(Editor’s Note: This is the latest story on AsAmNews commemorating the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the arrival of the boat people to the United States)
16-year-old Carina Hoang boarded a wooden boat with two of her siblings and hundreds of other people to escape Vietnam in 1979. It was a journey four years in the making that began in the days leading up to the fall of Saigon.
In those days, exploding rockets and gunfire could be heard all over the city. Her family ran for cover in a shelter where they spent the last week before the communist takeover.
“My father stayed in his military base and after the 25th (April 1975), we lost touch with him,” Hoang said. “My mother waited a few more days, hoping for him to come home. The early morning of the 29th, she began to desperately search for a way to get us out of Vietnam. She drove us toward the main Air Force Base in Saigon, but turned around. Fire and shooting were everywhere. We headed to the port. There was so much chaos. We saw people fight to get on the boat. With eight little kids (her seven children and a young niece) my mother was afraid that we would not make it to the boat alive. Then she drove us to the US Embassy. We managed to get inside. We waited for nearly 24 hours, but did not make the evacuation.
“Hungry, thirsty, exhausted, and confused, we fought our way out of the embassy.
“I was twelve. I was sad, scared and worried about my father.”
During the next four years, she would try to escape the country four times, only to be turned back each time. Her luck changed on her fifth attempt in June of 1979.
“I left with my little sister and little brother. We were among 373 people packed like sardine in a wooden boat 25 m x 4.5 m. That first day, we were tossed about by a violent storm, and we sat surrounded by vomit, urine and feces for the rest of the journey. Following three days we were chased by Thai pirates. About the fourth day, as we headed toward the Malaysia shore, military men fired at our boat, robbed our valuables and pulled our boat further out into the ocean and sent us away.
“Two days later, we started to run out of food and drinking water and people began to die. I witnessed bodies being tossed in the ocean while their families wailed.
“On the eighth day, we reached a fishing village in Indonesia. Our captain sank the boat so they could not send us back to the ocean. Several days later, local authorities took us to another island. We were taken to a small uninhabited island, named Kuku, and were left there.
“Thousands of refugees tried to survive on this small uninhabited island. People died everyday due to disease and malnutrition. There were times when I did not think that we would make it. All three of us got malaria and diarrhea. We had very little food and did not have medicines.
“Shortly after we arrived on Kuku island I helped buried a baby girl in a middle of the night. I also assisted a doctor to help a woman give birth to her baby boy at night.”
She finally made it to America as a refugee less than a year later. There she was reunited with two siblings in Philadelphia who left Vietnam by boat in 1978. Her parents and other sisters joined them in the United States in 1990.
As for her father, Lt. Colonel Hoang Tich Huu Ai, he was captured by the communist on April 29, 1975 and held for 14 years without a trial. He is living in Sacramento, CA and suffers from dementia.
“Sadly, sometimes he thinks he is still in communist prison,” said Carina.
She currently lives in Australia where she has become a leader in the Southeast Asian community.
She released her first book in 2011, Boat People: Personal Stories from the Vietnamese Exodus 1975- 1996. Hoang wanted to share their stories to showcase the resilience, courage and determination of the boat people and to preserve an important piece of history. 18 of the 39 people she interviewed for the book currently live in the United States.
Hoang has also been instrumental in bringing closure to families who lost loved ones trying to escape Vietnam.
“My 18-year-old cousin escaped by boat to Indonesia in 1979, and died of malaria. Many years later, I visited my aunt in California and realized that she was burdened by the lost of her son and the guilt of being unable to give him a proper burial, or even visit his grave. She was living with an unhealed wound.
“Nineteen years after my cousin died, in 1998, my younger brother, my cousin and I returned to the jungle in Indonesia. Miraculously, we found his grave. I brought his ashes back to my aunt, and was astonished by her reaction. There was a sense of ‘lightness’ in her as if a tumor was removed from her heart.
“I shared that story on my website to offer hope to other families who had lost loved ones like my aunt. Years later, people from around the world contacted me and asked me to help them return to these jungles in Indonesia to find graves of their loved ones.
“I understand their pain and I recognize the importance of finding the graves. I had returned to these islands six times, each time with many families from different countries. I returned with an 87-year old woman looking for her husband’s grave, a sister and brother in search for their sister’s grave who died at 14, a man who had tried to find his mother’s grave for thirty years, and many more.
“When I first returned to Kuku island, it was difficult for me to face my haunted past. But these trips actually brought healing to those families as well as to me. I am happy that I am able to help some people ease their pain.
You can learn more about Carina’s work in finding the grave sites of loved ones in the clip below. Her book Boat People: Personal Stories from the Vietnamese Exodus 1975- 1996 is available from Amazon.