Stories From a Refugee
Lana Kathy Ngo’s escape from Saigon to the United States in 1979
essay written by Chris Wang
After Saigon’s fall to the communists during the Vietnam War, Lana Kathy Ngo and her family faced enormous obstacles as they escaped communist rule in search of freedom. Overcoming near-death experiences, Ngo illustrates her dangerous voyage at sea, and her eventual arrival to the United States. Quintessential of all Vietnamese refugees during the war, Ngo tribulations convey the tremendous struggle and pain that confronted all who escaped to the United States. Ngo’s narrative, in essence, is also the story of millions of refugees who clawed their way toward survival.
During the late 19th century, Vietnam became a victim of European colonization. Dominated by French imperialist powers, Vietnamese calls for self government and civil rights were ignored as France stripped Vietnam of its natural resources. Part of French Indochina, the Vietnamese people not only lost their social, economical, and political rights, but they also lost control of their homeland. Despite nationalistic efforts by Ho Chi Minh and the Emperor Hàm Nghi leading to the First Indochina War in 1941, Vietnam would not achieve its independence until 1976, under a tyrannical socialist government led by Ho Chi Minh and his revolutionaries. Yet, despite the reoccurring violence and European imperialist dominance in Vietnam, some immigrants migrated to Vietnam for refuge. With the increasing violence of the Chinese Civil War leading up to Mao’s successful overthrow of Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalistic government in China, many of the native Chinese populace immigrated to Vietnam as a safe haven. Unaware of the violence in Vietnam, these Chinese immigrants sought to live free from Communist rule. Lana Kathy Ngo, a native Chinese born in Vietnam, was the daughter of one of these Chinese immigrants. Her father, conscious of the turning tide in China, decided to immigrate to Vietnam. Moving into Saigon City, Ngo’s father married and had twelve children. Born in 1959, just before the outbreak of the Vietnam War, Ngo illustrates her experiences as she escaped Vietnam as one of the many Vietnamese boat people, and how she successfully arrived into the United States. As one of the “lucky [inhabitants] to get out”, Ngo conveys the Vietnam War not from a political standpoint, but as a commoner who experienced the pains of the vicious conflict.1
Born seventh out of the twelve children, Ngo lived next to the Parliament building of Vietnam, at the heart of Saigon City. As Ngo recalls, living on the main street of Saigon was “very exciting.”2 While other Vietnamese families suffered from financial instability, Ngo’s family produced sustainable income. Ngo’s father, who owned a small gift shop that attracted foreign visitors, gained enough income to support the large family. Living in a “pretty big house” with three rooms the twelve kids slept together in only four beds.3 Although one of the wealthier families in Vietnam, Ngo’s family did not have enough money to buy toys. Growing up, the kids played with “pots and pans.”4 Occasionally, a few of Ngo’s brother would play “cricket”, where they bought two male crickets to fight each other.5 As a child growing up in Vietnam, Ngo was not aware of the increasing violence surrounding her.
Like other teenagers, Ngo went to school. Because her mother was very “protective”, Ngo rarely saw or heard news about the war.6 But even with her mother shielding her surroundings, Ngo occasionally heard “gunshots [and] bombs”.7 Furthermore, Ngo recalls that she felt the increasing presence of communism even while living at home. As the communists took increasing control of Vietnam, the communist government closed schools and drafted young children to go to “brainwash meetings”.8 As part of its agenda, the communist government wanted young children to become loyal to their new government, teaching them to spite their parents. Playing on the gullibility of young children, the communists aimed to solidify their power. The teenagers, however, were harder to control than young children. Realizing the difficulty of brainwashing teenagers, the communist government drafted teenagers into forced labor camps. Coming to her house every week, Ngo hid in the roof to avoid being drafted by the communists. As the drafters came every week, Ngo remembers her fear of falling from the roof when the communists came. Fortunately for Ngo, her father’s connections through his gift shop allowed Ngo’s family to hire a replacement to go to the labor camps.
When Saigon fell to the Communists in 1975, Ngo’s family refused to leave. Joe Swift, a United States official working in Saigon and a regular customer at Ngo’s father’s gift shop, offered the family an opportunity to go to the United States. Although Ngo’s father realized the Communist threat was imminent, Ngo’s mother’s severe arthritis pain and her parent’s refusal to “leave everything behind” kept the family in Vietnam.9 Adding to the family stress, Ngo’s mother was afraid of the water and didn’t want to leave by boat. However, one of Ngo’s brothers, Michael Ngo, who helped Ngo’s father work at the shop and grew close to Swift, decided to leave the country. In 1975, Michael Ngo left Vietnam first to Guam, and then to the United States after receiving his immigration papers from Swift. A few other of Ngo’s family—all males—also left Vietnam earlier than the rest of the family. Because the Vietnamese government required all adult males to enlist in the military, Ngo’s parents decided to ship her brothers away once they reached the age of eighteen. By the time Ngo’s family escaped Vietnam, five of her brothers were already in Japan, Hong Kong, or the United States.
