A Great Adventure
“War is a sad thing, but we cannot escape it. We just have to live with it”
essay written by Van Luong
Viet Nam was a war torn country. Fighting had spread throughout the country, affect many Viet Namese people. Realizing that the future was uncertain, many fled the country searching for a better life. The less unfortunate could not, and were forced to stay in the country. Dung Cong Luong was a refugee. He was smuggled through boat, and after some time, he was brought to Malaysia to the refugee camps. Afterwards, he was moved to the Philippines, where his sister found his application and contacted him. From there, he moved to America where he still lives today.
From 1959 to 1975, Viet Nam was in a state of war. The North Viet Namese fought against the Southern Viet Namese. Everyone was affected by the war one way or another. Because of the horrors of war, many Viet Namese people chose to flee from their homes trying to seek a better life. Some chose to stay, and they lived through the grueling pains that war brings. For those who fled, they had a dangerous adventure ahead of them.
Dung Cong Luong, was living in Viet Nam during the war. In 1962, he was “born in the central part of Viet Nam” (1). He lived with his family, which included his dad, mom, and twelve sisters. He had a brother, however he was a sickly child and died when he was very young. At first, he lived peacefully in the countryside. However, due to the increasing violence of the Viet Nam war, his house was destroyed and that forced him and his family to move south to the capitol of Southern Viet Nam, Saigon. Saigon was the safest place in Viet Nam for them. It was a huge city compared to the rest, and it was safer than in the countryside. Their family gained money, and started saving. Even though they had money, the future was always uncertain so they were cautious to spend any of it.
Since Luong was the only boy in the family, his father did as much as he could for him. “I don't have to work because I am too young back then. I just focused on school, but I remembered everybody worked hard,” said Luong (2). While he concentrated on school, his whole family worked hard to provide for each other. Apart from school, there was no such thing as a daily routine for Luong. He would go to school, and then afterwards, he would do anything to help his family, although sometimes he would go out with his friends. His dad was a good man. He worked as hard as he could for his family. When they had their home destroyed, they were left with nothing. He turned that around however, after moving to Saigon. Once there, the family was able to start a new life. Luong's mother was a strong woman. With 12 sisters and a son, taking care of every child was no easy task. Because of this, Luong has tremendous respect for his mother. “My mother was a very outgoing person. My father was a businessman. He was very self-confident. Given a difficult situation or environment, he would able to survive. A lot of times he would be bankrupted because of the war, so we just move place to place without any government support or support from anybody else, but we still survive and takes care of us. My mother was a housewife. She works hard. Both of them worked very hard. She took care of the children. She took good care of us. Looking back, they didn't have any time for themselves.” said Luong (15).
As the war escalated, it became a part of everyday life. Luong remembers watching and hearing about it on the T.V on a daily basis. He even was familiar with American soldiers in the city of Saigon. Luong recalls how the American G.I would play with children and give them candies and treats. Many people were killed, “but back then because it happened too often and everywhere so it's not such a big deal” to the Viet Namese people (3). Even some people that Luong personally knew had been killed in artillery fire. As mentioned before, Luong's house was destroyed. Bombings and artillery shattered many people's lives. Luong explains, “Sometimes I feel helpless because it's out of your hands, you cannot control it. It happened, you cannot stop it. You don't know how to make it better. You just live day by day. People get hurt everyday around you.” (13). Viet Nam was falling apart. It was no longer a safe home for Luong anymore.
“The war is a sad thing, but we cannot escape it. We just had to live with it,” said Luong (4). At first, Luong's father, as Luong was his only son, wanted to keep his son with him, but he realized that the condition of the country was too dangerous. It was a hard choice, but he finally chose to send Luong and a couple of his sisters out. Anywhere was better than Viet Nam. He wanted his children to escape from war, thus he decided to smuggle them out of the country. Using his connections and asking around, he found that there was a possibility for a better life for his children. However, that process was not easy. Since it was wartime, there were numerous checkpoints throughout the country. Police and soldiers patrolled the roads, and it was hard to escape the country because they did not allow anybody to escape. It took many months for that to happen, and it was quite an adventure for the family.
