Nguyen, who asked to be identified only by his family name, is 36 now and living in the eastern U.S. state of Virginia. He decided to leave Vietnam after he was refused entry into college—despite passing the entrance exams—because his father had been an officer in the South Vietnamese military. "At that point I [thought] I have to leave because there’s no future there for me. I pass the test for the college and they won't accept me just because of my family background,” he said.
In 1989, when he was 21, his family paid U.S. $1,500 for his harrowing, 21-day boat trip out of Vietnam. Nguyen said he knew if he wanted a future, he had to go, but he had only two choices for how to leave and neither was without risk. He could walk to Cambodia, but it was very dangerous. Even if he made it to Cambodia, the next challenge would be to get into Thailand, which is not under Communist rule. Leaving by boat was the obvious choice.
It was a dark night. We have to go to the jungle to get into the boat waiting outside
Nguyen said he was frightened the night he left Vietnam. "It was a dark night. We have to go to the jungle to get into the boat waiting outside. Quietly we go to the small boat and then all of us go to the big boat that is waiting on the sea. The big one will take us out of Vietnam."
"In Vietnam these boats are called 'the big fish' and 'the small fish.' The small fish is the one collecting people from different places. It [transporting refugees] is illegal.They can't have a huge group of people in one place waiting, so they pick small groups up in different places,” he said. “The small fish takes us to the big one waiting for us on the sea."
Nguyen said the boat, a fishing vessel, was about 25 feet (eight meters) long. For safety's sake, the boat had to appear to anyone who saw it as if it were only a fishing boat. All of the more than 120 refugees had to stay hidden, below deck.
In the cramped space there was no room to stand and with that many people aboard, Nguyen said, they were forced to huddle in a fetal position. "It was never designed for 121 people."
They stayed that way for three days, the time it took to leave Vietnam's territorial waters.
It was horrible. We never experienced that before, we'd never been out to sea. I was almost dead… There were too many people, crammed into one place. The waves were so big
”It was horrible. We never experienced that before, we'd never been out to sea. I was almost dead… There were too many people, crammed into one place. The waves were so big."
After leaving Vietnam's maritime border, the boat met calmer seas and passengers were permitted outside the hold. They could get fresh air, but little else.
"There was no food or water because of some missing communication. One of the 'small fish' was supposed to supply food and water and at the time it couldn't get to the 'big fish' before we left, so no food and water,” he said.
Occasionally, they got lucky. "Sometime a big ship pass by and throw us [whatever] water and food they had, and then go away. We lived like that for 21 days until we got to Malaysia."
The long way to America Malaysia at that time wasn’t accepting Vietnamese boat people, but the Malaysian navy gave the group a bigger boat, food, water, and a compass "so we know the direction to go to Indonesia."
The boat landed on an island in Indonesia, and a United National High Commission for Refugees ship delivering rice and other food to the Indonesian refugee camp at Galang picked them up. Nguyen and the others were taken to the Galang camp.
"I'm happy for five minutes. And then I realize in the past after you get out of Vietnam then you are refugee and any country can pick you up, but at that time it's after the closing date, [and] people who get to the camps aren't refugees but are now asylum-seekers,” Nguyen said.
I feel sorry for them. They don't have the opportunity to improve themselves. I'm sorry they don't [have] freedom
Some 250,000 Vietnamese lived in the refugee camp from 1976 to 1996, before being sent to Australia, Canada, Switzerland, and the United States. By the time Nguyen arrived, Vietnamese refugees were no longer being granted entry automatically into other countries.
Proving his status as a political refugee was easier for Nguyen than most. He had a letter saying he had passed his exams and was eligible for college, and the letter telling him why he wasn’t allowed to matriculate. Even so, Nguyen spent three years in Indonesia before being screened, approved, and sent to the United States.
Nguyen ended up living with his aunt in Virginia in 1993 until moving out on his own a few months later. Despite the long, painful journey, he says it was all worth it. In the United States he was able to get the college education denied to him in Vietnam.
"I wish young Vietnamese people could have opportunities in Vietnam. They're just like me. I'm not smarter than them. I feel sorry for them. They don't have the opportunity to improve themselves. I'm sorry they don't [have] freedom."
"I want to say thanks to America and other countries that have opened their arms to help us begin our new life. That's something myself and my Vietnamese children, we will always have to remember. They should know why they're here."
"I also appreciate freedom. Here I can do whatever I want. It depends on me, in Vietnam it depends on the government. That's why I left Vietnam."