prayers answered An Escape from Vietnam

In the last of the1970s, a surge of Vietnamese people left their country. Although the war in Vietnam ended in 1975, the suffering continued into 1978 and 1979 for the people of Vietnam. An estimated 1.5 million refugees attempted to escape Vietnam. Most piled in boats and became known as the Vietnamese Boat People. This is the story of how a family of ten, along with some of their friends, became some of the 823,000 refugees that found their way to the United States in 1978.

Southern Vietnam lost to Northern Vietnam in 1975. This would be known as the Fall of Saigon. The communist government that took over put great hardship on the population. One of the reasons so many people fled the country was because of the currency exchanges. They would toss out the old currency and provide the same amount of new currency to each household, regardless of how many members might be in that family. The communist government shut down education and limited it to one book that contained the thoughts of the communist leader. Young men were drafted into a new army. People were required to attend nightly meetings in their community. Everything was purchased on the black market. Announcements and ways of thinking were broadcast over public speakers. The people of Vietnam had to escape.

Christine Thach-Goodpasture and Amy Thach are two sisters of a large family. I sat down with both of them and listened to their part of history. Christine was 20 years old and Amy was 24 years old when they left Vietnam.

Christine and Amy, 1978

“It all started with my number two brother...”

Numbering their siblings was the quickest way to help others get all six brothers straight. The “number two brother,” Vihn Thach was the first to leave with his wife. His wife's family was capable of providing the funds needed to get out of Vietnam.

In my family, we have eight siblings and my mom and dad. We are a big family and we don’t have that kind of money to leave. So, we pretty much gave up the hope that we would be able to leave Vietnam. But when my number two brother and his wife made it to the refugee camp in Japan and we received the telegram letting us know they were safe, that got the hopes up for my family. My number three brother [An Thach] one day met one of his friends in the city somewhere. This friend is suddenly really well dressed and my brother asked him, “What is going on with you?” He told my brother that he is building a huge boat and got all these rich people to chip in the money to build this boat. They had over a hundred people on their boat and he told my brother that if he wanted his family to leave, he should do it too. That planted a seed in my brother’s head.

Aboard a boat was not an uncommon way of escape from Vietnam at the time. Millions of refugees fled the country packed onto boats. Many of them died from dehydration or starvation at sea from over-crowded boats. Others faced the dangers of pirates and storms.

The Thach family lived in Go Vap. The small boat they were able to purchase helped them determine a route to the Saigon River and then down to Vung Tau on the coast.

We came up with a little bit of money and were able to buy that little boat, in hope that we can somehow build it bigger so my family could leave. So,my number three and my sister went to buy the boat one evening. Later, he found out that the boat is too small to go out on the ocean. I mean, the ocean will swallow that thing. At that time, Amy and I got involved and we talked to our friends. One of Amy’s friends is pretty well off at that time. We talked about how my brother had a boat and they asked if they could come with us. They had five people that wanted to join my family. They had this much money to give us to start to build a bigger boat. So, that is how we got some of the money to buy a bigger boat.

Model of Small boat used to navigate rivers

While my brother was having the bigger boat built, he used the little boat to navigate in the river and to check out all the checkpoints. He studied the checkpoints and saw how many guards,who was the easiest one and who is the most difficult. They kept a log and found that at one checkpoint there is one guard, kind of heavyset, that is really easy. When you came in, he didn’t look at anything, he just signed off and let you go. It takes them 18 months for them to get prepared for us to leave. During this time, we almost gave up hope because it kept dragging on. One day, my number three brother shows up at my mom’s house and he said,

“Today is the day that we go. Tonight.”

In Vietnam we have a curfew from ten o’clock at night till five or seven in the morning. Curfew means that nobody is allowed on the streets during that time. So, he said that he would come right before curfew to pick my mother up. I just remember that day, Amy and I, we were getting ready and I had no fear. I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t even nervous. I thought it was a trip for me! Amy and I were really excited and were ironing our clothes. We both had on a white blouse and platform shoes! My mother was really, really nervous. At that time, we had four dogs in the house and my mother had to cook for the dogs because we were going to leave them. She cooked a lot of food for the dogs. Amy and I packed two suitcases of clothes and went to the shipyard. We walked on a little plank onto our boat and my number four brother [Dat Thach] was in the boat. He said, “What do you think you are doing?” He took our suitcases and threw them over the boat and into the river.

Christine and Amy remember being very unaware of what was happening up until this moment of their escape. As they sat in the cabin with their brother across from them, they realized how serious it was.

A passerby saw Christine and Amy dressed in white blouses and high heels on the boat. He came over to warn their brother that he needed to let them off the boat. If Christine and Amy had been found on the boat, all of them would have been arrested and the boat would have been confiscated. However, if they were caught alone and off the boat only Christine and Amy would be arrested. So, to protect the future of their family, Christine and Amy went and hid for several hours in the shipyard. Gradually, the rest of those that were going to be on the boat arrived to the shipyard and scattered to hide until it was time to leave.

The plan was that we were going to get out in the middle of the night but my number five [Hien Thach] was missing. My number three was the one who called all the shots. He was the leader and he said we were not going to leave anyone behind. We waited all night long. When we heard the public transportation start in the morning my brother came with three more people than we expected. One of them was a tiny little baby. We didn’t want too many people in the boat because it would look suspicious but then it was too late. Around six or seven o’clock that morning, my brother started to load us one by one onto the boat.

