s5 logo

Lost at Sea

Rice Magazine

How "boat people" fleeing the aftermath of the Vietnam War discovered safe haven in Houston and how their stories found a home at Rice.

By Jennifer Latson


Lost at Sea

How "boat people" fleeing the aftermath of the Vietnam War discovered safe haven in Houston and how their stories found a home at Rice.

In the desperate days after the fall of Saigon, Vu Thanh Thuy didn't know how she'd survive - or whether she wanted to.

She felt like dying when she watched her parents and siblings leave Vietnam by boat, in the hope of being rescued by the U.S. Navy, and realized she might never see them again. She wished for death when her husband was sent to prison camp for aligning himself with the wrong side in the war - and once more when she herself was imprisoned. After escaping from prison only to be captured and tortured by pirates off the Vietnamese coast, she dreamed of death again.

But Vu, who was a young journalist and a new mother when the Vietnam War ended (her first child was born just two weeks earlier, April 15, 1975), wanted to bear witness to the atrocities of war and its aftermath. And she could not abandon her daughter.

"There were times when I thought of killing myself, but I couldn't kill my baby," she told a Rice University researcher. "So I started finding ways to survive."

Vu's tale is one of a number of extraordinary stories of survival, sacrifice and resilience housed in the Houston Asian American Archive (HAAA) at Rice's Chao Center for Asian Studies. The oral history archive was the brainchild of project manager Anne Chao '05, along with Rice history professor Tani Barlow, who had been appalled to realize that Houston had no collection of archival information about the immigrants and refugees who settled here.

"Houston is the eighth-largest city for Asian-American immigrants in the U.S., but it didn't have a comprehensive repository to preserve and honor their life stories," Chao said. "HAAA pays tribute to their vital role in building this city, and it provides scholarly material that can help revise many aspects of U.S. history: the history of labor, immigration, the South, and Asian-American history as a whole."

Since its inception in 2009, the archive - which contains letters, diaries and other records as well as videotaped interviews - has become a sought-after resource for Asian studies scholars at Rice and beyond, including researchers in China, Hong Kong and Japan. Locally, the Kinder Institute for Urban Research relied on it in part to compile its 2013 Houston Area Asian Survey.

Houston is the eighth-largest city for Asian-American immigrants in the U.S.

The collection, which is online, publicly accessible and free to use, chronicles a wide array of Asian immigrant experiences, with a total of 230 oral histories to date from Korean-, Chinese-, Japanese-, Filipino- and Indian-Americans, among others, who were interviewed by Rice students and interns.

And it includes a proportionally large sample of Vietnamese immigrants - fitting for Houston, a metropolitan area with the country's third-largest Vietnamese population, after Los Angeles and San Jose, Calif. People of Vietnamese descent outnumber those of all other Asian nationalities in Harris County, where the 2010 census identified 80,000 Vietnamese-Americans, nearly a third of the county's total Asian population of roughly 250,000.

In 2012, the Vietnamese American Heritage Foundation, a national nonprofit organization, donated 88 videotaped interviews with Houston-area immigrants to the Rice archive, which was entrusted with making their stories available to researchers and the public. Like Vu, many of these interviewees identified themselves as "boat people," refugees who fled by sea, beating enormous odds to escape the harsh conditions that followed the war's end and the change of regime in South Vietnam.

Vu's story - recounted below based on her nearly three-hour oral history, supplemented with an in-person interview - epitomizes some elements of the larger boat people narrative. But it also stands very much alone, revealing the extraordinary toughness and tenacity that were part of her story long before it became a tale of sheer survival.

An intrepid reporter

In 1969, when Vu was 19 and in her first year of college, she embarked on what would be a lifelong journalism career when she answered a help-wanted ad from a Saigon newspaper in need of someone to translate French horoscopes into Vietnamese. Vu was soon promoted to society reporter - but what she really wanted to be was a war correspondent, covering the conflict that was ravaging her country.

"I wanted to go to the front lines," she said. "My editor said, 'You are a child and a girl. No one would allow you to go there.'"

