It was a spring afternoon in 1985. I had turned fifteen a few of months earlier and I had just entered the house after a day at high school. Food was on my mind; I’d skipped breakfast as usual. Mom was sitting on the bed in the corner, whispering to a woman I’d never seen before.
My first thought, what a strange looking woman! Her lips were thick and puffy like a blowfish. Her eyes were tiny and slanted and I couldn’t see her pupils, even when she gave me a cursory glance. She immediately struck me as someone I shouldn’t trust.
“This is Mrs. Cham, Huong,” she said.
I greeted her and they went back to whispering, but soon, Mrs. Cham left.
“Who was she?” I asked.
“We might be going far away soon,” said Mom. “You need to prepare a bag with your belongings. Remember two pairs of pants, two shirts, and some underwear.” She paused for a second. “Don’t go far. When I call for you, we’ll leave immediately.”
It was easy to decide what to bring and what to leave behind as I hardly owned anything. Five times I had prepared my little bag. Five times we were caught and five times I returned home with my little bag.
Over the years, I’d saved all my allowance up to ten dongs. I treasured it with the idea to help mom pay for the boat ride to Hong Kong. The first time we tried to escape Vietnam, as I was preparing my bag to leave, I gave the money to my grandma as a farewell present.
She was about seventy-seven and escape was too dangerous for her. We had no choice but to leave her behind. Since she was deaf, we couldn’t even say goodbye nor explain to her that we were going to a better life and future. She was always wondering why her son and his family were disappearing one by one?
“Oh, my poor son,” she often said to herself. “And my poor grandchildren were caught and sent to prison by the terrible communists.” She thought it was like when her eldest son was taken away by the communists because of his association with the Japanese government during the war.
It made sense to me to give my precious 10 dongs to my precious grandma who had cared for and loved me and all my siblings. But when we were returned home by the police, my grandma returned my money.
“Buy candies and cookies for yourself,” she said.
This sixth time packing took only a minute.
Late afternoon a couple of months later, I was relaxing at aunt Chuyen’s house right next door, relieved to have just completed tenth grade when Mom called for me.
“Is your bag ready?” she asked as soon as I came through the door.
I ran inside the house to show her.
“Two pairs of pants, two shirts and some underwear,” I said.
“Good. Don’t go anywhere. We’ll leave tomorrow.”
The next day was a summer morning and we woke early, ate a quick meal of cold rice with fish sauce and left the house in silence. Vinh, my little brother, balanced on the back of my uncle Quan’s bicycle and I walked behind them with Mom, a pair of sandals and a little brown canvas bag on my back. We passed through many crowded markets, bursting with people going about their mornings without any idea how we were breaking the law. They bumped against me, unconcerned. Voices roared out bargains: “Just 50 xu for a bunch of water spinach!”, “3 dong for a gram of pork!”
I took a deep breath of the humid air and pushed through, relieved Mom was beside me. We would do this together.
At midday, we stopped and sat down at a noodle soup table for “bun rieu,” my favorite dish. The fiddler crab broth was loaded with fresh herbs, tomatoes and vegetables. Somehow, the sweetness from the fiddler crabs burst on my tongue with the lemon juice. I grinned at Mom. It had been so long since we’d last eaten bun rieu. When I was tiny, my oldest brother, Tung used to go early on summer mornings to the coast with friends and caught nets and nets of fiddler crabs. Then, Mom made us all bun rieu. In a hot summer afternoon, it rejuvenated us after just one bowl.
In the late afternoon, we arrived at the port Ben Binh where a big boat with a group of well-dressed children and adults left for a tour of Ha Long Bay. I thought, how wonderful and relaxed they must feel to go on a tour. I would never have a chance to know that feeling. I finally sat down, letting the tiredness and soreness in my legs from walking all day engulf me.
Night was about to fall and we were still sitting on the waterfront. New faces loomed out of the dark. They came to sit next to us and after a while I realized they were the other passengers. Mom made hand signals to them, occasionally walking up to another group to whisper with them. The night grew blacker. There were no streetlights. On the water, there were a few tiny flames of oil lamps reflecting from the boats moored far away. The silence rolled over me as I watched them bobbing in the distance.
Mom returned from speaking with another group and sat softly next to me.
“Đến giờ rồi con đi đi!”
I looked at her stunned, speechless and thinking: “What do you mean it’s time for me to go!?
