Hien Pham’s plight to escape captivity from communist Vietnam in 1975
essay written by Bryan Pham
Hien Pham fled from Vietnam when the communist north succeeded in conquering the south. The experiences that she has gone through as a refugee have shaped her into the person she is today; from sailing on a US naval vessel to Guam Island, to getting her first job in downtown New York, she has made a life for herself in this new country. Having gone through obstacles that hinder her from adapting to American ways of living, Hien proudly considers herself a citizen of America.
“Escape, run, freedom,” – these were the three ideas that ran through the minds of the Vietnamese refugees as they attempted to elude the clutches of communism. During the Vietnam War the Viet Cong slowly but surely gained control of Vietnam. By 1975, it was a guaranteed victory for the communists. Hundreds and thousands of Vietnamese refugees fled the communist government in fear of being captured and incarcerated. With the thousands that fled Vietnam, Hien Pham was a fortunate refugee that was able to make it to America. Many were unlucky and died endeavoring to escape from the grasps of the newly established communist government. Vietnam—a nearly lawless country—controlled by corrupt government officials. For Hien’s case, she is very thankful to live in the United States, a country “so free.”1
Hien’s peaceful and serene childhood consisted only of playing, working, and enjoying the pleasures of life. Although she, her parents, and her four siblings suffered from poverty, they still were able to see the fun in every situation. As she was reminiscing through her memories, she remembered how she would play “Ngay Co Co” and “tacks” with her friends.2 Life for her in her small village was relaxing and joyous, and although life in Vietnam wasn’t easy, it wasn’t grueling either. Her childhood was full of memories that included her sneaking out at night with her friends during camping trips and escaping into a world of exciting lion dances during the bright lights of Tet—Chinese New Year. Tet was a very important holiday in Vietnam and she would remember happily receiving Li Xi—lucky money—to use when playing with her friends and buying sweets. During Tet, there would be many events and performances such as fireworks and parties. She specifically remembers playing Bau Cua Ca Cop with her friends and villagers, fiddling around with “small crabs and fish” and fling “clay and rocks” at each other like mud pies.3 These happy memories would replay in her mind as she recounted the different events that occurred during her childhood.
Even throughout her teen years, life wasn’t too difficult. Upon reaching the age of thirteen, she was now responsible enough to help her parents tend to field work as well as growing rice, corn and other vegetables. The village had a system of harvesting in which each family in the village was required to harvest a certain amount of crop per day. As the harvesting season would come to a close, less and less crops would have to be harvested, thus leaving time for leisure activities. She recalls that after the crops were picked, she and the villagers would gather around in the center and watch one single TV which was put up for the village as a whole group. She describes her memory saying, “There will be a group of 5 families out in front of our neighbor’s house and there was a TV mounted to the window and we would sit and watch there. The movies started at 8 and would go [till] 10:30 and then we would go to sleep. The movies were sometimes sad or sometimes funny, but everyone enjoyed it.”4
Hien was only five years old when the Vietnam War began in 1959 and continued on until 1975. As stated previously, her childhood was relatively peaceful and she didn’t know of the war until the age of 17 in which United States involvement peaked. Although there were signs of war like US soldier that patrolled once in a while, the war had never reached her peaceful village. The war itself seemed to have been fought in other areas, ravaging the country-side, but not in the small village of Binh Da. Although, the war did ultimately force her as well as her family to flee Vietnam, it had no other affect on their lives. Though the family was safe in Binh Da, her father soon realized that South Vietnam was not going to achieve victory so the family fled to the coast so that when the war was over, they could easily flee on one of the many ships at the port city of Phuoc Tinh. There, they would sleep on boats out at sea, and when the sun rose, Hien and her family would wander around for the rest of the day. She vividly remembers being “very seasick [and] would vomit a lot.” 5. Life was relatively easy for her and her family, albeit the seasickness. Hien’s family’s life would continued like this for two months before they would have to flee out to sea. When the war ended, this sparked her immigration to America with her family.
