My parents were married in Saigon on 25 May 1975, less than a month after the city had fallen and not more than a twenty-minute Honda ride from where the Viet Cong raised their flag victoriously over the South Vietnamese Presidential Palace. In the wedding picture of them with my grandparents – missing my dad’s father, who had remained on his farm – Mum and Dad are the only ones smiling, belying the uncertainty etched into the grim faces of their parents.
He was twenty-five, she was twenty-three. My father, raised in the Buddhist south, had to convert to Catholicism to marry my mother.
They only met because of the war. Most people, wherever they live in the world, move within a very limited area unless something forces them out of their comfort zone. My parents came from different towns, my mother more recently from Saigon and my father from Can Tho, a large city on the Mekong Delta, on the outskirts of which his family grew rice and pomelos.
Vietnam had been at war for a long time by this stage. During World War II, a rising nationalist force, the Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh, had fought the Japanese occupation for control of the country. The fighting continued into the First Indochina War, with the Viet Minh ending six decades of French Colonialism, which led to the Second Indochina War (what is generally known as the Vietnam War), as the National Liberation Front, or the Viet Cong, sought to unify South Vietnam with the communist North following the Geneva Accords of 1954.
In the weeks following the end of the Vietnam War, couples were marrying twenty, twenty-five pairs at a time.
‘We had to marry,’ Dad says. ‘If we didn’t marry then afterward we couldn’t move around freely. Any man who wasn’t going to have a family, they made him join the Viet Cong.’
After only a month’s respite from the war with America, a new conflict started, this time against the newly formed Democratic Kampuchea, or Cambodia as it is now known, which launched an attack on a Vietnamese island that would eventually lead to all-out war in 1977 with the Khmer Rouge.
‘At the time, if you were in the army and went to Kampuchea, you were dead,’ Mum adds. ‘A lot of people were scared. So that’s why we married.’
They met in Bien Hoa, north-east of Saigon, where Mum had started a sewing business at her sister, my aunt Bac Khuy’s house, and where Dad was stationed.
My father had ended up in the military because he had failed the Year 11 exams that would have given him entrance into Year 12. If you weren’t going to study, the South Vietnamese government made you fight. He had wanted to go on and study Vietnamese literature. His father, my Ong Noi, was a poet and rice farmer.
‘Back then, there were a lot of poets who were really good. In South Vietnam. Really great,’ Dad says. ‘After the Viet Cong took over South Vietnam, they burnt everything. All the books.’
Between 1950 and the mid-60s Ong Noi was in and out of prison mostly due to his poetry, which was political and satirical, and once because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was in prison for the first time when my father was born. Each time Ong Noi would spend between six months and three years in prison. Dad was almost two years old when his father held him for the first time.
In 1970, my father applied to join the Quân Canh – Military Police – which made him exempt from fighting on the frontline. Instead he ran a prisoner-of-war camp and organised for POWs to be fed, entertained and clothed, which is how he met my mother. My mother’s sewing business was one of many that appeared during that time. She had been a seamstress for hire in Saigon, also since 1970. After working for other people she had quickly got the hang of it.
‘When you know how to work, you don’t want to work for other people any longer. So we went to Bac Khuy’s house to open the business.’
Bac Khuy had left an unhappy marriage with an older man in another town and bought the house in Bien Hoa, where she lived with her three children. She had made good money from a piggery and continued to do so, butchering them at the back of the house, while in the front my mother set up her sewing business. This willingness to work for herself would hold her in good stead later on in Australia. She put a sign in the window that said they did sewing and uniform alterations.
Dad was looking for people to alter the too-large American uniforms that he had been given. It was 1973.
‘At that time, when he came, he was flirting with girls all the time and my friends would dare him to try teasing me,’ Mum says. ‘I had got to know a lot of people, and they would try teasing me but I wouldn’t like it, didn’t want it. They would say, that girl is so difficult, why don’t you try teasing her? So your Ba went and made himself familiar and so I became familiar with him.’
