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 life 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.
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I BECAME THE Boat People
A Refugee's Path to America
By Don Lao
Abbott PressCopyright © 2013 Don Lao, CPCU
All rights reserved.
Moving to Vietnam
The Japanese dominated Vietnam, along with other Southeast Asia countries during WWII. When the Japanese surrendered in 1945, the French took over the domination of Vietnam in 1946.
My Grandpa expanded his business, of a retail store selling imported products in Quangdong (Canton), China, to become an exclusive supplier for the French government and provide transportation services to the French troops in North Vietnam. Grandpa and his first wife had a son and a daughter; he married my Grandma after his first wife passed away. Grandma gave birth to four boys (my Dad, Uncle Chin, Uncle Wing and Uncle Wah) and two girls, Aunt Guy and Aunt Le-Quan.
In order to meet the demand of the expanded business, Grandpa moved his entire family from China to a city called Tien-Yen in North Vietnam during the early 1940's, and I was born there on July 4th, 1948. Everyone lived with Grandpa and Grandma in a multi-room mansion in Tien-Yen.
Tien-Yen was a small town near Mong-Cai, a Vietnamese city bordering China where people crossed between China and Vietnam; it's about 300 kilometers northeast of Ha-Noi, the capital of Vietnam. Tien-Yen's population was about 5,000 and the vast majority of the people there were immigrants from China.
Tien-Yen has a mild climate and beautiful scenery, with rolling hills and a river running through town. Farming was the main occupation because of the fertile soil and favorable climate with abundant rainfall. Fruit trees were also productive; my Mom said grapefruits from the trees in our backyard were especially sweet and juicy. Residents of Tien-Yen were typical country folk who were friendly and cared for one another in this close-knit community with virtually no crimes. The transition for our family was quite smooth with Grandpa's presence and leadership well accepted by the people of Tien-Yen. In fact, we consider Tien-Yen our hometown.
Grandpa was a typical "China-man" – 5'6", 140 pounds with light skin, black hair and brown eyes; we all have a receding front hairline like him. Grandpa went to schools in China and he was multi-lingual, speaking fluent Vietnamese and French in addition to Chinese. He built a good relationship with the French officials and he had high standards in running his business. His honesty and integrity earned the trust and respect of the French as well as his business associates, and the people of Tien-Yen. High-ranking French officials stationed in Tien-Yen were good friends of Grandpa; they visited him frequently and were treated with good food and French wine. Banquets were also held from time to time to entertain these important guests.
In addition to providing the French troops with daily goods and food, our family also owned a fleet of trucks handling their transportation needs, including hauling military supplies for them. Our trucks were oft en ambushed by the Viet-Minh (the Vietnamese guerilla force) but we were undeterred, with strong support and handsome compensation, from the French government. Dad oft en told the story of one specific incident where the road in front of our convoy escorted by armored French military vehicle was cut off by the Viet-Minh – later referred to as Viet-Cong (Vietnamese Communists – VC). Our drivers were trapped inside their trucks with some of their tires blown out by the gunfire; they were later rescued by French troops, and Dad brought mechanics to make on-site repairs before the convoy could continue and proceed to their destination.
Grandpa's supplies were transported from the port city of Hai-Phong by cargo boats; they arrived monthly, and laborers were hired to unload the cargo for us. The main items were French wines, cheeses, produce, imported cookies and canned food; these were stacked in a warehouse behind Grandpa's store. A group of women was hired to handle the produce, including peeling of potatoes, to prepare food for the French troops. The storefront catered to local shoppers, but the bulk of our business was focused on meeting the needs of the French.
Grandpa was the largest employer of the town and later became the mayor of Tien-Yen. There were not too many Vietnamese in our town, and we did not sense any resentment with the Chinese running the town thanks to Grandpa's equal employment policy and open-mindedness. Many of his employees, including a few of our truck drivers, were hardworking Vietnamese. Grandpa undoubtedly had everyone's respect and admiration.
Grandpa's son and daughter from his first marriage moved away before I was born, so I don't really know much about them. My Dad was Grandpa's right-hand man; he was heavily involved in running the family business after graduating from high school. Although he was a little taller (5'8"), Dad shared the thin and tall physique like Grandpa, and yes, including the receding hairline in front.
Dad's name is Alan. He became a smoker from entertaining the customers and business associates. He did not drink hard liquor, but he enjoyed beer, and he liked eating roasted peanuts when he had his beer. He played volleyball in his youth. Dad said he also used to play accordion, but he devoted his life to his family and did not have a chance to continue any of his hobbies after we left Tien-Yen. Dad was kind, caring and affectionate, especially with Mom, to whom we had never seen him raise his voice. I had never seen him get into an argument with anyone in his entire life. Some might consider him weak, but his courage was unparalleled when it involved protecting his family.
Dad's duties included overseeing the fleet of trucks, as well as their maintenance and repair. We had our own repair shop, which was staffed with mechanics to perform routine maintenance and on-site repairs, as well as roadside rescue work. Dad kept a supply of spared parts that were oft en needed for the upkeep of the trucks; orders of the spare parts and new tires oft en came in with merchandise Grandpa shipped in from the port city of Hai-Phong.
