Gold In Your Underwear

You know those giant blue Ikea bags? I love those things. I’ve carried a buttload of snacks in them for beach trips, packed up dozens of candles for my sister’s wedding, packed my stuff in it when we moved apartments. I mean, half my home could fit in that giant blue bag.

But what if my home was that blue bag? When my mom and her family got to the Pulau Bidong refugee camp in Malaysia, the first thing they bought (yes—they had to buy it, it was not given to them) was a blue plastic tarp.

“When we escaped the country, everyone had gold on their body. We don’t carry money because money in Vietnam is not going to do anything in Malaysia. So everybody prepared and carried gold with them -- hide under your clothes, hide under your underwear. In case you get robbed in the middle of the ocean, you still have that on your body.”

So how do you build a house? Instead of two by fours, cement, and brick and mortar, or even a tin roof, what if you just have a blue tarp?

“First we built a tent first.. So we lived in a tent for a few months until we found a spot, an area we want, and we went up to the mountain and chopped the wood down and make a frame and built a house.”

In 1974 in Pulau Bidong, infrastructure was lacking. On top of building their own shelter, my mom’s family also cut down small branches and bound them together to make beds. Nothing was ready, prepared. Nothing was given to refugees. Everything had to be bought.

Everything there was sold by the Malaysians.

“Malaysian people they come in the boat and keep coming in to our island and they bring all the food to sell to us, so whoever has money can buy it and sell it back to the refugee people. In the daytime it becomes like a little market. ...refugees people they buy chicken and stuff and noodles and they make soup and noodles and sell it to us. I remember when my mom gave us a little money to buy us a bowl of noodles to eat. It was really nothing. It was just soup and noodles, it’s not like hủ tiếu and stuff like that. But when you live there you don’t have enough food and nutrition so  everything tastes so good. You get so excited to eat a bowl of soup.”

Pulau Bidong closed in the early 1990s, and about 250,000 refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia had lived there. By the end, it had schools, houses, cemeteries, adequate food and water. But in the 1970s, you had to have a lot more ingenuity.

Mom's Boat Ride

After slowly and silently sneaking onto her father's fishing boat to escape Vietnam, my mom, her family, and about 60 other passengers took off toward Malaysia.

If their two-year-long wait wasn't enough to prove they were desperate to leave, the conditions on this boat (that they voluntarily put themselves through) prove it.

My mom and her family crammed onto this small fishing boat for two weeks, packed like sardines, wearing multiple layers of clothing because that’s the only thing they could bring with them.

“Underneath the boat, that’s where we hide. I was lucky I wasn’t down in the bottom because my mom got to sit in the cabin. I was only ten or eleven at that time."

For a lot of people, these boat rides are literally their death. In addition to the conditions of the sea, which killed so many people, there are a couple of other extremely dangerous factors.

The first: mechanical failure

“They have a big engine and my mom and dad and brothers had a small engine in case the big one broke. So the big one broke. Using the small one took longer. They picked a direction on the compass and just headed that way.”

The second: dehydration

With so many people packed on a tiny boat in such high temperatures, another life-threatening factor was dehydration.

“You know shot glasses? You have three of those of water a day. And crackers. We weren’t allowed to do anything. I feel bad for people on the bottom, like sardines. You can’t even walk straight, you have to crawl. And it’s hot, no air, no windows. You have layers of clothes, too. People’s backpacks and hot. It’s steamy hot and sweaty.”

And as if all of that wasn’t dangerous enough...there are also communist police

Communist police boats patrolled the water surrounding Vietnam, and if they saw an unrecognizable boat, they would stop it and inspect it.

My mom’s boat was stopped and inspected.

“So all the men prepared. They said if the communists, if the police want to check the bottom of the boat, they have to take action and kill the guys. If we don’t kill them, then they’ll go back and tell all the soldiers and police and we’ll all get caught and end up in jail. So we said, if we have to kill those two, then we have to.”

Luckily, my grandfather played off the entire situation. He said that the people in the cabin of the boat were passengers, and that he was taking them back and forth to the larger ferries. The police didn’t realize there were 60 more people hiding beneath the boat, and they didn’t bother to check. They left.

So two weeks later, after following a compass in the direction they of Malaysia, they saw land.