Model of the boat that held all 21 passengers.

Going through the checkpoint was the most nerve-racking part of the journey out. Christine remembers hearing her brother’s signal to be quiet.

I felt the boat stop and my number three brother jump off the boat and went to the guards at the checkpoint. That day the heavyset guard was there. He didn’t even look. He signed the paper and let us go. I was praying so sincerely during this time.

When they pulled away from the checkpoint, everyone on board the boat was filled with relief. In the close quarters under the deck of the boat, Christine's "number five" sister-in-law grabbed her hand and said something Christine will never forget.

"Your prayers were answered. Your Jesus is real."

The danger was not behind them, though. The sun was going down and a storm was starting.

All of a sudden, the storm started. It was heavy, heavy rain and thunder. The water is really rough where the river meets the ocean. Also, the fishing boats have a lot of posts to tie their nets. We had to navigate through those to get out to the ocean. It was pitch dark and raining.

To get around the fisherman’s posts, the brothers thought fast and worked together. One brother stood on each side of the boat with a piece of white cardboard. Depending on what side the post was on, that brother waved his cardboard to let the driver know to steer the other direction. While the brothers were trying to get the boat out to the ocean, the passengers in the cabin were feeling the storm the most.

I passed out soon after that. When I woke up, I saw a little sunlight coming through the lid of the cabin. The boat was not moving. We were just sitting in the water. I got up and saw that everyone was passed out. I tried to push that lid open to get up there and see what was going on. When I first came up, I saw all my brothers laid out on the deck. I thought they had died. Their faces looked purple from the vomiting and dehydration. I woke my number three up because we were still in Vietnamese waters.

After a few hours, some boats passed them. They called out to be rescued or for any help. When none of the boats could give them the help they needed, Christine remembers feeling hopeless. Amy suggested that they go to the front of the boat and pray.

The ship stopped and asked them who they were and what they were doing. They hesitated to help them because they heard them speaking Chinese. Although the Thach family had been living in Vietnam, they are originally from China. This made the people on the large ship assume they were only pretending to be Vietnamese refugees to get help. The ship took off suddenly after that. In a moment they were just a spec in the distance. Their brother, determined to follow the ship, pushed their boat as fast as it could go. However, they all knew they would not be able to catch up.

“In that moment, I felt so hopeless. I felt so empty.”

Then we noticed that the ship was getting bigger. We knew that we were not getting closer, so they must have stopped. We looked up on the top of the ship and there is a guy waving two different colors of flags. Of course we don’t know what he is doing, we just know he is doing something. We guessed that they wanted us to get closer to them. We were right.

They met the owner of the ship who was from Singapore. He spoke several different dialects, like the Thach family, and they were able to communicate and prove they really were from Vietnam.

He said he would rescue us under one condition. They were on their way to China and when they got close to Hong Kong we had to go back on our boat. That way they wouldn’t have to pay a heavy tax and we could go in on our boat like we are Vietnamese refugees. We agree to anything at that point.

After agreeing to the terms, they had to figure out a way to get on the tall ship. Christine said it was ten or more stories higher than their small boat.

It is a miracle that nobody, out of all 21 one us, got seriously hurt. My number five brother tied the baby onto his back with a piece of fabric. The parents didn’t want to do it, so my brother had to do it. When he jumped for the rope, only one hand grabbed it. The other half of his body was hanging and the boat came up and smashed his leg. It was a big bruise. It didn’t break his leg or anything. He was the only one that had an injury from getting up on the ship.

When we came up to the ship, there was such a big relief. We said, “Oh, we have it made. We got it.” They gave us food and that is a meal I will never forget. It was rice soup and little ground pork. Man, it tasted so good. We had four days and four nights on the ship. I had a blast on the ship.

To have their small boat to arrive into Hong Kong, they tied it to the ship. Unfortunately, the next morning when they went to check on it, the force of the ship had completely destroyed their boat. Christine chuckled as she remembered them pulling up one piece of wood tied onto the rope. For three more days they traveled on the ship before it was time to be placed in a life raft and arrive in Hong Kong. They were guaranteed that everything would be okay. They were close to Hong Kong and the ship notified the coast guard about their location. To get onto the raft, they faced the same problem with the rope ladder not reaching all the way down. The evening came and it was time to drop down into the raft.

While they watched the ship take off, everyone in the boat felt abandoned. After four good days on the ship, they were scared and alone at sea again. Everyone began crying and saying goodbye to each other because they were so unsure of their future. They soon noticed that their raft had a hole on one side so half of it deflated. The water started to fill the raft and some of the men jumped out to keep the women and children safe. However, the water was icy cold and they soon realized that hypothermia might be a greater danger. Christine remembers a dolphin nudging the raft that night as they worried if they would be okay.

Once they were in Hong Kong, they were able to receive sponsorship from a church in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Their second brother, who had already made it to the United States at that point, was able to speak on their behalf to get the funds they needed. They lived in low-income housing and began adjusting to the new culture. They didn't speak any English and didn't know how to drive a car. Twenty-four years after arriving in the United States, Christine became my aunt.

December 28, 2002

Credits:

Photos provided by Amy Thach and Christine Thach-Goodpasture. Photos taken by Micaleigh English.

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