He gave her a mountain of uniforms to alter. They had to be taken apart completely and sewn back together. Mum had initially told Dad that they would be ready the next week, but when he came by she wasn’t finished and told him to come back in another few days, but when he came back then she said a few days more.
‘Each time Ba would get angry,’ Mum says. ‘Ba would ride a bicycle, I still remember, one foot would be on the ground, the other on the pedal, and Ba would shout through the window, “Ready yet?” and I would reply, “Not yet”, and he would ride off.’
They courted, watching The Sound of Music dubbed in Vietnamese at the cinema, and did the things that young Vietnamese couples did in the early 70s while the war was going on.
After the war and after they were married, my mother stopped sewing and they moved to Can Tho, where Ong Noi had given Dad several acres to start growing his own rice. If you had rice, you had currency – you could eat it and you could sell it. Dad wasn’t there in 1977 when I was born in a private hospital in Bien Hoa, which Bac Khuy paid for with her piggery money, because it was the middle of harvesting season.
Life under the Viet Cong, even for a married man, was difficult. It was hard to move around without rousing suspicion. After I was born my mother went to Saigon so her family could help with me. One day on his way up to visit us, Dad was stopped by the Viet Cong and locked up in a small toilet block with a number of other people. They were interrogated about their activities until he was released a week later. My father would on occasion also be required to join labour camps digging new river ways or clearing land of mines. Each time Mum and I would be left on our own, sometimes for months, subsisting on a dwindling stockpile of rice and the fish sauce her mother-in-law had shown her how to make. Our diets supplemented by whatever Mum could catch from the river or sometimes by selling some of the rice to buy fish or meat.
They began to hear about Vietnamese people living better lives overseas; we left from the river mouth of the city of Bà Ria the Sunday night of the Feast of Corpus Christi in June 1980.
Powerful bonds of friendship and camaraderie are forged during perilous times. You leave family and friends behind but the shared experiences with the people who flee with you are links that sustain forever. Mixed with the emotions and uncertainty, the vertigo of enormous decisions having to be made, are the shared kindnesses and reassurances that help you through a traumatic time, that mark you, and that you will seek out in others in the decades that follow.
My parents are still close friends with some of the people who fled with us. When they meet other Vietnamese people in Australia for the first time, the talk begins with where everyone used to live back in Vietnam, quickly followed by which year they left or arrived. The conversations keep their memories fresh and often they sound unbelieving, that they were once those young people who had lived those desperate times.
The first few years in Perth were a scramble for my parents, adjusting to everything and raising two young children and then a third, born within a year of arriving. We lived for a couple of years in Perth on Lake Street, sharing a house with two brothers who we’d made friends with on the boat journey. Dad tried to find work and had a week’s trial in a pastry shop but was fired after he was caught eating the cakes.
When someone told him about a town to the north, where Vietnamese people were making good money working in market gardens, we packed up and moved 450km up the coast to Geraldton. It was 1982.
When we arrived there was already a small community of Vietnamese people there, growing by the day. I started primary school at St Lawrence’s the following year and improved on the English that I had picked up from kindergarten in Perth. There was a family down the road, the father Irish, the mother Aboriginal, who would give me a lift to school in the morning, piled into a beat-up station wagon with their twin boys. My parents started working, picking and grading tomatoes that would be sent to market in Perth. They set up a market garden with some friends and after a couple of years were able to buy twenty acres of sand in Waggrakine, a sprawling outer-northern suburb, with a house and a big shed and started growing their own bush tomatoes.
In the first few years after arriving, people moved around often, trying to find out what worked best for them. During those early years in Waggrakine we had several boarders stay with us. There were self-contained rooms at the back of the shed. Two brothers started a business there, fixing up electronic equipment, their rooms piled up with various gizmos. I remember them being kind to my siblings and me, making big, colourful kites that flew impossibly high up in the perpetual Geraldton wind. Next door to us, on their own twenty-acre block, was another family, the Vos, and my brother Tam and I would walk up the road to play with the three girls who lived there. An English teacher, Mrs Whitehead, would come to our house once a week to teach my parents, the Vos and others. People would come to visit and we would visit them. For a while my parents had a volleyball court that they erected over the dirt of our yard and their friends would come over to play. I remember the excitement of going to the tip with my dad in his Datsun ute and coming home with books and comics smelling of smoke. And when The Sound of Music came on the television my parents would watch it holding hands.
