Saigon, Carina returned to Vietnam to help bring her parents to America. After 14 years, her father had finally been released from prison. “I was so excited and nervous at the thought that I’d get to see him again,” Carina recalls. “But when I saw my dad, I was really shocked, because he had aged so much—and the father that I knew when I was 12 years old, he was my hero. He was a beautiful man, he was in the prime of his life. He was only 37. All of that power, all of that charm. Everything about my dad, he was my hero. And for me to see a man who had grown very, very physically old and physically frail and very bitter, and very humble and quiet, that hurt. It hurt where I just can’t describe.”

Now, as a parent herself, Carina marvels at the sacrifices her own mother and father made. “I used to know it was very courageous of my mom to let go of her children,” she says, “but I never fully understood what it meant until I became a mother.”

“When I look at my daughter now, she’s 14, and sometimes I wonder, if something ever happened, if I would have the ability to send her away like my mom did. And I still wonder if I could.”