Horrors of Fleeing Vietnam

After the Vietnam War (1959-75), thousands of Vietnamese took to the sea fleeing persecution by the new communist government. Three women, now resettled overseas, describe the horrors of that perilous journey.

2009.05.11
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boatpeople.jpg Vietnamese boat people wait for food in a Hong Kong refugee camp in a 1989 photo.
Courtesy of UNHCR

Nguyen Thi Hoa Huong, escaped in 1989, now living in the United States:

"The space [in the boat] was large enough only to sit. Once in a while, I was able to straighten out my legs, but not to lie down. I will never forget that. After sailing for seven days on the Pacific, the boat met with a huge storm. It tore the boat apart. Only the body of the boat remained. The head and the tail of boat were detached, torn away."

"The captain moved everyone to the middle of the boat. At the time, as the storm continued for several days, [we thought] that death was very close, that we had a 90 percent chance of death. The boat now was floating aimlessly without an engine. Our food supplies were exhausted in the days that followed, and people began to starve. There was only a small amount of water left, and we shared it with each other."

"There were screams because of the sudden death of loved ones. People began to pass out because they were exhausted. I was among those people. I was unconscious, unaware of anything. I remember that people around me were saying the last rites for me, so that if I died, God would be with me and I would go peacefully."

"The boat kept floating aimlessly like that until luck came to the 100 people on that boat. The U.S. 7th Fleet was undergoing exercises in the Pacific and they came to our rescue. They took us on board. Women and children were taken to the emergency room because they were so exhausted and near death."

"One thing the people on that boat will never forget is the Americans. They cured us, took care of us until we were well enough, and then took us to Thailand. It was the Banatnikhon camp. I lived there for almost nine years."

Le Thi Sen, now living in the United States, was attacked by pirates on her sea voyage:

"We encountered pirates on our journey. They lowered a dinghy from their ship to come to our boat, and they raped the women and young girls. They intended to sink our boat. We had to give them all of our money and jewelry. After the pirates left, [we] sailed for a while, then saw a Malaysian oil tanker."

"If we hadn't seen it, we probably would have drowned, because that night the wind and the current were very strong, and our boat was small, like a small fishing boat. There were 126 people on board, lying next to one another. Many children became seasick. They vomited. Their eyes were all white. [We] thought they were dead."

Kim Lien, escaped in 1979, now living in Belgium:

"It was rainy and windy at sea. [We] reached many islands, but [they] did not allow us to stay. We met a lot of ships, but they didn't rescue us. We sailed for 13 days until we saw a boat that was anchored at sea. Because it was night, we thought it was an island. Next morning at 8 o’clock, we saw it was a ship, an oil cargo ship anchored there, in the ocean. We tried to get near to ask for help, but they did not rescue us. The captain ordered his crew to weigh anchor."

"Because this ship was huge, its propeller created big waves and drew our boat to the propeller. The propeller blades hit our boat twice, turning the boat upside down. Everyone was thrown overboard because the boat broke apart."

"The boat emerged again, half up and half down. People who knew how to swim, swam toward the boat because it was not completely submerged. They clung to it. The strong ones went to rescue people who did not know how to swim and brought them to the boat. We clung to the boat."

"The ship that sank our boat left for half an hour and then returned. This ship carried the Libyan flag. I saw them lower two dinghies to rescue us. They rescued us after 11 people were drowned. Of 68 people on the boat, eleven died, and only three bodies were retrieved. Eight bodies were carried away by currents. My daughter was among those."

Original reporting in Vietnamese by Thanh Quang. Vietnamese service director: Diem Nguyen. Translated by Thuy Brewer. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Edited by Luisetta Mudie and produced by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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