A "MUST READ STORY"
SAIGON ...AND THE SEA
by Nguyen Ngoc Ngan
December 1978 ... During the next few months Vietnam's conflict with Cambodia and China continued without abatement. After so many years of war, the country seemed faced with a man-power shortage. More and more young South Vietnamese were forced to join an army that, all their life, they had viewed as their enemy. For the teenagers who were now coming of draft age, I felt only pity. To have to life under the oppressive new regime was one thing; to be forced to put your life on the line for it was quite another.
I decide to find out whether the government would rehire me as a teacher. I assembled all of my teacher's credentials and, mounting my now-ancient bicycle, which Tuyet Lan, my wife, had kept for me, went to the Education Office of Saigon.
The administrative clerk took my documents and examined them thoroughly. "Right now, there are no teaching vacancies here in the city," he said. "Your big opportunity is in the outlying areas, especially where you should report, now that you have satisfied your obligation to the Re-Education Office. Here is the name of the office and the person to whom you should apply." He wrote rapidly on a slip of paper.
"Are there any high schools in the new economic zones?" I asked.
"Not yet, of course," he replied, smiling. "But there will be in the near future. In the meantime, you people are supposed to work toward contributing to the development of the new economic zones. Then, when a high school is established, you will be accepted on the spot."
I stared at the assured clerk, amazed by his facile ability to put a bland face on such oppressive institutions as re-education camps and new economic zones. I put the slip of paper carefully in my wallet, thanked him, and departed.
My wife and friends had all been right. I had desperately hoped that they would be wrong, just as I had constantly hoped in the re-education camps, against my better society. How long would it be, I now wondered, before I would be ordered to contribute "glorious' labor to the development of the new economic zones? One thing was certain: if I did what the clerk advised, I would probably be going tomorrow! I started at the slip of paper he had given me, then, before getting on my bicycle, wadded it up and threw it away.
"Why don't we try to escape?" Tuyet Lan asked when I told her what had happened. "We have nothing to look forward to here except losing our home and being sent to a new economic zone."
"It's risky," I said. "I understand that almost half of them never make it. Besides, what would we use for money?"
"We still have some gold, Ngan. I've managed to hang on to some of it. Oh, why don' t we try, Ngan? Why don't we try? It' ll be a new life for all of us!"
"Let me think about it," I said. I knew nothing about the chancy business of negotiating passage to Malaysia or other points, and my education in that area during the ensuing few months proved expensive. But having finally decided upon our course of action, I asked my mother in My Tho to cone visit us, with the intention of having her take over the house in case we managed to get away.
Three times in the next several months I paid gold for an arrangement for Tuyet Lan, my son Tran, and myself to get on a boat bound for Malaysia, and three times we failed to leave. Each time I was either told by my contact that my gold had been given to someone higher up who had reneged on the deal or I never saw my contact again. With November upon us we found ourselves without our little hoard of gold and still in Saigon. Our chances of ever getting out of the now-austere city seemed bleak.
“Do you remember that little restaurant we used to go to a ling time ago on Ham Nghi Street?” I asked Tuyet Lan. “Let’s go there”.
The restaurant that Tuyet Lan and I used to frequent before the communist victory in 1975 was a cozy, intimate place with excellent French cuisine. Usually we had found it crowded, but this evening there were only a few tables occupied. We had hardly gotten settled at our favorite corner table when I looked up and saw Don, an old friend whom I had not seen since coming back from the re-education camps. After we had exchanged effusive greetings, Don said, “Why don’t you join us at our table? I have a friend I ‘d like you to meet.”
Don led us over to his table and introduced us to Mr. An, a distinguished, elderly man who appeared to be Chinese. Don told him I had just returned from the camps. Mr. An began to question me about my experiences there. I answered only briefly and tried to change the subject. But Mr. An’s questions were so penetrating that I soon found myself talking volubly to a sympathetic listener.
Finally the conversation got around to Mr. An and I learned that he had worked for an extended period with the United States Agency for International Development on Le Van Duyet Street. I asked him how he had managed to avoid the re-education camps.
Mr. An took a leisurely sip of tea before answering. “The mere fact of my age was very much in my favor,” he said, lowering his voice, although there was no other occupied table within earshot. “The Communists are more concerned with the re-education of the young. But I took a few precautions anyway, moving to entirely new neighborhood where I was not known and trying to remain as inconspicuous as possible. And I have some knowledge of how the communists operate. For example, I recognized their offer of a ten-day re-education course as merely a come-on and didn’t register.”
