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Phỏng vấn Tác giả của 'Tình yêu, Ngục tù & Vượt biển'

 

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Ra mắt hồi kí 'Tình yêu, Ngục tù và Vượt biển'

Ra mắt hồi kí 'Tình yêu, Ngục tù và Vượt biển'

Đối với những thuyền nhân tị nạn cộng sản sau năm 1975, một trong những nỗi ám ảnh kinh hoàng nhất của hành trình tìm tự do là ký ức về những vụ cướp biển. Những tên hải tặc hoành hành trên Biển Đông như chốn không người đã gây biết bao tang tóc và đau thương, và để lại những hậu quả tâm lý nơi một số người cho mãi cho tới ngày hôm nay. Những trải nghiệm hãi hùng đó được ghi lại trong một cuốn hồi ký do Tủ sách Tiếng Quê Hương phát hành mới đây tại Hoa Kỳ.

Hồi ký "Tình Yêu, Ngục Tù, và Vượt Biển" của Vũ Thanh Thuỷ và Dương Phục, hai cựu phóng viên chiến trường của Việt Nam Cộng Hoà, đã được tổ chức tại tư gia ông bà Charles Cường và Kim Yến ở bang Virginia vào chiều Chủ Nhật 23/10. Sau đây là cuộc trao đổi giữa Hoài Hương và tác giả cuốn "Tình yêu, Ngục tù và Vượt Biển" tại buổi ra mắt sách. ​

VOA : Kính chào anh Dương Phục và chị Vũ Thanh Thuỷ. Thưa, "Tình yêu, Ngục tù & Vượt biển"… Xin được hỏi, anh hay chị đã chọn đặt tình yêu lên trên ngục tù và vượt biển?

Nhà báo Dương Phục : Cuộc đời chúng tôi đi làm phóng viên chiến trường vào sinh ra tử rồi bị đi tù rồi vượt biển, nhưng mà chúng tôi nghĩ rằng là trên tất cả mọi sự, tình yêu phải được cao lên trên hết. Tình yêu đây không phải là tình yêu vợ chồng, lứa đôi mà là tình yêu, tình người… Trước hết chúng tôi muốn nói tình yêu của Thượng đế đã che chở chúng tôi suốt qua những đoạn đường đó, nhờ thế chúng tôi mới có thể sống sót cho tới ngày nay để mới có thể viết lại. Vì thế tình yêu bao giờ cũng là bên trên và cao hơn tất cả đối với chúng tôi.

VOA : Cuốn hồi ký này cũng có thể được coi như một sử liệu nói lên một giai đoạn rất đau thương của dân tộc, được biết cuốn hồi ký này có ấn bản tiếng Anh, thì xin anh chị cho biết muốn gửi đến 2 thành phần độc giả (tiếng Việt và tiếng Anh) là gì?

Nhà báo Dương Phục : Vâng, chúng tôi đương cố gắng hoàn tất bản tiếng Anh bởi vì thực sự mục đích ban đầu là muốn viết cho giới trẻ mà giới trẻ ở đây thì Anh ngữ chắc chị cũng đồng ý là các cháu nó thông thạo hơn là Việt ngữ, vì thế chúng tôi muốn kể lại tất cả những chuyện gian khổ của chúng tôi, không phải để các cháu bị dằn vặt về những cái đau khổ ấy, mà để hiểu được cái giá trị của sự tự do mà các cháu được hưởng ngay bây giờ.

