Into the New World

Tam Do’s experience of escaping a communist country to a new world

essay written by Hoa Do

Tam Do was a refugee from Vietnam and his family had to escape Vietnam because of the Northern Vietnamese army invading the South. He went through many obstacles to get to the United States. Enduring countless storms when he was out at sea with other refugees, he ended up at a Thai camp and then later on, traveled to the United States. He lived in Northern California until he found a job in Orange County. Later on, he became a citizen of the United States.

   During the Vietnam War, Tam Do endured numerous incidents where he nearly lost his life. Because there was no other choice but to leave Vietnam Do’s family was trying to avoid the communist soldiers, Forced to depart from their homeland, Do had to find a different home in an unknown country. Do said, “[He] was looking forward for a new life.”1 His family ended up staying in numerous refugee camps in Thailand and the United States. A couple years later, a family in Sacramento, California sponsored Do and his family. Do was able to leave the pitiful camp and started a new life in the United States. Afterwards, Do found a job and used the money attend community college in Irvine in Orange County. He later encountered troubles adapting to the people and the culture in this country.

   Son of the vice Prime Minister of Vietnam, Do lived a comfortable life living in a mansion, attending private universities, and staying in a safe environment guarded by soldiers under his father. Do’s father worked for the first Vietnamese President, Diem. Do loved Vietnam and its beautiful scenery with “the sunlight, the wind blowing, and the cloud in the sky.”2 Everything in Vietnam was very peaceful until the rise of conflict between the Vietnamese nationalists and the Vietnamese communists. This was the beginning of the Vietnam War. Do mentioned that “the first Vietnam war involved the conflict between the Vietnamese nationalists, at the time they were called communists, and the French colonists. With the defeat of the Diem Bien Phu in May, the French agreed to sit down with the Vietnamese nationalists led by Hoi Chi Minh at the Geneva Conference. At the Geneva Conference, Vietnam was forced by China, Russia, and America to be divided into two parts, North and South Vietnam, on the 21st of July 1954.”3 Many political problems arose between the two sides of Vietnam.

    Do was born a month later after the division of Vietnam. He had “family members both sides of the war. Many of them stayed behind in the northern half of Vietnam and many went south in 1954 where the country was divided in the 17th parallel. [Do’s family] moved to the South because [his] father worked for Diem, the first Vietnamese president. So during the war, [his] family members may have killed each other and [Do] grew up in that atmosphere. Of course [Do] stayed in the south and the war became more intense.”3 Do remembered he lived in fear when his family moved to the south. He believed that the North took advantage of the South Vietnam’s fear in order to take over the Southern Government.

    Do remembered that Vietnam started with President Kennedy, his “advisors,” and President Lyndon Johnson; the peak of the involvement was in 1965-66 when Do was twelve years old. The amount of volunteer soldiers added up to half a million and the war became more intense. However, South Vietnam started to lose because of the corruption of the government and the anti-war movements. Do, looking back, believed it was just movement and the Vietnamese people were killing each other for a meaningless cause. The war drew to an end started in 1974 when the North army tried to provoke South Vietnam at a particular province. The North saw no response, from the Southern Vietnamese army and U.S. In 1973, when the US decided to pull out, Do knew that the South Vietnam’s army. Because the Southern Vietnam was demoralized and corrupted, it could not survive the deadly blows from the North Vietnamese army.”4 The North was very persistent, determined to unite Vietnam by overthrowing the Southern Vietnamese Government. Because Do and his family traveled to the South, they had to move quickly. Otherwise, the communists would capture them. Do’s family would be known as traitors to the North. Therefore, his family had to follow many refugees. Luckily, Do and his family “were able to follow the refugees to get out of Saigon and they tried to jump onto a fishing boat to leave Vietnam.”5 He was able to leave Vietnam safely. While he was on the boat, Do heard that the President of South Vietnam had surrendered to the South.