Vu didn't give up easily, however. Within a year, she had convinced a general in the South Vietnamese army to give her the press seat in his helicopter. Flying to and from the battlefields every day, she reported on the bombing of an elementary school that killed more than 100 children and the discovery of the mass graves of thousands of civilians killed or buried alive in Huê´. For privileged urbanites - like herself - the war seemed distant and abstract, and she wanted to convey its grim realities to the sheltered elite in Saigon.

As she explained in her oral history, this position also gave her a striking glimpse of humanity in the compassion and bravery of people who risked their lives for each other. And it was on the front lines that she met her husband, Duong Phuc, the newsroom chief for the military radio station - her competitor. They married in 1974.

When Saigon fell, Vu was in the hospital with their 2-week-old baby. (In Vietnam, women normally spent a month recovering from childbirth.)

… the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that as many as 400,000 boat people died along the way.

The chaos of the military takeover, however, forced the hospital to discharge everyone, staff and patients alike. Vu rode home with her newborn, watching through the car window as tanks passed in the streets and helicopters hovered overhead.

"I saw people looting homes while other people were running for their lives. I saw dead bodies in the street. I was grieving for my country, but as a journalist I was still trying to make sense of it, to analyze what was happening."

Vu's father was a successful businessman with the means to obtain boat passage for everyone in his family. He hoped to sail into international waters, where he had heard the U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet was waiting to rescue anyone who could get that far. If they made it, they'd be among the first wave of the 1.6 million people who fled South Vietnam over the course of the next two decades - the majority of them by boat.

It would, however, be a dangerous journey. While there are no exact figures on survival rates, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that as many as 400,000 boat people died along the way.

Vu's father offered to bring Duong's relatives as well, but they were afraid they'd be attacked by North Vietnamese forces along the coast. Duong was unwilling to leave without them. He was also optimistic that life would improve if they stayed, after a period of upheaval.

"We're the losers; they're the winners," Vu recalled him telling her when North Vietnamese forces occupied the city. "We're no threat to them anymore. Why should they hurt us now?"

So Vu went to the dock to say goodbye as her parents and siblings boarded a boat without her. She worried it might be the last time she ever saw them.

In fact, they returned the very next day. The voyage into international waters had been so easy that her father had sailed back to reassure Duong's family of its safety. For the moment, at least, there were no military forces anywhere to be seen. Duong's family was unconvinced, but Duong himself had a change of heart. He and Vu would go along, on one condition: If they didn't connect with the U.S. Navy quickly, they would return to Vietnam, since a long trip in the open water would be hard on the baby. Vu's father agreed.

The best-laid escape plans

Reaching international waters was easy, as Vu's father had said. Locating the 7th Fleet was harder. The group sailed for three days without luck. Finally, Vu's father reneged on his promise and turned toward the Malaysian coast. But their boat was almost out of fuel, so he flagged down a fishing boat to buy some of its oil. When the fishing boat was close enough, Duong jumped aboard it. Vu, carrying her baby, jumped too. She felt torn; her father was beside himself. He begged the fishermen to send Duong back. But when Duong reminded him of their agreement, Vu's father relented.

Three hours later, the 7th Fleet picked up the rest of Vu's family, while she and her husband and child returned to Vietnam.

Duong and Vu made their way back to Saigon, but it wasn't long before Duong was sent to a "re-education camp," one of the 150 or so communist-run prisons where an estimated 1 million South Vietnamese military officers and government officials were held without trial after the war.

He was told he would be gone for 10 days. After two years, during which Vu survived by selling most of what she owned - furniture, clothing and even some of the baby formula she had stockpiled before her daughter was born - she decided she couldn't wait any longer. She began to plot Duong's escape.

The prison camp was in a remote area, and although Vu was not allowed to see her husband, she began making the long trek to the camp several times a week. She watched as the guards marched their prisoners deep into the jungle to do forced labor.

"I could stand on the road and wave at him. That really kept me alive," she said. "I started to study the area, study the guards. I could see that they were walking for miles through the jungle, and the guards had no CBs, no way to communicate inside the prison. They only had their guns. So if I picked him up on a motorcycle, it would take them a while to come after us."

