Escape from Saigon, 1975 to 1979

Carina Hoang » Escape from Saigon, 1975 to 1979


We were in the US embassy in Saigon from the morning of April 29th.

By late evening, we made it to the roof of the building, near the helicopter pad. Even though we saw the helicopter went back and forth to pick up people, hours went by and we were still waiting in line.

Later that night there was no time left to evacuate Vietnamese. The American soldiers lined up pointed their rifles toward the crowd of desperate Vietnamese people, and they slowly walked backward toward the main building. As the last soldier disappeared behind the doors, they threw tear gas to the crowds to stop us from running after them.

Fearful and hopeless, my Mom tried to get her 7 small children out of the embassy, it was difficult to see because of the tear gas; people were running to all directions, screaming and stepping on each other; clothes, money and valuables on the ground, no one care to stop.
I re-live the moment any time I look at this famous picture again.

April 29, 1975, at a building near the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, mobs of South Vietnamese trying to reach the evacuation helicopters as the last of the Americans departed from Vietnam. (AP Photo by Hubert Van Es)


It was July 1976, there were my brother, my best friend, her brother and I, all locked up in a room at a stranger’s house somewhere in Saigon. We were about thirteen and eleven year of age. While we were waiting to be taken to the boat, for some unknown reason, the boat took off without us. My Mom and my best friend’s Mom were devastated; they had lost all of the gold they had paid for our fares. Of course, they would have to keep quiet; because escape was forbidden, and imprisonment was one of the consequences.


June 1978, my brother, my sister and I were ready to go to Ca Mau, a province South of Saigon to catch the same boat that successfully delivered my other sister and brother to Malaysia there months earlier. Unfortunately, some one tipped off local police, so the boat abruptly left without many of their passengers, including the boat owner’s son and us.


In November 1978 my sister, brother and I, we took a train to Phan Ri, North of Vietnam, with a group of escapees. We got off the train at night, walked through a rice field to a meeting place. Then walked to a forest, and were picked up by a construction truck that carried rocks. We traveled in the forest for hours, passed may military check-points, then reached a secret beach. There we waited for small taxi boats to take us to the large boat that was waiting further out from the beach.
The first group of people were taking to the large boat, then the taxi boat returned and picked up second group. This time, we waited for a while but the taxi boat did not return, the organizers figured that they must have been caught by authorities. We tried to get out of the forest, but it was too late for most of the escapees, polices were already on the hunt for escapees. Luckily, we got away; nearly a hundred others were caught.


January 1979, I went to Ca Mau with the boat owner, and she was supposed to return to Saigon to take my Mom, my sister, and my brother after a few days. As it turned out, the lady did not tell the truth about the boat, it was in fact being re-built. I was kept in a house in the country, down near the end of Vietnam, hundreds of kilometers away from my family. I could not contact my Mom, I could not go home, could not leave the house, and my Mom did not know where to find me. Almost daily, I saw lines of escapees who were led by policemen walked by the house with their hands tied behind their back. I remembered thinking: it would only be the matter of time when I am one of them.
A month later, the lady agreed to take me back to Saigon and admitted to my Mom that she did not have the boat, but she cannot give my Mom the gold she has deposited for the three of us, instead, she gave my Mom a pair of earrings that she was wearing.


May 1979, we finally made it! Though it wasn’t a ‘smooth sailing’…

373 people, including 75 children, packed in a 25m by 5m wooden boat; we were tossed around by a violent storm the first night on the water, people threw up and urinated all over each other …we lived with that horrible smell for the next seven days underneath the boat with very little air or light.
We survived two Thai pirate groups, then was shot, pushed back at and robbed by Malaysian police. We ran out of food and water and people started to die by the 6th day.
After seven days on the sea, we landed on a small fisherman village somewhere in Indonesia; we sank our boat so that they will not send us out in the water again. Ten days later, the local authority put us on another wooden boat and left us on an uninhabited island. Far away from civilization, we were ordinary people struggling to survive in the jungle … like modern Robinson Crusoe.