Tuyet Lan and I ordered rather sparingly from the menu, which was now predominantly Vietnamese. We were content merely to be in a place that evoked so many pleasant memories, and to enjoy the stimulating conversation of Um. An and Don. Mr. An insisted on paying afterward, and we all shook hands and left.
A few days later while I was working in the garden, Tung, one of Mr. An’s children came by. It was very important that I come to see his father at once.
Mr. An lost no time. “I didn’t say anything to you about this the other evening at the Thang Loi,” he began. “It ‘s not the kind of thing one discusses with strangers. But now you are no longer a stranger. Don has told me all about you. I’ve sent for you to ask you a simple question: do you want to escape?”
I was completely taken aback by Mr. An’s abrupt question. I stared at him for a moment, speechless. “yes, of course,” I stammered. “I think everybody wants to escape. But ….”
“Good!” he interrupted and reached for his tea cup. Then you have answered my question.”
“But how can I ?” I asked. ”I have no money. I’ve lost it all already to cheaters who promised to get us out.”
“That doesn’t matter ,” Mr. An said. “I’ll take care of everything for you.”
“But what about my wife and child?” I asked. “I can’t leave without them.”
“Of course not. The three of you.”
“That’s very kind of you, I began, but ….”
“No, I’m not necessarily a kind man,” he interrupted. “And I’m certainly not a rich man. I’m just a sensible man. I know I can’t keep the little money I’ll have left over after paying the communists their price for my escape. They will search us all thoroughly for gold before we get on the boat. So I’m actually lending you the money. You can pay me back later when you’re comfortably settled in the States. It’s a business arrangement, that’s all.”
I shook his hand and thanked him. But I was still troubled. “But, sir,” I said, “I don’t think the government will let a Vietnamese out of the country now. Especially somebody like me who just got out of a re-education camp.”
“You ‘ll all have Chinese names and documents,” Mr. An said, somewhat impatiently. “The Chinese happen to be the Viet Cong’s whipping boy of the moment and the primary source of their national revenue. I’m half Chinese and half Vietnamese, and know my way around quite well in both worlds. The important thing to the government is that a certain amount of gold is collected from each person. Whether he’s Chinese or Vietnamese_ when he leaves the country. Everything else is just to cloud over that basic purpose. Just leave everything else to me. But I’ll need to have your answer tomorrow, definitely. Goodbye, Ngan.”
I waited until after dinner that evening before saying anything to Tuyet Lan about Mr. An ‘s offer. Then I asked her, “How’d you like to take a trip, Tuyet Lan?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she answered, without much interest. “It’s so much trouble getting police permission that it takes all the pleasure out of going anywhere. Where’d you have in mind_ My Tho to see your father?”
“That’s good for a start,” I said in an off-hand manner. “Then later, on to Malaysia.”
“Malaysia?” she asked, her eyes big and puzzled. “What do you mean, Malaysia? Ngan, have you been talking to those crooks again?”
“I don’t think so. Do you remember Mr. An, the nice man we met at the Thang Loi the other evening? Well, he has kindly issued a formal invitation to us to accompany him on a one-way trip to Malaysia. His RSVP must be answered tomorrow.”
“You mean escape?”
“Some would call it that.”
“For goodness’ sake, Ngan!” Tuyet Lan exclaimed with genuine irritation. “This is not something to be joking about!”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m not joking. He really made the offer and wants our decision, yes or no, tomorrow.”
“How can we pay? You know our gold is gone.”
I explained to her Mr. An’s offer. “Don’t worry,” I said. “Mr. An knows what he’s doing. I trust him.”
Tuyet Lan considered what I had said. Then she smiled and reached for my hand, “Oh, Ngan, the Holy Mother has finally answered my prayers! I knew she would, I just knew it!”
She turned her eyes to the place on the wall where the Virgin Mary used to hang, but instead the smiling visage of Ho Chi Minh stared back at her. “I swear, Ngan,” she said, “when we leave here, I’m turning that silly face to the wall, so help me!”
“Control yourself, Tuyet Lan,” I grinned. Uncle Ho can hear anything every word you’re saying. He may even cancel your trip.”
The next day I informed Mr. An of our decision. “Good,” he smiled. “I knew that would be your answer. Why don’t you and your wife meet us for dinner Friday night at the Thang Loi? It’ll give us a chance to get acquainted before the trip.”
