The Making of a Refugee

Author: Xuyen Nguyen, Hannah Hoang

When the small boat loaded with people landed on the shores of Thailand at the beginning of 1987, it was the completion of a process that began long before each person set foot on board—the final act of a lost war.

Dizzy, dehydrated and unsure of where they were, the 14 adults and 15 children—including my parents and six-year-old brother—had spent five days and five nights at sea. Two days into the journey, the group ran out of water. My mother considered drinking my brother’s urine, but the smell of ammonia allayed her desperation. With a broken rudder, no food and limited fuel, they’d decided they needed to stop as soon as they saw land—knowing that this might never happen.

Unknown to anyone, I’d been an invisible passenger on that boat. Born eight months later in a Thai refugee camp, my parents named me “Xuyen”, which literally means “to cross over”. My name is a reminder of what it means to choose life so resolutely that one would risk death.

Accepting death doesn’t necessarily mean you’re seeking it. Many might think of it as a fearful fatalism, but for my parents and the others onboard, the possibility of death was reframed into an unwavering affirmation of life. For every person on that boat, the question wasn’t “is life worth living?” but its exact inverse: “what type of life is worth dying for?”

The Vietnam War

Before she left the house in Ca Mau in late 1986, my mother put on one of her mother’s shirts, a dirt-colored long-sleeved top worn by older women in rural Vietnam. Called an ao ba ba, the shirt was unflattering, shapeless and coarse. It aged her, concealing her youth. She hoped that it would make her less of a target for unknown predators.

Carrying nothing but bits of dried food, she left with my father and brother for the “taxi”, a code word for the boat that would transport them out of the country. The smuggler had promised enough food and water for the journey.

A family friend had come to my parents with the chance to escape. Knowing nothing else—not even where they were headed—my parents agreed. Arrangements had been made in a hurry; strands of gold handed over as a bribe for one of the officers patrolling the sea, money was relinquished to pay for the fuel. My father spent the day before the planned departure repairing the boat, hoping it’d be enough to make it to its destination.

The Making of a Refugee - New Naratif
Hannah Hoang

Every person who got on that boat were intimately familiar with the hunger, grief, and suffering caused by war. Waged from 1964 to 1975 between the communist North Vietnam and US-backed South Vietnam, the Vietnam War was a protracted conflict that took two million Vietnamese and 58,000 American lives.

The reason for the fighting depended on your vantage point. On the international stage, the war was framed along ideological lines, described as a critical conflict in choking the spread of communism. Within the country, both sides believed that they were revolutionaries fighting against the oppression of the other regime. After more than 60 years of French rule, both sides saw it as an opportunity to seize control of their own country.

That trip to the “taxi” was my family’s fourth attempt to make the journey called vuot bien, which means “crossing the sea”. Many of those who left were like my father—a former lieutenant in the Republic of Vietnam’s Marines. With the United States on their side, he’d never conceived of surrendering. When Saigon fell in 1975, he hadn’t seen the day as a moment of liberation—which is how it’s celebrated in Vietnam today—but as the death of a country that never even took its first breath.

When my father heard President Duong Van Minh announce the surrender over the radio on 30 April 1975, he knew that they’d just handed the country over to another authoritarian regime. Remembering the capture of Saigon as something that forever “broke up his life”, 30 April was to him the day “we all became prisoners.”

The war had officially ended after more than two decades of fighting, but the struggle continued for those who survived. Compared to the clear outlines of a war—battles, retreats, tactics and strategies—the aftermath of conflict is often forgotten. After a victor is declared, an armistice signed, the foreign parties evacuated, what remains is a trail of trauma.

Like hundreds of thousands of others connected to the South Vietnamese government, my father was sent to a “re-education camp”, a euphemism for the prison camps set up by the Communist government to “rectify” the beliefs of their former enemy. Along with indoctrination, the prisoners were subjected to hard labour. Thousands are believed to have died in those camps.

My father was released in June 1978, having served 38 months in total. Though technically no longer in prison, it would take another eight years and three failed attempts before he would truly find freedom.

A way out of Vietnam

With over 2,000 miles of coastline, Vietnam’s waters were a natural exit point for those seeking a way out. The Vietnamese referred to each town with proximity to the water as a “door”. After their first attempt to leave failed, in 1981 my parents strategically moved to my mother’s hometown—Ca Mau, situated deep in the Mekong Delta near the southernmost tip of the country. Ca Mau’s intricate network of canals was an instrumental “door” for those who ended up on the wrong side of the Vietnam War.