During a stormy night, one of the cargo boats sank. One of the passengers was Aunt Guy coming back from a trip to Hai-Phong. There were no lifeboats so she tied her suitcase to one of her feet and swam ashore unharmed! She was such a good swimmer! Most of the merchandise was lost but there were no casualties.
Aunt Guy was athletic but temperamental; she would fight for anything she wanted to have, and succeeded most of the time. She married a scholar in Tien-Yen, and they had a son, my cousin Khang, a year later.
Dad's younger siblings enjoyed the luxury of good schooling and pampering of the servants, while Grandpa and Dad were busy running the business. My Grandma was the decision maker in all our family matters. Unfortunately, she passed away shortly after I was born. Mom said Grandma died of lung disease that she had for a long time.
Mom and Dad's marriage followed the traditional Chinese custom where a third party acted as middleman in making a proposal to the bride's family. My parents didn't meet until their wedding day, although Dad told me he spotted mom on several occasions in town and was drawn to her beauty. Mom came from a well-respected family; Mom's dad was a well-educated man. He passed away before I was born.
As with all the girls back then, Mom only went to grade school for a few years. Mom was a very pretty lady when she was young. She had shiny black hair, which looked especially beautiful when permed. Mom did not wear makeup very oft en because she seldom went out; we forgot how beautiful she was until she had a glamour shot makeover on her 50th birthday. She is now in her late 80's and people still say how good she looks when she is garbed in the traditional Chinese gown.
After an acceptance ceremony, which included a lot of gift s, cakes, and lucky money for the bride's family, both sides agreed on a date for the wedding. The Chinese wedding ceremony includes the groom and bride kneeling and serving tea to their grandparents/parents, who would then give well wishes and lucky money sealed inside a red envelope. Both Mom and Dad dressed in traditional Chinese gowns made of colorful red fabrics that symbolize good luck and happiness.
A large dinner party was held for more than 300 guests from both families. There were no restaurants or catering in Tien-Yen for a party this size, so cooks and servers were hired to prepare food based on a pre-determined menu designed by the groom's family. A section of the street leading to our house was closed down to set up tents for dinner tables. Mom said it was a festive and happy day with red banners hung along the street for good luck, and well wishes written on them.
Their first child, Chi, was born a year before me. She and I were extremely competitive, the way bothers and sisters are – always trying to outdo each other, including the attempts to get out of doing unpleasant chores like cleaning the toilet or handling the trash. However, I have to admit Chi always had the upper hand because she is the smarter one – I oft en ended up doing those unpleasant chores while she was "coincidentally" busy helping Mom with something else!
Mom gave birth to my younger sister (Kum) when I was two years old. Both girls were adorable, with big brown eyes and light skin, but Chi was more active and outgoing. Kum was shy and didn't talk much, but she was very pretty with silky long black hair.
Mom also adopted a girl from an orphanage. Mom named her Ping; she was six years older than Chi. It was a tradition then for well-off couples to adopt a girl as their life-long servant, but Mom did not have the intention to treat Ping that way. Although my Mom did not ask her to work, Ping helped out the group of women with peeling potatoes and cleaning vegetables for food preparation during the day.
Mom said I was an adorable, healthy baby. As boys were seen as heir to the family, I received better attention than my sisters. I was shy and quiet, but I evolved and grew to also be very competitive, a perfectionist, and an overachiever. I have high standards for myself, and I set goals to challenge myself at every stage of my life.
I've been, however, skinny all my life (5'8" and 145 pounds with black hair and brown eyes) except while I was in the military. I was at least 30 pounds heavier during my two years in the military service in the early 1970's.
My sisters and I were well cared for by a military doctor from France with routine physical and dental exams; he made house calls when we were not feeling well. Mom said I had severe rash when I was two years old and she followed the French doctor's instruction to bathe me with French perfume for six months until I was completely cured.
Grandpa's store was well stocked with imported goods from France, so French food was quite familiar to me. The oval-shaped canned pate, freshly baked baguettes and Vicci natural spring water were deeply ingrained in me (still my favorites). Soy sauce was substituted with Maggi – a popular French seasoning sauce (another favorite of mine). I had all kinds of toys brought by friends of Grandpa. In addition to Mom staying at home, we also had a nanny who took care of us. Mom sometimes took us to Grandpa's store where we would be allowed to have imported cookies and drink bottled spring water from France.
I had many friends from the neighborhood because of Grandpa's status, but my best friend is Khang, one of my cousins. We were the same age and grew up together; Khang oft en came over and we played with my toys. Khang is now operating a Chinese fast-food restaurant in Long Beach, California, with his wife. He and I are alike, skinny and tall, but his demeanor, hairstyle and the way he talks remind me of Bruce Lee. Khang laughs a lot and when he does we can hardly see his little bitty eyes.
Moving to Ha-Noi
Although the VC were poorly organized, they won a major battle at Dien-Bien-Phu 300 Kilometers north of Ha-Noi, which started on March 13th, 1954. Aft er two months of intensive fighting, 10,000 French troops surrendered to General Giap of the VC on May 7th, 1954, which marked the beginning of the end of the French domination. It led to the Geneva agreements of 1954 endorsed by the People's Republic of China and signed by all parties involved – France, North Vietnam and South Vietnam.