Luong's dad checked around and found a way out for his children. He contacted some people, who were local fisherman. For money, they were willing to smuggle people out of the country. Luong's family paid 8 oz. of gold per person for the trip. Ready to go, Luong, his dad, and two sisters disguised themselves as the local people, and secretly began their trip to the very southern tip of Viet Nam. Because it was in a remote location, there were barely any people. Because of the war, many refugees were arrested or got caught up in the violence. Soldiers were suspicious of the people, and could stop them for any reason. Corrupt policemen conducted random raids and checkups randomly. They could just confiscate anything, which devastated many families. Left with nothing, they could not provide for themselves and therefore died. There was no law, the soldiers' decisions were the law. They could stop any civilian if they wanted to. Upon arriving at the boat, Luong recalls, "We left about 50-60 people behind. Our family luckily made it.” (5).
From here, Luong and his two sisters were on their own. His group faced an early danger. Luong said “There's Viet Namese coastguards – we saw them, they chased us. Then because our boat is very light because we had only sixteen on the boat. They chased us - they're a big ship but didn't run that fast. They kept a distance about three hours. Got frustrated so they shot at us but, you know, we heard the shot but it was too far to some damage our boat so they kept chasing then they kept shooting then they gave up”. (6) With sixteen people on the boat, the trip took four days over the middle of the ocean. With the sun scorching on their faces and a scarce amount of food and water, they embarked on a miserable journey. By the time they saw land, they had run out of water and food. However, their luck wasn't that great because the ship they were on crash landed on shore. “We don't know if they were Thailand – we didn't have compass. So there are some Chinese Malaysian soldiers. So we sent some Chinese Viet Namese. They couldn't understand anything because they use different dialect. So funny – we used English to communicate – only a few people can speak broken English. There's some guy asked us for identification to do some security - undercover communists come to their country. Finally, the U.N. agents came over and took us to Pilau Bidong – that's an isolated island of Malaysia.” explained Luong(7). During his stay there, he heard many stories about other less fortunate people. Some were robbed by pirates. Women and girls were taken away by pirates, and were never seen again. They were most likely raped and used as slaves. Since Viet Nam was a poor country, the ships people had were very poor quality. Combine that with the huge amount of refugees per ship, it meant that many ships got lost or broke down, leaving many to starve to death. When looking back, Luong was extremely fortunate. Compared to some others, the hardships he faced seemed like little trouble.
After his stay at Malaysia, Luong and the his sisters were relocated to the Philippines. He studied more English at the Philippines. There, he met other Viet Namese refugees. He even met some of his friends from Viet Nam. They stayed for a couple months and then, they were fortunate because another sister, who had came to America before them, found their applications and contacted the family. Instead of being relocated to Australia, Luong was now coming to America. From the Philippines, he was flew to San Francisco. Upon arriving, “everybody went different ways” (8). They stayed in San Francisco for a day. Afterwards, he was then finally off to Santa Anna, where his long and harsh trip came to an end. He arrived in America in June 1982.
“Everything was like in a dream,” said Luong (9). America had much more freedom than back in Viet Nam. Luong no longer had to pass through checkpoints, no longer had to show his I.D to every officer, and no longer lived in fear. There were no more constant bomb raids or artillery fire. There was no more fear that one could die at any minute. Even though the government had a lot of power, Luong could not see it. This marked an end to a chapter of hardships in his life. However, even though his journey to escape war was complete, he had another journey that was just starting - A journey to adapt to a new and unfamiliar country.
Everything was completely different to him. “We went to the supermarket – it was so big – lots of lights. The streets were clean and big. So many cars. I saw them in movies, but never realized that it's much more than in the movies,” laughed a reminiscing Luong (10). There were movie theaters, shopping districts, cars, crosswalks, microwaves, frozen foods, washing machines, computers, and so many things Luong had never seen before. During wartime, the conditions of Viet Nam deteriorated. Eventually, everything became so ordinary that the people became used to it. In America, everything was amazing for him. Luong was so fascinated in freeways. He recalls he had never seen so many cars in his life. And they were so wide. In Viet Nam, there was no order to driving. It was pretty much everyone going their own way. Also, only the rich could afford cars. Luong “was surprised that almost every house had a car” (16). Cars were a luxury back in Viet Nam. Only the rich could afford them. Most had to get by with motorcycles and bikes. The food here was so much better than in Viet Nam. Because there were no health regulations, food there wasn't as clean. “When we were in ESL class we saw different people all over the world. A lot of immigrants come here. They can live peacefully together.” (18). Luong was not used to seeing so many unique races. In Viet Nam, the only people he knew were Viet Namese. Apart from the little contact he had with American soldiers, he had never seen any other non-Asian in his life. At first, he believed that he would be discriminated against since he had heard many stories of that happening in the U.S. Luckily for him, people were kind towards him.
