This photo was taken of the six of us siblings in June, 1973. My baby brother would join us soon enough. Pictured on the top left, I was 8 years old, the same age as my second daughter is today.
We were standing in the courtyard of our house. I have lots of fond memories here. This was where I lit my first firecrackers and experimented with combining little explosions to make bigger ones. It was here I played with our dogs and witnessed the birth of puppies for the first time and wondered how in the world each puppy looked so different. I recognized that some of them looked like the dog next door. My uncle resolved my curiosity, which became the extent of my sex education at that age. The courtyard was gated, but it wasn’t too hard to climb out and I often did. In our garden, we had plants and flowers of all kinds. My dad was very fond of keeping plants around the house. I wasn’t too fond of watering them all the time, however.
The car in the background took on the burden of shuffling the family around. It wasn’t a van, but it did its job. I was too young to be curious about the make of the car, but I’m debating now whether it was a Volkswagen Type 181 or a modified Jeep. Let me know if anyone figures it out. This was the car that delivered our family to Mr. Chinh’s boat on the Saigon River, which was to be our new home for the next 10 days.
Mr. Chinh had prepared his boat with three days of supplies for a small staff. After about a hundred people swam and climbed on board during the chaotic abandoning of Saigon, this ration would certainly not last. The boat lumbered under the tremendous load as we made our getaway. I’m sure the North Vietnamese troops had much better things to do to secure the city and gather up the POWs than to pay attention to a fishing boat full of panicked civilians as we cruised away from the frantic energy of the besieged and newly subjugated center of power of South Vietnam.
After we cleared the city and joined the Nha Be River, which bled out to the Pacific Ocean, my father consulted with Mr. Chinh and decided that if they couldn’t get people off the boat, we would all perish in the open sea. Many people were convinced to jump off and swim ashore, but 32 people remained aboard. Even so, it was still a fairly substantial overload. Farther down the river we picked up two more soldiers from a sinking boat. It turned out that everyone left on board were soldiers of various ranks from the South Vietnamese military with the exception of Mr. Chinh, his family and ours.
Throughout the day, as we headed out to sea, Mr. Chinh and my dad were constantly listening and communicating on the radio. They were able to obtain information about the location of the US 7th Fleet located not far from the delta. We rushed there as fast as we could and arrived at dusk. There were already some empty boats abandoned near the fleet. For whatever reason, we weren’t allowed to board. Perhaps it was for security reasons. My dad told us the Americans had to prepare and pick us up in the morning. We went to bed comforted by the thought of protection and rescue from the Americans.
I woke up the next morning to some yelling and cursing. The American fleet was gone. Our rescuer had left us in the night. I learned later that my parents’ hopes had turned to despair. They had their family to protect and the hope they had held so closely of doing so had simply vanished. What choice did they now have? The men devised an alternate plan. They would sail around the Southern tip of Vietnam toward the Gulf of Thailand. Their plan was to stay out of the military lanes and away from the shore as much as possible and eventually reach Thailand for asylum.
As a 10-year-old kid, my worries were not on how we were going to get to Thailand. After a day without food, my stomach was growling. We were all hungry, but I was also getting sea sick as I followed the commotion. The men boarded the empty boats and started taking supplies, which rocked the boat even more. They commandeered another large boat so we could spread out. We moved to the second boat and carved out an area in the back next to the pilot house. It was a convenient location to vomit right over the side as my sea sickness grew worse having never been on a boat before. How funny I was worried about flying just the day before.
We headed off as quickly as we could, but the constant slapping and skimming of the ocean waves just made the sea sickness worse for everyone. The second day went by without incident except for the nonstop nausea and sprays of salt water. In the evening, we were given a ration of instant rice. As hungry as I was, I couldn’t force myself to eat much. All I could do was throw up green bile. I was curious at the time, why it was yellow-green? All I had eaten was white rice.
My mom described the third day on the boat to me. She recalled waking up with a heavy weight on her. As she slowly opened her eyes, she finally realized it was my baby brother. His little hand was on her breast while he sucked a finger on the other hand. She knew he was very hungry and wanted milk badly. My three-year-old sister must have had the same thoughts as she pillowed her head on my mom’s bosom, her thumb in her mouth. We were all sick, lethargic and starving. My mom wanted to assure us that everything would be fine, but she couldn’t bring herself to speak. Instead, she looked at us and smiled. My older brother and I were watching her helplessly. When we saw her smile, my brother somehow understood it was a smile out of sadness, and told her in a soft voice we would be okay and asked her not to cry.