Nhà báo Thanh Thuỷ : Vâng, và đồng thời cũng để các cháu không quên nguồn cội. Tại vì qua câu chuyện đó các cháu mới thấy rằng cái cuộc đời của mỗi con người, nhất là người Việt Nam mình, những người đã may mắn thoát được ra hải ngoại thì không thể nào quên cái nguồn gốc của mình. Sở dĩ chúng ta có được ngày nay là bởi vì những người đi trước và những người ở các quốc gia tự do đã đón tiếp chúng ta, thành ra mình cũng có cái bổn phận nào đó với những người còn lại. Ngoài ra đối với chúng tôi là những người làm truyền thông, thì chúng tôi mong ước rằng cái ấn bản tiếng Anh đó sẽ trở thành một thứ tài liệu cho truyền thông Mỹ bởi vì truyền thông Mỹ có lẽ vì sự thiếu hiểu biết về văn hoá và con người và đất nước cũng như cuộc chiến Việt Nam mà đã có những cái quan niệm không có công bằng đối với lại người Việt Nam chúng ta và đất nước Việt Nam của chúng ta. Thành ra hy vọng qua cuốn sách này, hy vọng sẽ thuyết phục được những người bạn đồng nghiệp mình, nếu không thay đổi cái nhìn đối với Việt Nam thì ít nhất họ cũng biết thêm được một số điều. Việt Nam mình vẫn nói "vô tri thì bất mộ"- nếu không biết thì không thể nào mà thương, mà quý mà trọng được. Thành ra hy vọng qua cuốn sách này, chúng tôi gửi một thông điệp đến giới trẻ, đến giới truyền thông Hoa Kỳ để họ có một cái nhìn đứng đắn hơn, công bằng hơn đối với Việt Nam Cộng Hoà.

VOA : Dạ thưa sóng dữ, chiến tranh, bão táp vv.. nhưng có thể nói là không có gì kinh hoàng cho bằng gặp cướp biển Thái Lan. Anh chị đã trải qua cái kinh nghiệm kinh hoàng đó, nó có làm anh chị thay đổi nhân sinh quan của mình không? Nó ảnh hưởng như thế nào tới cuộc sống riêng tư cũng như trong sự nghiệp truyền thông của anh/chị?

Nhà báo Dương Phục: Vượt biển cũng như nạn hải tặc phải nói là một thảm trạng. Đó là cái giá kể ra là khá đắt trên con đường tìm đến tự do mà cũng là một cái dịp để thế giới cũng như là thế hệ con cháu biết là bố mẹ, anh chị em, nhất là bà của chúng nó đã phải trải qua những khốn khổ nào để các cháu có mặt ngày hôm nay ở đây.

Nhà báo Thanh Thuỷ : Vâng đối với riêng cá nhân của chúng tôi là người phụ nữ, trong 21 ngày đêm ở trên đảo Kra, thường xuyên phải chạy trốn cuộc săn người, đúng là một cuộc săn người như săn thú… phải trốn dưới hang động, trốn trên những cây cao, trốn trong các bụi rậm đầy rắn rết… Trải qua những điều đó càng làm cho chúng tôi xác tín về cái bổn phận của những người sống sót. Cá nhân chúng tôi là những người làm truyền thông cảm thấy mình có nhiệm vụ phải nói thay cho những người đã không có tiếng nói để cho thế giới biết về những điều đau khổ, những sự phi nhân bản, những sự tàn ác của bọn cướp biển, cũng như dân tộc Việt Nam mình đã chịu đoạ đày như thế nào. Riêng tôi cũng thấy một điều, nếu mà mình đã sống sót những điều đó rồi thì mình không còn gì để mà sợ nữa, bởi vì cướp biển với hải tặc nó còn kinh hoàng hơn sự chết, thành ra thoát ra được khỏi cái đó rồi bây giờ mỗi lần gặp những khó khăn trở ngại hay cảm thấy nản lòng trước một điều gì, chúng tôi lại nhìn lên tấm hình đảo Kra treo ở trong văn phòng để mà thấy rằng không có một cái điều gì đáng sợ bằng cái điều đó cả, và cái điều đó nó trở thành một sức mạnh, một động lực giúp mình dễ dàng vượt qua được những cái khó khăn thử thách của đời sống.

VOA : Xin cám ơn câu trả lời của anh chị, đảo Kra là một "thiên đường của cướp biển", nhưng lại là một "địa ngục trần gian" của các nạn nhân của chúng. Mỗi khi nghe nhắc tới đảo Kra thì cái hình ảnh nào nó hiện ra trong tâm trí anh, chị?