She had begun bribing the guards with cigarettes, bringing a pack for them and asking them to slip her husband another pack. She had seen someone in a James Bond movie write a note and slip it inside a cigarette, and so she communicated with her husband that way. Meanwhile, she got a motorcycle ready, arranged for seats on a boat out of the country and had ID cards made.

But on the designated day, when she brought Duong a cigarette with the instructions for his escape, he had a new guard - one she hadn't buttered up with cigarette bribes. The guard found the note, beat Duong and locked him in a 4-by-6-foot container.

"I came back that afternoon to pick him up, not knowing they had found the letter, and I walked right into the trap," Vu recalled. "They searched me and took me away at gunpoint."

Out of the Frying Pan

Vu was taken to a different prison, where her spirits sank to a new low. A guard implied that she would be killed. She didn't care much. She suspected that Duong might be dead already. Her daughter, whom she'd left with a babysitter on the day of her failed rescue attempt, would be sent to live with a foster parent.

"My husband was gone and my baby was with a stranger," she said. "I thought, 'If I'm going to die, better to get it over with quickly.'"

But although she was half-starved and harshly interrogated, she wasn't killed. One day, months later, the prison chief told her that her husband had escaped. He demanded to know where Duong might be. When Vu swore she didn't know, he released her. It seemed like a trap, but Vu wasn't sure what kind. If her husband was still alive, and really had escaped, then surely she was being used as bait to draw him out of hiding. She guessed that she'd be followed as soon as she left the prison, so she tried to elude her trackers.

"I found out that my husband had escaped, and my network of friends had helped him hide. I went into hiding with him and the baby, who by now was almost 3 years old. We had friends helping us hide, but we moved almost every night."

What followed was a succession of failed attempts to leave the country - 20 total - each of which cost a small fortune. The money came from Vu's parents, who had settled in the U.S. by then. What Vu didn't know until later, however, was that her parents scraped together everything they sent her by working two jobs each: her mother on assembly lines and her father as a field inspector for the Dallas Water Department, among other minimum-wage positions.

Finally, Vu, Duong, their now-4-year-old daughter and their new baby, born while they were in hiding, made it out to sea. Two days into the journey, however, the boat's motor died. They drifted for 10 days, rationing their food and water. Then the pirates found them.

… Into the fire

While pirates - or really, fishermen who supplemented their incomes through piracy - had roamed the South China Sea and the Gulf of Thailand for centuries, the postwar diaspora gave them a fresh supply of vulnerable targets. Piracy "swelled like the tidal waves that also plague these waters," according to a 1986 account, published in Reader's Digest, by investigative reporters Clark Norton and Howard Kohn.

Because they operated in unpatrolled international waters, pirates easily eluded law enforcement. Some were after valuables; others seemed motivated purely by malice.

The first pirates who encountered Vu's boat robbed the refugees of the few possessions they carried, then left them adrift. The second set moved on when they saw that there was nothing left to steal. The third set became enraged and rammed the boat, cracking the hull. They were preparing to ram again when a fishing boat intervened and the fishermen begged them to stop. They did; instead of killing the refugees, they took them to Koh Kra, a remote, uninhabited island about 30 miles off Thailand's eastern coast.

Koh Kra had become its own kind of concentration camp, far off the grid, where the pirates brought their captives to be raped, tortured and killed. When Vu and her fellow refugees landed, they found an abandoned lighthouse, its wooden sides charred and scratched with messages in Vietnamese. They were instructions for survival.

"Women, find a hiding place right away," one message read.

"Cut your hair and pretend to be a boy," another suggested.

So the women hid. According to a U.N. official's account, one woman found a sea cave and stood in waist-deep water for more than two weeks to avoid discovery, ignoring the crabs that bit chunks of flesh from her legs - and the piercing screams of her fellow boat people. Some hid in patches of tall elephant grass, but pirates set fire to the grass, scorching the women and obliterating their cover. Pirates tortured the men to find the hiding places of the remaining women. Some did not survive.

Vu lived through the abuse, in part, by thinking of herself as a journalist, not a victim. Instead of trying to hide from the harsh realities of her captivity, she imagined her experience as an undercover reporting assignment.

"At my darkest times, it helped me keep my sanity," she explained. "I promised God that if I could survive this, I wouldn't forget it. I would tell everyone about it."