When the news of the Viet Cong’s victory arrived, Hien’s family immediately departed from the port on a small boat. Out on sea, there was a US battleship waiting to help fleeing refugees. It was an approximate 20-minute paddle out to where the naval vessel was docked. When they arrived on the boat, they set sail for Guam Island. The trip took a week till they reached their destination. On the ship, they served rationed portions of food for the many refugees and installed makeshift lavatories for the immigrants. She remembers when going to the restroom, “[everyone] was all so frightened”6. The makeshift bathrooms would project off of the ship and would be placed over the ocean. As one would go to the restroom, they would look down and see the ocean rush by them so many refrained from using the bathroom and would wait in a long line to use the lavatories on deck. This trip was also very hard on many people because the rationed food was American food and its foreign taste was very difficult to adjust to for many of the Vietnamese people and thus made it difficult to survive the journey. Hien on the fortunate side liked the foods that were served to her and thus made her journey easier to deal with.
Upon arriving at Guam Island, life for Hien and her family would soon become much different than their lifestyle in Vietnam. They had to adapt to new kinds of food and learn new languages. However, Hien remained optimistic towards the new changes in their lifestyle. When arriving at Guam Island, the Salvation Army was there handing out donations of clothing and other items that refugees needed. Hien’s first impression was “Wow, [America] is so rich”7 because of all the free provisions that were donated by the American people. Here there were so many luxuries that were unavailable to the Vietnamese public such as clothing, shoes, scarves, and other items that would be impossible to acquire in Vietnam. Not only did the people in America have enough to support themselves, but they even had enough to share with others. To Hien, this was amazing yet surprising for her because families in Vietnam were barely surviving without help.
Besides the days when the Salvation Army would hand out provisions, every day became rather dull on Guam Island. Each morning there would be a breakfast consisting of eggs and bacon, a lunch of canned fruits and sandwiches, and a dinner of meat and fresh cabbage. To the Vietnamese, these foods were very intolerable due to the fact that Vietnamese foods tend to be more salty than sweet. The only real edible item that every Vietnamese immigrant wanted to eat was the fresh cabbage. Cabbage in Vietnam was very rare unlike here in the US where so many “looked forward to dinner to get the fresh cabbage”.8 Besides meals, every day mostly consisted of naps and daydreams due to the fact that there wasn’t anything to do at the base. This type of lifestyle would occur for another month and then the refugees would then be transferred to Wig Island, another naval base in the pacific.
At Wig Island, life remained dull and boring. The immigrants received the same food that was distributed to them on Guam Island, the same beds as they were given at Guam Island, the same life they had at Guam Island. The only exception was that there was a local beach located nearby the naval base. There, Hien and her family would spend many of their evenings playing in the sun and running on the sand. She would remember that “the beach was always littered with slugs and [everyone] was so scared”9 and she would chuckle at the memory. This beach experiences was one event in which life was made more enjoyable and added something new to the monotony of refugee camp life. Hien and her siblings would look forward to going to the beach every day so that they would be able play in the water and relax on the beach. To her, the beach was a sanctuary that allowed her to escape her problems. But then one day, Hien’s mother was diagnosed with kidney stones and was placed in a hospital for two weeks. Her happy life seemed to crumble as she saw her mother on the cot in the infirmary. She thought that her only mother was going to die, but to her surprise, the doctor said that her mother would be fine. The operation had already happened and that she was merely recuperating. She and her family returned to their life of leisure and relaxation and this would continue for a month and then a sudden announcement told the refugees that they would be transferred to Fort Jeffrey, Arkansas. There, the refugees would be sponsored by Americans and become official citizens of the United States.
On the morning of the departure, Hien and her family prepared for the long flight to Arkansas. They boarded a United States cargo plane and soon departed to the American mainland. On the flight she remembered that “[she] wasn’t scared at all despite this being [her] first flight”10. Throughout the flight, she remembered only sleeping the entire trip. Upon arriving at Fort Jeffery, the immigrants were introduced to the different facilities throughout the camp. At the camp, the new immigrants had English lessons to help them assimilate into the American society; but for Hien, English was too hard to learn and she didn’t really care if she learned it or not. A few weeks later, Hien’s family was sponsored by St. Aiden’s church and was given a new home.