I asked her, “Mình cùng đi mà phải không mẹ? We are going together right?”
“No. There is only one spot on the boat for either me and your little brother or you alone. I can’t afford to pay for the three of us. You will have to go alone.”
She pressed a piece of paper into my hand.
“This is your dad’s address in America. As soon as you get to Hong Kong, you must write back to me right away. Then write a letter to your dad, sending it to this address so that he can sponsor you to come to America and be reunited with him, your brothers and sister.”
My stomach tightened. The bun rieu rose into my mouth, hot and sour, but I swallowed it down. I’d never gone anywhere by myself. I would be alone for weeks on the China Sea. But if I stayed in Vietnam alone, I didn’t have any hope nor future. Everybody hated me. I hated the corruption where all the strong and powerful people were in the communist party. As a fifteen-and-a-half-year-old girl without a single dong in my pocket, I was damned if I stayed, but I might be condemned if I left.
And all of this was because of the wars and my grandfather’s decision to side with the French during the colonial period.
Onboard the boat, it felt like I was finally reaching the end of a dark tunnel. In the distance, still a long way off I could see a glimmer of light. I was desperately seeking a way out. I would rather die on the boat than live any longer under the eyes of the communists.
I nodded. “I will go.”
“Run,” she said. “Catch up with the others.”
I looked up into her pooling eyes, then turned away from her without saying goodbye and rushed after the group of people walking away towards the water. When I reached them, I glanced back and saw Mom and Vinh still standing on the riverbank in the dark watching us. As we were pushed through the cool sea that submerged my feet, the image of them vanished. I was entirely alone.
We walked through the water toward the boat moored about two hundred yards away from the city port. To avoid getting caught by the police, we had divided into two small groups. I was with Mrs. Cham and her family. In the weak light of the moon, I saw her son Thuy who was about twenty with kind eyes unlike his mom. Her daughter Phuong was about thirteen and very skinny. I also saw a young man named Dung, who was Mrs. Cham’s friend. Everyone had a little linen bag slung over their shoulders.
The water reached my calves, then knees, and quickly up to my thighs. I paused for a second and folded my pants higher.
“Hurry up!” Mrs. Cham hissed. “If we’re not quick the police will catch us.”
“Yes, aunty Cham,” I whispered.
I stomped forward, and my feet immediately became stuck in the mud beneath the water. Many times, as a small child I ran in the rice fields, playing with friends during the rainy season and my feet were sucked into the mud. My friends had to pull me out. I yanked my feet free quickly as I was sure Mrs. Cham wouldn’t be as kind as my friends. The mud squelched loudly.
“Be quiet girl,” Mrs. Cham said harshly. “Do you want all of us to get caught by the police?”
I bit my lip to swallow the retort that I had been caught many times before and it would be little different this time. Instead, I ignored her and struggled out of the mud by myself and moved forward.
Finally, we reached the boat. My feet were caked in mud and half of my body was wet. On the deck, I cleaned myself up with some river water and sat down quietly in a corner, waiting for the second group.
There were about twelve people on the boat, and we didn’t say a single word to one another. A skinny lady in her late thirties paddled the boat and we glided into the open water toward the sea. The further we drifted from shore, the brighter it got. It was a crystal-clear moonlight evening. As we entered the sea, tall islands rose up around us and their dark reflections stretched out across the water. It was like a magical painting with the bright moon hanging in the sky, the silhouette of tall dark mountains standing in the distance, velvety softness of the water beneath the boat and a petite lady standing in the front of a tiny wooden boat paddling us.
After about four hours of gliding away from the city shoreline, we reached a larger boat anchored near a tranquil island in the shadow of the moon. It was so dark I could barely see the new boat.There were a few more people gathered there, whispering and tiptoeing on the old wooden deck. I could just make out the shape of the cabin. Its height was up to my thigh, too small to hide all of us.
I was too exhausted and sad to think much about the future. I crawled into a corner of the cabin, curled up around my legs and fell asleep.Mrs. Cham woke me up while it was still dark, the horizon was paling, just on the verge of dawn.
“Everyone needs to get out of the boat and hide on the mountain!” someone called.
The captain had moored the boat near one of the wild islands in the bay. We each swallowed a handful of rice with salt and disembarked onto a small island nearby. I followed the others and did as I was told.
