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A Vietnamese Story by Kore Kamino

This is the real story of Hung, an eleven-years-old kid who escaped from the Vietnamese Communist regime on a boat. He reached Indonesia and spent some time in a refugee camp. From there he was finally taken to a New Land. After living in France most of his life, he decided to visit Saigon and once there, he stayed. In 2009 he got married with a beautiful Vietnamese lady. When he told us his story he did it in such a lively and casual way that we decided to try to write it as close as possible to the way he told it. Please bare in mind that this story might have some grammatical mistakes which in a way is what makes it what it is: the story of an eleven-year-old Vietnamese boat kid...

The First 10 Years The closest memory that I can remember is when I was on the floor drawing with chalk. All the kids in the neighborhood were circling around watching me draw. I also remember very well Be Suon, the girl who lived next door. We were both so thin that our ribs showed. I also remember chasing her on the streets. She ran so fast that one time she ended up with her head inside a trash bin… we always used to play together and most of the time I was forced to play girly games with her girly toys. The first time I ever realised my mum’s age, she was already 50. At the time 50 sounded very very old. I loved her so much that I swore to myself I didn’t want to see her passing away. So I had to make sure I would die before her. I would maybe set up a car accident. I still remember holding her arm to go to sleep because I thought it was very fresh and it helped me fall asleep. The rare memory I have about my dad was when he carried me on his bike and I got my right foot in the wheel. I guess I might remember that because it was very painful.

The Fall Of Saigon I never knew what war really was. All I saw was news on television and it was as if it happened elsewhere than in Vietnam. But then it got more and more real. I could feel the stir in the daily life, the worries in the news got more and more pressurizing. Then there were the bombing and firing. The news would start talking about familiar places, areas close to Saigon. It was like it was happen2


ing all around Saigon, and it was actually happening. My mum had prepared for each of us a bag full of clothes and a bunch of garlic – this was supposed to stop the kidnappers and/or evil spirits. We had to wait for the right time. I remember the last two or three days before the fall were terrifying. The bombing and shooting got very loud and confusing. I thought It was a shame that I could only hear it but not see what happened outside. We were forbidden by my mum to get out the house! Lunch time on D-day, 30th of April, is a very clear picture in my mind. I was in the kitchen, the sun shined through the roof, it was beautiful. My mum and all my sisters were in the house cooking, when we heard from the radio the surrendering speech of the president. We felt an immense relief about not having to face the stress of the daily bombing anymore. Not to mention the stress of the “ready-to-flee status” we suffered for many months. I jumped of joy: “Mum!!! Peace finally!!!!”. But my mum coldly said: “Yes, but you’re gonna live with the Communists now!”. My mom had run away from the party 20 years ago, and now she was afraid of having to face them again. My house was a women house. I had 5 sisters, all older than me. One of them used to work at the airport. She was kind of the black sheep of the family, but I remember, she used to love me in a particular way. She was the one who use to look after me and also taught me some French. She used to work for IBM at the time, something to do with the airport. I never really under4

stood what. The airport was one of the ways out of the country. There you could jump on a plane and they’d take you straight to America! All the soldiers and all the persons who worked for the Americans were evacuated and taken to the airport. The official declaration of the president of the old regime took place at lunch time. The radio announced the surrendered to the communist forces. I remember many people were leaving. I was only 11 years old. I remember the helicopters landing and taking off from the airport’s roof. The lucky ones were been evacuated. 5

First all the American soldiers and after the Vietnamese civilians who worked with the Americans. But my sister who was at the airport cycled back home!!! I thought she was very stupid. She just worried for us, worried for my mum. So that meant she had a big love for the family, but I couldn’t understand why she went back home... because everybody at the time would have gone! She should have jumped in a helicopter and gone straight to America to live a much better life. But she stayed... So I guess that’s my particular funny story about the fall of Saigon.

My sister was the one who taught me French So I remember she was washing the dishes after lunch, and I wanted to go to play with my girlfriend next door, but every time I tried my sister made me do all the French conjugation, future, past tense, etc. before I could go and play. So that’s how I got into French. At the time I didn’t realised how important getting to know another language would be for my future. I also had some English class just in case we would get to a country where people spoke English.

