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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Boat People, My Friend Don, and His Mom's Pho Bo (Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup)

Boat People, My Friend Don, and His Mom's Pho Bo 1

Thirty-three years ago today, the Fall of Saigon ended the Vietnam War. A new regime is in place. America has returned. More than 3 million overseas Vietnamese are scattered around the world. While many Vietnamese have moved on -- built lives in new countries, learned new languages, started families -- vestiges of the war still remain for a few hundred Vietnamese in the Philippines. These stateless refugees, the last of the "boat people," have been in limbo for more than a decade.

From my Little Saigon post,
"About half a million Vietnamese fled Vietnam in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Vietnamese boat people had to escape communist authorities and raise money to buy passage on rickety boats where they dealt with starvation, Thai pirates who raped, robbed and killed, and hostile locals when they flooded other Southeast Asian countries. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, in 1981 in Thai waters alone, there were 1,149 attacks on 352 boats; 571 people were killed, 243 abducted, and 599 raped by pirates. Read about their experiences. The refugees were placed in camps and processed to determine whether they were actually fleeing persecution or were economic migrants. Not all the refugees came to America, other popular countries included Australia, Canada, and France. But Vietnamese were scattered everywhere with some ending up in Israel, Finland, and Argentina. Read about the "forgotten ones" who weren't eligible for resettlement."
After more than a decade of dealing with waves upon waves of Vietnamese boat people still fleeing their country, the Steering Committee of the International Conference of Indo-Chinese Refugees formed the Comprehensive Plan of Action in June 1989 in order to resolve the crisis. From then on, the boat people were considered asylum seekers, proving you deserved refugee status became much more difficult. Those who determined not to be refugees, and thus unable to go to another country and unwilling to return to Vietnam, ended up in limbo for years.

The CPA program ended in 1996, and Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines began shutting down the refugee camps and forcibly repatriating the refugees back to Vietnam. Some camps tear-gassed, beat, and chained the refugees in order to get them to comply. Some refugees committed self-immolation or suicide in protest, rather than return to Vietnam.

Protests were held in Vietnamese communities around the world, most notably in Little Saigon. The refugee camps were shut down anyway. The Philippine government sent one planeload of refugees back to Vietnam but stopped because of protests and concerns that repatriation was not humanitarian. Instead, with $1 million USD in donations from overseas Vietnamese and with the help of the Catholic Church-based Center for Assistance to Displaced Persons, 13 hectares were set aside in Puerto Princesa on the island of Palawan to build a "Viet Village" for about 2,500 Vietnamese.

While the Vietnamese were allowed to remain in the Philippines, they were not allowed citizenship or employment. They scraped by a meager existence working low-end jobs and selling trinkets on the streets. You can view some pictures their stateless existence online at "The Forgotten Ones" and the rest of the images in Brian Doan's book.

Bolinao 52, a documentary by Duc Nguyen, is about one boat that started out in May 1988 with 110 people. The engine died, ignored by passing ships, and refused help by a US Navy ship, they resorted to cannibalism to survive. After 37 days at sea, 52 survived. Visit the Bolinao 52 blog to read about his next documentary, "Stateless."

In 2005, thanks to seven years of lobbying by Vietnamese-Australian lawyer Hoi Trinh, America, Australia, and Canada agreed to resettle these last refugees of the Vietnam War. You can read more about Trinh's story at the end of the chapter on Viet Kieu in "Vietnam Now: A Reporter Returns," by David Lamb. The book was published in 2002, the section concerning Trinh is brief but important in understanding his role in resettling the last of the boat people. An Australian documentary by Dai Le called "In Limbo," also has more information on Trinh and his efforts.

Trinh gave up a promising career in Australia for a bare-bones subsistence in the Philippines. His efforts were aided by other volunteers in Australia and America. He managed to settle one or a handful of refugees at a time. Until finally in 2005, Trinh's earnest doggedness paid off and the U.S. decided to revisit the issue. Trinh was one of the founders of VOICE (Vietnamese Overseas Initiative for Conscience Empowerment), an organization that works to combat trafficking of women and children, and to resettle the last of the refugees.