St. Aiden’s was a small local church in Williston Park, New York. Here, Hien’s family was given a new life. St. Aiden provided her family with a house, food, education, and helped her family become self-sufficient. They would bring the family to the supermarket everyday and buy the family food, sometimes too much food. Whatever the family looked at or touched, they would put it in the shopping cart, and being not able to speak English, Hien and her family weren’t able to tell them to stop. Hien said that “ [The people at St. Aiden] would put it in the shopping cart and there was so much food left over every day that we couldn’t finish it”11. This problem would continue for a while until a Vietnamese priest was able to translate to the members at St. Aiden that they only need to go once a week.
Another issue for Hien’s family was the language barrier. At this time, everybody in the family was not able to speak or understand English and was only able to communicate with other Vietnamese families, thus making it harder to adjust to the American lifestyle. To help them learn, one of the parishioners at St. Aiden came to Hien’s family home everyday to help them learn the new language. Hien said that “She thought us the basics like “stand up” and “sit down’. She would go to the refrigerator and say “this is a refrigerator” and would teach us everything in the house”13. These lessons slowly assisted Hien and her family to slowly become fluent in the English language.
When Hien first arrived in America, she was already 21 and was too old to be able to go to school; so she was forced to work for money to help support her family. Her first job was babysitting the children of the Brady family. This family, she recalls, was “exactly like the Brady Bunch on TV, their last names were Brady, all the girls had blonde hair, all the boys had brown hair, and there were six children, 3 boys and 3 girls”12. Because she wasn’t fluent in English, this job seemed ideal for her because all she had to do was to supervise the kids and if they wanted to eat, give them cereal. The next job she had was being a cashier at a local supermarket and that job was easy for her as well. For Hien, math was easy to her so she excelled at her job. Presently, she’s a seamstress that manufactures curtains and sofas. Hien is very grateful for the support that St. Aiden had given to her family, because now she is able to completely assimilate into the American society.
One of her fondest memories of the immigration was when she spent her first Christmas in America. Back in Vietnam, there were only two holidays Chinese New Year—Tet— and Christmas. However, Christmas in the United States is very different than the Christmas that is celebrated in Vietnam. In Vietnam there was no Santa Claus or presents. The only event that occurred on Christmas was going to mass [you might want to explain what “mass” is] at midnight and sitting down to a nice dinner. When Hien saw a parade put on for Christmas in America, she was confused. She was “and I was very surprised to see a Santa come into our house and give us gifts”14. The Fire Department gave her family a Christmas dinner and a Christmas tree. That year was the best Christmas she had ever had. The turkey that they gave the family wasn’t very popular, however, they were very thankful for everything that had happened that day. Hien received a gold necklace and her siblings got toys and other items that they still treasure to this day. Again, St. Aiden showed its hospitality towards her family.
When Hien first arrived in America, she was in awe to the splendor of the nation. In Vietnam, she had almost nothing but a few pairs of clothes and handmade items. But here in the United States, she has more belongings than she could imagine she would have had in Vietnam. She said that “I really love this country. This country is so free.”15 She has no regrets on her decision to leave Vietnam; however, she does miss the friends and families that she was forced to leave behind. Her childhood friends couldn’t make it to the United States and to this day, she doesn’t know if they are still alive or not. Hien misses the evenings where she would bask lazily under a tree during spring and watch the people that she would see walk by her house. She still loves her homeland and is proud to be a Vietnamese immigrant. She loves all aspects of her heritage from her language to her holidays. She misses all those aspects about Vietnam that had to be left behind, but here in America, she believes that there is no better place to be.
1. Pham, Hien, Personal Interview, May 24, 2009, 7
2. Pham, May 24, 2009, 1
3. Pham, May 24, 2009, 2
4. Pham, May 24, 2009, 2
5. Pham, May 24, 2009, 3
6. Pham, May 24, 2009, 5
7. Pham, May 24, 2009, 7
8. Pham, May 24, 2009, 4
9. Pham, May 24, 2009, 4
10. Pham, May 24, 2009, 5
11. Pham, May 24, 2009, 5
12. Pham, May 24, 2009, 6
13. Pham, May 24, 2009, 6
14. Pham, May 24, 2009, 6
15. Pham, May 24, 2009, 7