When I think back to that time in the 80s, I’m reminded of how young my parents still were, younger than I am now, and the sense of the cobbling together of a community that had ended up in this hot, bright, windy and unwelcoming town on the Western Australian coast, far away from the cool rivers of the Mekong and the shaded boulevards of Saigon of my parents’ childhoods. Market gardening was hard work but it made sense to my dad. His father and siblings were farmers. His exposed skin tanned to a dark leather. When I was an altar boy, the priest at St Lawrence’s once told me that Dad was his favourite person to give the host to, cupping his coarse hands together for that thin wafer.
From the start my parents had stayed in touch with their respective families through letters. Dad only ever wrote to Ong Noi, letting him know how our new lives were going.
My father was in the garden when a letter arrived from Vietnam. It was 1986. My mother read it in the kitchen and I knew something was wrong. It wasn’t from Ong Noi, but one of Dad’s nephews.
‘Go find Ba,’ she said.
I ran out to the farm and told him. He dropped the rake and rushed into the house. I couldn’t keep up with him and by the time I got back inside he was reading the letter, standing over the kitchen table, my mother watching him. He walked to the lounge room but let out a cry before he got there and I stayed in the kitchen, listening to him. His father was dead and I didn’t know it then, but his last link to his previous life was severed.
I was nineteen when I told my mother that I wasn’t Catholic anymore and she wouldn’t speak to me properly for two years. I had grown up in a strict Catholic household, which had high hopes for me as the eldest boy. My parents had envisioned that I would end up either in medical school or a seminary, but I couldn’t see myself doing anything but painting back then.
At one point she actually disowned me and I could only speak to Dad. I told him what it meant to me to be true to myself – I had moved to Perth with a couple of mates and was attending art school – and he understood, or at least he gave me the space to have my own thoughts. In the midst of it all I was blubbering to him on the phone and asking if he knew that I loved him, and we cried together, surprised by a candidness we’d never shown to one another before. It was 1997.
After I graduated, I went back to Vietnam with Mum and my two-year-old brother, Tony. Mum and I had patched things up somewhat, although she had organised for various clergy to speak with me about returning to the faith. They would tell her afterward, ‘If he doesn’t believe, there’s nothing we can do about it.’
We stayed in Saigon with family, visited other family in Bien Hoa and went down to Can Tho to visit Dad’s family. They wanted to know how he was doing. I met his eldest brother and his youngest brother. I met his older sister. They were all strangers to me because Dad had never spoken about them. I visited Ong Noi’s old house and was shown the last remaining fragments of his poetry, handwritten scraps slowly being consumed by insects in a plastic bag. I swam in the river and I thought about where I belonged in the world and, somewhat unsatisfactorily, saw that I didn’t belong anywhere.
Last June my partner gave birth to a baby girl and for the first time since 1980, when he arrived in Australia as a boat person, my dad left WA to visit his first grandchild.
He was thirty years old when we left Vietnam. He turned sixty-five this year and has now lived in Australia for more years than in his birthplace. In all this time he hasn’t seen his family, except for the photos that Mum and I had taken at the end of 1997, and has rarely spoken about them. Every now and then I ask him why he doesn’t go back to visit and he simply replies, ‘Because I hate the Viet Cong,’ like that explains everything.
It has been forty years since the war ended and since he was married. I can’t comprehend how after all this time, after seeing my mum, Bac Khuy, my cousins, me, return to Vietnam, he can sit back and refuse to let that be an option for him.
People age noticeably when you only see them at yearly intervals. When I returned home one Christmas, I was shocked to see Dad with his dentures out, his mouth shrivelled like an old mango. I started thinking about his family in Vietnam, who I knew so little about, and I began asking him about his life back then. I realised that a huge part of my family’s story will end with him and, one day, I want to be able to tell my daughter about it.