The Dark Years. Between 1975-1979 were the dark years after the war. The years when I had to live under the new Communist government. The population suffered all the time in different aspects of their life, economically, politically, personally, with the new government... we didn’t see any future. Food was missing everywhere, we had to go to the cooperative, you had to queue everyday to get a little rice... I didn’t understand war. I only saw it through television and it felt it was happening very far, nothing to do with me. I didn’t see the fights, but I suffered the downs. I felt in my school there was no future you know. You had to spend half of your time learning political things about the Communist party, how good Uncle Ho was, every detail about the war... and war was on every single book, no matter what subject the book was about. Maybe math books were the only ones that couldn’t glorify the war. We spent too many days studying history, geography, and of course philosophy, and we wouldn’t learn anything. It was all propaganda. Our teachers were forced to teach us all of that. Sometimes they would say things that they didn’t even understand themselves (laughs). They had to learn all the subjects fast so they could teach it to us. All these was dictated by people from Hanoi, from the north. That was very weird you know. Those people were like from another country. We used to spend hours doing extra labour after school as well. We had to sow. We used to make slippers...we did



all kind of things to help the economy! Each week we had a certain amount of time to work for the government. It felt just like a normal class, a production class. We used to make plastic mold for slippers. You had to pass the plastic threads through the holes to make patterns to make nice slippers to export. I guess to East countries like Bulgaria, the alliance of Vietnam at the time, or Russia etc. I didn’t really mind the labour as an idea, but I minded it because it took too much of my time. But that wasn’t the only thing we had to do for the party. We were forced to do many other activities, they used to call it socialising. It was a higher degree of boy scouting I’d say. Pure propaganda to brainwash the young ones to the point we meant to denounce our own families to the party. Like it happened in Cambodia. Have you seen the film “Killing Fields”? Where the party taught all the kids to denounce their parents if they did something bad. At night, the party would come knocking at your door and would take your parents away. And of course it also happened in Vietnam, but thankfully I did not know of any case. What I knew was that the intellectual class, doctors, engineers, etc. used to speak too loud and at night people from the party used to come at their door and the next day they weren’t there anymore. The party controlled your life from all different aspect, socially, politically and economically. You had no freedom and as a kid I also felt the discomfort.

writing pages and pages about the party without understanding one word of it. You had to pass the exam with all that and you had to learn all by heart!! I could compare the level of education with the old regime and I could feel the communist were not giving me a future. The food the party used to give us was terrible. We used to eat very badly. We ate mixed things with little rice. Sometimes we didn’t have enough rice so we had to mix it with potatoes and cereals, the kind of cereal which was cheaper than rice. At the time we didn’t have oil for cooking so we had to use the fat from Russia or somewhere from the east, here we called it Mo Truu which is really sheep fat! The sheep fat used to come in a big can. It looked a bit like margarine but it was all white. We used to use it as an oil replacement. And of course it wasn’t very healthy. I remember I used to say that if one day I could leave Vietnam to go to a developed country I would eat rice with sesame everyday to save money and send it to my mum. But when I got out of Vietnam of course I never did!! (laughs). I also remember we used to have a funny saying that somebody always used to mention during meals: ”if the table could walk, it would leave Vietnam too”. Everybody wanted to leave Vietnam at the time.

I remember one of the worst things we had to do was

What was called “the boat people” was practically anyone and everyone you knew. There was a huge wave of people leaving Vietnam at that time, and not only from the South, but from the North too. People from



the North would take the route to go to Hong Kong or the Philippines. In the South we would take the route to go to Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia or if you had a bigger boat you could maybe get to Australia. People who were lucky enough to make it to another country would send a lot of things to their relatives in Vietnam. But people were scared to receiving things from abroad because of the party. So you had to hide them in whatever way you could. They used to send items which were impossible, or very difficult to find in Vietnam, like pens, soap, toothpaste, cloths.. almost everything was missing. But what people really needed most was money. People came up with many different strategies to send money like hiding it in the fold of jeans, inside a belt, inside toothpaste, inside soaps, in every believable way. They also used to send a separate letter mentioning where they had hidden the money in the other parcel. “the money is in the fold of the jeans� or something like that. You had to be careful of what you wrote because the party could read it. So every family had their particular writing code to communicate to each other where to find the hidden money.

