by Samantha Quach
The Vietnamese Boat People were a series of refugees that fled Communist Vietnam in a mass exodus occurring in 1954, and again from 1975-1992. In 1954, the Northern Vietnamese fled to Southern Vietnam to escape the corrupt and violent Viet Minh regime. Under the Viet Minh, anyone deemed an enemy was prosecuted under the full extent of the law: this included Catholics, intellectuals, landowners, and generally anyone that disobeyed the regime. Many villagers feared for their lives and wellbeing as the Communist government, similar to China under Mao’s Cultural Revolution, turned everyone against each other in their bid to maintain power and control. The instability in Northern Vietnam led many Northerners to risk fleeing to Southern Vietnam, by boat, which was still under control by the Republic of Vietnam. Despite being in a better place to live compared to the north, the Southern Vietnamese government was still largely oppressive and inefficient. This was the first mass exodus.
From 1954 to 1975, the Republic of South Vietnam was embroiled in fierce combat against the Viet Cong in Ho Chi Minh’s attempt to reunify the country. In this Second Indochina War, better known to Americans as the Vietnam War, the nationalists were unable to ward off the Viet Cong, who eventually took control of Saigon in April 1975. The Fall of Saigon resulted in panic and chaos among the citizens. Previous Northerners knowledgeable of the terror that was the Communist government, along with Vietnamese government officials working with the US, were the first to leave: this time to entirely new and foreign countries. Some were able to fly out of Vietnam with aid from American volunteers, but the rest of the majority was more unfortunate. Most people did not have the means to flee nor give up their life and family uprooted in Vietnam, and thus they were left to brave the Communist government.
Over the next 20 years, with growing oppressiveness and violence, the Communist government began conflict with Cambodia, leaving (the remaining) Vietnamese citizens fearful for their lives. From 1972 to 1992, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese took extremely dangerous journeys by boat in efforts to escape the regime. These “Boat People” traveled to nearby countries like Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Guam, etc., with the hope of sponsorship to democratic countries. The journey by boat was extremely dangerous: there was a constant risk of getting caught, being robbed blind by pirates, facing starvation, and much more. Thousands of Vietnamese died at sea, and those that did survive faced bleak futures at refugee internment camps, not knowing if and when they would be given sponsorship. Once at a new foreign country (often times the US, Canada, France, Australia), the Boat People were forced to assimilate and immerse themselves into an entirely new environment.
In spite of the endless struggles and hardships faced by the Vietnamese Boat People, studies proved that once relocated in a new country, these refugees (and their children) yielded unprecedented academic growth and success. According to the book Children of the Boat People: A Study of Educational Success, refugee students held an average GPA of 3.05 on a 4.0 scale, and scores equivalent to the mid and upper quartiles for state-wide standardized CAT tests. Given their less than ideal circumstances of living in low-income and impoverished neighborhoods, lacking one to three years of schooling due to extended stays in refugee camps, having zero understanding of the English language upon arrival, and attending sub par public schools, many refugee students overcame the odds to succeed in academia and life. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees scattered across the US, Canada, Australia, Europe, etc.
A prime example of refugee achievement in America is my father. This is his story:
“I was born and raised in the town Sa Đéc, of Southern Vietnam. My hometown was small, about a day’s bus ride from Saigon, which was the then-capital of South Vietnam. I lived with my 11 siblings, parents, and grandmother. Being an ethnic Chinese minority (Han), I didn’t really wander around too much, but my recollection is that my house was half a block away from the river, and across from the market where my parents occupied a storefront to sell household goods. In my early childhood, I attended a private Chinese school, walking there and back daily. Again, being a minority, I was somewhat segregated and didn’t hang out with the local Vietnamese children. My favorite childhood memory is on my dad’s farm, about an hour bike ride away from home, where we would fish, paddle in canoes, catch fireflies, plant wheat, and other things that locals did. I remember during good harvest seasons, I would lie on my hammock and look across at the wind blowing against the wheat grains, like a beautiful green carpet moving side to side.