One of the biggest challenges that Luong faced was communication. “We learned the language. Actually, we learned in the refugee camp. But when we came here we were totally lost. English here is different. They taught us English with a very strong accent. We came and had no idea what people were talking about,” explained Luong (11). He carried a dictionary everywhere with him. He knew the most basic words, but when people talked to him, he could barely understand a sentence. He applied for college, and got accepted into Santa Anna college. When going to school, he knew that going to school in America was much easier. In Viet Nam, there is so much pressure because only a certain amount of students are accepted into universities. The kids who under perform are cut, and only the best will remain. While in American schools are still competitive, there is so much more opportunity here. In college, he excelled at math and science, but it was the English classes that set him back. Over the years, his English speaking improved. Luong also explains,”the whether was one of the big thing we had to get adjusted to because we came from the tropical weather – it's not and humid. When we came to the U.S. it was very cold. We were very skinny because – we were malnourished – our body don't have any fat to insulate the cold weather. We had to put a lot of jackets. We would wear two or three jackets and we still feel cold. But after a couple of months, we got adjusted.” (17). In the summer, the conditions were horrendous. Mosquitoes were everywhere, causing disease and sickness to be spread.
“What did I learn? A lot of things...What I learned from my trip is sometimes you'd be with your family and you take it for granted,” Luong recalls (12). Luong has since then graduated from UCI. Afterwards, he settled down with his wife and has had three children. Although the events from Viet Nam happened long ago, Luong still recalls them vividly, since they were a huge part of his life. Recently visiting Viet Nam, he describes that the living standards are higher, however “the gap between the rich and the poor is very big” (14). Even though the lives of many Viet Namese have been improved, there is still a lot of corruption going on in the government of Viet Nam. Also, the lives of the countryside people are still horrible. There is hunger everywhere outside the cities. Luong hopes that Viet Nam will continue to get better. Luong's mom and dad have passed away. Fortunately, Luong was able to meet with his dad one last time before he went. However, he was not able to meet with his mother before her time. Luong's other sisters have also went their own ways. Some remained in Viet Nam, while others have spread throughout the world. Unfortunately, he is not in contact with all of them. He wonders what has happened to them. Luong has gotten a lot of experience from his trip. He has learned to become fully independent after experiencing what it is like to be without anything. He is glad that he moved to America. However, sometimes he still misses Viet Nam. “I still remember my Dad use to drive me to school on a motorcycle” remembered Luong (19).
Even though Luong moved away from the Viet Nam war, he could not escape it completely. His whole family was swept up in it. The family has been broken apart, and each and every single member will have memories that will scar them for the rest of their lives. However, The family never gave up. They came out of it, gaining experience and were able to have a new start.
1. Luong, Dung. Personal interview. 25 May 2009. 1.
2. Luong, 25 May 2009, 1.
3. Luong, 25 May 2009, 2.
4. Luong, 25 May 2009, 2.
5. Luong, 25 May 2009, 3.
6. Luong, 25 May 2009, 3.
7. Luong, 25 May 2009, 4.
8. Luong, 25 May 2009, 4.
9. Luong, 25 May 2009, 4.
10. Luong, 25 May 2009, 4.
11. Luong, 25 May 2009, 4.
12. Luong, 25 May 2009, 5.
13. Luong, 25 May 2009, 6.
14. Luong, 25 May 2009, 7.
15. Luong, 25 May 2009, 6.
16. Luong, 25 May 2009, 4.
17. Luong, 25 May 2009, 4.
18. Luong, 25 May 2009, 5.
19. Luong, 25 May 2009, 1.