By Anna Nguyen
My father, Kiem Nguyen, was the oldest son in a family of 7 children. His family lived in a city called Hue in central Vietnam. It was during a time when communism made life very hard for the people of Vietnam. His parents sought refuge by moving as south as they can and settle in a city called Long Khanh near Saigon where they gave birth to him.
Right after they moved to Long Khanh, a war broke out and the city of Hue was completely obliterated. My father lost his grandparents in the destruction. In a 10 mile stretch of land, over 20,000 people died. He grieved for that fact that he didn’t get to say goodbye to his grandparents and for the beautiful city that held all the memories of his ancestors. It was so ravaged that there was not even one sign of life. My father said that many people died more than once. When the dead were buried, bombs would blow their bodies back out of the dirt. Babies crawled to their mothers for milk not knowing that they were feeding from a dead body. There were no hospitals and no food, therefore, people died more rapidly. Thousands of people lay dead on the streets. There streets were later named the “streets of death” or “blood streets.”
When he was 6, the Vietcong entered the city and fired on its people. People ran for their lives and as the chaos occured, planes from the Republican army came in and saved as many people as they could, including my dad’s parents. My dad got separated from his family as he ran into the plantain plants. After the Vietcong left, my dad found his way back to his house and lived and raised himself for several months (living off the crops in the backyard and dried foods they had in the house) before the Vietcong came back and took him back to their base for 4 years. The republican army invaded that base and my dad ran along with all the other prisoners. They were all led to a camp where he was reunited with his parents and his new siblings. He lived with his parents until he was 14. My dad ventured to Vung tau and eventually landed a job working for my mother’s family as fisherman. He was raised there and considered a part of my mom’s family.
When he was 19, he joined the Vietnamese Airborne Division Republican Army and fought against the army that killed his grandparents. After being taken by the Vietcong for two months, the city of Hue was taken back by the forces of my father’s army. The city was in ruins, there was nothing left by brick walls and dead bodies. For two years he fought with the army. Eventually, my father was shot and hospitalized for a few months. When he healed, he went home and asked for my mother’s hand in marriage. My mother’s family loved my dad but did not consent because my father was from a very poor family and was afraid my mother would have a hard life. After a huge ordeal and showing my mother how much he loved her, the family finally consented.
Only 7 days after their wedding, he returned back to the army. My parents didn’t want to live apart so mother went with my father to the army base. My dad built a small bunker underground. Each , the camp would allow you to get in line to get a bowl of rice. In addition, they army gave them a small dividend for food. It was very little and they always ran out of money by the 20th of each month so my parents would have to “borrow” food from the lady and pay her for it later. In the bunker they slept on a bed made of twigs and owned very few things. They lived like that for almost 2 years before my mom got pregnant and returned to Vung Tau to give birth to my brother, David. Due to my brother’s birth, they allowed my father to come home for a week.
The war got worst after the American G.I. withdrew from Vietnam leaving no aid for the republican army. The US government cut off the supply of warfare that was aiding my dad’s army. Gradually there were no supplies at all. The republican army was defeated. Although the war was over, many people sacrificed everything they had for their freedom. They tried to flee the country in planes and boats to refuge elsewhere. In 1975, my father was arrested by the Viet-Cong and sent to jail. Over 1 million people were caught and jailed. Until today, some of those people are still imprisoned. My father was fortunately released in a few months and was able to go home to my mom. However, he did have to report back to the Vietcong every week as probation.
He worked as a fisherman for my mother’s family. In Dec 1976, they gave birth to me. He was able to earn enough money to build himself a boat where he would fish every day and my mother would sell what he caught. That was how they lived their lives. My parents worked really hard but could never save money because the communist controlled everything. Their income was taken away by the communist and they were only permitted enough to get by. Many people lost their most precious belongings to the Viet Cong because they took and did whatever they wanted. There were also no courts in existence so when people were arrested there was no trial.
My father dreamed of building a boat with a strong engine so that he can use it to leave the country. After 4 years of building a boat with my uncle, they build a strong boat that was able to withstand international waters. It was very hard because the communist police were everywhere. It was difficult to buy enough gas to last a journey because it was not sold in the public. My father had to buy gas one gallon at a time on the black market. After about 6 months of gathering gas and food, they had enough to leave the country.
On June 28th, 1979, at 2am we sought out to leave the country. My uncle hid over 35 people on the big boat that they built and pretended he was going fishing and drove into the dark. The big boat couldn’t hide all 49 passengers that were to escape that night so my father had built a smaller boat that could hide the additional people. They waited until the big boat made it out to the dark waters and followed. As they packed all 49 people on board, they cut the smaller boat lose and let the big one drift. They could not turn on the engine because they couldn’t let the Vietcong hear them. If the guards hear the boat, they would fire upon it and kill everyone. Luckily during that night, the water moved every fast and carried them into the ocean, they were able to turn on the engine a mile out from the last watch station. Everyone on the boat prayed.