On the island, we divided into groups of four and five. There were a lot more people than late the night before. I stayed with Mrs. Cham’s family and the young man Dung. I only noticed there, in the sunlight, that he had a harelip.Everyone was hidden under the lush and leafy trees of the forest and behind a cliff. It was like a picture of a beautiful place in a magazine. From the top of the island looking down in the water, Ha Long lay peaceful a carpet of countless islands under a thin layer of haze shot through with rays of sunlight. There were so many magical colors: bright yellow sun, pure white cloud, bright blue sky and deep green leaves. I stood still in the open to soak up the mesmerizing beauty of nature.
“Huong!” Mrs. Cham yelled. “Get inside the cave or the coastal police will spot you and put us all in prison.” I ducked under a bush but was soon bored and my legs ached from sitting so long. Occasionally I made an excuse to go pee so that I could have a peep at the view. Smuggling out of the country and hiding from the police seemed very exciting. I would visit many new and beautiful places on earth.My heart lifted with a feeling of hope.
As the night covered the bay in darkness, everyone returned to the boat. It was still bright enough to make out the boat. It was a wooden fishing vessel, low down in the water and about 3 feet high, 18 long and 6 wide. There were two small sails, but no motor.
I wasn’t introduced to everyone on the boat but by watching and listening closely, I learned a little about them. There was a captain, a vice captain and three crewmen. All of them were fishermen by profession.
We ate dinner quickly and waited for the complete darkness of night. After dinner, all the women and children climbed into the cabin to sleep. For all of us to fit, we had to curl our legs up or sit. I lay down in a corner with my knees clasped to my chest. Outside, the water slapped against the boat.When I could hardly see beyond my nose, the captain ordered the crew to open both sails. The two crew guys untied the ropes around the sails while talking.
“There is good wind tonight,” one said. “We should be able to go far.”I let myself smile. Perhaps this escape would be successful.Before the sun came up on the following day, one of the crew men cooked some rice and dried fish. Everyone got up to eat a little bowl quietly. Then, we all quickly returned to our spots inside the cabin. Only the four crew were allowed on the deck. The use of toilet in the front deck banned until nighttime.
On the open deck, the crew fished and worked to disguise our true purpose and make us appear normal to other fishing boats. Us passengers had to stay quiet inside the cabin. We couldn’t risk being reported to the coastal police. Although we were mostly kept inside, I quickly learned what the boat was like. It had three sections. The foredeck was used to store sailing gear and had the toilet on the edge where waste went straight into the ocean. In the middle was the cabin, covered with a bamboo roof. The back deck was used for storage and where the captain controlled the sails and steered the boat.The wooden planks were old and constantly leaking. Below deck where I lay, I heard lots of water running back and forth with the flow of the sails. Tuan, the captain’s nephew, was designated to remove the water out and keep the under deck dry for us and the boat afloat. I liked the look of Tuan with his strong arms and rustic face. He was about twenty and looked just like a fisherman to me.
With nothing to do, I observed my fellow passengers and the crew, whenever they came inside. The captain was short for a man of about thirty, I thought. His skin was very dark probably from living on a fishing boat most of his life and his eyes were very slanted, but quite large. However, it was his nose that was his most distinctive feature. It was enormous as if the rest of his face had never grown to meet it. His name was Hong. We found out that he was a retired soldier, unemployed, and was the younger brother of the escape organizer who had bought the boat, supplies and food.
He sent his younger brother, a nephew, a niece, and some fishermen friends in the crew to direct the boat to Hong Kong. Six were his family and friends including the crew, the rest was passengers who paid to have their spots on the boat. There were two sisters: Huyen and Phuc, a single man named Cuong, a single mother Xuan in her fifties with her young boy Hieu, and a few other people I didn’t know.
The captain’s niece was Han, just a few months older than me.In total, there were twenty-one of us, ten men, eleven women and children.Lying in a corner of the boat beside all these strangers, I thought about my family and the place I used to call home. The escape journey across the sea was much slower than I expected. All day on the boat towards our freedom we were confined to the small cabin, crammed tightly together waiting in the heat and dank for the release of night when we could climb onto the deck and gulp in the fresh air.As I lay on the edge of sleep, I felt a sharp pain in my butt. Someone had pinched me. I looked around but couldn’t quite believe that anyone would hurt me after only our second day on the boat. I hardly talked to the other passengers or left my spot except to eat, drink and vomit. I didn’t know anyone’s face apart from Thuy, Mrs. Cham’s son, Dung and a few others. I rested my hand back on my behind. One of the men must have mistaken me for someone else, or I just dreamed it. I tried to sleep but a while later, I was pinched again, this time harder. I wasn’t dreaming.
