Luu Phung Kieu (last name first) was born in Saigon in 1967. It was then a bustling prosperous city of about two million residents, who felt secure with the presence of almost 500,000 U.S. troops scattered throughout South Vietnam. Up to that point, the war with North Vietnam and the Viet Cong had been pretty much confined to the countryside, leaving Saigon and other major cities relatively untouched. Kieu’s family was solidly middle class. Her father was a dental assistant, and her mother owned a dry goods store next to their residence, a four story balconied home along a Le Van Nguyen Street, a busy commercial artery. It was the store which was the moneymaker. “My parents worked every day, all day,” recalls Kieu, “When my father came home from work, he went immediately to the store to help my mother.” As a consequence, Kieu and her siblings (of which there were ultimately seven) were packed away to boarding school, of which she has few memories. Her parents came to visit once a week. All in all, Kieu recalls a pleasant childhood, where it was safe for the kids to play in the streets of the tightly packed city. In 1973, after the Americans had left the country, the scene changed when units of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) local Viet Cong (VC) made forays into Saigon. Six-year-old Kieu witnessed some of these from her home. South Vietnamese Army (SVA) helicopter gunships and tanks were coming up the street, shooting at targets further up, the tracers from their guns streaking past the house. The thunderous discharge of the tanks’ cannons and resulting explosions shook the house. Machine gun fire swept the street. “It was terribly frightening to us kids,” Kieu said, “Bullets and shells were flying everywhere. We were screaming in terror and covering our ears.”On April 30, 1975, the SVA surrendered and NVA troops entered Saigon, promptly renaming it Ho Chi Minh City (Locals still refer to it as Saigon.) Eight-yearold Kieu watched with her family from their fourth floor balcony. “There were tanks coming through, with [flag waving NVA] soldiers riding on them,” Kieu said, “They were tearing up the street. That night there were a lot of [celebratory] fireworks.” The NVA had lists (many with addresses) of Saigon residents, whom they deemed “Enemies of the People.” Their agents, mostly VC infiltrators, had spent years compiling them. Residents, who had worked for the Americans or SV government, Catholics, and prominent capitalists, appeared on these lists. Many were marked for execution or relocation to reeducation camps. Their homes, businesses, and personal property were forcibly expropriated by the communists. Kieu’s mother and father appeared to fit none of these criteria. Neither had ever worked for the Americans or the South Vietnamese government. They were practicing Buddhists and apparently only a struggling family trying to make ends meet. Things seemed to bode well for them under the communists. “My parents thought there would be even more freedom [under the communists], and decided to stick it out,” Kieu said. In 1977, this rosy scenario ended abruptly when communist soldiers burst into the house. “There was pounding at the door, followed by the entry of seven or eight soldiers carrying rifles,” Kieu recalls, “The sight of the guns was terrifying. My father took us all to a room and told us to wait there. We could hear the soldiers searching the house, yelling and tearing things up. We were scared and didn’t know what was going to happen to us.” The house was in shambles after they finally left. Since 1971, when many South Vietnamese, fearful of a communist takeover, started leaving the country, Kieu’s parents had been saving for the day when they too might have to go. They were squirreling away unreported profits from the store in secret recesses of their house. They converted much of the cash, whether dong or dollars, into gold bars, which would be accepted anywhere. They were in fact, undercover capitalists with valuable assets. A communist sympathizer had apparently informed on them. Or perhaps they had been on one of the dreaded lists after all. It turned out that many Chinese-Vietnamese merchants were also suspect. Kieu’s grandparents had emigrated from China. The soldiers didn’t find the gold, but the Luus were no longer under the radar. Now, things started to get worse – much worse. It began with the NVA taking things from the store without paying. Then, they took over the whole store. Kieu’s father didn’t make enough as a dental assistant to support the family. They were reduced to selling their possessions just to survive. . “Big pieces like beds, the sofa, and the refrigerator went first,” said Kieu, “At the last, we were down to selling our good clothes. This also served the purpose of showing the communists that we were very poor.” Other families were even more unfortunate and forced to live on the street. Finally, in May 1979, the communists moved to take over the Luu’s house, tendering a 24-hour notice to vacate. There was a simmering border war with China and the communists wanted all Chinese-Vietnamese to leave. Kieu’s parents had been preparing for this day. Then, as now, there was a lot of money to be made, smuggling desperate refugees out of countries with oppressive and persecutive regimes. Enterprising fishermen were refitting and making their boats available for this lucrative trade. Months before the eviction order, Kieu’s father had made contact with one such boat owner at My Tho, a Mekong River seaport, 37 miles South of Saigon. The owner had an old wooden fishing boat and was otherwise trustworthy. Kieu’s father paid him $3,000 per person in gold bullion, reserving seven seats for his own family and ten seats for the families of his two brothers – a total of $51,000. “It took 9 ounces of 24 karat gold for each person,” said Kieu, “My uncles paid him back later in the U.S.,” About a year later, the boat was ready to receive the refugees. Kieu was told later by her father (Neither of her parents can speak English, and will no longer talk about this. It is too painful for them) that a total of 232 people reserved places on the boat at $3,000 for a total of $696,000. In 1979 communist Vietnam, this was a fantastic sum, and easily many times what the boat was worth. I have seen pictures of one like it. Why then, did not the boat owner abscond with the money and avoid risks attendant with this venture? Probably because, had he done so, one of the refugees would have reported him to the police and he would have lost everything as well as being jailed or executed as an enemy of the people. It was simply a deal that neither party could refuse. It was in fact the chance of a lifetime for all who participated.
On the morning of May 24, 1979, the Luus, as ordered, moved out of their home for good. “We were told to dress in our school uniforms, as usual, but to put on as many clothes as we could underneath. “Do as we say. Do not question us,”’ Kieu’s parents warned. Kieu managed to get three or four skirts and shirts under her uniform. With nothing but the clothes on their backs, the family filtered slowly into a neighbor’s house, where other refugees were gathering. That night, the Luus and the others traveled to My Tho in a taxi, all nine of them. Their odyssey had begun. It was an auspicious beginning.