The Departure. December 1979 We had a few tentatives, everybody had a few tentative and many people ended up in jail. Sometimes you got dragged back by the police when you were about to leave. Many people tried to cross the Mekong to go to 10

Cambodia or Thailand but many of those never made it. At the time there was 3 forms of leaving Vietnam. One was the totally illegal way to escape; nobody meant to know that you were thinking to leave the country. Then you had the official way to leave, where people from outside Vietnam had to go through the system and do all the official paper work for you. If the party did agree you would leave on a plane. And you also had a middle way form of escape; you had to pay the

government officials or the police to keep them quiet while running away. If you had enough money they would arrange for you to fly away. If you didn’t have enough money you could take a big boat and they would not shoot at you or take you back to jail. Because my family had not money we had to leave like most of the people in the totally illegal way. I remember very clearly, my mum chose the only two people she could afford to send away. And those two people were my biggest sister and me. And I still don’t know how they got the money. Another of my sisters who is very smart and hard working got married and she got a big part of the money through her husband. She gave us the money and she stayed behind with her family. I think there was a whole machinery where you had to know who to contact without betraying yourself, and I guess my mum and my sister had to work on that to get the right traffic. You know maybe sometimes you ran into some government guys, some spies and they would take you to jail. We had a few tentatives. The first one failed at the end, so we never left Saigon. Many people left the city to go to the seashore. They tried to find a boat to take them away. But many of them were taken back to the city or taken back to jail. I was lucky because I never found myself in that situation. The only time I tried to escape I made it. That’s what I call luck. We had to be very careful when we said goodbye to our friends. We would only say goodbye to the closest friends. It was common to say: “tomorrow I’ll be leav12

ing you know”. I did say goodbye to some friends and luckily I never had to say here I am again! Most of the people said: “Here I am again”… I remember we picked a day for us to leave. We picked New Years Eve day to leave because we knew that before Tet (Chinese new year) all the officials would be drinking (laughs). Also we knew the check points would be loser than usual. Our friends were amazed that we decided to leave from Saigon’s port rather than to go to a remote part of the seaside in the country (laughs). I don’t know how it happened! We had a very small boat, maybe 7 meters and there were 23 of us, two kids on board (I wasn’t counted as kid), a few women, few men, my sister and one guitar (laughs) We took off on the boat. It was a fishing boat. We were all hiding inside. After paddling in the middle of the night we reached the bigger boat. That was the boat that it would take us to a new land. The first night on the big boat was the most horrible one. That first night we hit a big storm with huge, huge waves, going up and down, sometimes - I can remember very clearly - I looked up and I saw the sea three or four meters up my head you know! And sometimes I saw the sea three or four metres down!! You felt like you were on the top of the mountain and then you felt like you were at the bottom of the valley. Oh Jesus, everybody was throwing up and I remember very very well that you had a layer of vomit and things mixing with the bread, the sheep fat, the instant noodle and some 13

fruits. At the bottom of the boat you had a layer of ten centimetres of mixed tings. I remember I was very very seasick but my sister, was even worst. I also remember she had her hair into that

mess and I had to keep her head up while vomiting myself (laughs). It was horrible horrible I think that was one of the first time in my life I said I was very close to death. We said we were gonna die, there was no way out the boat. So that’s why I kept on saying my mantra, that Buddhist mantra that is the only thing I remember that my mom taught me. I kept on saying it day and night because I really believed that by saying it I would save my life (laughs). Our plan was to sail all the way to Thailand. We had food for three days which is what it meant to take us to reach Thailand. We had heard quite bad stories about Malaysian pirates. But the Thai sea was ok. The problem was that after the first night we completely lost direction. Also the navigators were not experienced. They only knew how to navigate on rivers but never experienced the sea. We didn’t know that at first of course but then when they started losing hopes they finally announce the obvious that we were lost (laughs). We started running out of food and we had to reduce the food a lot. Sometimes we would see big boats. But as long as they still saw you living and floating they didn’t want to take any more trouble. They would just give us food and water... While in Vietnam people dreamt that once you had passed the limit of the waters of Vietnam, you would have the whole range of Australian boats, European boats... all waiting for you to take you to their country. But of course when we got there nobody was waiting for us!!



