Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Lawrence Money
November 30, 2010

Julie Huynh with her father Minh Huynh, mother De Chung and their dog Simba at the parents' home in Northcote. Photo: Penny Stephens

A Vietnamese Australian recalls her family's harrowing experiences before they were all reunited in their adopted country.
LIKE all tourist destinations, Vietnam sounds magical in the travel brochures. It is "a world where the colours are more vivid, the landscapes bolder, the coastline more dramatic, the tastes more divine, where life is lived in the fast lane".
But for the people who fled that land three decades ago, after a war that killed 1.3 million soldiers and 2 million civilians, Vietnam looks very different. "I'm very sad for my country," says Melbourne refugee Julie Huynh. "It has changed 100 per cent. When I go [there], I see the poor people, the sick people, not like before."

Julie Huynh's father, Minh Huynh, was a high-ranking officer in the South Vietnamese Army, so when the North Vietnamese communists overran the south in 1975, he was taken away to a concentration camp north of Hanoi.
"I did not see him again for 13 years," says Huynh, now a mother-of-three who runs the Award beauty salon in Abbotsford. "He was made to work many hours a day with little food. My father told me they dug up anything they could find - potatoes, [they] ate leaves. Sometimes when they ate, they got diarrhoea and died. My father survived. Every time he was hungry, he did yoga and the hunger passed. His friends ate everything, picked everything and died."

Huynh says the captives were forced to work in sugar cane fields but were shot if they attempted to take any for food. "But my father was so hungry. Two or three people held the sugar cane. My father chopped a bit at the bottom; slowly, slowly, pulled down the cane so the communists didn't notice.
''That's how my father survived, eating the sugar cane. But his teeth are all gone. All the prisoners were humiliated by communist guards in many ways. They were forced to do the human ploughs for rice fields during the winter. Temperature [was] below zero. The prisoners asked if they could use the buffalo instead but guards said the buffalo would die under these conditions."

It is 35 years since the fall of Saigon and the start of an exodus in which about 100,000 Vietnamese moved to Australia, a milestone marked by a small ceremony and exhibition recently at the Melbourne Town Hall.
That's where I met Julie Huynh who, like many of the millions who fled, has her own harrowing story. An attractive and intelligent woman, she was about to begin a career as a TV newsreader when Saigon fell. Her new job was cancelled, further education was banned and she decided to escape the country. She saved secretly for three years then paid a friend's uncle so she and her younger sister Ann could join his boat to freedom.

"I am lucky, only one night we got a really bad storm. Our boat was not [designed] for the ocean, [it was] for the river, very round, so when the storm came, the boat rolled around. When it rolled on one side, I jumped to the other side. I remember all night I vomited. I was so dizzy, flat out. In the morning all our water had gone overboard. But we had a lot of fruit, coconut cut to drink, and apple.''

With 34 on board, the boat sailed for five days without a specific destination. They then saw a large American ship whose crew gave them supplies and directed them towards Malaysia, where they were kept in a refugee camp for Vietnamese boat people.

That was in 1978. By the 1980s, Thai pirates had begun robbing and killing refugees who fled Vietnam by boat. Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children were slaughtered with machetes, hammers and guns. Huynh says a friend went through such an ordeal. "They killed all the people. She was thrown overboard and hung on to a bit of wood. She woke up on the shore. Doesn't remember how. She came to Australia but she was very sick."

Huynh's two brothers, sister and mother escaped Vietnam by boat after three attempts, the first being thwarted when the communists shot the captain. "They were taken back to shore and put in jail," said Huynh. "My brothers were in jail for two years."

Miraculously, Julie Huynh and her family - even her two grandmothers, now deceased - were eventually reunited in Australia. Her parents are still alive and live in Melbourne's northern suburbs but the man Julie Huynh calls her "Australian father", Ian Buckingham, who fostered Huynh and her sister through Rotary after they arrived, died only a few weeks ago. Julie Huynh spoke at the funeral, thanking Buckingham and his wife Lorraine for helping them.

"I can't hide my tears,'' she said in a moving eulogy. "Thirty-two years ago you took us to your home to have a very comfortable life in this happy world. You put me and my family before yourself when we came to this new country. Thank you."
Daughter of Vietnam refugees returns to her birthplace, the USS Tarawa   -   Video

Reported by: Olena Heu Email: oheu@khon2.com Last Update: 11/29 7:14 pm

Three decades after being born on a military assault ship, the daughter of vietnam refugees is reunited with some of the servicemen who saved her life.
The decommisioned USS Tarawa sat proudly at Pearl Harbor awaiting a very special visitor.

Thirty-one years ago the amphibious assault ship played a major part in the rescue of 442 Vietnamese refugees, one of them was born on the ship.
"What Grace did not know coming here today was that the HM2 Richard Reed hospital Corpsman, the man who delivered her on May 10, 1979 paid a surprise visit," said Kerry Gershaneck of the U.S. Navy Public Affairs.

Grace Tarawa Tran was almost full-term in her mom's belly when her mother and father fled Vietnam in a wooden boat.
The Tran's along with hundreds of other Vietnamese drifted in the ocean for one week. 11 times their boat had been robbed and attacked by pirates until they were rescued at sea and transferred to the USS Tarawa. A day later Grace was born.
"I have so many pictures of you. Thank you your welcome you have grown up and what and honor this is today that I was part of the battalion that was able to he here for you and your family," said Reed.
Then Navy Hospital Corpsman Reed helped deliver Grace and is now a Pastor living in Indiana.
"Delivering you made a profound change in my life when I left the military I went into the ministry," said Reed.

Grace, now a financial analyst, was raised in Philadelphia where she lives with her mother, uncle and two brothers. She had planned to come to Hawaii for a vacation with friends and after attending a reunion involving other servicemen and women in Arizona discovered the ship she was born on was anchored here.
"I mean this is wonderful I never thought this day would come I just thought about meeting all the Marines like coming to see the ship I was born on because my parents told me a lot of stories I just never imagined this would really happen," said Tran.

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