There’s a different story for every “boat person” who escaped communist Vietnam. For one man, Binh Tran, his journey involved a boat he built with some friends.
As the last Americans pulled out of the Vietnam War on April 30, 1975, the communist North Vietnamese Army and the south’s communist Viet Cong forces captured Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, also known as the Republic of Vietnam. The shift, now referred to as the end of the Vietnam War and the fall of Saigon, drastically changed the lives of the South Vietnamese people.
Tran was a young pharmacist. After the communists unified the north and the south, forming the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in 1976, the subsequent lack of freedoms prompted him to leave for a better life.
“[At the time], if you want to say something true, you cannot say it. If you want to do something productive and good for the people around you, you cannot do it. You can’t live a life like that,” he explained to The Epoch Times’ “Crossroads” in broken English.
He said Vietnamese people could not speak up about their condition. And if they did, nothing would change anyway.
“We just wanted to say the truth, [for example] what it is now, what’s the life now, and what do you want to do to improve it? But we cannot say it,” he said. “If we want to do better, we don’t know what is the bad one to improve yet—but no, you cannot say the bad things.”
“You know people cannot have enough food. Now for example, how to improve it? The people have no medication, and [if you want more medication], how to improve it? No one would listen to you. That is the problem,” he added.
The communists in charge wanted to “reeducate” the people who lived under the former government of the Republic of Vietnam, Tran noted. Because he wasn’t directly involved in resisting the communists during the war, he was not sent to a reeducation camp. But he was still subjected to other forms of punishment.
“Talking life for me, I had to spend one year for them to brainwash [us] about what is the communist theory—how good it is, and [the idea is] then you’d forget everything else,” he described. “But definitely, they cannot do it. They cannot do it. We [were] mature enough.”
Tran was subjected to forced labor in the fields.
“They make us go to labor, real labor! You go to the fields, you have to dig the soil to build the levee here,” he recounted, further elaborating: “We’re not directly involved [in the war]. The people who got directly involved were in the forced labor. But we were in it together [with those people].
“[The communists would] move us to the fields—not in the camp—and after so many days, we were back to the schools for a few days to study politics. And then we’d move again to another field. That was the way it was.”
“Labor and politics—they want to brainwash us. But they cannot do,” Tran said.
It took Tran and his friends, a group of about five people, about a year to build the boat. It measured six feet (1.8 meters) by 15 feet (4.5 meters)—well, about 18 feet (5.5 meters) if you counted a special pointy section of the boat that was designed to “cut the wave,” Tran said.
That boat would ultimately hold 58 people, even though they’d planned for about 25 people.
The escape was full of obstacles. Tran and his friends had to bribe a policeman near Vung Tau Cape—the southernmost part of Vietnam, to let them move freely to the area. Once the group proceeded to transport the boat further toward the sea, they had to try bribing a different policeman guarding another area they needed to pass.
“However, it did not go like [the first] one. We were arrested,” Tran said, clarifying that he himself wasn’t arrested. “The main thing is, the captain was arrested. And all of the other members in the family of my friend [were] arrested.”
He became the only person in the group in a leadership role to continue efforts to escape the country. “So I’m the only person left who knows about that [leaving the country], who [gets to] decide to escape or not,” he said of the situation. “That was a stormy night—very strong, strong. But I made decision—’Yes, we have to escape.’”
He continued: “So only myself, I had to contact the police again—a whole bunch of them, almost all Vung Tau police, about 100 of them. And then [I had] to look for the guy we bribed before.”
Protected by a Storm
The man they’d bribed before helped provide the group with a compass and some engine oil. He told Tran to go to “buoy number eight.” A fisherman helped to transport Tran there.
“And I allow, definitely, his family members to go with us too … Because one of the family members on the boat already,” he recounted, smiling. The fisherman didn’t decide to leave too, though.
The police caught wind of the situation and pursued the group as they were leaving. But the storm, a seeming deterrent, ultimately protected them.
“They chasing us, the police. But then, luckily stormy, strong storm. About 15 minutes later, they let us go. They don’t want to risk their lives,” Tran recalled.
Tran fainted after that police pursuit and slept for two days on the boat, while a 16-year-old boy helped to navigate the boat—he was the only one who knew how.
When Tran woke up, his boat encountered a big ship. While the ship didn’t take in the group of 58 refugees, it did provide them with more supplies, including another compass and more engine oil, as well as milk.
“I drink the milk. I regain my strength and work again,” he recounted. “For another two days, four days, I remember that day in that morning I sit at the back where we stir the control [of the boat]. And then I saw a little bug … A very small one, flying.”
The refugees began looking around for hints of land. They thought they saw something far away like a “pencil tip,” Tran said. As they tried to approach it, the tip appeared larger and larger until a strong storm hit in the evening.
To weather the storm, the group put down the anchor and let the engine run slowly, Tran said.
“But in the morning, all broke … No more anchor. The boat not balanced anymore … We had engine that broke that time, we cannot go any further,” Tran said. But he had a backup plan.
“I brought a light. Strong light. And one of my friends, he knows how to send signal, SOS signal. And he send signal,” he said. The signal caught the attention of a small boat from afar that came to help. A policeman and another man on the boat told them they’d reached a very small Indonesian island—Pulau Laut.
“From that, we had to transfer to another island … then transfer to anther island, Kuku island … then transfer to Galang Island. From that one, We met the delegations all over the world. They interview us. For me and some of my friends, the U.S. delegation interviewed us and we qualified for the political asylum,” Tran said. He and his friends would spend over a year in Galang Island refugee camp before setting off to the United States.
Tran said he was resolute in leaving communism. “Do you want to live in a country you cannot talk what is true? And you want to live a country [where] you want to do something right for the people [but] you cannot do?” he asked. “No freedom of speech. You know that time you [cannot] go anywhere freely. You cannot do some work for the people. You cannot do.”