We started having problems with the engine. For some reason it would die every night. Then a heavy silence would take over the boat. You would only hear the waves splashing on the hull and we would drift. We also had a hole in the boat, so we had to keep scooping the water out all night long. I remember to be all wet from salty water. Sometimes I was in delirium. I remember in my half sleep I heard people singing a traditional Vietnamese folklore song. It was like hearing it from the radio. I asked my sister if she could hear something and she said she could hear the same song. So I don’t know if it was my delirium or it was for real. I don’t want to give any conclusion on that. I would say that maybe there were some spirits out there, i don’t know... that was pretty scary (laugh). We already counted five days at sea. We started to feel the lack of food. We started to feel hungry of course. I remember maybe on the 6th day I started to not feel that terrible hunger anymore. I guess our bodies started to use their own fat, the body reserve. However we still had a bit of water. Because we saw sharks and because the boat was getting more and more water in we decided to throw everything that wasn’t totally necessary, so the guitar went too. Sometimes we would see bigger boats and we would try to reach them but they would run away.

a very beautiful image. We got to a point where we started seeing some seabirds, some insects flying in the sky. A few hours later we started seeing the land. Very far away, a small stretch of land like a small stretch of sand. That was the biggest moment of the whole trip: the grown-ups having explained before that when you started seeing the insects it meant you were close to land. And then to see it happening for good. It was so magical. The boat landed on the sandy beach and we jumped off and all of us fell off. Because having been on a boat for so long you couln’t keep your balance so we stayed in the sand 15-20 minutes before we could get up, and it went on in my head for two weeks after. You know every time you slept and you had that feeling... anyway, after a while we saw an old man in a cone hat walking on the sand, not the Vietnamese cone hat!! Oh I forgot to tell you but the first day on the boat when we got hit by the storm and I thought that I was about to die… Well I started praying for the Gods that we would run into a Communist patrol boat to take us back to Vietnam. Because I didn’t want to die, that was the priority, not to leave, but to live. So I did pray that but I didn’t want to pray it out loud because the other ones would have killed me then! (laughs). So we saw that old fisherman. We started to talk with him in sign language and we found out that we were in Indonesia (laughs).

We kept drifting, drifting and drifting, but still surviving. On the 10th days there was a miracle as well as

That was a beautiful, beautiful island, with a sandy



beach, like a paradise beach, very pure… Today I really want to find that island again but i don’t remember the name of it, I think it is too small to be on a map… maybe I have to find the grown-ups of my boat as they would know more about it… So that was really really nice and the people there were really nice. We landed around lunch time and we had the welcoming from the villages around. They brought us a big pot of boiled manioc and fish… And fish... I still remember the taste of that fish ! And the taste of the first apple that I bit into as well, because you know in Vietnam, since the Fall, so for the past 4 years we didn’t have any apples, we didn’t have Coca Cola anymore… So we stayed on that island for one night, and then the police came and they took us to a big refugee camp on another island.

In The Refugee Camp The big refugee camp on the other island was Pulau Galang. We spent 1 month 1/2 there. We didn’t have much contact with local people from outside the camp. Like most refugees we were being isolated from the local people. We still stayed with the same group from our boat because we didn’t know anybody at first. But of course everybody there was Vietnamese. I think 90% Vietnamese. And I remember people started making business in the camp. People started to cook sweet deserts, all kinds of things to sell 18

to other Vietnamese. The men from our boat would go to the forest (our camp was quite flexible. They allowed some of us to go outside, to get dry wood to make fire, etc). I was always fascinated by the forest. So one time that was funny - I went with them. We stepped into the forest and the first thing I saw was a long green snake !! I did a straight u-turn back to the camp ! That was my first contact with the outside ! (laughs) In the refugee camp, you had all the refugees plus something like a committee of the countries who would take us to a 3rd country. So there was Canada, 19

America and all the Europeans countries. You could choose them and they could choose you. Then you had to go through an interview with them. Everyday there was like a list of say, everybody who wanted to go to France, and there would be somebody from France sitting there to interview you. I don’t know on what kind of criteria they would evaluate you. Maybe if you were young you could come, or maybe depending on how much you wanted to go to that particular country... I don’t know. First we wanted to go to America. My sister and everybody else advised us to go to America, you know? AMERICA (laughs). Secretly I wanted to go to France or to Canada because I learned french. So then the French came and anyway we felt like we had been waiting for too long already in the refugee camp… so we had the interview with them. I said a few words like “ma poupée” “c’est une table”, bonjour”… So because we already had one sister living in France since before the war and because I spoke a bit french, we were sent to France. We were transferred to Jakarta right after. I didn’t like it at all. There was this big street with so much traffic that you couldn’t cross it. You know like the 1st time you guys got to Vietnam and you never got to cross the streets because of all the traffic ! (laughs) Ah, from the island to Jakarta we were transferred in a big French boat. It was called l’île de Lumière I remember. I think it was a real saving boat, not a merchant ship because it was full of doctors and all to help the refugees. People were very very nice there. We had 20

better food than in the camp. We had no problem of seasickness. We saw flying fishes. We saw a lot of nice things from that boat. Of course a much nicer journey than from our boat ! (laughs) We spent one night in Jakarta and were off to France. We arrived in France the 29th February 1980.