After the fall of South Vietnam in ‘75, there were a few folks from my hometown who were leaving overseas, which made me wonder what life was like beyond Vietnam. At the time, I had two older brothers that safely arrived in America two years prior, after spending some time at a Malaysian refugee camp. One night, my mom called me in to notify me that my aunt had prepared for my cousins to leave the country, but she changed her mind and wanted to keep her youngest son back. So I was a last minute replacement, the accidental kid that was allowed to go in place of my cousin. My third eldest brother, at the age of 15, and I, at the age of 13, were about to embark on the most dangerous journey of our lives.
On the day of our departure, in January of 1980, we boarded a bus to Rạch Giá, which was a coastal town I never visited before. We had lunch, then we went to a small boat and hid until midnight, where we were transferred to a bigger boat. The boat we were about to board on for a 4-day journey by sea was a fishing boat, not all that large but able to squeeze 36 passengers. We set sail for Thailand. A few hundred yards from shore while still in Vietnam waters, we were chased by the Vietnamese Navy, but fortunately made it to international waters and they gave up. Come to find out, the captain never embarked on such a long, treacherous journey before, and had nothing but a compass to guide him. We were short on food and water, and at some point we also ran out of gas, leaving us to float endlessly at sea. Along the way, we ran into Thai fishermen also doubling as pirates. I was half seasick on the back of the boat, and the first thing I opened my eyes to was a hatchet, buried deep into the side of the wooden boat. The pirates began to board, throwing more hatchets down as a warning that if you resist, you die. They demanded money. At the time I had next to nothing: my brother and I each had a bracelet, and I had twenty US dollars sewn into my shirt. My older brother overheard somewhere that if you hide anything from the pirates, or if they believe you are hiding something, they will outright kill you. So, he threw all of our belongings overboard. Luckily, as seasick as I was, the pirates never bothered to search me and I successfully kept the only money we had. After the first round, the pirates took what they wanted and left. We floated again at sea the next day, when we saw a huge boat filled with Chinese-Thai fishermen and pirates. My boatmates were able to communicate with them in their local Chinese dialect. Again, they robbed us of our gold and jewelry, but this time also provided us with rice and water. After leaving the Chinese, late that night, we were robbed for the third time. In this encounter, local fishermen anchored our boats together and began rocking us back and forth at a quick pace. Still seasick on the back of the boat, all I could see were white bubbles streaming out. I thought to myself, this is it, I’m going to die. The pirates managed to kidnap my female cousin, but eventually her brother was able to retrieve her through giving up whatever gold we had left. We floated around some more, and the next day we finally docked on the shore of Southern Thailand.
After landing on the beach, in our half-dead state, we managed to make our way to the highway. There, we were chased by locals who demanded even more money. Eventually the Thai police picked us up, and fed us, then sent us off to the refugee camp in Songkhla. On the first day of camp, each family was given a tent. Since my older brother and I were minors, we stayed in my cousin’s tent with his family. However, following disagreements, we decided to part ways with our cousins. Since losing our allocated living quarters, we were forced to relocate to an empty space at the end of the camp, where people did their business in dug up holes. The area reeked of feces and held an overwhelming amount of flies. It was unsanitary and uninhabitable.
Life in the camp was tough. With barbed wire and guards that carried AK-47s on watch towers strategically located around the compound, it definitely resembled an internment camp. The locals hated us too, and occasionally threw rocks over the fence at us. At the front of the camp was the ocean. With nothing better to do, we spent all day swimming in the sun. One day, while out swimming with my older distant cousin, we came across a sandbar. After getting knocked off the sandbar, I panicked and kept trying to swim back. Unfortunately, for all the gains I made, it was negated by powerful waves. I began to slowly drown. My cousin kept pushing me toward the sand bar and he was quickly running out of steam; I looked into his eyes and saw exhaustion and defeat. I feared he would eventually give up on me. For the second time in four months, I believed I was going to die. Fortunately, there was someone coming out to the shore, and he helped guide me back to shallow waters.