Vu and her family endured three harrowing weeks on the island. On Nov. 18, 1979, an American field officer for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees landed on Koh Kra after a helicopter pilot noticed the captives. The officer, Ted Schweitzer, accompanied by Thai marine police, rescued the 157 prisoners who'd survived their ordeal.

In the Thai refugee camp where they were taken, Vu and her family found themselves safe from immediate danger for the first time in years. Vu kept her promise, however: She and Duong began sending a series of open letters to their contacts in the international press, telling the boat people's tale. The news stories that followed were the first many Americans had heard of the catastrophic proportions to which the refugee crisis had swelled.

The news coverage helped spur the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, which allowed more refugees to enter the U.S. and streamlined the process for doing so. That year, according to Refugee Council USA, the country admitted an all-time high of 207,000 refugees, mostly from Southeast Asia - including Vu and Duong.

They settled in San Diego, where some of their friends had founded a group called the Boat People S.O.S. Committee. Almost immediately, Vu and Duong became the group's spokespeople, visiting Vietnamese communities across the country to tell their stories.

"As journalists, we only wanted to share information about the boat people, to keep the community aware of what was happening and send the message that parents should not send their daughters alone," Vu recalled. "But then people started sending us money … We got millions of dollars of donations, and then we started our rescue missions in the South China Sea."

With rented ships and volunteer crews, in cooperation with Médecins du Monde and the German organization Cap Anamur, the group rescued more than 3,000 boat people during the 1980s and '90s. On a 1988 mission, Vu was accompanied by Stone Phillips, then a reporter for the ABC news program "20/20," which aired a segment about the group's work.

Vu's own journalism career was far from over, however. After becoming fluent in English, Vu spent 13 years as a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune. What brought her to Houston was an opportunity for Duong to return to his roots in radio broadcasting. In 1997, Houston's Vietnamese radio station was up for sale; Vu and Duong took the leap from California to Houston and into business ownership, co-founding Radio Saigon Houston.

A calling to talk

At the radio station, in the back of a shopping center on Bellaire Boulevard, Duong, 70, still hosts a morning news program every day, while Vu, who is now 65, has a weekly talk show about family and relationships. Their children - five daughters - are fully grown now, and they have four grandchildren. It's been almost a decade since the couple won a lifetime achievement award from the Asian American Journalists Association, honoring their "courage and commitment to the principles of journalism over the course of a life's work."

Vu considers herself "semiretired," even though she still travels frequently for speaking engagements around the world. She didn't hesitate to provide an oral history for Rice's archive in 2011.

"I never say no when someone asks me to talk about my time as a boat person," she said. "That's a calling. I have a duty to talk about it, if it can be helpful to someone else."

That doesn't mean it's any easier to tell her story now than it was three decades ago.

"Talking about it makes me emotional, but it gives me a clearer picture of life. And it keeps me humble. I didn't come by that naturally. Being a female war correspondent in the '70s, you couldn't afford to be humble."

Although Vu's story is singular, resilience like hers is a powerful theme in the Rice archive, according to Arthur Cao, a Jones College senior who collected and transcribed interviews as an intern in 2013. Another commonality, per Cao: Many of the subjects underestimate the significance of their stories.

"All of my interviewees overcame enormous challenges to be where they are today, but almost all of them thought their stories were not worth anyone's attention because they 'just did what they had to do,'" he said. "I found it fascinating and somewhat worrisome that these exemplars of human resilience thought so little of their own history."

For scholars, the archive is a treasure trove of primary sources, Cao said; for the general public, it's an eye-opening resource.

"Immigrants and refugees show up as mere numbers in mainstream media, where they're often portrayed as enormous threats to natives," he said. "HAAA, on the other hand, gives immigrants a voice and an opportunity to tell their side of the story."

At a time when refugees are once again front-page news and terrorism has become a war with no front lines, Vu hopes her and her husband's story will offer an uplifting message to anyone who feels afraid.

"We wanted to tell our neighbors how bad it was during the war - and that we survived," she said. "You will, too. Of course no one wants bad things to happen, but once they do, there's always something more that you can make from it. You learn more from suffering and trouble and pain than you do from happiness. You grow from hardships."