I don’t remember clearly the circumstances that finally triggered the decision for my parents to take action to leave the country, but there was a discussion between them about splitting the family up on the day we left.
Several days preceding, we had heard sporadic explosions and the radio was constantly on. News of civilians being killed by missiles frightened us. My mother said she was cold, but April weather was hot and humid. I now understand she was cold from fear. We knew that war was close as we slept under our beds for those few nights.
My father worked as a Councilman for Saigon. He had a close friend who gave him four tickets to fly out of the country. It was a blessing. However, with nine people in the family, my parents had to make a difficult choice. It was decided my father would take my older brother, me and my sister first, and then somehow come back for the rest of the family and reunite us. If my father stayed behind, he would certainly be imprisoned in the POW camps to be “re-educated” and perhaps killed.
As we drove to the airport without half of our family, I still did not feel the full implication of never seeing them again. It was not an emotional goodbye. On the way, I was drawn to the scenes of chaos that unfolded as we passed meandering soldiers laying down their arms and discarding their uniforms. Was this what war looked like? Are we in the middle of a battle? Cars were recklessly abandoned and mobs of people were moving in a panic. Did they have a destination? Where could they go to escape? Where were we flying to? I had never flown before. What was that like? There were so many unanswered questions by the time we got to the airport. My father went in and came out only to inform us that we had missed the plane and had to go back for the rest of the family.
My father called his friend, a former Ambassador to Thailand, and asked for help. Not too long before, my father had helped his friend purchase a boat and this was a solution for our escape. Our whole family was invited as long as we could make it to the Saigon River on time. The Ambassador would not wait. In this urgent rush, my mother tried to gather as much as possible from the house. She handed things to us, but we had no idea why. She took dry milk and milk bottles for my one-year-old brother (who is getting married at the end of this year), and stripped photos off the walls. We rushed out of our home with a few bags of items never to turn back.
Again the drive was just as chaotic. People were meandering around in a panic. We tried to buy loaves of bread for more money than I had ever imagined. I now realize that money at that time was inconsequential. Survival was paramount. We took a risk driving in a car, but that was the only way to have the entire family together. Unlike the first drive, this trip was a blur. I was more comforted by having everyone together whatever happens, and did not focus as much on the surroundings. I looked at my mother and the look of disbelief on her face as she stared at the brave soldiers and the great military that had collapsed. She had always been so proud of them and cheered at their every victory over the Viet Cong.
Fortunately when we got to the Saigon river the Ambassador’a boat was still there, but we had to leave quickly. As we cast off, hundreds of people jumped in after us in desperation as the city of Saigon was being quickly overrun by the North Vietnamese troops. I remember poking my head over the side of the boat to watch the armored vehicles moving in. Was it my imagination that we were being shot at? That would be the least of our worries as we left our comfortable lifestyle behind and embarked on what would become an extremely difficult period in our lives and eventually define our crucible.