Major provisions of the agreement include:
1. Designation of the 17th parallel as the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) separating the North for the communist party, supported by Russia and China, and South Vietnam, backed by the west;
2. Citizens from both sides had the right to choose to reside in either the North or the South within a window of 300 days;
3. Existing French properties and establishments had to be preserved;
4. France would handover the ruling power to Vietnam on September 7th, 1954;
5. Withdrawal of all French troops was to be completed by April of 1956.
When the French troops began to retreat, Grandpa sold off his business in Tien-Yen and moved to Ha-Noi, keeping only a fleet of trucks to continue his contract with the French government. Although our family had no political affiliations, our impeccable business relationship with the French was too precious to lose. It was difficult to see the vanishing business opportunity, but Grandpa and Dad took it well albeit feeling sad like everyone over the drastic change.
I remember very little about Tien-Yen, but I enjoy listening to stories about our hometown shared by Mom and Dad. My earliest childhood memories were our lives in Ha-Noi, the capital of North Vietnam. HaNoi was a modern city of 1.2 million people at the time. Streets were clean and well paved. Crime was minimal and people were friendly and humble.
Grandpa bought a four-story house across from Sword Lake of Ha-Noi, which became the new hub of his scaled-down trucking company. The house had a garden in front and a separate kitchen in the back. The garage was on the far left side of the property. An iron gate was at the center with a pathway winding through the garden to the main entrance of our house. We had a cook, a chauffeur, a gardener and two servants. It was a four-unit 8,000 square foot house with many rooms, so three of my uncles and Aunt Le-Quan also lived with us. The dinner table was large enough to accommodate all; we usually had two servants waiting on us when we had our meals.
Uncle Wing oft en had parties on the rooftop terrace that had reddish terra-cotta tile floor. Loud music and partygoers' laughter drift ed up into the night sky when there was a party going on. Chi and I would pretend to dance like the partygoers aft er they left ; we slid and glided on the left over slippery powder spread by Uncle Wing for people to dance over the tile floor.
Uncle Wing was tall, good-looking and always well dressed. He listened to classical music and liked to paint; the paintings hung in his house in Hong-Kong resembled the works of well-known artists.
My brother David was born in 1953 at a hospital not far from our house in Ha-Noi. He learned to walk on the long balcony overlooking the front garden from one end of the house to the other. Mom planted flowers and vines in containers hanging from the balcony. David was my only brother at the time, so everyone called him "little brother," including Grandpa. This nickname stays with him to this day.
Although Chi is one year older than me, we started kindergarten together at a private school in Ha-Noi. As the privilege of a wealthy family, the school bus driver reserved the two front seats exclusively for Chi and me. Sister Ping was assigned to watch over us, so she came with us to school everyday and waited in the courtyard while Chi and I were in class. Sadly, Ping did not have the opportunity to attend school because of her adopted status.
Aunt Le-Quan is Dad's youngest sister; Mom said she used to take her shopping by taxi or Vietnamese cyclo – a tricycle with comfortable cushioned seat that could seat two adults between two big wheels in front and the driver sitting up high in the back paddling. Mom took good care of her when Aunt Le-Quan was having treatment for her lung problem, so they were very close.
Dad continued to assist Grandpa in running his business, but the business began dwindling with less and less French presence. Our fleet went from 50+ ten-ton trucks to three by the time we moved to Hai-Phong – a major port city along the South China Sea. Grandpa sort of drift ed into a retired status. While the downturn was obvious to everyone, it seemed no one wanted to talk about what was going to happen next. The remaining trucks stayed idle with the final drawdown of French troops.
Our house in Hai-Phong was much smaller than the one in Ha-Noi, and it was on a busy street. Because the house number was 123, everyone referred to that house as "123", but I was not old enough to remember the name of the street. It had a huge backyard with big trees; we sat under their shade on hot summer days. Uncle Wing oft en took me to town on his bicycle and I enjoyed riding in the back cruising down the street. I remember him reminiscing aloud and saying, "I miss those dinner parties we had in Ha-Noi."
Excerpted from I BECAME THE Boat People by Don Lao. Copyright © 2013 Don Lao, CPCU. Excerpted by permission of Abbott Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Moving to Vietnam, 1,
Chapter 2 New Life in the South, 13,
Chapter 3 My First Job, 33,
Chapter 4 The LAO's Trucking Company, 54,
Chapter 5 The Fall of Saigon, 69,
Chapter 6 Our Escape Plans, 82,
Chapter 7 I Became The Boat People, 96,
Chapter 8 Hong Kong Refugee Camp, 111,
Chapter 9 The Great Wall Restaurant, 120,
Chapter 10 An Immigrant in Paradise, 134,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
What an inspiring book! If you are an immigrant, you should read this book. If you are an American, you would feel proud of this great country.
I really enjoyed this book. What an incredible, unbelievable story! It was a quick read too, I finished it in one sitting.