    Although the boat was meant to carry fifteen people, it carried forty-one people. There were many children, soldiers, and families on the boat waiting for others to help them. Sharing the boat with other passengers, Do “traveled for 7 days and was attacked by the Thai pirates two times and went around the southernmost part of Vietnam to Thailand. We had no compass and we went by looking at the sun. [Do] went around the tip of Vietnam to get to Thailand and [they] encountered we storm and somehow landed on the province called Sadahine of the Jambury area.”5 When the whole group of refugees arrived in Thailand, Thai soldiers discovered them and put the refugees in camps. Do remembered that “we came to the refugee camp set up by the Thai government that was taken over by UNCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugee), [Do] and the refugees were the very first group to arrive. The camp went from 100 refugees to 500 refugees. Because [they] were the first to arrive, [they] got to stay in one of the best buildings that used to be a training camp for the Thai marines. Later on, the UN set up tents for the late arrivals. So, at the beginning [there were] 100 people in the camp. Their daily routine was to teach English to each other, play volleyball, hang around the camp knowing nothing about our future and [Do] had no idea what happened in Vietnam either.”6 However, life in camp wasn’t all fun because “the camp was horrible place to live, the condition was very bad, [they] didn’t have running water, the Thai government brought a wooden boat and filled it with water and [the refugees] used that water as a container for the water. [They] used the water for washing, bathing, and cooking. 1800 people were there and there were only 5 latrines. Also, on a psychological side, [Do’s family’s] in uncertainty and [they] were worried about the invasion of communist agents and [they] were mistreated by Thai guards and economically, [they] had no money and [they] lived with the handouts. The diet everyday was poor. [They] missed home and they were depressed. [They] tried to elect people to lead the camp but that lead into misfortune. So material wise [they] had barely any clothing, slept on the ground and had no utensils. So it was a tough place to live and the worst thing is that [they] didn’t know what the future holds for them.”7 Do and his family didn’t know if they could withstand the terrible conditions of the camp. Later on they had an opportunity to leave the camp, at “the end of September [because] they were interviewed by the US embassy personnel. There were other delegates from other countries coming over to interview refugees but Do declined to go to France or Australia because Do’s father decided to no matter what get to the US.”1 [Do’s] father believed that the United States was the best choice for his family because he had many connections over there. So they left the camp in Thailand, and went to the United States by airplane. All Do thought was that he was glad he left the desolate camp.

    Do was happy but when he arrived at the United States, he was put in another refugee camp known as “Camp Pendleton.”Do felt that he was lucky as, “there was a church in Sacramento that was able to sponsor them and found a house with a 3 bedroom house whose owner was able to take them in.”8 What Do remembered the most was that, “he was greeted with Halloween, what a culture shock when he saw ghosts running around in the dark and [he] didn’t understand anything at all.”8 Do assured himself that there was no such thing as Halloween in Vietnam, and when he encountered this new culture, he felt lost and scared. It was very hard for him to adapt to the new culture, people, and laws. Do left Vietnam his third year as an University student. He and his family “tried to enhance their English with their sponsor, [Do’s] older brother and sister tried to get a job and they were able to get student assistance, which was called welfare, and they got a grant and they were able to register classes at Sacramento State University.”8 Do had a hard time adapting to the U.S. Communication was his toughest barrier, not only did he not speak or understand English very well; [his] main language was French. [He] didn’t learn much English until [he] was in the refugee camp where [he] was taught English by [his] sister.”8 Life wasn’t as pleasant as he thought after a couple days in school. After a while, he was tired of receiving money from the government and decided to get a job. He wanted to earn his own money instead of relying on the money the government was handing, which essentially was money from tax. He moved to Southern California because some of his siblings were able to get a job in Orange County. Do’s “brother helped [him] get a job working for a photo copier factory.”8 With his own income, Do wanted to continue his studies here, in Southern California. He was able to attend Orange Coast College. Do was happy that, “[he] was able to do part time at OCC. He liked the school, the environment, and going to work became secondary because but most of my attention was at the college.”9 Do wanted to continue his studies even if it meant going to a school where he doesn’t even speak their language. Do was always up to the challenge by going to libraries and watching movies just to understand the language. It took him about 10 years for him to get use to the language and culture here in the United States. It took him 10 years because in 1983 he became a naturalized citizen. Do proved that he knew the law and language by passing a test to demonstrating his knowledge of the United States.

