Refugee Camp and Then A New Life in the US (Vietnam)

What was life like in Vietnam?

My mother and uncle ran a home-owned restaurant while I was in school as a 12 year old. Life was a struggle due to the poor economy. It was also extremely strict and we were not able to voice our opinions. We were forced to obey the government. Weather was hot and a lot of time was spent with family.




How did the War in Vietnam affect you?

After the fall of Saigon and the rule of the communist party, it was very strict and the poor economy led to many struggles. Every household was forced to place a flag in front of the home as well as a picture of Ho Chi Minh within the house. Many of us felt the lack of freedom. Restrictions on things such as music and foreign language classes.

Why did you decide to leave?

We left the country in 1981 to seek freedom and a better life. My mother pushed this idea as she wanted more opportunities for us and for me when I grow older. I fled with my mother and stepfather alongside some very close friends.

We had no prior family members in the United States, we were the first of our generation to flee to America as it was a huge life-threatening risk. My mother’s best friend who lives in the United States sponsored us and took responsibility over us. Delegation interviews and the whole process took awhile. 

How did you leave and arrive in America?

We left on a wooden fishing boat that was about 30 feet.  There were 42 passengers total. The boat left Vietnam and headed toward Thailand or Malaysia for 2 days. Then our engine died and we floated in the ocean for 7 more days without food or water.

When we were stranded with a dying engine in the ocean, we were cold and nights were pitch-black. We felt like ants within such a giant vast ocean. We all felt extremely tired, some regrets about leaving Vietnam, and pure exhaustion. We were soaked with no blankets. I wore shorts and a T-shirt. The waves and storms were extreme. I remember kids crying and screaming as the adults would pray. 

We were then picked up by a Netherlands merchant ship and were dropped off in a refugee camp on an island in Malaysia. We stayed there for a year or two to learn English and finish interviews for the process of immigration. Sponsor was approved and a flight took us to San Francisco Airport and we lived in San Jose, CA ever since. 

What was it like when you first arrived in America?

A lot of frustration and fear. We didn’t speak English. I continued school and my mother worked as a seamstress. Money was a struggle but adapting was something we were able to do. More opportunities and freedom we felt we had. Life was a struggle at first but is definitely better than Vietnam.

What did you learn from your journey to America?

I learned to be grateful for what I have, especially family. My mother’s hard work made me the hard working man I am today.  


Author’s Reflection:

I learned to be grateful for what my father and grandmother had gone through in order to make the person I am today. This was my first time hearing his story as well and I was extremely humbled. The part of his story of being stranded in the middle of the ocean brings fear and amazement in my mind as it was a huge risk to flee their lives in the first place. The stress and lack of nutrition within those years of immigration is something that I admire and am astonished by. Furthermore, from this interview, I learned that not everyone in this world has the privileges we do here in the United States. Also, as an interviewer, I learned how to properly ask open-ended questions in a way that allows the interviewee to feel welcomed to share their stories and certain details.

The interview of his father, Hung Nguyen, and write-up were done by Derron Nguyen, a college student in the Bay Area.


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