In early 1975, there was still very little bombing in Saigon. Although my father was a well known politician, I was protected from the realities of the war, as my parents always kept us wrapped in cotton wool – I was 18 years old, and preparing to go to France to go to university. Then one day, we were told we were going to stay at the coast with my grandparents while our parents stayed in town. My father said to me, ‘Every day, when you swim at the beach, just use the binoculars and see if the American war ships are still there, and then tell your uncle.’ So I did that, but I didn’t know why.
Then, one night, when we were preparing to go to sleep, my uncle called us and took us to the docks, and we took turns to go from a little boat to a big fishing boat, which he had rented. We were all really seasick, and I was very scared because my parents weren’t there. For the next 2 days, the captain was trying to follow a trail of plastic cups in the water, because he thought it would lead us to the American ships, but we didn’t find them, so we decided to go back. When we got back to the beach, I saw Communist soldiers, which scared me because I didn’t know what had happened to my parents. But soon after, they made contact with my uncle.
The next time, my father and uncle bought a boat using my family’s gold and jewellery. The only map we had was a high school map, so my father said, ‘Let’s just follow the coast. In case something happens – we can go and get help.’ But after 2 or 3 days, water got in the motor, so we had to dock at night time. Just after we docked, the Communists arrived with a truckload of soldiers. They separated the men and women, searched everyone, and took all our money and jewellery. Then they found a photo of my father studying in the US, so they said he was a spy and took him away to a hard labour camp. We were imprisoned on the boat for 8 weeks – someone with a gun was always watching over us. After that, we lied and said we were going back home, so they allowed us to leave. Before we left, I went to visit my father in the camp, but I wasn’t allowed to hug him. I just said goodbye, and left.
After 3 more days of being seasick, we saw a boatload of Thai fishermen. The men on our boat said, ‘Girls, go down into the bottom of the boat and rub your faces with dirt and hide.’ But luckily those fishermen didn’t hurt us – they actually took us to the Malaysian refugee camp. When we arrived, the officials didn’t believe we were real refugees because we had left Vietnam so late. As a result, we had to stay on our boat for 2 months while they checked our story. Luckily, after a while, there were a few people who knew my father’s name, so they let us go down on the land, but because it was so crowded and there was no proper toilet, we stayed on the boat anyway.
My father had said, ‘At all costs, try to go to Australia,’ and luckily, the Australian embassy came up and interviewed us. As a result, we were the first Vietnamese group to arrive in Brisbane.
I was 19 when we arrived, and I managed well. For me, it was easy because I spoke French. I carried a dictionary around with me and if I couldn’t understand something, I would just ask the person to show me what it meant. I found people were friendly. But we didn’t have anyone to talk to about our stress, and for the first two years, I didn’t want to go out at night time, because I felt anxious. And I never wanted to be near the water. It was most hard for my mum because she was on her own with six kids. But all my brothers and sisters finished university, except for me, because I married early.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t speak to our father because he was in the camp, but my aunt could visit him and I managed to write him a few letters. In the letters, I didn’t say much, just something funny, because they read the letters. I always thought, ‘In a few weeks, he will be here, and I will see him.’ But when I was pregnant with my daughter, they shot him. Later on, I heard that he had been tortured every single day.
I’ve been back to Vietnam twice, but I feel like a stranger there. I even feel homesick for Australia when I’m away, for the Australian accent, and for the friendliness and cheerfulness of Brisbane. I’ve been married for 40 years now, have 2 kids, and worked as a sales assistant at Myer for 24 years. A few months ago, I retired.
Other people say they want to go back to the motherland, but for me Brisbane is my place.
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