Despite Ngo’s family refusal to leave, they were eventually forced to depart by the communist government in 1978. Taking away all private property, the communist first took away the house of Ngo’s neighbors. Two years after the communist takeover, the regime declared that Ngo’s house belonged to the government and mandated the family to leave Vietnam. Realizing that they “wouldn’t have a future” if they stayed in Vietnam, the family finally agreed to leave.10 Resisting to leave meant death or imprisonment. Without other options, the family left on a boat provided by their neighbors. In order to secure a place on the boat, however, each person had to pay ten gold bars. By the time Ngo’s family paid ten gold bars for each member of the family, the family had nothing “but the clothes on [their] backs[s]”.11 Leaving on a crammed, wooden boat with five hundred people aboard, Ngo’s family had not yet planned to go to the United States, they were only hoping to secure a future where tyranny was nonexistent. Eager for a brighter future, Ngo and her family sailed blindly into the unknown.
During the darkness of night, Ngo and her family fled on a boat. Since the family did not pay enough gold bars to stay on the upper deck, they were sent into the second, lower deck of the boat. As Ngo described, the lower deck was “pitch dark”, making her unaware of how fast the boat was travelling or how long she had been on the boat.12 With no food and the boat rocking back and forth, Ngo described the environment on the boat as “haywire”; she was constantly dehydrated and dizzy, causing her to vomit uncontrollably.13 As Ngo family and five hundred other Vietnamese refugees set sail, the unexpected happened. One night, as the boat sailed out to sea, the motor suddenly started growling. Sailing on the water, the boat unexpectedly passed through a floating patch of sand in the ocean. With a limited navigation system and poor lighting, the boat could not avoid the sand, and the captain only found out that he sailed across the sand patch after hearing the motor’s loud growling. Noticing that the sand patch was damaging the motor, the captain attempted to maneuver the boat. The captain’s attempts came to no avail as the small wooden boat filled with scores of people sunk to one side. Moments after the boat sunk, there was “chaos”.14 Since Ngo and her family stayed on the side where the boat was still afloat, they hurriedly climbed up to the top deck. With no lifesaving equipment on hand, Ngo jumped into the water and stayed afloat by holding on to a wooden plank. Noticing that her mother had “passed out”, Ngo grabbed hold of her mother before becoming unconscious herself from drinking too much salt water.15 Floating in the darkness for over nine hours, Ngo, her family, and the rest of the surviving refugees would not be rescued until dawn arrived with sunlight. As fishermen came out on their boats, they rescued the remaining survivors. Although the fishermen saved some survivors, they were already too late. Over three hundred people died on the boat, including Ngo’s mother. Adding to the misery, the survivors found out that they would be returned to Vietnam.
Ngo and her family returned to their home in Saigon for only a week. The Communists, eager to take their house, ordered for their departure again. After providing a small funeral for her mother, Ngo and her family were immediately arranged to go on another boat. The communists offered no sympathy. Because of the terrifying experience from the first attempt at escape, Ngo and her family were “so scared” to go on a second boat journey.16 But with no choice, Ngo’s family decided it was either to “die at sea or [to] die in Vietnam”.17 Fortunately, the second voyage was not as catastrophic as the first. Ngo and her family arrived in Indonesia, a place Ngo remembers as “no man’s land”, because only convicted felons were sent to that country.18 Without a job, money, or clothing, life in Indonesia brought daily struggles. The daily meal, as Ngo described it, was “rice…mixed with water”.19 After living in Indonesia for a few months, however, the United States started sending food ratios to the refugees in Indonesia. Ngo’s brother living in Hong Kong also sent some money to support the family. With the help of her few brothers already living in the US, Ngo and her family received immigration papers after living nine months in Indonesia. Flying to the United States, Ngo and her family arranged to live with Ngo’s brother, Michael, and Joe Swift. Swift, who had already adopted Michael Ngo into his family, decided to adopt the whole Ngo family. Moving into a house with eight rooms in Huntsville, Alabama, Swift took in the Ngo family until they could be self-sufficient.