The first 3 years in France (from February 1980) Arriving in France, I think i enjoyed pretty much everything you know. That’s why there is not so much to remember. We arrived with my sister at the foyer and we were all managed in group. Like a group of ducks (laughs). To do the vaccinations, the registration, etc... Like a factory, tchak tchak tchak !! I also remember that one week after I arrived in France I took my 1st metro ticket to wander around in Paris by myself. I was confident enough that I could speak french and that I could read the map of the metro. I had the authorisation to go out. So I took the metro and I went to St-Michel. And that was… That was so much compared to just a few months before ! It was like being in Disneyland. So much for me to absorb. So much to discover. I took the metro to St-Michel because I had asked people where could find a bookshop. So in StMichel I went to the big bookshop there called Gilbert Jeune and of course I was totally amazed with the books, the postcards, and everything there... 21

I was wearing some kind of countryside clothing (we had been given warm clothes from charities). And I got fooled by a French ! I was looking at the postcards outside the shop and there came a French guy, pretty old to talk to me. he spoke to me in Vietnamese « Chau An ». I was so amazed. He explained that he was in the war in Vietnam. I was enchanted that he knew my country. We spoke for a while and after 15 mins talking he asked if i had 10 francs to lend to him. I had 10 francs so I gave them to him. And we said goodbye. But after I thought “borrow”?... I didn’t even have his address !! I think the first time my mom got a letter from me was 2 months... 2 months without absolutely no news. No news that we got here that we were alive. After 2-3 years in France, when I was done with all the discovering, I start missing things from Vietnam. Missing the music, missing Vietnam, and my mum… Sometimes I cried. But not in the beginning no. In the beginning I worked really hard. I worked a lot at school, at spelling and French grammar. I worked double or 3 times more than the French kids. I had to time to cry. The first time I was back to Vietnam was 10 years after, in 1990. I came back for 2 weeks. That was weird. That was very scary. Much scarier than the trip out of Vietnam (laughs). I was pretty French by then. So Vietnam to me was a country of fear, a country of communism, of jail. Peo22

ple said that you with the French nationality now you were protected by the French government. But still I felt very stressed to go back to this country. And it was still very much like at the time that we left… The first evening at my mom’s we sit on the floor to have dinner together. The « black sheep » sister was so happy : she kept talking and talking and waving with her arms in the air out of excitement. She was waving and waving with her hands and she hit my eye with one of her nails ! (laughs) It was a pretty bad wound and it got infected ! So my first time back I had to go with a pirate eye in the street. I couldn’t see. That was crazy, That gave me a bad perception of the environment. I just looked forward to go back to France. So I had a very bad souvenir of the fist time I came back because of all that. The third and last time I came back was in 96. And then I stayed until now.

The return to Vietnam (1996) In the beginning when you came back as a Viet Kieu you were very different from the people here. You dressed very 23

different. You would get admiring reactions. But the more you go the more you would have half admiration, half jealousy and I think now you can get a lot of disdain even. People are richer here they get to travel and so many other things. And you were not better off than them anymore. One year after I came back I went out for lunch with two girls from the office I had started working at. We got stopped by a policeman because we were driving in the wrong direction. The girls left me to do the talking and I started to make all kinds of excuses but it didn’t work. Then the girls were making signs for me to bribe him.. So I took two notes out of my wallet and respectfully handed them over to him with my two hands, right in view of everyone... The policeman jumped out like if he had touched fire while shouting: “what are you doing?!!” The girls were laughing in their hands and making signs for me to put the money in his pocket... So I folded the money and put it in his pocket...

©Kore Kamino 2010 24

A NEW LAND - A Vietnamese Story  

This is the story of Hung, an eleven-year-old Vietnamese kid who back in 1980 escaped the Communist regime on a life risking boat trip for a...