There are now about 160 refugees left.

Which brings me to my friend Don. I've mentioned him before when he stopped by on New Year's Day for a dumplings and noodles lunch at Tasty in San Gabriel, or when he stopped by for some Meyer lemon bars, or when he stopped by for a venison fest. Since February, Don has been in the Philippines, volunteering with VOICE to resettle these last refugees. You can read about his experience on Don's blog.

Don was born in America. His parents left in 1975 so they weren't boat people. But this issue affects so many Vietnamese, that as a kid, he volunteered with his mom in walk-a-thons to raise the funds needed in 1996 to create the Viet Village in the Philippines. Needless to say, I am just so very proud of my friend.

Before he left, Don invited me and a few of his high school and college friends to his house for dinner. I got a little tour of his parents' garden before we ate. It was pitch-dark so I just pointed my camera at random. I'm not sure what kind of tree this was, but it was reminiscent of the plum blossoms that are popular during Tet (Vietnamese Lunar New Year).

Boat People, My Friend Don, and His Mom's Pho Bo 2

Miniature orange tree? Tangerines?

Boat People, My Friend Don, and His Mom's Pho Bo 3

Buddha's fingers, or the hand of Buddha. It's a citrus fruit that's more rind and pith than anything else. I've seen it infused in vodka, but beyond that, thought it was merely decorative. Don says his grandmother uses it to flavor soup.

Boat People, My Friend Don, and His Mom's Pho Bo 4
Boat People, My Friend Don, and His Mom's Pho Bo 5

Dinner was the most fabulous pho bo (Vietnamese beef noodle soup). Don's mom made a huge vat with a broth that she had simmered for 14 hours. Now, I know there are cookbooks that say you only need to cook the broth for three hours because all the flavor that's going to be extracted from the bones is done by then. Well, those cookbooks are just plain wrong.

Don't believe me? It's simple enough to check for yourself. Next time you make pho bo, ladle out a bowlful after the three-hour mark. Do it again at the 14 hour mark. Taste the difference in each bowl for yourself.

Boat People, My Friend Don, and His Mom's Pho Bo 6

I was in heaven. I ate a huge bowl. For once, I wished I had a bigger stomach so I could eat a second bowl. Don's mom even offered to send me home with some. I shouldn't have been polite and said, "Yes!" :P

Boat People, My Friend Don, and His Mom's Pho Bo 7

I didn't want my story to detract from Don's story or that of the refugees in the Philippines. But really, there are so very many of us.

My family escaped during the Chinese exodus of Vietnam. I'm a 79-er by way of Hong Kong. Four nights and three days at sea. Eleven months in the refugee camp.

Dear readers, were any of you boat people too? If you've ever wondered about the significance of numbers in pho restaurants, this is one reason why. The other popular number, 54, is because when Vietnam was divided in 1954, 1 million Vietnamese fled from North to South.

1 year ago today, after a cold frost, everything's growing again in my garden -- Lady Fairbanks roses blooming over a trellis, strawberries ripening in the side herb garden, and wildflowers popping up at random.


  1. Hi Wandering Chopsticks,

    I've been a lurker here for a while and have enjoyed reading your posts. I just wanted to let you know that I was too a boat person in 1978-1979 and went through a Malaysian refugee camp. We lived in Texas for a while and then the western SGV but I am now in the eastern SGV area. Your post on the Boat People experience was very informative, as it filled in the blanks of my experience as a toddler on the seas back then. Loved the photos of the Pho' Bo too btw!

  2. Very interesting and informative post! I can imagine the hardship of those days.

    Yumss....Pho! I AM SALIVATING! I shall have that for lunch today.

  3. I am a boat and plane person :-)

    Boat to Malaysia, plane to Aus.

    My maternal grandparents were part of the Chinese-Viet exodus from VN in 1979, taking my eldest brother and second-eldest sister (fourth eldest in the family) with them.