“Why does someone keep pinching me?” I said loudly.
“Whoever’s pinching her,” Mrs. Cham said. “Stop your pity game! You’re not here to pick on a young girl.” The whole cabin was silent. No one defended or replied to me or Mrs. Cham.We sailed all night by the cover of dark and were told we’d gone quite far, but we hadn’t reached the Chinese border. The third morning had arrived, and everyone got up to eat a little rice and dried fish prepared by a crew man. I stayed in the cabin. Motion sickness was kicking into my head. I was too tired and dizzy.
“Huong!” someone called. “You need to get up to eat.”
I had been unable to swallow much since we got on the boat. My stomach was hollow, so I pushed myself up. I breathed deeply after each bite to stop myself from vomiting. After a few mouthfuls, I had to stop. I left the rest of my rice bowl uneaten and lay down again in the cabin. They cleaned up and everyone returned to their squashed places in the cabin.
Outside, the boat floated, covering only a small distance, the crew pretending to fish. The male passengers on the boat did not get seasick. All day they sat together in a corner of the cabin and waited for the nightfall to go out on the open deck. They made up stories and chatted to each other to pass time. One of them said: “If Huong was born during the years of the Chinese colonization, she would probably have been given away to China as a payment.” I was shocked to hear it and wondered if there was an implication that they would sell me to the Chinese if they encountered troubles and needed money to survive through the journey to Hong Kong. I said to myself: “I will do anything to defend myself from them. They can’t treat me like an object.” But I hoped it was only a joke.I had no medication for the motion sickness which worsened each day. Every couple of hours I dragged myself upright and vomited even when there was nothing left but saliva. I dozed throughout the day and at night the boat picked up speed and sailed.
The fourth morning arrived, and everyone got up to eat, except me and Phuong, Mrs. Cham’s daughter.
“Get up you two and eat something,” Mrs. Cham called
We didn’t move.
“You have to put something in your stomach,” she said. “Otherwise you won’t have any energy to fight the sea.”
Phuong got up to eat but I laid still. If I ate, sooner or later I would throw up anyway and that took a lot of energy. I would be better off conserving my energy by lying still. I was horrified of vomiting. My throat felt as if it was scratched by sand and my stomach was cramping like some metal tool was stabbing it.
To distract myself from the pain, I listened to the passengers talking on deck.
“If the boat runs out of food, what should we do?” someone said.
“We might have to eat someone to survive.”
“Who would we eat first?”
“Huong is the weakest so she’s the best choice.”
The pain of seasickness tortured and paralyzed my sanity and I accepted death if she would come. I soothed myself by thinking if the passengers needed to eat me, it didn’t matter. They would release me from this misery anyway.
The cabin’s door was covered with a thin fabric without a single opening so we couldn’t be seen from the outside. There were seventeen people cramped inside. Under the hot tropical sun, the cabin was an oven that slowly cooked us, but it smelled like a swamp that had been in the rain for months. The air was so thick it was hard to breath. My shirt was constantly stuck to my neck, armpits and back. My head constantly felt like it was spinning, and my stomach never stopped churning. I lay in my corner like a dead fish.
I listened to the water hitting the boat. My life was held just by these old rotten boards. If the waves became stronger, the planks would fall apart, and I would drown. All the fish would chew the meat of my body to pieces until there was just my skeleton. Then the fish would let me freely sink to the bottom of the sea. My remains would just lay there for eternity. I would never see my mom and dad, my brothers and sister again.
Why have I given up so easily? I must fight for my life. If this boat broke apart, I would hang onto a wooden board. I would try float on the water long as possible. The waves would take me to an island, and I’d live peacefully until the day I could return home to Mom and Vinh.Sometimes, I heard the captain and crew talking to fishermen on passing boats. They called to each other about the mood of the wind and the tide. Our men said little as they were trying not to give anything away.
On the eighth morning, we passed the Chinese border.
“From here on,” the Captain said. “We’ll sail during day and night. Whenever we wish. If anyone wants to get some fresh air, you can.”
My seasickness had improved a little and I missed sunlight, so I crawled out of the cabin to use the toilet. While sitting on the edge of the boat, I held onto the cabin’ roof to stabilize myself. The open sea stretched out before me. I’d never seen such a vast amount of water or a shoreless horizon. There was no one else in this universe except our little boat. I stood next to the roof to look over it and to see further out to sea. The wind blew into my face, my eyes, and my hair. I took a deep breath to inhale the sea breeze, tasting the salty freshness on the air.