    In 1977 Do, “met [his] future wife when [he] went to college in OCC. In 1983 he became a naturalized citizen and in 1984 he became engaged. In 1986 Do and his fiancée became husband and wife.”7 The moment Do got married, Do began to ponder upon how he would raise his children. He remembered that “the idea that crossed his mind in 1988 when they had [their] first daughter, the idea that crossed his mind was the question of choosing which value he should instill on his children. Should he try to apply the western American value on them from the kind of values they can use for their own life or to the value they apply to him and his wife.”10 Do didn’t know what to do because he “kept in mind that he left Vietnam when he was 21, and his father was a very traditional person and he instilled those values in Do even though he was so proud to become American, but, Do still found out that he was very much Vietnamese.”10 So, the question to him was which value system he should deal or teach them, American, or Vietnamese values? At that point when Do’s children were born, he tried to come up some kind of middle of the road approach and Do selected the best values from America and mix it up with the best Vietnamese values to teach his kids. But more and more lately Do found out that he should try to “give up more of the Vietnamese values because it was so hard to integrate both systems.”10 In the end, he made the toughest decision and raised his children the American values rather than the Vietnamese values. But he wasn’t going to let his children lose the Vietnamese culture and heritage. So “Do and his wife tried to introduced some activities that they thought carried the values and the traditional beliefs regarding the Vietnamese heritage that they had. For example, all of his kids are in martial arts even though it originated in Japan, but the teacher, represents the values of the Vietnamese martial arts from the interaction between teacher and student, the way he was teaching the techniques to the language to his manner to his appearance it is very Vietnamese.”11 Do loved the fact that his children liked to practice it until they got to brown belt. Another example is that “Do introduced the Vietnamese folk music by taking [his] kids to a class taught by a Vietnamese who graduated from the institute of Vietnamese traditional music in Vietnam. His children learned to use the instruments, they learned as much as [they] can, and the teacher organized many recitals giving them opportunities to play with other Vietnamese artists.”11 In a way they were exposed to some cultural activities representing the Vietnamese culture. Also Do tried to take them back to Vietnam whenever he can. In the past, “Do and his wife have some humanitarian work in Vietnam, so they took some of their children or all of them, a couple of times. The oldest daughter went to Vietnam through the study abroad program from UCLA.”11 In the family, Do tries to speak in Vietnamese, and tries to encourage his children to use the language as much as they can. When Do’s children were young, “Do got together with his brother-in-law and they tried to teach them Vietnamese for the kids.”11 That way, he assured himself that he taught his children some of the Vietnamese culture instead of losing the culture he grew up with. If he didn’t teach his children some of the Vietnamese value, he knew that the heritage wouldn’t last after his children’s generation.

    Up to now, “[Do] regrets leaving Vietnam because he felt that he does not belong in the U.S. He feels more Vietnamese than American. However when returning to Vietnam, he still feels like an outsider.”12 Currently, he is a counselor at Irvine Valley College and has a P.H.D in education. Despite all he has gone through, he thinks the journey from Vietnam to the United States was a memorable moment in his life because that moment has made him who he is now.


1. Do, Tam. Personal interview. 23 May 2009. 1.
2. Do, 23 May 2009, 1.
3. Do, 23 May 2009, 1.
4. Do, 23 May 2009, 2.
5. Do, 23 May 2009, 2.
6. Do, 23 May 2009, 3.
7. Do, 23 May 2009, 3.
8. Do, 23 May 2009, 4.
9. Do, 23 May 2009, 4.
10. Do, 23 May 2009, 5.
11. Do, 23 May 2009, 7.
12. Do, 24 May 2009, 11.