Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s and 80s took to boats to escape the communist regime.
Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s and 80s took to boats to escape the communist regime.
“In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit —”

“Amen,” my family murmured.

Shrouded in darkness, we sat in a circle as we fingered rosary beads, mouthing the forsaken words. Our knuckles were white, clenched tightly onto the rosaries as bombs sailed through the air. They would never kill us. No, prayer was more powerful.

My eyes floated toward the statue of the Virgin Mary. She was cloaked in a beautiful blue dress, her gaze casting straight at the stars. Her face frozen in anguish, streaks of blood lining her eyes. Did she know? Vietnam was in chaos. South Vietnam’s capital city, Saigon, had fallen to the communists. All hope was lost. People around us everywhere were in a mad frenzy to get out as fast as they could.

A sharp rapping on our door jolted me from my thoughts.

“Tung, please open the door for our guest,” my mother called softly as the rest of the family rose.

I unlocked the bolt and creaked open the door. There the darkness revealed a dark-skinned smoking man. His muscular arms bulged from his T-shirt. We stared unbelievingly.

“Hurry,” he barked. “There’s no time.” His voice was gruff. My mother started wheeling three large suitcases toward the door. I didn’t remember seeing them, but I slowly recalled the brief moments my mother spent furiously stuffing the bags with food and papers. The house still smelled like freshly baked banh mi sandwiches and banh buoc loc, little gummy shrimp dumplings carefully wrapped in banana leaves. We were supposed to eat it later —  with a dash of fish sauce — that went without saying.

“What did you say?” my mother breathed.

“You heard me,” he said slowly, enunciating every word like we were deaf. “No room.”

We sucked in our breaths in panic. Our eyes darted around in hysteria, searching in vain for some comfort. The suitcases held our food, our money, our identity. We could not leave it all behind. Tuan shuffled uneasily in his shoes. Dad looked down, saying nothing as usual.

“Burn it,” the man finally said, a voice as sharp as knives.

Tuan hurriedly got the matches as we carefully stacked our photos in a neat pile outside. Then all at once the images of our smiling faces exploded and curled black as the pile was devoured by flames. Any last hope of dignity was pulled to ruin inside the darkness of the fire.

“Walk!” He ordered. We stared at him with a loneliness too unbearable to keep back. Then we followed the stranger out, heads sunk in shame, with no home, no money and no culture.

When we arrived at the fishing shore, my mother almost burst to tears. I was hungry, still thinking of the golden-brown sandwiches my mother had baked. My father said nothing, simply staring ahead at the shore.

“This is it?” I pointed at the dingy, already crammed with six other wide-eyed passengers, laying low in the darkness.

The man glared at me. “You go or die here,” he whispered through his teeth. 

I wanted to scream and tear his throat out. There was no chance of surviving the ocean in this poor wooden boat. He was insane.

Finally, my father spoke. “I would rather die than live in a world of communists.”

I spun around to stare back at him. “You’re out of your mind.”

The disgusting man smirked. Mother nodded painfully in agreement with my father. The other passengers shouted in impatience. Then all at once, I felt two powerful arms wrap around me and lift me into the air. I tried to kick and scream but no sound came out. His hand had locked my mouth shut. My mother grabbed onto the man’s shirt and tried to pulled him back, but she was thrown back and almost fell into the water. I was dumped into the boat, my parents and Tuan trailing me hastily, and the boat was immediately released from the shore.

The dark man stood up with his arms crossed, flashing a satisfied smile of yellow teeth. He was laughing. I hated that man. Back in my neighborhood, the communists would storm the house, looking for us. But waiting for them would be only four, still-fragrant individually wrapped sandwiches and a large bowl of shrimp dumplings. My grandmother would be shot dead before she could awaken. Our friends would rise and wake, realizing too late that their neighbors were gone.

The sun would rise yet another day. The war would rage on. The Buddhist temple would pound the hollow, lonely bell. The schoolchildren would cross miles over the rickety bamboo bridge to school. This was my corrupted home as I would remember it, forever.

“Amen,” I said aloud, hands clasped together in desperation.

“Amen,” the other passengers echoed, their murmurs twisting into a single voice that sounded like death.

We sank down into our boat as it drifted slowly away from shore. Ten little beads held together by a single strand of life.

+ + +

Sea salt bit at our fingers, the wind jostled at my hair.

“Storm!” my mother screamed. Tuan was crying at my mother’s shoulder, weeping a valley of tears.

Screams pierced the sky as a monumental wave hovered above our heads. I looked up, and braced myself for the worst. Seconds turned to minutes.

First it was a sprinkle, a pattering of droplets dancing overhead. Then it was a pitcher, its flared mouth pouring iced tears on our foreheads. And then came the avalanche as it crashed onto our bodies, sucking us straight out of the boat. I swallowed seawater as furiously I fumbled in the black water for somebody. Anybody. We were drowning.

God, save me! Where are you?

I inhaled a mouthful of air and sank deeper into the darkness. I was blind in the water, but I thought I could hear a girl’s voice singing as I sank deeper ... .

“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound. That saved a wretch like me!”

+ + +

Voices reverberated around me.

I opened my eyes and unsteadily tried to prop myself up. Slowly, the right foot. Then the left foot. My hair was no longer wet. My legs no longer ached. My arms no longer stung. How long was I out? In front of me, a sea of concerned white men flooded my eyes.

They were worried, but no longer.

I raised one hand in salute and held out my rosary in the other. All of the beads had fallen out, either swallowed by the sea or rolled out on the floor. There was one pearly bead left, dangling dangerously, only to be held back by a loosely tied knot. Standing before them, my throat burned as I slurred the syllables in thickly accented English,

“My name is Tung Nguyen. I am 12 years old. I come from Vietnam — in search of a new life.”

The last bead wiggled its way out of the knot — free at last — and plummeted toward the ground. We stared helplessly at its fall and with a soft thud, it hit the ground.

I collapsed, too.

+ + +

In spring 1975, the North Vietnamese took over the South Vietnamese capital Saigon, signifying the loss of the Vietnam War. South Vietnamese refugees fled by the millions on dilapidated and overcrowded boats, gaining the nickname “Boat People.” The dangerous journey to free-dom took months at sea, where the refugees faced storms, starvation and pirates. Vietnamese women were raped and slaughtered. Distressed passengers often went insane and resorted to cannibalism. Even after arriving at the shores of a country, most were denied admission and left there to die. Some estimates report more than 70 percent of the Boat People died while making their passage to freedom.

The writer is a member of Our Lady of Lavang Parish in Portland.