I felt a prickling sensation on the back of my neck. I was being watched. I glanced around. At the back of the boat, a big man was staring at me. He was young and broad like a farmer. Even though we were in the middle of the ocean, with his eyes on me I felt like a lost rabbit stalked by a wolf in a forest. I rushed back to my spot in the cabin and tried not to think about him.After a little over a week into the journey, we found out that we were almost out of food and water. The money we paid for our spots had gone into the organizer’s pocket without much return. There were a lot of grumblings among the passengers but there was nothing anyone could do.
“From now on,” one of the men said. “We have to watch and measure carefully all the rice we cook. Every day we can only eat porridge with salt.”On the second night in China, we were very hungry, especially the young men who said they needed more food than the weak and small people like me. In the dark, the captain stopped the boat along the shore and Tuan the crewman and Thuy, Mrs. Cham’s son, got off and went in search for food. They walked for two hours through pine forests and rice fields and eventually found an unattended graveyard. At a brand-new grave, there still clung the scent of incense and flowers and moon cakes, rice cakes, and a bowl of rice with boiled hard egg on top were placed neatly on top.
My little knowledge of Chinese rules around death is that special care is paid to the dead and specific rules are followed. It is widely believed that bad luck will come to the family that does not honor the rules. As the dead depart their family gives them a meal. Whatever is offered to the death is expected with the utmost respect.
Also, according to Buddhist religion in China, they believe that when someone has recently died, their electric impulses in the brain are still working. Their spirit is still wandering around the house, the street, the graveyard and looking for their way back home. It’s very important that their spirit is at peace in order for them to leave their family and their home to enter the other world peacefully. Otherwise, the spirit will be lost forever and stuck around the house or the graveyard. That’s why it’s the most crucial time to pay respect and leave the burial tranquil so that the spirit will find its way to a new home.
However, Thuy and Tuan hadn’t seen a bowl of white rice with boiled hard egg for about a week and half. They were starving. They put their hands together in prayer and prayed to be forgiven for stealing from the dead. As soon as they finished praying, they gulped down all the rice and egg in a couple of minutes. Then they put the rest of the food in little bag to take back to the boat.
When they returned to the boat, they were laughing and immediately opened their bag to show us what they found.“We were so lucky,” Thuy said. “We found a lot of good food from mainland.”
Everyone oohed and ahhed appreciatively, their eyes opened wide at the sight of the sweet treats like they hadn’t eaten in years. Tuan and Thuy took the cakes out of the bag, broke them into little pieces evenly and shared them out. We all were very happy and finished eating in less than a minute. As soon as everyone was done, Tuan started to explain that they stole the food from a freshly buried grave. His words were greeted with a stunned silence. None of us had ever stolen food from the dead before.“What if the spirit follows us?” an old woman asked.“There’s nothing we can do about it,” said the captain. “It’s too late.”
All of us pressed our hands together and prayed out loud for forgiveness from the spirit: “Please don’t follow and harm us! Please let us go to Hong Kong safely!”The following day was the twelfth at sea. The wind pounded the sails and the sides of the boat, but the captain was resilient. He kept the boat sailing under strong wind for a couple of hours while us passengers huddled in the cabin, listening to the roar of the waves. We stayed quiet, not wanting to speak our fears in case they came true. When the captain realized that the sails were at risk of being torn, he ordered his crew to bring down the sails and let the boat float any way the waves carried it. After drifting for a couple of hours, the crew shouted that the underdeck was full of water. The captain ordered Tuan and Cuong to take turns to bail it out. Tuan was one of the crew, but Cuong was a passenger, a city boy of thirty, skinny and feminine.
Then, some of the planks were fractured by the waves and were at risk of breaking. The captain had no choice but to steer the boat to mainland. After about many hours struggling with the sea, the crew moored the boat near a beach, and everyone climbed ashore.It was just a little after sunset, so we used the last light to carry on shore all the essentials including pots, pans and rice and water to cook dinner. The sails were also taken off the boat to be repaired on the beach.
It was the first time I had stepped foot on a foreign land. As everyone was getting ready for the night, I stood in front of the open sea looking at the horizon over China’s border at the childhood I had left behind.