Nhà báo Dương Phục : … Câu hỏi của chị làm cho tôi… phải nhớ lại những điều mình muốn quên đi. Ở đó có những nơi mà cá nhân chúng tôi đã đưa Thuỷ đi trốn trên những hốc cao, những ngọn hải đăng, những nơi mà không thể nào tưởng tượng được con người có thể chấp nhận mưa gió bão bùng trên đỉnh núi chỉ để tránh sự truy lùng của hải tặc. Ở trên đảo có những điều tôi nhớ thì dĩ nhiên là buồn phiền đau khổ, uất ức lắm thế nhưng mà như đã nói với chị, cái giá phải trả cho tự do chúng tôi phải chấp nhận, đành phải chấp nhận.

Nhà báo Thanh Thuỷ : Riêng cá nhân chúng tôi là người phụ nữ, thì chúng tôi qua cái kinh nghiệm này, muốn làm sao để mà giúp tất cả những nạn nhân của hải tặc có cái can đảm nhìn vào một cái điều bi thảm trong cuộc đời, mà cái đó là một bi thảm chung của cả đất nước, của dân tộc, không có một điều gì mà phải cảm thấy bị nhục nhã. Những người làm ác là những người đáng phải nhục nhã. Người Việt Nam mình rất là anh hùng trong những cái bi thương đó mà vẫn sống sót, không hiểu cái nền văn hoá ngày xưa cho những điều đó là những điều nhục nhã và chính những điều đó đã làm cho những người bạn đồng thuyền của chúng tôi, bây giờ qua ba mươi mấy năm rồi vẫn cảm thấy đau buồn tủi hổ. Tôi không dám nói cái này là Mỹ hoá nhưng mà quả tình nếu theo quan niệm của người Tây phương, thì đó là những người đáng thương, đáng trọng đáng quý, và đáng được an ủi che đỡ, không phải một cái điều gì để phải nhục nhã cả. Đó là điều mà tôi mong ước được nói lên. Chỉ có cách nhìn lại quá khứ, đối diện với cơn ác mộng thì mới có thể thắng được cái kinh nghiệm kinh hoàng đó, tại vì tôi thực sự muốn gửi một lời nhắn đến tất cả những nạn nhân hải tặc: "đừng sợ hãi quá khứ, mình không làm một cái điều gì để mình phải buồn phải sợ hãi cả. Hãy dùng đó là một cái sức mạnh để giúp cho những người, nhất là những phụ nữ và những người gặp những hoàn cảnh khốn khó khác để mà dùng tất cả những cái đau thương đó thành cái sức mạnh cho chính mình."

VOA: Câu hỏi cuối Hoài Hương xin được hỏi, là những phóng viên chiến trường rồi vượt biên với nhau này, gặp hải tặc này… mà tới bây giờ vẫn còn làm việc được với nhau, thai nghén và viết một cuốn sách như vậy, thì xin được hỏi anh chị bí quyết nào để anh chị duy trì tình yêu đằm thắm như vậy cho mãi tới bây giờ qua những cái kinh nghiệm hãi hùng như vậy?

Nhà báo Thanh Thuỷ : Không biết anh Phục thì sao riêng đối với Thanh Thuỷ, ngoài tình yêu ra chúng tôi còn có tình bạn. Tình bạn là tình yêu không có cánh, thành ra nó còn mãi và đó chính là điều gắn kết chúng tôi.

Nhà báo Dương Phục : Cám ơn câu hỏi của HH. Chúng tôi yêu thương nhau trong chiến tranh, qua ngục tù qua vượt biển và cho tới bây giờ vẫn gắn bó với nhau bởi vì chúng tôi không những là vợ chồng mà còn là đồng nghiệp, là bạn với nhau trong công việc, vừa có tình vừa có nghĩa với nhau và có lẽ khiến chúng tôi gắn bó với nhau cho tới giờ này. Cám ơn chị.

VOA : HH xin chúc mừng anh chị về tác phẩm mới nhất "Tình yêu, Ngục tù & Vượt Biển", và xin thay mặt cho Đài VOA và thính giả, độc giả của đài, xin cám ơn anh chị đã bỏ thì giờ cho cuộc phỏng vấn này.