That morning they woke up to see the lights of the city mountains and hoped that it was the last time they would have to suffer in that communist controlled city. The weather was calm and everyone thought that they would have enough food and water to make it to Singapore. All of the sudden, the weather suddenly turned bad, and the skies turned black and they knew a storm was coming. The boat was only 40 feet long and was not strong enough to carry the 49 people, the supply of food and water through a storm. The winds were getting stronger and stronger and the waves got bigger and fiercer. This knocked them off their track. They could not proceed towards Singapore because the waves were too strong in that direction and it would knock the boat over. Everyone on the boat was already wet and the drinking water was contaminated with salt water. After another day, the storm was even worst, the only highlight was that they were now in international waters and the Vietcong cannot force them back.
Everyone began to lose hope of surviving, all the food and water was contaminated. They only had a little supply of canned foods and plastic covered foods. They all had little to eat and no fresh water to drink. All the woman and children were drained of energy and laid throughout the floor. My father drove the boat while holding my little brother Hieu who was only 3 months old at the time. But, we weren’t the youngest on the trip. My aunt, Ann, gave birth to a young boy the day before they left, he wasn’t even named yet. My mother held me in her arms and I hadn’t eaten for 4 days. The storm continued to the 3rd day. The winds and waters got worse; there was no difference between night and day, everything was dark.
The next morning, they woke to and noticed Thai pirates circling them. They recalled the warnings that past refugees passed to them– to beware of the Thailand boats that rob and kill. They thought it was over for sure. The Thai boats circled us and tried to capture the boat but the fierce waters kept them from getting close enough to our boat. Eventually they gave up and left. The storm still controlled the ocean and it was so turbulent that the boat started leaking. The water pump that pumped that water off the boat stopped working so we had to cut the cans on the boat in half and use it to scoop the water off. All the woman laid saturated with water on the boat’s floor. They could not repair the boat because the storm was too strong.
The next morning, they saw a big Japanese ship. Everyone waved, yelled and waived clothing but it did no good. The ship did not stop. At this point the boat was very damaged, water came in as fast as they could get it out. All the men had to work nonstop to scoop the water out or the boat would sink any minute. At 8pm, and they were frantically scooping water out the boat. My father then noticed a light far away and stirred towards it. They were hoping it was either Thailand or the Philippines. They sailed until 3am. The light was getting closer and closer. At 5am, they finally got to the light, only to find that it was just an oil pump. My father than used the lights on our boat to signal for help in case there was someone up there. To their surprise, someone spoke to them through a speaker and told them to move towards the pier that was in a small opening of land. Everyone was relieved and jumping for joy as they knew they were saved.
About 4 hours later, a big ship came. They heard Vietnamese voices coming from the big ship and telling them to back our boat out of the pier because the big ship was not small enough to go in there. Within minutes, everyone was being transported from our boat to the big ship. The ship belonged to the Lutheran Church. Soon after everyone was transported to the ship, our boat sank. Many people were rushed to the emergency room. The newborn on our boat almost died but he was revived. Everyone was given dry clothes, blankets and tea. No food was given to anyone in fear that they would die from it after being starved for so long. There were doctors and nurses on the ship to aid the wounded. The ship headed towards Vietnam to look for more refugees that may have tried to escape as well but the harsh weather forced them to turn back. We knew that eventually we would brought to the US because we were saved by US people. The ship sailed for 8 days before we landed in Singapore, our temporary home as the Lutheran church figured out how to get us all to the US.
There were over 2,000 people at this camp, many with much sadder voyages than ours. Many lost everything to the Thai boatman who robbed them of everything as the kidnap the young girls and woman and raped them. The Thai government gave us a place to live and $2.50 cents to buy food. My father got a job as a construction worker and made $10.00 a day. My mother stayed home and took care of the kids, I was two years old.
We lived in Singapore for two months before we sought out to go to the US. In 1979, we came to Sidney Montana. The climate was really cold and not something our family was used to. At this point, David was 4, I was 2.5 and Hieu was 6 months old. My father went to work on a farm for $4.00 an hour while my mother stayed home and cried each day. She was not used to the cold weather and it was a huge struggle trying to communicate when neither of them spoke English. My parents wanted to be near people who spoke Vietnamese and knew their culture. They tried to contact some of the people who were on the boat with us. They contacted my aunt who convinced them to move to Rochester Minnesota. It was there that my sister Karisa was born. My father worked for $3.00 and was able to save $1,000 after a year. He bought us our first car.