And that’s the start of an entirely different life.

The Escape

My mom didn’t go to school for years. Her parents didn’t let the kids walk outside, where there might still be bombs, and schools that were still functioning only brainwashed the students about Ho Chi Minh.

“We lived there for awhile and money ran out, and there’s no job for you to go to, and we couldn’t go to school. So we decided, let’s go. Either we make it or we don’t. Either we make it or we die.” The first time they tried to escape, my grandfather got caught.

“My mom was at home, praying and praying. Praying to Buddha with the little prayer beads. She was rolling the beads, praying, praying, praying, and then suddenly, the beads broke apart. She knew something wasn’t right. Three hours later, my brothers came home and told my mom that my dad was arrested. “We ate really poorly, we were struggling to save money to get my dad out. And when he got out, probably less than a year later, they started planning to escape again. This time they were smart about it.”

My grandpa and uncles bought a boat and starting working for the government, pretending to be transportation for soldiers who needed to get from the shore to the ferries that took you further out of town. Government officials were suspicious and watchful of every little step you made. If you owned a boat, you were questioned to make sure you weren’t illegally transporting people, which is exactly what the plan was. My grandfather and uncles worked this boat for a little less than a year, dressing like poor laborers, and getting to know the soldiers. Once they had established trust, found their way in and out of the waterways, and figured out where to sneak out in the middle of the night, they set a date to leave.

“At that time I was young. I heard my mom and dad talk about it, but honestly, I was scared, but I didn’t think hard. I was just a kid. I was scared, but I didn’t cry. I was careless.

“Before it happened, my mom fed us really good. She said, we’re going to eat good. Either we make it or we die.

“I ate and didn’t know much about it. Just go along with it. So we did, we went that night."

The Communists' Cafe

I always wonder what my parents lives would look like if they had stayed in Vietnam. They endured all the fighting and the entirety of the war (though there were wars to follow), so leaving the country after the communists won sounds like a whole lot of pain and heartache for a smaller payoff. Would it have been so bad to stay?

It serves as a reminder for us then, to realize that there was a lot of hope that families held onto during the war that began to wane when the communists took over. The idea of liberty and prosperity were only dreams at that point -- the government had so much control over your everyday life that the bright future you envisioned for your family would die in that country like the rest of the fighters. 

I asked my mom, what would have happened if they stayed? Would they be punished for not supporting the communists during wartime? 

"We wouldn’t be punished. My parents destroyed everything [that would prove we were on the South Vietnamese side]. My brother was in the [South Vietnamese] air force and he wasn’t punished because my parents destroyed all the pictures, all the important papers, anything so they wouldn’t find out he was in the air force, and any information that my parents were involved in business with Americans. We zipped [our mouths], we didn’t say anything."

But even with the watchful eye of the communists government over them, even worse was a new and constant presence.

"When the communists came right after the war was done (probably six months later or maybe a little bit longer than that), they sent soldiers to stay outside our property in an empty field. They camped out there and lived there for almost a year. In a tent. We didn’t have a choice, they surrounded our house.

"We could get in and out, but we had to be careful. I don’t think they were there to watch us, but because it was a empty field out there, it was big enough to have their whole soldiers living out there for awhile. It’s frustrating. It feels like you have no freedom. At that time, my two sisters were still young girls, probably 18 and 20. The soldiers kind of try to flirt with them. I was still a kid. So my mom and my dad don’t feel right about it. They didn’t feel secure about it. We could go outside in the yard, in the back yard, but we didn’t feel comfortable like we used to. Suddenly so many soldiers surrounded our property, we didn’t feel privacy at all."

And then, finding opportunity in the middle of a challenge, an idea for a business came to mind.

"My parents decided, well, there’s a whole bunch of them living out there, and they want coffee, so we opened a coffee shop. So at night they come and listen to music like a cafe, make coffee for them, dripping coffee, and little cocktails. They come in every night. The reason they come in was so they could flirt with my sisters.

"We made tables and turned on nice music, soft music. Just like a small cafe and they come in and drink coffee, stuff like that."

And this is where we stop thinking about how awful it is to be living surrounded by communists. Because now that my mom's family had such close interactions with the soldiers, we get to see the other side of the conflict. 