Houston’s Vietnamese Language Radio Binds Community

 

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Houston’s Vietnamese Language Radio Binds Community

HOUSTON - "You come up with a question and I will tell you when to listen, at what time and what day to listen," Radio Saigon Houston host Vu Thanh Thuy tells her listeners. Her voice is familiar to many Vietnamese in the United States.

In a midday program this week, she spoke on the air with a co-host in Dallas as listeners called in to discuss everything from family life and politics to events in their homeland. "This morning our station did an interview with a priest in Vietnam who was leading a group of 18,000 protesters in Central Vietnam against the pollution," Vu Thanh Thuy said, illustrating the reach of her program.

Many of her listeners, she said, have a keen interest in what happens in Vietnam and are especially concerned over Chinese claims to Vietnamese territory.

Houston now has the largest community of Vietnamese in the U.S. outside the state of California. Some Vietnamese stations in other parts of the United States also run the program, and there also are listeners in Vietnam who can hear it on the internet.

Thriving community

The Vietnamese-language radio station is located on Houston's Bellaire Boulevard, in an area where even street signs are in Vietnamese. Nearby is a large Vietnamese Buddhist pagoda, along with a Vietnamese Catholic church. The shopping center where Radio Saigon Houston has its studios is full of Vietnamese restaurants, tea shops, bakeries and health food stores.

Many of the people in these establishments speak only Vietnamese. For some who arrived from Vietnam recently, as well as for many who have been in the U.S. for decades, this zone is a place of comfort that exists within the diverse landscape of the nation's fourth-largest city.

Vu Thahn Thuy of Radio Saigon-Houston. (G. Flakus/VOA)

Vu Thahn Thuy of Radio Saigon-Houston. (G. Flakus/VOA)

Vu Thanh Thuy said the station can help people who grew up in Vietnam adjust to life in Houston. She said, "I like to find ways for my community to adjust better to the new life."

The Vietnamese community in Houston began with refugees who fled their country after the communist takeover of Saigon in 1975, then grew as subsequent waves of immigrants arrived. In the 1980's, many Vietnamese fled communist rule by taking to the South China Sea. They were known as the "boat people."

After living in refugee centers in other Southeast Asian nations, thousands came to the United States. More recently, Vietnamese who have relatives in the U.S. have obtained visas through a family reunification program. These separate waves of immigrants have infused the Houston community with fresh connections to the language and culture of their homeland, and in turn, that has enhanced the value of the radio station.

"To me the radio station is a way to help the latecomers to catch up with the ones who came before them," says Vu Thanh Thuy.

Journalists in business

She and her husband, Duong Phuc, were journalists in Vietnam. She later became a reporter for the San Diego Union newspaper, now known as The San Diego Union-Tribune since a 1992 merger. The couple bought the station in Houston with the idea of continuing their journalist vocation.

Duong Phuc and Vu Thahn Thuy in the Radio Saigon-Houston studio. (G. Flakus/VOA)

Duong Phuc and Vu Thahn Thuy in the Radio Saigon-Houston studio. (G. Flakus/VOA)

A broadcast station, however, also is a business, and it relies on revenue from advertising from local establishments and national brands. Vu Thanh Thuy says the station as well as the many Vietnamese businesses advertising on it have prospered in the U.S. free enterprise system in a way that would have been difficult in Vietnam.

"If you were born rich [in Vietnam] then you would have a better life, and if you were born poor, well, that is it for you, but in America this is really the land of opportunity," says Vu Thanh Thuy.

One issue she and her husband confronted was figuring out the size of the potential audience. Advertisers usually want to know how many listeners will potentially hear their commercial announcements. Estimates of the size of Houston's Vietnamese community range from 150,000 to as many as 300,000.

"A lot of Vietnamese did not fill out their census papers because we come from a country that has no trust of the authorities," she observes.

Another challenge is maintaining an audience for Vietnamese broadcasts among younger people, who often prefer to communicate in English. Vu Thanh Thuy remains optimistic.

"The young people's mind changes with time, especially when they have children. They want their children to be bilingual. It is always better to have more than one language."