Our table that Friday evening was very crowded with Mr. An, his wife, who is in her mid 30s, and their six children, ranging in age from 5 to 18. Hardly had Tuyet Lan and I met them all when the wife of the owner of the restaurant, Mrs. Thang Loi, bustled over to our table and greeted us all effusively. “I’m going with you!” she whispered breathlessly, her large, slightly bulging eyes shining. “I was woo afraid to go at first, but a few nights ago I had this wonderful vision of Bodhisattva Kuan Shih yi and she urged me to go! She promised that she would be with me for the whole trip and protect me from all harm.”
She told the story with great animation and a childish faith and conviction, her face aglow as from some inner light. As she chattered on, Mr. An sat frowning slightly, as though he had heard it all several times before while his wife seemed to find inspiration in her story. Even I, a Catholic, took some comfort from her simple testament of faith.
A few weeks later, after having said goodbye to my parents, we went aboard the Kim Hoang, a frail wooden craft fifty-five feet long and eleven feet across at its widest point. It was moored along the banks of the Tien Giang River, not far from the sea. Tuyet Lan and Tran were told by a crew member to sit aling the low rail. I was led down into the dark hold reserved for the men. As the hold and the upper deck began to fill up with people, I looked on anxiously. I had no idea that so many were going to be packed aboard the small craft. They continued to stream aboard, each with a single, small bundle in his hands, until there scarcely seemed room to breathe. I stood at the hatchway and saw the animated Mrs. Thang Loi seated comfortably along the rail on the opposite side of the boat from my wife. I knew she must be telling the story of her vision to the people sitting around her. In her hands she held a large picture of Buddha set in an ornate silver frame. Everyone smiled at her and seemed to take comfort in her revelation and her presence.
The boat was finally loaded and we waited for the captain to lift anchor and lead the small, overloaded craft downstream. The late November day was sultry, and down in the hold the air was already stale and stifling. Finally, we lifted anchor and headed down the Tien Giang River. In the darkened hold the small patch of light at the hatchway was blinding.
Five hours later the Kim Hoang passed through the mouth of the Tien Giang River and emerged into the South China Sea. The small craft, which had seemed inconsequential enough in the marrow confines of the palm-fringed river, now appeared dangerously flimsy in the open sea. Tuyet Lan, I knew, would be frightened, and I wanted to be near her and comfort her. Passage from the hold to the deck, however, was strictly controlled by the crew. It was a couple of hours before I was allowed above.
I emerged from the hatchway and sought Tuyet Lan among the people packed along the rail. The refugees seemed tensed and a bit fearful as they stared out at the incensed sea, which many were seeing for the first time in their lives. Mrs. Thang Loi turned away from the sea and fixed her eyes on the picture of Buddha she held rigidly with both hands.
“Why are the waves so big, papa?” Tran asked when I came up. Tuyet Lan was clutching him tightly, trying to hide her fear.
“The sea is always rough at this time of the year,” I said, “but it’s nothing to worry about. Just take care of your mother, son.”
“I don’t know what I expected, Ngan,” Tuyet Lan said uncertainly, “but I never thought it would be anything like this. This boat is so tiny and the sea is so big. And look how low it is in the water. My stomach feels funny already. I know I’m going to be seasick.”
“Keep your eyes on the water,” I suggested, “so you can see the motion of the boat in relation to the waves. That way your stomach will get used to the motion of the ship. Don’t keep your eyes fixed on the inside of the boat. You’ll be seasick for sure.”
Seated next to Tuyet Lan, Mr. An’s oldest daughter, Xuan, looked pale. She tried to smile but said nothing. Her mother, a few feet away among her brood, seemed relaxed by comparison. She smiled and waved at me.
“Bon voyage!” I cried out to her.
“Merci,” she called back.
I turned back to my anxious wife. “Just think of the land of freedom we’ll soon be coming to, Tuyet Lan,” I whispered, holding her hand. “After that this little trip will just be another memory for us to share. I know it looks bad, but don’t be afraid. If it wasn’t safe, Mr. A wouldn’t have arranged it. Don’t worry, minh oi [my darling].”
Tuyet Lan smiled. “I’m sorry I’m such a coward, Ngan.”
“Hey, watch what you’re saying!” I grinned, patting her on the cheek. “Tran, cheer up your mother. She doesn’t feel well.”