"One of the soldiers (I forgot his name), he was really nice. He told us that he didn’t want to be a soldier, but he didn’t have a choice. He’s so sweet though, he was tall, nice looking guy. He treated us like his siblings, so he hang out with us a lot. He’s the cook, so he always come to ask my sister what to cook and how to cook for dinner because he didn’t know what to cook for his whole group. So my sister would go and help him cook. It was nice. We talked to him a lot.

"And every house they have a Ho Chi Minh picture--they want us to worship him. We were against that. So we put him on top of the commode. We were kids, we didn’t like [the picture]. So the soldier came in and he said, 'Don’t put him in the commode, you disrespect him.'

"And we said, 'but we want him on the commode.'

"He said 'Don’t do that!”

"He wouldn’t tell on us, but some soldiers are angry, they’ll punish you for that.

"He said, 'Don’t do that. If they see you, you’re in trouble.'

"They can be really mean…they’ll put you in jail for a few days or a few weeks if you disrespect him, because that’s their leader. But they make every house put up a picture of him and worship him.

"So we lived there for awhile and money run out and there’s no job for you to go to, and we couldn’t go to school. Well, we could go to school, but my mom didn’t want us to go to school. They don’t teach you like they do here [in the United States]. They’ll brainwash you about Ho Chi Minh. So we didn’t go to school for a few years. So we decided, let’s leave."

Man-Eating Shrimp

Our mom was ten when the US pulled out of Vietnam in 1975. For Americans, this was the end of a highly divisive war. For our parents, they knew the fighting would eventually come to an end, but their was little hope for a peaceful life afterward. This was just the beginning of when their lives were turned upside down. 

“Before we left [our house], you heard the news that the American soldiers, the president, everybody left. So my parents they knew. They knew they’d lose the war. We packed our clothes and prepared for months. They listened to the news all the time. We packed our clothes and prepared for it. If something happened, you grab your suitcase and go.”

As soon as the last Americans left, the Communists* moved into Saigon, fighting the South Vietnamese Army just two miles away from her home in Hu Duc, on a bridge overlooking her house. They had to leave.

“I remember the night we left. You could hear the shooting so close. My mom and dad went outside and looked at the bridge. You could see guns firing and flashing everywhere, bombs. So they knew. All the rich people in the neighborhood had already left. Somebody, I don’t know who it was, came and knocked on our door, 'You have to leave, you cannot stay here.'"

The bridge taking them outside of the city was turned into a battlefield, forcing her family to leave through the Saigon river. They took a boat to her brother’s in-laws, and stayed for a week before coming back to the house.

“My mom went inside first. She had a feeling someone had died in there. So she went to look around, and we kind of tagged along behind her. But there was nothing — just the food they ate and the mess they left. [Southern soldiers] destroyed the house. They used that house to shoot out of, so you would see bullets in the house and outside in the yard. Trash was everywhere. All the chickens we had, they killed them and they ate them.

“We didn’t have electricity for a month, maybe longer than that.

“We were so scared because we knew dead bodies were everywhere. At night I couldn’t sleep, all I thought about were dead bodies. My parents’ house was built on a big piece of land, and surrounding us were rice fields. A lot of dead bodies were out there. Bodies were outside our yard, too. You could literally reach over and touch them.

"Finally we got electricity back. It took awhile to get back to normal again. It took around six months. The people in the neighborhood further in, the poor people, they go fishing and they go catch shrimp out in the fields. Usually the come and they sell it to my mom and dad...[afterward] we couldn’t eat any fish or shrimp because they ate the dead bodies out there.

“Government officials came and picked up the bodies that were on the ground, in the yard, on the roads and bridge. But in the rice fields, it took them awhile to get out that way. So fish and shrimp ate them. The communists would hide in the rice fields, too. They would come out and shoot the Southern soldiers. It was scary and it was gross. I still remember, though. You come home and there are dead bodies everywhere.”


*Though the Viet Cong were technically defeated during the Tet Offensive in 1968, remaining VC troops were integrated into the North Vietnamese Army. For our parents, all communists troops were referred to as Viet Cong (as it literally translates to "Vietnamese Communists"). For ease of understanding in this post, we've just referred to Viet Cong as communists, rather than the NVA.