Chapter 1 Vietnam
Previously in State of Affairs: In the mid-morning stillness, my husband’s colleague Truc begins to describe the vague recollections he has of the first nine years of his life in Vietnam.
‘We lived on a farm on the edge of town. We had a house with a corrugated iron roof, thatched walls. The land at the back was irrigated through canals and we had rice paddies. We grew our own vegetables and rice. We kept ducks and chickens and pigs and we would harvest that and sell, take the excess to the market and sell and then with the money we would buy fresh meat or fish to bring back to cook.
‘Life was very basic. We didn’t have any luxuries – no TV, no electricity, no running water. We went to school when we were at the right age. Each kid had a little basket of clothes and maybe three or four sets of clothes in there. No toys. So we played with other kids and you know, we made up games and played outside.
‘I remember a little bit about the war. There was a sort of build up of military activity. When I was three or four, I remember soldiers marching up and down the streets all the time. I remember the canons and artillery guns going off all day, all night, and that went on for months and months. Lots of helicopters flying past and eventually one morning, maybe four five o’clock in the morning, there were bullets flying through the walls everywhere.
‘We woke up. We climbed under the bed. Dad dug a little hole in the kitchen. We had a dirt floor, so dad dug a big hole in the kitchen and we lined the edge of the hole with rice sacks and we all got dragged in there and we sat there all day really, listening to bullets fly past.’
‘How many were you?’ I ask.
‘Back then there were five kids – mum and dad and five kids and grandpa. And then, the day after that, everything was quiet. The war was over.’
Truc pauses. He sighs wearily.
‘I know that dad had to go to re-education sessions every week. There was talk about the government taking over everybody’s land and turning it into communes and when working within the communes, living on rations. So there was fear that the government was going to take over your land and your property. I know a lot of people at the time left Vietnam and it was illegal at that time to leave. So you had to do it secretly otherwise you’d be arrested and put in jail.
‘We didn’t have any money to get on the boat but we had an uncle who was organising these trips. I suppose you could call him a people smuggler,’ says Truc with a chuckle.
‘And he invited us to go on the boat. So in total it took three attempts for the family to leave Vietnam. The first time they tried, I was to stay back in Vietnam with my father. Mum and the other kids were going to go with the plan that once they were in Australia they would then sponsor us over.
‘So I was left behind. One night, the kids and mum left on a boat down the river and I thought that I’d never see them again. And then the next morning they were home and I was told that the boat went down the river and they saw coast guards and they quickly hopped of the boat’– he laughs –‘and ran away. And they were home the next morning as if nothing happened.’
Truc says that the first attempt was probably in 1980. In 1981, everyone except grandpa, who was too old and frail to travel, tried to escape again. The ten-metre boat only had a thatched canopy over it. They were swamped by waves within an hour of travelling in open seas. People thought they were going to die. The captain asked, ‘Risk it or turn back?’ Everybody said, ‘Turn back!’ A replacement boat was found, fifteen metres, with a proper cabin, and it was on this third attempt that the family escaped.
‘So we were at sea for a total of three days. We were very seasick; we were not used to being on a boat. Sometimes the waves were as big as houses, much bigger than the boat and we felt like we were going to be swamped. Other times it was quite calm. It was hot, sunny. There wasn’t any shade on the top of the boat. There were about sixty-five people on the boat. It was very crowded. There was vomit everywhere. No toilets.
‘During the trip we came across two sets of pirates. They came, took all the money, jewellery. Anyone that resisted was hit. They had guns. Then the second set of pirates came. There was less to take. They were even more angry. They raped some of the younger women. That was quite traumatic. I was young. I didn’t understand what they were doing but I could hear the women screaming, ‘Stop, stop, stop.’ They moved everyone to the front of the boat and they took the young women to the cabin and raped them there. Luckily, no one in my family was hurt.’
Everyone was extremely happy when they sighted Thailand after three days on the boat. They saw a flotilla of boats approaching. There must have been thirty, forty, or fifty people in those boats. As the boats came closer they saw the rage in the villagers’ eyes.
The villagers boarded the vessel, removed the motor and emptied the fuel into the water, the oil floating in black circles on the blue green sea. The message couldn’t be clearer: we don’t want you on our land. After they’d taken clothes and anything else they could use, they started demanding more, thinking that there were hidden treasures to be had.
‘They grabbed me and held me over the side of the boat to drop me into the sea, asking my parents for more valuables, but my parents didn’t have anything more to offer them. They put me back in the boat. They were going to tow the boat out to sea, to leave us out there to drift and die, I suppose.’
He says this as a matter of fact, his voice low and steady. He speaks as if he is watching an unfolding drama with eyes turned inward and he, the narrator, is simply doing his job, reporting what he sees.
‘Luckily, on the beach was a temple, and there were some monks that were walking on the beach when they saw what was going on and they called out to the people and told them to bring us on to the land. I suppose the Thai people are quite religious and they listened to the monks. Luckily.’
The monks brought the boat people to their temple and gave them food and shelter for the night. A bus came in the night, men claiming to be from the Immigration Department, wanting to take the women and children away. Sensing something amiss, the monks refused to hand anyone over. The following day, genuine Immigration officials turned up. So the monks saved them twice – once from death, and again from a life of slavery. A wry laugh escapes Truc.
The Immigration officials brought them to a refugee camp in Songkla, on the east coast of the Kra isthmus that joins Thailand and Malaysia. There they slept on a wooden platform under a corrugated iron roof held up by two walls, no doors or windows. Three times a day they lined up for rations of tinned sardines and rice.
Truc’s memory of this time is the feeling of safety, and playing on the beach every day. To his surprise, when he searched Songkla Refugee Camp online, up came these images of people lining up with plastic drums or metal tins beside trucks carrying water.
He wrote to me later, ‘We were so carefree as kids that I don’t remember any hardship. Conditions were basic but not much worse than what we were used to in Vietnam! Everyone accepted the camp conditions and whatever provisions that were provided. It strikes me that these are very humble, resilient people. Compare that to the camps Australia provides today.’
In retrospect, he knows that it must have been a difficult time for his parents. Having submitted their application for migration to Australia, they had nothing left to do, but to wait, and in that waiting, listen to the most horrific stories circulating among the refugees: men shot and thrown overboard for trying to protect their women, people drinking urine and eating the dead.
‘We were lucky, I think.’