He looked up at his mother with concern, “Papa says it’s all right. Don’t be afraid, Mama.”
But when I walked away and looked out at the high waves now buffeting the Kim Hoang, which seemed to be riding perilously low in the water, I too felt fear.
That evening, as I learned against the vibrating side of the Kim Hoang, I wondered what would happen if that engine suddenly fail. The prospect of drifting around aimlessly in the South China
Sea waiting for a chance pick-up from a passing ship was terrifying. And what about fuel? If the weather continued to be so heavy, might we not run short? Had the captain made adequate allowance for such bad weather? And how good was he at navigating by compass in the open sea, accustomed as he was to his inland waterways and his short offshore fishing runs? What if he drifted off-course and used up precious fuel going in the wrong direction?
When I awoke the next morning from a troubled sleep, the small patch of sky was a dull gray and the Kim Hoang was pitching and wallowing in a heavy sea. My first thought was of Tuyet Lan and Tran up on that heaving deck and I wondered how they had passed the night.
I was allowed on deck that afternoon just as it began to rain. Tuyet Lan was still huddled in the same place along the rail, with Tran snuggled under her raincoat beside her.
“How do you feel?” I asked.
“Much better now,” she said. “But last night I was really seasick. I thought I would die.”
“Didn’t you use my method?”
“That seems to work only in the daytime,” she said. “But I think I’ll be all right now. Poor Mrs. Thang Loi is really having a hard time though. I think she is troubled by her visions. She kept everybody awake most of the night with her loud praying.”
I glanced over at Mrs. Thang Loi on the other side of the boat. Her face had a strange pallor, and her lips moved soundlessly as she stared at the portrait of Buddha she still held tightly with both hands.
“I think her voice has given out from last night,” Tuyet Lan said. I turned to the bow just as the Kim Hoang plunged into a heavy breaker, lifting salty spray high in the air. “You’re getting soaking wet,”Tuyet Lan said. “You’d better get below.”
“Oh, he’s a little angel. He really tries to look after me, as you told him. Last night he asked me, “Where is our new home, Mama? I told him it was just a little bit farther. He smiled and cuddled up to me. He was like a little stove, too. Kept me warm all night.”
I went down the hatchway. At the opposite side of the boat, Mrs. Thang Loi was pressing the picture of Buddha to her lip. Tears were streaming from her eyes.
When I got below, I told Mr. An about her condition. In the hold the clamor of the diesel engine made conversation difficult.
“I’m not too surprised,” he shouted. “I was worried. I wanted to object to her coming with us, but it was not for me to say since she made her own arrangements.”
“What’s her problem?” I asked.
“No stability. Her family was very rich and spoiled her. Then for some reason she got this religious thing. Got very mystical, always talking about her dreams and visions. I’m afraid she’s going to be a real problem for us.”
The next morning when I woke up, I glanced at the open hatchway and saw that it was another gray, stormy day. The air in the hold had by now grown very stale, almost fetid. But I was lucky and a few minutes later I was standing beside Tuyet Lan and Tran.
“How are my brave little sailors this morning?” I asked with heartiness that I was far from feeling.
“Cold and hungry,” Tuyet Lan said, smiling, “but still here. Tran is fine enough,”
Tran looked up at me and grinned. “Do we get to our new home today, papa?” he asked.
“Maybe tonight,” I said. “Are you still taking good care of your mother, son?”
“Yes, Papa,” He answered quite seriously as his mother smoothed down his hair.
As we talked the Kim Hoang entered a heavy fog bank and thick clouds swirled around, obscuring parts of the deck. Suddenly I heard a scream and a shattering of glass. I turned around just in time to see Mrs. Thang Loi leap wildly to her feet. She screamed again and began dancing around with great agitation, striking and stepping on anyone in her way.
“Bring us a rope!” one of the crewmen yelled down the hatchway as they rushed to subdue her. But even after they had tied her hands and feet, she continued to thrash about, crying out and biting at the legs and feet’s of anyone near her.
“It’s sea madness,” the Kim Hoang’s captain said from his cabin. “The sight of the sea has made her crazy. Take her below where she can’t see it.”
The two sailors dragged the struggling, screaming woman off down the hatchway. The refugees now turned to one another, murmuring ominous interpretation of the ugly scene.
“Poor soul!” Tuyet Lan murmured, shaking her head sadly. “And she was so happy when she came aboard, telling everybody about her vision.”
