During the early years of my father’s imprisonment, part of my duties in the afternoons working for my mom was making deliveries on a bicycle. In this way, I got to learn more of the layout of Saigon, which helped me later on in my escape attempts.
I missed my father. So every 2 or 3 weeks I would go to the prison where he was held and “sneak” in. By “sneak”, I mean that I would find a family who was waiting in line to visit their relative and ask them to include me. The head of the family would just tell the guard or prisoner who was checking in visitors that I was one of their kids. Once inside, I would then go off on my own to find my father. Sometimes I would bring him food or other things he needed or wanted. I was only allowed to stay for about 30 minutes. It made me angry to think my father was in jail for no other reason than trying to provide for his family.
People have told me how brave I was as a little kid, but I don’t think so, I just missed my dad. Also, I wanted to help my family live better lives. Desperation can either bring out the best or the worst in us. For me, I saw escape as the only way to change our circumstances. I did what I felt I had to do.
The communists were only concerned with controlling the people and keeping them in poverty while the communist leaders grew in wealth and comfort. The concept of communism is a lie. That lie has never been more fully demonstrated than in Vietnam. The leaders couldn’t care less about the people. Everyone had to decide for themselves what they were going to do, take it or leave it. I chose to leave.
When I started my attempts to escape, I didn’t know what I was doing or where to go. But I soon learned that people would use the rivers at night that lead to the ocean. The first few times I tried, I ran into police patrols looking for people like me trying to escape. Therefore, many attempts ended before they began. I had to learn how to avoid the patrols.
I started out just going by myself, but then I learned to join small groups of others. One night there were 5 or 6 of us in a small boat going down the river when we were spotted by a police patrol. They shined their lights on us and began screaming at us to stop. The driver ran the boat up the side of the river for as close as we could get to the shore. But where we were, the water was too shallow for the boat to continue all the way in, so the man piloting the boat said we had to jump out and swim and run through the shallows to get away. I wasn’t wearing shoes and the reeds in the riverbed cut into my feet, but I couldn’t stop. If we were caught, we would be sent to jail. I didn’t want to go to jail so I ran barefooted trying to ignore the pain.
We ran until we found a shed farm workers used for shade during the heat of the day. We hid in there until about 4 in the morning when we felt it was safe to come out. On that day, I was a long way from home. Thankfully I had enough money to pay for a bus ride that took me back. It was a few weeks before my feet healed enough to allow me to try again.