Four years after the first attempt, two of my dad’s friends came to him with another opportunity to escape. The costs were the same—money and gold for a boat and bribes. But there was one problem: the “taxi” driver refused to bring along women or children.

Although only adult men were to be allowed on the boat that night in 1985, my mother and brother went along anyway, hoping the driver would not have the heart to deny their physical presence. But he was adamant in his refusal. In a spur-of-the-moment decision, my father got on the boat. My brother, then five years old, asked, “Where are you going, Daddy? Let me come with you.”

My mother told me about this, remembering it as one of the saddest days of her life. When she returned home with my brother, her family told her, “See, he doesn’t love you. He left without you.”

But my father came back the next day; he hadn’t sailed off with the boat after all. He offered few details; he merely said that my brother’s last words made it impossible to go.

The Making of a Refugee - New Naratif
Hannah Hoang

My family finally made it out a year later, but there were more dangers at sea to face down. Two days into the journey, they encountered two vessels carrying fishermen in the Gulf of Thailand. Looking for gold and American money, five or six men boarded the boat with knives. My mother, dressed in my grandmother’s ao ba ba, kept her eyes closed the entire time. The men set their sights on a young woman breastfeeding her newborn child, fondling her as the boat bobbed in the middle of the sea. Everyone feared the worst, but the men left when they found there was nothing to take.

To this day, my mother credits their “good” fortune to a framed photo of the Buddha—used by another passenger to hide his documents. Even in violence, the Thai men had clasped their hands together to acknowledge the deity’s presence the moment they saw the image.

On the fifth night, they saw a light in the distance. Facing severe dehydration and a broken rudder, there was no choice but to head towards it. My mother said she spent most of that fifth day preparing for death: “I closed my eyes, prayed and waited to die.”

When they neared land that morning, the boat’s passengers yelled “no VC, no VC!”, using the abbreviation for Vietcong, the term the South Vietnamese used to refer to the North Vietnamese communist fighters. The local villagers helped them pull the boat to shore. Recognising them as Vietnamese refugees, the local officials notified the United Nations’ refugee agency.

After an initial interview with the UN, our family was moved to the Phanat Nikhom camp to be processed. We had escaped death, and Phanat Nikhom was the place where we waited to find out which country would give us the opportunity to live.

Back to Thailand

Today, Thailand is a country that’s known more for its beaches and cuisine than its role in harbouring hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Lao refugees following the end of the Vietnam War. I was born in this country, but I have no memories of it. Ten months after my birth, the United States agreed to accept us. I was still crawling when we were transferred to the Philippines to be processed for resettlement.

Birth certificates are an unusual thing to fixate on, but growing up I treasured mine. Unlike others, I had two birth certificates: one in English and one in the intricate hieroglyphic-like Thai script. Carefully folded into quarters, I used to gingerly open each document as if it were an ancient manuscript. To me, they were artefacts of my own personal origin story, outlining the path for my future and a reminder of what it took for me to exist in the first place.

In 2018, I returned to this past, arriving in Bangkok with nothing but a Google Maps screenshot of my destination—a pin dropped in Chon Buri Province, just south of Thailand’s capital. I didn’t know if I was looking for an empty plot of land or derelict buildings. The pin was all I could find of the now-defunct Phanat Nikhom refugee camp, the location written on my birth certificate.

This trip came at a transformative time in my life. Standing at the edge of 30, years of working in the corporate world had left me irrevocably disillusioned. I’d gone far enough in my career to know I couldn’t continue making sacrifices for the life I was living, yet I didn’t know where to direct my future. Finding inspiration in my parents’ own odyssey, I’d moved to China eight months earlier. In many ways, my move across the Pacific was my own attempt to answer the question my parents had grappled with before their arduous crossing: what type of life was I willing to die for?

From the beginning, I knew if I acknowledged how unprepared I was to find my place of birth, I’d have talked myself out of even trying. For this reason, the pin had to be enough. Details—how I was going to get there, what I was going to encounter, or even what I was going to do when I got there—were unnecessary. Like running a marathon, the only thing that mattered was getting to the next marker.