“I think that’s her problem,” I said. “I mean the discrepancy between her vision and the reality she now sees.”
After a while the sun broke through the low-lying clouds, drenching the wet deck with a shower of light and warming the refugees. Tuyet Lan closed her eyes and lifted her face to the welcome sun. But rain came again that afternoon. I could see the slanting shaft dashing themselves against the side of the hatchway as the water began to seep down into the hold.
“Seem to me we should be in sight of land by now,” Mr. A said, sitting down besides after a few minutes on decks. “I couldn’t see any sign of it. By morning, if we still can’t see land, I think we might be in trouble.”
“You mean we might be lost?”
That night I hardly slept at night at all. I kept hearing the faint cries of Mrs. Thang Loi. I slumped against the vibrating side of the boat and imagined the Kim Hoang wandering aimlessly in the South China Sea, using up precious fuel. Toward dawn I dreamed that the Kim Hoang was wallowing in the mountainous seas, her decks awaited with debris. Awoke, I saw that Mr. A was not in the hold. He returned a few minutes later, his face gray with concern. Settling down, he muttered morosely, “still no land.”
“Are we lost?”
“Well, not necessarily, Ngan. We have lost a lot of time in the heavy seas we’ve been encountering. I only hope we haven’t used up too much fuel.”
I wondered if Mr. A knew more than he was telling me and was merely trying to allay my fears. I hurried up to the deck. Tuyet Lan and Tran were huddled against the rail. Tuyet Lan tried to smile when she greeted me, but I could see that she was upset.
“Didn’t you say we’d be there by now?” she asked.
“Well, under ideal conditions, perhaps,” I reassured her. “But we had some pretty rough going, you know. I’m sure that must have put us way behind our schedule.”
“We’re not lost?”
“Of course, Tuyet Lan!” I exclaimed. “Our captain is an experienced seaman with good navigation equipment. Don’t worry, darling.”
“I don’t see anyone can find his way in this big, empty ocean,” she sighed, looking out at the sea. “Oh, Ngan, sometimes I think I’ll turn out like Mrs. Thang Loi. Only instead of screaming and dancing around, I’ll just jump into the sea, Ngan, I don’t think I can stand it any longer.”
“Minh oi”, I said, alarmed,”don’t talk that way. We’re only hours away from freedom. What’s that compared with the years of war and communism we’ve suffered together? Just think of what it will mean for us to have a new life together in a new society. Think of what it will mean to Tran and all of our other children we will have. We’ve endured so much together, Tuyet Lan. Just be brave for a few more hours, minh oi. Think of our children.”
“Do you want more children, Ngan?” she never mentioned it before,”
“Dozen more,” I answered. “Our freedom children.”
Tuyet Lan laughed.
“Why don’t you go talk to Mr. Ann’s wife were talking with Mr. Ann’s wife,” I added. “She looks lonely. Go cheer her up. See you later, Tran,”
At the hatchway, I looked back and was gratified to see that Tuyet Lan and Mr. An’s wife were talking and laughing with each other.
When I got below, I immediately noticed a disturbance in the stern. Then I heard the captain call out, “All right! Everybody back in your place! We’ll take care of this.”
A few moments later several men came back to our section. Among them was Mr. An.
“What happened, Mr. An? I asked.
“It’s Mrs. Thang Loi,” he said. “She’s dead.”
“Dead?” I gasped.
“Yes. She died during the night. They think she got sick and suffocated on her vomit.”
Just then the captain, followed by two crewmembers carrying the body of Mrs. Thang Loi, came into view. Her eyes were still staring wildly and her mouth was wide open.
“Just a moment, sir,” Mr. A said to the captain, stepping forward. With a gentle motion he quickly closed Mrs. Thang Loi’s eyes and mouth and then stepped back for the crewmen to pass. “Poor thing!” Mr. A murmured, watching the two sailors’ struggle up the hatchway with their unwieldy burden. “For days she talked endlessly about the safe passage to the land of freedom the Bodhisattva had promised her. Little did she dream that she might be going to that state of ultimate peace and bliss, Nirvana. Poor soul!”
A few minutes later Mrs. Thang Loi was buried at sea.
The next afternoon, December 1, our fifth day at sea, I was sitting in the ill-smelling hold, discussing with Mr. An the growing possibility of our running out of fuel, when suddenly we heard shouts and cries from above. Both Mr. An and I started moving, thinking that an accident had occurred. But we noted that an accident had occurred.
