A Vietnamese Family’s Escape: “Eat ‘til you’re full”

From the perspective of my mom, Huỳnh Lan Phương

My mom served every meal saying, “ăn cho no.” Eat ‘til you’re full. Our family always had eaten until we were full until 1975.

I was 16 when the Việt Cộng declared victory and an end to the Vietnam War. But for my family, and countless others, the end seemed far from sight. My father died a few years ago, so it was up to my widowed mother to steer me and her three other children through the war’s aftermath. This time was not kind to most. Under the thumb of the Việt Cộng, our family business was shut down. Food was scarce. “Ăn cho no” (eat ‘til you’re full) became foreign words to us and I could see the heartbreak in my mom’s eyes. Banks refused any withdrawals and any attempt would be taxed at 100%. With what little we had, we fled south to my family’s hometown, Bến Tre, in 1977.

Life under the Việt Cộng was getting harder. In 1979, I met Khánh at school and we started dating. Four months into our relationship, Khánh was adamant that we flee to a safer country. Hundreds of thousands of southern Vietnamese were detained and tortured in re-education camps. Many more were forcibly relocated to wastelands. One day, the Việt Cộng barged into our home, took our valuables, and left us shaking in fear. We knew we’d never feel safe in Vietnam. We arranged twice for local fishermen to smuggle us out of the country in the dead of night. We were cheated twice. We lost 4 gold bars, an equivalent to 3 years of savings. Escaping required more. We sold everything we had left and ate just enough to live

Undeterred, Khánh set off to build his own boat, picking up work as an understudy at a fishing company. Within 6months 

he crafted a boat large enough for 30. Not just for our large families, but an ex-navy sailor as our captain and 16 strangers who paid us to join. From the youngest at 6, to the oldest at 41, we 30 were bound together in our escape. To get caught was to die.

At 5 am on November 11, we all made it to the boat undetected. But more dangerous journeys lay ahead. We set sail silently into the bay. It did not take long for the Việt Cộng guardsmen to spot our escape. Alarms sounded as they dispatched their ships. Gunfire followed soon after. Between the rapid blasts of gunfire and the monsoon season’s tumultuous waves, it seemed death awaited us whichever direction we steered. I wanted to go forward. Death by the sea was preferable to death at the hands of the Việt Cộng. When the monsoon waves got bigger, they retreated.

By our second day at sea, we were rationing banana peels to fight the hunger pangs. We grew weak, but there were graver dangers out at sea. Thai pirates often captured refugee boats in the night, taking what they could – be it our belongings or even our bodies. My mom shaved my and my sisters’ heads in hopes that we’d be mistaken for men. I couldn’t stop thinking about how I might die. By hunger, sexual assault, or the gun.

By the third day, we caught a glimpse of a large commercial shipping boat. We shot our flares. No response. Another day passed by. We were out of emergency guns, food, and gasoline. We counted 51 commercial and cruise ships pass us by. No rescue in sight. We floated aimlessly throughout the fourth day. We laid atop the boat in silence – too weak to move, too hopeless to talk.

On the fifth morning, I was startled by a large flare. A Holland cruise ship moved closer. I was in disbelief. People from their balconies waved and shouted “We’re coming!” I couldn’t comprehend until they threw life vests at us. The Ampsteldiep crew pulled us up using emergency boats and rope ladders. They fed us and offered more food than I’d seen in years. I was overwhelmed by the Dutch’s kindness.

After a few hours, the ship dropped us off at a US-operated refugee camp in Singapore, where we stayed for 3 ½ months. In mid-February of 1980, the organization gave us our first plane tickets to the US. As we settled into our new home and made our first meal, we finally heard “ăn cho no” again.

1979, Photo taken by Ampsteldiep crew members before taking our family onto their ship


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