When Ngo first arrived into the United States in 1979, she discovered a more balanced society. Unlike Vietnam, where the rich lived in luxury and the poor lived in poverty, Ngo realized that everybody received an opportunity in America. Immediately, Ngo took classes and worked to support the family. Because she came to the United States as a refugee, Ngo had no choice but to adjust to her new culture. Although Ngo missed her home when she came to the United States, she understood that she had “no choice” but to escape from the communist government.20 Furthermore, Ngo quickly noticed the distinct difference between communism and American democracy. Instead of brainwashing children, the United States provided free public education. Instead of believing “everything is equal”, the United States allowed individuals to have the opportunity to succeed and prosper through hard work.21 Instead of limiting accomplishments, the United States promoted diversity. Lacking “human rights”, the communist way of living contradicted all American ideals.22
Not only did Ngo and her family have to adjust to a new life in America, Joe Swift and his family had to adjust to their new family members. Swift, who was raised in a small town in the rural South, grew up in a poor family. Supporting his family through a number of tedious jobs growing up, Swift became a contract specialist in the military. Because of his constant travels, he met the Ngo family in Vietnam. Hesitant to accept a foreign family at first, Swift’s family couldn’t understand Swift’s motive in helping Ngo’s family. But as Ngo and her family became self-independent, Swift’s family recognized the significant role Swift played in alleviating the struggles of Ngo’s family. Because of Swift’s sponsorship of the family, Ngo and her family only relied on government food stamps for a year. Even though Swift adopted the family, Ngo still had to work in order to pay the mortgage and support her younger siblings going to school. Because they had such a large family, they could only work enough to “get by”.23 With a new life in America, Ngo explored new educational and employment opportunities. Working in an assembly line for an electronic manufacturing company, Ngo eventually got promoted to the purchasing department and worked in the company for ten years. At night, Ngo went to a part-time college for five years in order to get a two year degree. Through perseverance, Ngo overcame all the obstacles hindering her life in the United States.
Because Ngo immigrated with the rest of her family, adjustment to the new lifestyle was easier. Referring to her life in Huntsville as “good times”, Ngo remembers playing volleyball and constructing puzzles in the driveway with her large family.24 Furthermore, she developed a hobby for planting tomatoes and other vegetables in the garden. By establishing leisure activities, Ngo confronted her past and progressed toward a brighter future.
After graduating from college, Ngo moved to Taiwan to marry her husband. In essence, she revoked her new culture in American and returned to her Chinese roots. After having her first child in Taiwan, however, Ngo immigrated back to the United States for a second time. Knowing that opportunities in the United States were limitless, she brought her son into the United States. While researching for the “best place” to live in the United States on the Internet, Ngo discovered Irvine, California.25 Completely self sufficient, Ngo moved back to the United States while her husband stayed in Taiwan.
By moving to Taiwan and back to the United States, Ngo created a unique individuality extending its roots back to Vietnam, China, Taiwan, and the United States. Because Ngo married a Chinese husband from Taiwan, it was important for Ngo to ensure that her son would grow up as an American, but not forget his Chinese roots. Just like Ngo when she first arrived into the United States, she wanted her son to “retain [Chinese] culture” and live with proper values.26 As a family, Ngo and her husband decided to send their son to Chinese school every Sunday in order to ensure that he would not forget his native tongue. From the first day she stepped into the United States, Ngo realized the importance of both assimilating into American culture and remembering her indigenous roots.
After many tribulations, Ngo lives a “grateful” life in the United States.27 After having her second child, Ngo still lives in Irvine, California. Despite her joyful life in the United States, Ngo has never forgotten those still left in Vietnam. Studying to become a future nurse, Ngo hopes to return to Vietnam with a group of doctors in order to help the poor. Even though the war has ended, Ngo realizes that there are still Vietnamese people suffering from the effects of the war. As one of the few “lucky enough to get out”, Ngo feels obliged to help the ones still in need.28
Representative of all Vietnamese refugees during the war, Ngo’s story provides insight into the real effects of the Vietnam War on Vietnamese people. Even as they struggled and clawed for survival, the numerous boat people of Vietnam can be viewed as the lucky few, in comparison with those still left in Vietnam. Furthermore, Ngo’s story illustrates America’s willingness to open its arms to those in need, despite the American involvement in the brutal war. Only in America can a refugee enduring so much “hardship”, get a “good education”, and work her way up in the social hierarchy.29 The hope America inspires, the opportunity she provides, and the diversity she accepts continues to hold America’s standing in the world as the land of freedom.
1. Ngo, Lana Kathy. Personal Interview. 24 May 2009. 14.
2. Ngo, 24 May 2009, 14.
3. Ngo, 24 May 2009, 7.
4. Ngo, 24 May 2009, 9.
5. Ngo, 24 May 2009, 2.
6. Ngo, 24 May 2009, 1.
7. Ngo, 24 May 2009, 1.
8. Ngo, 24 May 2009, 2.
9. Ngo, 24 May 2009, 7.
10. Ngo, 24 May 2009, 2.
11. Ngo, 24 May 2009, 2.
12. Ngo, 24 May 2009, 2.
13. Ngo, 24 May 2009, 4.
14. Ngo, 24 May 2009, 3.
15. Ngo, 24 May 2009, 3.
16. Ngo, 24 May 2009, 4.
17. Ngo, 24 May 2009, 4.
18. Ngo, 24 May 2009, 4.
19. Ngo, 24 May 2009, 4.
20. Ngo, 24 May 2009, 10.
21. Ngo, 24 May 2009, 11.
22. Ngo, 24 May 2009, 11.
23. Ngo, 24 May 2009, 9.
24. Ngo, 24 May 2009, 12.
25. Ngo, 24 May 2009, 11.
26. Ngo, 24 May 2009, 11.
27. Ngo, 24 May 2009, 11.
28. Ngo, 24 May 2009, 14.
29. Ngo, 24 May 2009, 14.