But we noted that the cries seemed to have a happy ring. Someone stuck his head down the hatchway and shouted, “Land! Land! We have made it! We have reached the coast of Malaysia!”
Mr. An and I stared at each other.
“Thank God!” breathed Mr. An.
“Yes, thank GOD!” I echoed.
Cheers reverberated through the hold as the refugees overcame days of doubt and mounting fear. I could well imagine Tuyet Lan’s happiness as she stood among the rejoicing throng on deck, waving and shouting as the small craft came closer to that strand of beach.
Suddenly there was a crackle of gunfire from shore. Mr. An and I stared at each other. We heard panicked cries from the refugees above and then the captain shouting, “Get down! Everybody down!”
“What’s going on?” I asked Mr. An. “It can’t be pirates right
here on the shore!”
It’s the shore police,” Mr. An answered. “The Malaysian Police. They don’t want us. They don’t want any more Vietnamese!”
The engine died. We heard the rattle of the chain as the anchor descended. The firing continued as the Kim Hoang lay rolling in the surf, and emergency flags were hoisted aloft. We were flying a SOS distress banner, a white flag, and another banner announcing that we needed food, water, and fuel. About an hour later Mr. An and I were able to go up on deck and saw the Malaysian police and curious onlookers lining the beach. Rifle fire, directed over our heads, continued to come regularly, warning us to leave or at least to keep our distance.
“What’s happening, Ngan?” Tuyet Lan asked, terror kin her voice. “Why are they shooting?”
“I’m not sure, minh oi. A temporary misunderstanding, no doubt,” I answered. “They’ll have it straightened out in a few minutes, I’m sure.”
I stared at the hostile beach less than two hundred yards away. A few cars moved along the tranquil landscape of palm trees and a few buildings =, but the shore was bristling with policemen. The Promised Land had turned into a hostile, menacing fortress. I turned and looked at the wide, empty expanse of lead-gray sea, and saw black clouds boiling up on the horizon. I turned back to Tuyet Lan. “Don’t worry, darling,” I said as comfortingly as I could. “They’ll let us in after a few minutes.”
A crewmember came by and told Mr. An and me that it was time for us to go back below. I squeeze Tuyet Lan’s cold hand and left.
Without the constant noise and vibration of the engine, the hold now seemed eerily quiet.
Everyone talked in subdued tones, Mr. A said, “Back in April 2975, I had many chances to flee, but I refused to leave. It’s my own native country, I thought, and no other place can be as good as one’s homeland. But after four years of the regime…” He shook his head. After a moment he added, “And just when we all thought we had made it … “
“It seems strange, “ I said, “that none of the Malaysian policemen has come out to talk to the captain.”
“It’s more than strange,” Mr. A said sadly. “It’s against every law of decency and humanity.”
In the early evening we received word that two strong swimmers, sent out by the captain to try to establish communication with the shore, had been turned back by gunfire and that one of them was wounded.
When darkness came, the police turned their powerful spotlights on us and continued to fire intermittently. At least three shots pierced the bow, and we scrambled to plug the holes. Around midnight, a storm, which had been brewing since late afternoon, broke with a kind of deliberate intensity. Rain flooded the deck in torrents and the Kim Hoang began to pitch and toss in the turbulent sea. Knowing that the storm would be terrifying to Tuyet Lan and Tran, I tried to get ro on deck to comfort them, but the crew ordered us to stay below to give stability to the Kim Hoang. I hoped Tuyet Lan was with Mr. An’s wife, whose calm courage, I knew, would be a comfort.
Throughout the hours before dawn the storm steadily increased in its fury. The Kim Hoang bobbed and tossed in the angry sea and the rain fell in heavy sheets on the deck. The frightened cries of the women and children up on the deck drifted down into the darkened hold, and my heart ached. Once more Mr. An and I tried to go above and once more we were turned back by the hatchway into the hold. The whole deck must be awash, I thought. As dawn lightened the little patch of space above the hatchway a bit, the storm was raging harder than ever. Suddenly a woman’s terrified voice from the hatchway filled the hold: “We ‘re being washed overboard! Save us! Oh, please save us!”
The crew was unable to restrain us. We dashed to the hatchway and climbed to the deck.
The heaving deck was awash, and pieces of the boat’s superstructure were flung about dangerously in the water. Terrified refugees were screaming into the raging storm, clinging to anything that seemed to offer stability. Many had been washed overboard and were struggling in the churning sea alongside the boat, crying out and grabbing at the sides. Frantic, I look for Tuyet Lan.
