I Became the Boat People
I Became the Boat People
A Refugee’s Path to America
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The Vietnam War featured political upheavals, battle tactics, and lots of publicity. But underneath all that were everyday people whose lives were forever altered by three decades of fighting. In this memoir, author Don Lao looks back at what the people of Vietnam went through with this account of how his family went from living an honest and simple life to losing everything in a harrowing war that engulfed Southeast Asia. Lao lived an idyllic childhood with his parents, eight brothers, and four sisters, but he was eventually swept into the South Vietnamese Army. Although he was born in Vietnam, he was Chinese in heritage—and so he was always treated like a foreigner, even when he was fighting the communists. When Saigon fell, he sought a better life, leading him to a cargo ship along with other refugees who became known as the boat people. Their path to America was the first step in finding better lives and reconnecting with loved ones. Their tenacity and resiliency earned them the ultimate freedom as Americans living the American dream.

The Hellish Night

With less than a month of military training, we were on our way to the combat zone! We boarded a C-130 and flew from Saigon to a military airbase in Da-Nang, Central Vietnam. After a briefing the following morning, our convoy left Da-Nang and headed north. On our way to the battlefield, I saw wreckage of abandoned armored vehicles and overturned military trucks scattered on both sides of that stretch of Highway One. We continued inland towards the mountainous region of Hue, the most northern city of South Vietnam that bordered North Vietnam. When we arrived at the war zone, tanks from the 3rd Airborne Division were leaving the area with dead bodies stacked on top of them.

The same routine went on for about a month before we received an order to launch a surprise attack. Our lieutenant did the prep talk that evening and got us ready for the combat mission. The sky was pitch black and the air was still. All was quiet except the rhythmical chirping of crickets around us while we lined up single file in complete silence with radios off. We marched towards the river and waded across a waist-deep section silently. When we approached the valley, it was exceptionally quiet, until all hell broke loose. A hail of gunfire from the mountain ridge around us formed strings of lights flying towards me. I ran for cover with my heads down. I got down on the ground and returned fire, shooting blindly in total darkness attempting to aim at the origin of the enemy gunfire. Gunfire crisscrossed across the sky like lightning, and earsplitting explosions of mortar shells were like loud thunders pounding over me.

After unloading every bullet that I had on me, I headed for the mountainside and I could hear bullets hitting the ground next to me. I got behind a big piece of big rock and waited for the gunfire to die down. While my heart was pounding, I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that my life was going end soon. The fear of dying was so overwhelming; I started praying and couldn’t help thinking that I would never see my family again! That was probably the longest night of my life. The night combat scene of the movie “Platoon” by Oliver Stone reminded me of that hellish night.

My Worst Nightmare

In order to blend in with the fishing villagers, we dressed down for the trip of our lives. It was quiet on our way up as everyone was nervous. We arrived in the evening; it was a bit windy, but there was no storm in the forecast. We got out of the van quickly and, our contact led the way through the village towards the dock. I noticed something wrong from the strange looks of those villagers along the way. Before we went any further, I stopped the group and told them to go back to the drop-off point.

When I got back to the village, I found our group sitting by the roadside surrounded by the North Vietnamese soldiers pointing AK-47’s at them! I made eye contact with Yen and my brothers and slowly drove past before stopping further down the road. Seeing my loved ones at gunpoint, I was sick to my stomach and my heart was racing; I couldn’t breathe and my head was spinning.

I went into town the next day and found out where the group was being held. It was a makeshift prison of two barn-like structures with corrugated metal roofs and sheets of metal with small holes as the sidings. There was one for male prisoners and another one for females. The area was fenced off with barbed wire and a guarded gate in front. I approached the guard and got his permission to send our group food. The situation couldn’t have been worse!

Our Ship Became A Floating Refugee Camp

We ran into rough seas the first night and the ship was rocking back and forth violently, but it seemed to be holding up quite well with the weight of the cargo and passengers. We found out a child died during that night; the captain held a brief ceremony the next morning and buried the child at sea.

While we were at sea, everyone lined up for distribution of hot soup and congee, along with drinking water, twice a day. Makeshift toilets built with scrap wood from unused pallets and tarp hung along the side for privacy were set up along the edge of the ship.

As our ship got near Hong-Kong, it was intercepted by the Hong-Kong coast guard and Royal Navy patrol boats. We were chased by the patrol boats with flashing lights and blaring sirens behind us. They finally caught up with us and blocked our ship from getting too close to the harbor, but our captain refused to leave and dropped his anchor. The Huey-Fong vessel became a floating refugee camp outside of the Hong-Kong harbor from that moment.

The Hong-Kong government started daily communication with our captain and agreed to provide drinking water and canned food to us. We ended up having crackers and sardines for a month and spent the Christmas of 1978 on the ship. Boats with reporters from around the globe circled our ship, taking photos of the refugees onboard. We crafted the wording for banners that we hung along the railing of our ship, urging the United Nations and the world to intervene on our behalf. We held up some of the banners and waive at the reporters; they screamed and jumped while the reporters were busy snapping photos. Because I speak fluent English, I served as our captain’s interpreter, and I gained the trust and respect of our captain and his crew.

A reporter from the Los Angeles Times came over the radio of our ship and our captain put me on the two-way radio for an interview…

Don Lao, CPCU, who majored in English, served as the coeditor for the International Commission for Control and Supervision, which carried out the Paris Peace Treaty for the Vietnam War in 1973. He has been an insurance professional for more than thirty years and lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with his family.

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