She says the station has attracted some younger listeners through youth-oriented programs in which hosts speak both Vietnamese and English.

A Woman Rescued By Boat People SOS Sails Back to Save Others: Vu Thanh Thuy

 

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VU THANH THUY

Vu Thanh Thuy , her family and their fellow boat persons were rescued by a UN ship after weeks of repeated assaults by pirates in the Gulf of Thailand. Ever since, she was inspired to empower other Vietnamese refugees by returning to the South China Sea.

Vu Thanh Thuy and her husband Duong Phuc, who also was a boat person, worked actively with Boat People S.O.S. to organize mercy missions that rescued over 3,000 boat persons.

Vu Thanh Thuy and Duong Phuc have become internationally recognized and have won many awards for their accomplishments as journalists, activists, and leaders. Vu Thanh Thuy's life story and activism have been featured in national media such as Time, USA Today, The New York Times, ABC, and CNN.

In 2011, Vu Thanh Thuy, along with 19 other founders of BPSOS, were awarded with the Community Legacy Award for their outstanding services and contributions toward the organization's mission at the 30 year anniversary gala dinner in Washington, D.C. Without Thuy's personal sacrifice, solid determination, long term dedication an commitment, the organization would not be where it is today.

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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

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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."

Radio Saigon Lures Vietnamese to Houston

Ethnic station is said to have a hand in bringing more Vietnamese from West Coast

CYNTHIA LEONOR GARZA, Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle

Published 5:30 am, Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Vu Thanh Thuy broadcasts at Radio Saigon Houston. The station has grown in popularity and size over the past 8 years and tries to reach out to the next generation of Vietnamese-Americans. Photo: Steve Ueckert, Chronicle

Vu Thanh Thuy broadcasts at Radio Saigon Houston. The station has grown in popularity and size over the past 8 years and tries to reach out to the next generation of Vietnamese-Americans. Photo: Steve Ueckert, Chronicle

The phone lines are open.

Today's topic is sensitive, Radio Saigon Houston host Vu Thanh Thuy says into the mic in her balmy voice. To dip. And dip the same utensil or chopsticks again in the communal bowl or plate.

One woman tells Vu, sitting in her Bellaire Boulevard studio, it makes her queasy to watch her aunt re-dipping her spoon into the soup pot. That instigates another caller who says America is too clean, that it respects individuality over family traditions of sharing food.

Over the last decade, Vu and her husband, Duong Phuc , Radio Saigon Houston KREH 900 AM co-owners, have taken a strong foothold in the Houston Vietnamese media market with programming that mixes talk shows with news and music. The station's presence is also credited with helping spur Vietnamese migration from the West Coast to the Houston area.

The station's growth with the Vietnamese-language radio format also illustrates a thriving and expanding Vietnamese community in Houston with an appetite for programs in their native language. Their staff has grown from five to 35 part-time or full-time employees, plus more than 80 contributing hosts.

"This is just the beginning," Vu said. "At first, we thought the language will die down with the older generation, but our success has proven that wrong."

Although California has long been considered the Vietnamese epicenter in the U.S., over the past few years Houston's comparably cheap real estate, cost of living and investment opportunities have lured West Coasters.

Word about Houston's attractive market has spread in part due to the connection made by Radio Saigon Houston's simulcast news program that airs in Orange County, Calif., San Jose, Houston and the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Vu said. Californians - and anyone who can access the radio station via the Internet - can get a dose of Houston from the daily programs.

Radio Saigon Houston has helped spread the rags to riches stories of some of Houston's most successful Vietnamese entrepreneurs, said Danny Nguyen, co-founder and president of the Vietnamese American Houston Chamber of Commerce .

"I have a lot of inquiries from people in California. There's a lot more opportunities in terms of investment and development" in Houston, said Nguyen, a commercial real estate developer and investor.

He's heard of people who sold their $800,000 California homes and moved to Houston, bought a bigger, cheaper house and used the leftover money as business capital.

"Radio tends to be more ubiquitous than newspaper and they do have stories about other Vietnamese around the country. Through word of mouth people learn about opportunities. That's how Houston is beginning to become known," said Julian Do , Southern California director for New America Media , the largest national collaboration of ethnic news organizations.