In the search to find warmer climates, my parents decided to move to Seattle Washington where another uncle, also a survivor from our trip resided. We packed up the few items of clothing we had and drove to Seattle where dad found a job at IBM as a janitor. On his spare time, we gathered left over garlic from garlic farms and sold it for .10 cents a bag. He did everything he can to keep us fed. I remembered on Christmas, a stranger knocked on our door and dropped off bags and bags of gifts for us. My parents always appreciated these deeds because they never made enough money to shower us with gifts. We always made our toys out of construction paper and whatever, household items we can find. On his spare time, my father took us to the lake often and took us to play in the snow. After 18 months of living in Seattle, we contacted another relative in California that said the weather was much warmer. We packed up everything we had, which included our clothes, $2,000 and the car and drove to California. Our car broke down after two months of moving to CA so we had to use the $2,000 to buy another car. It was a van, a completely empty van where my dad build seats inside for us to sit out of wood and my mom made the cushions out of cheap fabric. My father found a job working for the SF Chronicle during the early mornings from 3-7am and during the day, he was a worked as a gardener. My mother and sometimes my brother and I would help him fold the papers and bag them in the mornings. At night he went to school at Contra Costa City College to learn Auto mechanics and English. We lived in a 1 bedroom apartment in Albany Ca. It was above the liquor store called the Friendly market. As rat and cockroach infested it was, it was home. My brother and I went to school at Cornell where my dad walked us to school for the first week and then we were on our own to trek the 10 blocks to school at the age of 5 and 7, my brother and I were on our own while my father worked 2 jobs and went to school. He always taught us how to be independent. My mother worked as a waitress.
I had a best friend, Salina Sosa. Which now, I understand had cancer. When I was 5, I did not understand why she lost her hair and started getting frailer each day and then eventually, I never saw her again. She lived in front of our apartment and always let my brothers and sisters play at her house. Every weds at Cornell, they sold us frozen popsicles . They were .25 cents each. This was a treat we rarely got and each morning on weds, my dad would give us a quarter before we headed off to school. I secretly broke my popsicle in half and gave it to Salina. One day, my dad picked us up from school and noticed that I had been giving my treat away. I thought I would get in trouble because I knew we didn’t have much and giving away our food was probably not something my parents would have wanted me to do. Instead, he didn’t yell at me at all. He took us all home and the next weds, he gave me two quarters on the way to school and told me to make sure I got to eat a full popsicle. He was the kindness man we’ve ever known.
For Christmas, we had a small 3 foot plastic tree that my father would put up. He would buy all of the kids presents. He always did whatever he can for us, no matter how little it was. It was little toy cars for my brothers, a doll for my sister and a box of Andes Mint Chocolate for me. It was the best Christmas present we could ever ask for. He always made sure to take a lot of care wrapping the presents.
After 5 years, my parents saved enough for a down payment on our first house. It was on Greenwood Drive in San Pablo. It was a 3 bedroom house in which my dad built a few extra rooms so that he can house 3 of our other uncles and another family of 3 in the guesthouse. My father always wanted to help every he could, so he took in anyone that needed a place. My mother received her cosmetology license and my parents open up their first beauty salon in 1987. It was very prosperous and led them to their second salon on 1989. In 1990, we moved into a 5 bedroom house on Seascape Circle, Rodeo Ca. My parents finally had the big house with the view of the water that they wanted. I often watched as they sat on the patio and talked about their journey through life. I recall coming home from college one weekend and finding a teenage girl residing in my room. They had heard about a girl who just came to America from Vietnam and lost both parents in a car accident. They sought her out and took her in. As much as it bothered me that someone took over my room, I’ve come to accept that my parents will always be the giving people that they are and appreciated everything they tried to do for people.
In 1993, business was not as good and my siblings and I were all in college. My parents made another huge sacrifice, they sold our big house in Rodeo and moved to 50th ave in East Oakland. They had no idea how bad that area of town was, all they thought of was to making sure they had enough money to put a roof over our heads and provide for us as we went through college. Eventually, they were able to retire in a nice new house in San Jose as their kids graduated from school and became more successful. My parents began traveling back to Vietnam more and in their trips, they would stop by temples and donate all their savings. There were temples that housed homeless children, temples that housed families with nothing, and temples that provided food to the less fortunate. They donated to every cause they could and everyone they knew.
My father started to become ill in the last few years. He was stricken with liver cancer which metastasized into various other organs. By the time we found out how bad it was, it was already too late. We only had weeks left with him. He passed on June 11th, 2014. He was an amazing father, grandfather, brother, uncle and husband. He lived a life of sacrifice, sacrifices that he never thought twice about for his family and friends. He lived a life of bravery, for the Army he fought in to gain freedom for the people of his country. He lived a life of heroism, for the 49 lives that he built a boat for and sailed to freedom. He lived a life of love, for the family he protected and raised.
Per his wishes, he will be cremated in a private ceremony with his family and his ashes will be spread across the ocean. We will conduct a viewing on Saturday, June 14th 2014 from 1:30-5pm. It will take place at Skylawn Memorial in San Mateo Ca ( at the end of Hwy 92 at Skyline). We welcome anyone that would like to join us in saying goodbye to our father. As we do not have everyone’s contact info, please pass this along to all our friends and family.
For those of you who have asked about donations, our father was a huge believer in helping out the unfortunate and donated every spare dollar he had to local temples and poverty stricken people in his hometown. In an effort to carry on his legacy, we have set up a fund where all proceeds will be donated to various temples throughout Vietnam in honor of our father’s memory.
We love you daddy, you will be forever our hero.