Coming to Canada: From Vietnam to freedom

By Dan L.

*Name has been hide to protect identity.

Coming to Canada From Vietnam to freedom

On the drizzly night of June 1, 1979, a young couple huddled at the small harbour in Qui Nhon, central Vietnam. Tuan Hoang Lai, a 21-year-old national swimming athlete, held a blanket around the slight shoulders of 22-year-old Mai Xuan Dang, trying to protect her from the cold. Real Life Stories
They peered over the harbour, hoping to see into the water below. Fear seeped into the silence while they waited in the darkness. The couple took turns holding their baby daughter, who had been dosed with codeine to keep her silent throughout the clandestine escape from Vietnam. But the terror of being caught paled beside the torment of remaining behind in a land that was no longer theirs. Real Life Stories
The country they both knew vanished after the Vietnam War ended with the U.S. retreat and the subsequent capture of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, by Communists. The new government implemented cruel regulations and strict reforms throughout the country – curfews, forced labour and the removal of everything representing individual rights. From the time the young couple first met – in 1977, at a youth labour camp in the jungles of Central Vietnam – they shared the same passion for a better life.

It became urgent to escape after they married. Mai was pregnant and forced to comply with state labour regulations. Any opposition meant re-education camps, from which people rarely returned. Real Life Stories

So began the dramatic journey on which my parents and I embarked nearly 25 years ago, on a tiny fishing boat, its small deck cramped with a human cargo of 100 adults and 95 children.

My father stayed on deck with the captain and acted as his navigator, messenger and mechanic. Having a strong swimmer on board proved crucial for this desperate journey when the rains began and the full force of the monsoon threatened to destroy our tiny boat. My father regularly dived deep down to fix snags in the boat’s propeller, which got ensnared in fishing nets or stuck on sand dunes.

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Intense seasickness reduced the passengers to barely breathing corpses as we floated listlessly on through hostile waters. However, the morning of the 10th day brought a different sight. Land! An official-looking ship slowly approached, with its loudspeaker voice announcing in both Cantonese and English that we had arrived in waters belonging to Hong Kong.
We were detained at camps in Kowloon.

There, we were cleaned and deloused. Usually fashionable, my mother never felt so filthy, standing there in her vomit- and excrement-stained clothing. My father didn’t fare better – his clothes and skin reeked of the refugee waste he’d dived into.

A month stole by without any word from the world outside. Then one day, a tall and movie-star-like stranger with light-brown hair and a good sense of humour visited our camp.

This clean-shaven and soft-spoken young man began to describe a country called Canada. He explained how just as Vietnamese owned bicycles, Canadians owned cars. Everyone especially enjoyed his story of occasionally driving home to have lunch with his parents Who lived hundreds of kilometres away from him back home. Imagine living in a country so large that you had to travel by car for hours just to have lunch with your family!

Pleased with the language abilities of my father and the captain, and by the enthusiasm of the rest of their fellow passengers, the man extended an invitation for our entire group to be sponsored by the government and citizens of Canada.

While growing up, my father had opted to study English. French belonged to the age of his parents and antiquated colonialism, whereas English belonged to the more upbeat and progressive era of the 1970s. He also found it much more useful for befriending ex-pat Americans in Vietnam.

Touched by Canada’s compassion to open its borders to us, we gladly accepted and excitedly waited to begin our next journey towards a real home, a new identity and a peaceful life once again.

So it was on Monday, Oct. 10, 1979, that my parents and I arrived in Edmonton. My parents dreamed of starting their new lives in a big city like Vancouver. It turned out that several Dutch families in the port city of Sarnia, in Southern Ontario, had sponsored us. The customs official assured my parents that Sarnia was a very large city that was right on the edge of the Great Lakes.

Pleased with the description, my parents and I embarked on the next journey by plane, and arrived at a tiny airport. At first, my parents thought there had been some mistake, glancing anxiously at the single light bulb illuminating the small building. A welcome group and two Asian-looking men stepped up.

My parents waited as the Canadians spoke to one man who in turn relayed the message in Chinese to the second man who then welcomed my parents in Vietnamese.

Immediately grasping the situation, my father responded in English and was met with surprised laughter.

We were then introduced to one of our private sponsors, Alyce and Peter Loerts, a kind, Dutch couple who owned and operated a turkey farm just outside Sarnia.

We shared our very first Canadian Thanskgiving turkey dinner with them at their home.
My family remained in Sarnia for the next 16 years, during which my two brothers and younger sister were born. My father worked his way through college and eventually came to own his own industrial company. My mother opened and managed her own restaurant and a specialty food business.

We had arrived from a distant country with nothing more than tattered clothes. From nothing, my parents succeeded in realizing the dream that had comforted them while they toiled in a Communist labour camp and compelled them to risk a dangerous, watery trek to keep it alive.

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