On the bright side of living in the refugee camp, the UN gave us an abundance of rice, and a portion of fish once a week. We also used the $20 in my pocket (equal to 400 Thai baht) to buy premium soy sauce for our meals. For the next three months, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, consisted of soy sauce and rice. We relied on my older brothers, who’d just settled in the US as dishwashers, to send us what little money they were making. After a few months of camp, we received an interview with the US delegation, which was our primary destination for relocation. The interviews were challenging and humiliating, and so upsetting that my brother decided to apply for relocation to Canada instead. As soon as my eldest brother received wind of our situation, he telegrammed us and told us not to go to Canada, for he wanted the four of us to reunite in San Francisco. Luckily enough, after the second round of interviews with the US delegates, they took us in. At this point, we already spent five long months in camp.
In May of 1980, my brother and I boarded a bus to Bangkok, Thailand. In Bangkok, we stayed for over two weeks at a large building filled with refugees like us, and very harsh, unkind guards. Finally, we received sponsorship to America and flew into the Oakland airport in California. My eldest brother picked us up and took us to San Francisco, where we lived for the next few years in a tiny 1-bedroom studio apartment in the Tenderloin on Eddy Street. All three of my older brothers worked full-time making minimum wage as dishwashers, so as a 13-year-old, I was left to fend for myself. I ended up at Francisco Middle School. The environment was challenging to say the least: kids at the school were segregated along racial lines, and many were violent. On the first day of school, I was roughed up, thus imposing a negative environment of survival of the fittest. I gravitated towards other Vietnamese kids in the same predicament, and we banded together to keep one another safe. Whether you would call it a gang or not, it was pretty close to it. We got into a lot of fights and were often given detention.
My parents and my younger siblings finally arrived two years later, as I was about to graduate 8th grade. I remember just after their first week here, I got into another fight and it was the last straw. The principal called me in with my mother on the phone, informing us that I would be suspended for a few days. During the meeting, my mother was sobbing, and I felt very embarrassed. It was then that I decided to get my act together, making sure not to get into any more trouble in high school.
After graduation, all 14 members of my family moved to a small house in the Inner Richmond. For high school, I attended George Washington High School. At Wash, there was a big divide between newly immigrated students, labeled “fresh off the boat”, and second, third generation Asian Americans that were raised here. I felt that I didn’t belong there, and after two years, I decided to transfer to Lowell High School, the most prestigious public high school in San Francisco. It took a lot of hard work and determination get in and become successful there: every night, I would lock myself in the cold basement to study, avoiding the noisiness of living in a house with 13 other people. I pretty much did everything on my own. Luckily, the new environment at Lowell motivated me to work harder. In 1987, I graduated from Lowell with a 3.4 GPA, an active participant in numerous sports, and while working part-time as a busboy.
After graduation, I applied to several universities and was accepted to 5 UCs and SFSU, receiving full financial aid for all. I settled for UC Santa Cruz, but on the day I was supposed to submit my housing deposit, I had a discussion with my family and decided it was best for our financial situation that I stay home. While at San Francisco State, I attended school full-time and averaged 25-30 hours a week as a legal assistant (supporting the low-income Southeast Asian community) to help out my family. After graduating in four years, I received a job with the State Department of Transportation, while attending MBA school at night. Through working with Caltrans, I developed a keen interest in IT and management. Currently, I am the IT Director.
As first generation immigrants, we are scrappy. We wanted to succeed and felt that nothing could ever stop us from becoming successful, because we’ve seen hardship, we know what a hard life looks like, what it means to live a life in poverty, to survive with nothing but the clothes on our backs. We know what hunger feels like, what internment feels like, what discrimination feels like, and what hopelessness feels like. As a child, embarking on that perilous journey by boat, I hardly believed I would have survived past the age of 14. As a teen, living in the Tenderloin, I didn’t believe I’d make it past high school. But I did. I made it. And now, I hope that I gave my kids everything they need to succeed in life.”
Vo, Nghia M. The Vietnamese Boat People, 1954 and 1975-1992. McFarland & Co., 2006.
Caplan, Nathan S., et al. Children of the Boat People: a Study of Educational Success. University of Michigan Press, 1991.
“Vietnam War.” HistoryNet, www.historynet.com/vietnam-war.
“Resources.” PROJECT YELLOW DRESS, www.projectyellowdress.com/resources.
Come to our Public History Night to learn more oral history and share your own family immigrant story! Afterall, we are a nation of immigrants.