Author shares story of escape from Viet Nam
Thursday, May 12, 2005    By Josie Cabiglio

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“Saigon to San Diego” is the self-told story of a boy living in Việt Nam after the fall of Sài Gòn 30 years ago, a story to which few people outside of those who were in the country at that time can relate, a story that must be told especially to younger generations, author Trình Đỗ said.

During a recent gathering at the University of California, Irvine, he discussed his book, which started out as a memoir, relating portions of his own struggle for survival when he was a preteen living under the new communist regime.

The book, published by McFarland & Company, “has a very strong relevance, a connection to the 30-year anniversary … those of us who are older have strong memory of it,” but others have no idea of what really happened, he told a group of primarily Vietnamese American students who attended the event, sponsored by the Vietnamese American Coalition, the Asian Pacific Student Association and the Vietnamese Student Association at UCI.

Đỗ wrote “Saigon to San Diego” in English, he said, because “the people of my generation and my parents’ generation lived through” the post-war period. “It’s an old story for them. I wrote it for my daughters, who are 10 and 6, and for younger generation (of Vietnamese). Many parents experienced unspeakable horror and unspeakable suffering,” but their children understand very little about what happened to them, he said.

What most people know about the Việt Nam War “are pieces of a large jigsaw puzzle,” Đỗ said. “What happened after the last photographer and American journalists were gone, after the Iron Curtain came down?” he asked the students. “Many don’t know why we’re here. Why our parents are here,” he asked rhetorically.

Born in South Việt Nam in 1964, Đỗ is the son of refugees from the north, who had escaped southward 10 years earlier to flee North Việt Nam after Hoà Chí Minh’s takeover of that part of the country. He escaped his own homeland in 1978, traveling by boat along with hoards of other people, after living under communist rule for three years.

Life under communism was markedly different for those who lived in the south, Đỗ said. “The truth has many sides. When I was child growing up, I learned about this mysterious figure, Hồ Chí Minh, from mother … He was late leader of communist party,” and a man his parents said was bad, he said, adding that at the time, he did not understand why.

After the communist takeover, government officials — calling themselves the People’s Committee — gave each family in the south a large photo of the hated man and were told to frame it and put it on a wall in their homes, in plain sight should anyone from the committee drop in to check up on them.

“Putting up picture was most repugnant idea to my mother,” he said. All the while she framed and hung the picture, she continued to curse under her breath, he said. “I never saw mother so angry before.”

In the meantime, Đỗ’s father, a soldier in the South Vietnamese Army, had been taken to a reeducation camp where he stayed for seven years, living under hardships that included having little food as well as no toilet paper other than leaves off trees in the jungle, he said.

After the fall of Sài Gòn, most foreign analysts had predicted that a bloodbath would occur in South Việt Nam, where soldiers and officials would be shot in the streets, Đỗ said, “but that did not happen.” Instead, a much “slower bloodbath (was) carried out in name of reeducation camps where they were supposed to learn Marxism and Leninism philosophy, to see light that communism is the only way.

“The reeducation camps were a method of revenge” by the communists against their “enemies” in the south, he said, explaining that these so-called foes primarily were those who worked in the South Vietnamese government or were soldiers in its army, along with their families.

“Another method of revenge was people were stripped of property in south. Overnight they became paupers (and their) children were denied education. The only people who can advance are children with revolutionary background, meaning children of communists,” he said.

The new regime also exacted its revenge by drafting into its army many children of its southern enemies, giving them little training and then sending them ahead of their regular soldiers to fight in Cambodia, which Việt Nam invaded after the Khmer Rouge massacred many Vietnamese civilians along with Cambodians in that country in 1978, he said.

The draftees “were sent ahead as suicide troops to pull out Khmer Rouge … Strategy was to kill off second generation of their enemy,” he said.

With life becoming more and more unbearable for the South Vietnamese, many escaped and many died in the South China Sea, among them, his parents, Đỗ said, a cloud of sadness sweeping across his face.

Escaping, Đỗ’s perilous journey led him first to Malaysia, where he spent six months in a refugee camp, after which he made his way to the United States, ending up in San Diego.

After his arrival, he learned English at a San Diego high school and later attended UCI, earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering, he said. Later, he obtained his MBA from Stanford University and went into the marketing field.

It was at Stanford that his memoirs were hatched, prodded by many questions from fellow students who wanted to know more about him.

Beginning in 1995, Đỗ worked in marketing for Proctor and Gamble, and was sent to Việt Nam to start up its business operations there, he said. As time passed and he saw the harsh conditions under which many people in his homeland lived, Đỗ realized he needed to do something to help, so he started raising money to build elementary schools, water wells, bridges and the like.

While in the country, where Đỗ stopped writing his memoirs “for security reasons,” he traveled to many rural areas and talked with numerous children, including “one boy, with one arm, one leg, one eye … he stepped on mine and father died instantly. After four months in hospital, he was taken home. His mother couldn’t care for him because she had no money. He wanted to commit suicide, to be no burden to his mother,” Ñoã said.

The boy eventually managed to get himself to Sài Gòn, where he lived on the streets for three years until “a kind Buddhist monk took him in. He went to school and became a teacher,” Đỗ added.

“Whatever we fear at this university — an A or B — or we worry about the job market … I was scared, when I was in school, but when I started having perspective, you know, it is not that bad,” he said. “You see what life under communism is about and see Vietnam through eyes of Vietnamese child, mother …. See everything they cared for disintegrate. No matter how bad midterm is … remember what your parents faced,” he told the students.

Đỗ wrote his book as a tribute to his own parents, “whose sacrifices gave me the chance to come to America and whose irrepressible spirit and character were enduring inspirations that gave me the strength to face my darkest hour,” he said.

The book also is “a tribute to my childhood friends who went through the same hardships as I did but were not as lucky. Many are now dead or live in poverty and despair in Việt Nam.”

He stressed that his story is not unique. “It is the story of millions of people who made dangerous voyages to escape from Việt Nam. Many succeeded, but many more perished silently in the cold depths of the South China Sea. Others survived the sea but met unspeakable horrors at the hands of pirates,” he said.

Before Đỗ’s escape, his father asked him to promise to return someday to Việt Nam to help the less fortunate who could not escape, he said. Also, “don’t forget who you are and where you came from. There is no future for you in this country. Never give in to hate.

Now a product marketer in Northern California’s Silicon Valley, Đỗ not only has heeded those words well, but also, very unlike most people who have grown up with his same Confucian upbringing, who have trouble baring the intimate details of their lives, he has done so with his book.