Steve Le, who immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam when he was a baby, heard the buzz about Houston while living in the Golden State. The 25-year-old moved here from Orange County last year to start a cabinet business.

"There's not a day that goes by that I don't meet a California transplant," Le said. He said Vietnamese radio has helped create word-of-mouth build-up in California about Houston's opportunities.

Vu Thanh Thuy broadcasts at Radio Saigon Houston. The station has grown in popularity and size over the past 8 years and tries to reach out to the next generation of Vietnamese-Americans. The station's impact on migration would not be unprecedented. Black radio was instrumental in the 1940s and '50s during the massive African-American migration from the South to the Midwest and Northeast.

In the Houston area, Vietnamese make up the largest group of Asians at nearly 62,000, according to the latest U.S. Census figures.

Room to grow

By numerous accounts, California's Vietnamese media market is nearly saturated. But in Houston, there's room to grow.

Radio Saigon's competition also has taken note of H-town.

Little Saigon Radio 1520 AM relocated its headquarters from California to Houston last year, said Cuong Quoc Nguyen , director of operations at the station. It dominates the California Vietnamese radio market, but while it has had a decade-long presence in Houston, the local content was limited over the past five years, he said.

While most of Little Saigon Radio's staff remains in California, there are now eight full-time Houston staffers. The media research company Arbitron does not gather ratings for the station or its competitor.

Duong managed Little Saigon Radio from 1997 until 2001, when he and his wife, who also worked there, left to start their station.

Radio Saigon Houston is just one of the media products under parent company Mass Media Inc., owned by Vu and Duong.

Their bilingual newspaper, Saigon Houston Weekly, was launched last October, and Vu said they plan to start a home delivery service in October.

All of their print products plan to add more English content. But for the most part, they are not forgoing Vietnamese radio programming.

Vu said there's a revival of interest in the language and culture among the younger generation, especially when they reach college age. Also, many parents take their children to Vietnamese language classes on the weekends.

"They realize that being bilingual is better and bicultural is better," Vu said.

But there are still plenty of young Vietnamese who prefer English - and the station hopes to serve their needs, too.

Hairstylist Stacy Cao , 44, has lived in Houston for 15 years. She's more comfortable speaking Vietnamese so she tunes in to Radio Saigon Houston's morning news show in the car while taking her kids to school.

"Sometimes you don't have time," Cao said. "Usually in the morning they have news so if you don't watch TV or read the newspaper you can know [what's happening] from them."

It's a constant battle with her three children, who'd rather hear a hip hop station. Though they prefer English format radio stations, Cao thinks they'll come around to Vietnamese. For now, they're learning the language by attending weekend classes at a church.

Radio Saigon Houston's programs feature a range of guests - mechanics, immigration lawyers, real estate agents and school officials.

On the Love and Family show, most of Vu's topics are universal, such as communication between parents and children. But people always address cultural pride.

And that inevitably brings up the way things are done in Vietnam versus in America. Vu has talked about parents being friends with their children - instead of just telling them what to do.

Internationally known

Vu and husband Duong, former award-winning journalists in South Vietnam, are fixtures at community events. They are known internationally for breaking the story of the "boat people" - which they were a part of - who fled Vietnam after the country fell under communist rule.

They distinguished themselves nationally with their role as a conduit of information for Vietnamese evacuees during Hurricane Katrina.

The couple was honored with the Asian American Journalists Association's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006 for their work. They have also received several local and national small business and entrepreneur awards, including one from the U.S. Pan Asian American Chamber of Commerce.

Internet-based and ethnic media are the fastest growing media today, said Sandra Ball-Rokeach, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California . There's a thirst for niche news, and advertisers are increasingly targeting specific communities.

Vu said her station also fills a gap left by the mainstream media.

''To me, local news is what you always need to know. ... I don't believe American journalists can have access to the depth of ethnic stories since the ethnic communities usually keep to themselves," Vu said. "The ethnic media is like the gatekeeper of the community."