She was standing near the cabin, clinging to a portraying beam. Tran was holding on to her hand. I rested over, wondering how I could ever save them. I rushed over, wondering how I could ever save them. I was a poor swimmer with no experience at all with the sea. My foot struck something, and as I looked down, I saw two small plastic water containers floating away. I bent sown and grabbed them..”Thank God,” I shouted to Tuyet Lan above the storm, “You are alright?”
“Oh, Ngan! I’m going to die. I can’t swim!”
“Doesn’t matter!” I shouted. “Just hold on tight to this. Put it under your chin. It’ll keep you up.”
I checked the top of the water container to see that it was tight and handed it to her.
“We can’t, Ngan!” she cried, staring in terror at the sea. Women were screaming and men plunged over the sides, striking out for the shore. Some seemed to be strong swimmers, but many disappeared under the waves.
“We aren’t going out there, “ I shouted. “We stay with the boat. But if it goes sown, you hang on to that water container and me. I’ll take care of Tran. Just hold on to me tight. The waves will take us into shore.”
My assurance seemed to calm Tuyet Lan. She bent down and kissed Tran, saying, “Remember, son, hold on to papa! And don’t be afraid. Papa will take care of us.” As she straightened up, I kissed her lightly on her cheek. She smiled. “We’ll make it, Ngan,” she said, pressing her face against mine. “Together we’ll make it. We always have.” In her left hand she held the water containers. I held Tran tightly.
Suddenly the heaving deck disappeared completely from under our feet as a huge wave picked up the top-heavy Kim Hoang and flipped her over like a matchbox. The water containers went flying away. Tran and Tuyet Lan slipped from my grasp. I grabbed my wife and son but they elude me. I sank into the depths of the raging sea.
Down I went, swallowing huge gulps of water, the briny seawater burning my nostrils. I clawed my way back to the surface. It seemed that I might be rising, but there was blackness coming before my eyes, and my lungs felt as though they would burst. Then my head broke the surface of the water and I gasped desperately for air. I looked around frantically for Tuyet Lan and Tran, but all I could see were pieces of wood, small suitcases, bags, and other debris churning around me. No Tuyet Lan or Tran. I felt myself under again. I flailed my arms, and legs, trying to keep afloat.
Several times I had to break the grasps of other victims as they struggled for their lives. I grabbed at pieces of wood but they were beyond my grasp. I looked desperately around trying to find the shore, but all I could see in any direction were mountainous waves. Finally I was lifted high by a gigantic wave and saw that the shore was directly ahead of me. I struck out in those directions.
I am an inept swimmer. My strength rapidly ebbed. I found myself sinking and the blackness was again before my eyes. I flailed my arms, and my head once more cleared the surface of the water as another huge wave picked me up and bore me rapidly along, then left me sinking, numb and exhausted, in its swirling trough. The blackness was before my eyes again and my head was roaring. Down I went until I was resting on the sea’s sandy bottom. Instinctively I struggled to get my feet under me, and feeling the sand swirl around my ankles, I managed to straighten up. My head was barely out of the water. I tried but was too exhausted to make a sound. I continued to struggle forward.
When I reached shallow water I seemed to weigh a ton, and I stumbled to my knees. I rested a moment and then staggered a couple staggered a couple more steps, only to fall headlong into the water. Again I rose and stumbled on. Finally I sprawled facedown at the water’s edge, my head resting on the sandy shore, and succumbed.
I don’t know how much later it was that I came to. Someone was rolling me over on my back. I looked up and saw the khaki uniform of Malaysian policemen. He reached down and hurriedly patted my shirt pockets with their buttoned-down flaps. Satisfied that they contained no gold or valuables, he moved on. I struggle to my feet, and, fighting off the momentary dizziness, I looked around.
The sight I beheld sickened me.
Scattered along the beach in either direction were the numerous bodies of the refugees that had been washed ashore. Moving among them like vultures were the Malaysian policemen, stripping the bodies of all their valuables.
I wandered among the corpses- mostly women and children—looking for Tuyet Lan and Tran.
A policeman grabbed me by the arm. “Get out!” His English sounded strange, but his meaning was clear. I wrenched my arm free from his grasp and stepped back. “Keep your goddamn hands off of me, you jackal bastard!” I snarled at him in Vietnamese.