The Making of a Refugee - New Naratif
Hannah Hoang

Upon landing in Bangkok, I headed straight to the airport’s help desk and got the staff to help me write down instructions in Thai: Please take me to this location in Chon Buri. Please wait for me once we arrive. We will return to Bangkok after.

Like most other Thai people I met, my taxi driver was lighthearted and easy-going; a pleasant relief as I sat in the passenger seat for the almost two-hour drive. He looked at my screenshot with the pin and found a landmark to put into his own app—a military base for the 2nd Infantryman Battalion 11th Infantry Regiment.

It rained as we drove, the rain pounding down on our taxi. We left before noon, driving steadily towards a space rather than a delineated location. Without a known physical destination, there was no concept of “arriving”. I was prepared for the trip to end without ever getting out of the car. Simply being in proximity of where I’d been born was enough.

We made no stops along the way. I wanted to make sure there was enough daylight to see the place, whatever it now was. We were on a highway when we neared the dropped pin. My driver slowed down and asked if I was looking for a house. I shook my head, but couldn’t actually tell him what we were looking for. All I saw was wild green grass on both sides. No buildings, no homes, just a long yellow fence housing what looked like a government building.

Driving past the pin and seeing emptiness, I asked the driver to return to the fence. I could at least stop there and take a moment to reflect upon the journey that had brought me to this place—now a military base—more than 30 years ago.

Standing there, it struck me that what used to be a shelter for people fleeing war was now a place that prepared for it. While I’ve never known war, my life has been shaped by its consequences. The name my parents gave me is both a scar and a triumph, and speaks to the knowledge that once war begins, it becomes an uncontrollable force that grips everything in its path. No amount of training could really prepare the men inside for the tolls that such violence would exact.

I faced the compound guarded by soldiers. With guns slung across their shoulders and no knowledge of the language on my part, I realised this had to be enough. Stepping out of the car, my taxi driver gave me an umbrella as I stared across the yellow-fenced tract of land.

Unsure of what to do, I just kept standing there. I could see the soldiers watching me, but without the words to explain what I needed, I could only try to imagine what Lot L320—where my family lived for 15 months—looked like. I thought about that 2 x 6m room that housed my parents and brother as they were processed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The 200g of food handed out per person, twice a week. My pregnant mother preparing to give birth in a refugee camp.

Seeing my powerlessness, my taxi driver did something I couldn’t. He walked up to the soldiers and spoke to them. I supposed he’d intuitively picked up on my desire to go inside, to physically retrace the footsteps that led to the beginning of my life. Maybe the soldiers did as well… because they let me in.

Retracing my parents’ steps

I’d no memory of being there as a baby, but it felt as if the space welcomed me back, allowing me to walk among its ghosts. Never expecting to be allowed in, it felt like a small act of providence.

The compound was large and ordinary. I spent more than an hour walking, with my driver following me in the car. At the center of the spacious compound stood a wide building with two Thai icons: the flag and an oversized portrait of the king. Making my way around this point, I was flanked by lush green, making it feel like we were on a hike in the jungle. The heavy rain meant I was the sole person outside, giving me time to dwell on my thoughts.

The refugee camp no longer exists, but retracing my parent’s steps made me think about what it means to be a refugee. The prospect of death can become a clarifying element, revealing what your true values are and what you’re willing to do to stand by them. While many of us wonder about the type of life we want to live, most of us don’t have to ask ourselves what type of life we’re willing to die for.

Narratives around refugees and asylum seekers are usually couched in terms of right or wrong, illegal or legal, the benefits they bring to society or the drain they put on their new countries. Lost in these stories are the choices that refugees must make, ones that most people will never be forced to face. Some people are born into freedom, never having to affirm this privilege. Others have to plunge into the prospect of death in the hopes of a mere chance to seek a better, safer life for themselves and their families.

I was born a refugee, but I know that they’re made. In the aftermath of violence, refugees are defined by their fervent desire to live. When I asked my mother about her decision to undertake such a risky escape from her homeland, her answer was simple: “There was no future for us [there].”


Xuyen Nguyen

Xuyen Nguyen is a Vietnamese-American writer based in Beijing. Her personal work focuses on stories related to migration, refugees and the psychology of trauma.

Hannah Hoang

Hannah Hoang is a 2D artist based in Saigon, Vietnam. She's specialised in 2D animation, illustration, character design and raising her two cats.

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