He looked at me, surprised, then grabbed me again, this time twisting my arm roughly behind my back and shoving me along. “Out!” he yelled. “Out!”
They wanted no interference while they continued their search for money and gold among the dead. I staggered over to a tall palm tree outside the area where the bodies were lying and sat down. The sea was still high and the wind strong. The thick fronds of the palm thrashed above me as I stared out at the sea. Outhere was not a sign of a ship or a human being. Where only a shot time before there had been a furious struggled for life, only the empty, rolling sea remained. Gradually I became aware of someone standing nearby. I looked up and saw Tung, Mr., Ann’s twelve-year-old son. “Tung” I said, “where are your brothers and sisters?”
“All dead,” he said dully, his face blank with shock. “Mother and Father, too.” I patted his hand.
“What about your wife, Mr. Ngan,” he asked softly, not looking at me, “and your son?”
I looked toward the area where the dead were strewn. The police were leaving. Satisfied that everything of value had been taken they were now finally willing to surrender the bodies to the relatives. I got to my feet and joined the other survivors who were converging on the grisly scene> There were many sound of lamentation as husbands knelt grieving beside their dead wives, and fathers found their dead children. Occasionally, it would be a surviving wife waling over the body of her husband or child> I raced from one body to the next, intent upon my search.
Then my heart jumped. Tran was lying on his back, his eyes closed, his face strangely composed and serene. I knelt down and picked up my son. I held him close. My tears fell on his lifeless body.
But where was Tuyet Lan? I stumbled on in search of my wife, my eyes blurred with tears. I never found her. I retraced my steps and checked again and again, but she was nowhere on the shore. The sea she feared had killer her.
I sat once again under the tall palms. I looked down at my son’s peaceful face on which a faint suggestion of a smile seemed to linger. I bent forward, brushing my lips lightly against his cold, silent mouth. If only I could breathe life back into the little body.
“We must take the child”
I looked up at the sound of footsteps in front of me. Again that strange English—again the brutish faces of the Malaysian policemen . “ Why?” I said, tightening my hold on Team. “ I will bury my son.”
“Mon. We do that.”
“ In the cemetery, of course.”
“ I’ll go with you.”
“No. It is not permitted.”
I noticed a truck nearby into which laborers were piling the bodies of the refugees like cordwood. “I’ll take him to the truck.” The two policemen shrugged then walked on.
I walked over to the truck, murmuring prayers over my son. I kissed him and placed him gently into a corner of the truck. Other refugees stood weeping and mourning their dead, clasping and unclasping their hands in anguished prayer. I stoop at the back of the truck near my son with my head bowed until the truck pulled away in Gastec. Some of the mourners ran after it for a few steps and them fell on the beach, pounding their fists into the sand and wailing to the heavens.
I walked along the beach, glancing out at the area where I had last see Tuyet Lan. The sea was calm not. Waves lapped languidly against the shore as though weary from their earlier murderous orgy.
My loved ones were gone from me. We had come so close to realizing our dream, but fate had interfered. I had taken them and spared my, Why? I wished fervently that is had been the other way around. My life no longer had any meaning. Why indeed had I been spared my wife and son taken from me? I walked from the shore toward a sheltering palm. The wind had risen again, and its chill was penetrating. I sat down against the trunk of the palm and hugged my knees for warmth.
I sensed someone stacking in front of me, but this time I did not bother to look up. Then I heard a soft voice in accented English, “You seem cold. I thought you might need this.”
I looked up and saw Malaysian youth of about seventeen standing in front of me, holding a sarong in his hand. “ My house is right here on the beach,” he continued in his soft voice. “ I have seen some terrible things happen to your people. It saddens my that I can do nothing to help. The police hit me and chase my away when I try.”
I bent my head down again. His kind words touched my deeply but I was too emotionally drained to responded. He seemed to notice my state and started hesitantly to withdraw. Then he stopped and asked, “Why did you leave your country?”
I lifted my head. “ I was looking for a land of freedom.”
He sighed and shook his head and stared out to the opaque sea for a moment. “ This is not a free country either,” he said. Turning back to me he murmured, “You’ll need this,” and dropped the sarong in my lap before walking away.
The shadows of the palms stretched starkly across the white sand like long, black fingers pointing toward the sea grave where my Tuyet Lan lay.
I lowered my head and tried to pray.
FALL OF SAIGON STORIES