    Here's one part of my story :-) ... which you may have already read:

  4. J,
    Always nice to find other boat people. :) I think you've de-lurked before. Unless that's another J?

    And did you? Have pho for lunch? I am very susceptible to food suggestions too.


    Well, the plane part was a given. ;) Calling ourselves FOBP doesn't have quite the same cachet though. And yes, I remember reading your story too.

  5. hi,
    i think the mini oranges you're referring to are kumquats, also spelt cumquats.

    both my parents are boat people, and so these sorts of stories are very close to my heart, because they were sort of my bedtime stories.

    this is the first time i've seen buddha's fingers

  6. Wonderful post WC. Thanks for the links and for the information. It's always good to read the histories of other cultures.

  7. ...And, we had had my mom's pho last night too! The loquats were the dessert! This is like deja vu right now.

    Great story and sharing of your friend, Don and Brian, Duc, David and Hoi's work . I can relate, my family barely escaped on a boat to Guam. If we were just 30 minutes late, life would have changed completely. I'm still trying to gather stories about those horrific days on the boat from my mom, but she still has a tough time.

    Did she offer you any of those Buddah's fingers?

  8. Fantastic post, WC. After our family came in '75 we really focused on assimilating. I knew refugees were still coming (one of my aunts was a boat person via Malaysia) but I didn't follow their stories. I shall have to check out your links when I have more time. Thanks for putting it all together in one informative post.

  9. Great post WC. I find it really touching. I knew a couple living in England whose son perished due to illness whilst at sea and they had no choice but to give him a sea burial. There are so many harrowing stories about people who fled VN on leaky boats. I had to admit this is the first time I've read about refugees with no status living in the Philippines. So thanks for the informative post.
    P.S: that Buddha's fingers tree is so freaky-looking.

  10. Yes, i did had pho for lunch yesterday. Probably all the medication was affecting my tastebud...the whole bowl tasted bitter although my colleague said it's was ok for her.

  11. Boat person? Yes, me: 81 via HK onto Canada. But I was only in HK for less than four months, and only at sea for one day. I didn't realise as a child how lucky I was. Even though I am in HK now, where (surprisingly) there is not much of a visible VN community, I gathered some friends with connections to VN together on the 30th for our annual Bo Nhung Dam feast. Our quiet way of remembering.

  12. Marlene,
    Not kumquats, these were round, not oblong. And you can't tell by the photo but they're a good size so not kalamansi oranges either.

    We're always trading stories. I love it. :)

    I wish! No offers for me to take home the Buddha's fingers. And when I came back a few days later, they were all gone so I guess they gave them all away.

    If my family left a decade later, or if we couldn't prove we were refugees, it would have been different for us too.

    Growing up in Oregon, assimilation was a given. I think it's more of a struggle to figure out how to retain our identity.

    There were so many lives lost at sea that no one knows just how many there were. Estimates sometimes run to a million, but no one really tracked this kind of thing.

    Aww, too bad. Pho usually comforts me when I'm sick. I hope you're getting better!

    Not many VNese in HK now b/c they wanted to move us all out as fast as possible. I liked your quiet way of commemorating.

  13. I asked my VNese staff when they came to America here are some of their responses:

    1975, 1979,1986,1989,1992,1998,2000,2006.

    Two of them were spent days on a boat, spent time in refugee camps in the Phillipines and Guam. The rest were sponsored here by family that were already living in America.

  14. WoRC,
    Thanks for asking your staff. That's really interesting how varied the years were. I also thought a majority of the more recent immigrants might have been sponsored by family members.

  15. Hi WC, very touching post. Me and my family were boat people too. We came to Europe in 1982, I was 3 months old, too young to remember. But I can imagine how hard it was for my parents ! My dad tried to escape from VN so many times and always got caught. He eventually manage to sail on a wrecked boat with another 50 people (I think, but maybe more)in 1982 : it was his 28th try !

  16. Thao,
    28 tries?! I can't imagine how difficult that would be.

  17. Hi WC,
    I was also a 79ner by way of HK. This post really brought back lots of memories. Although I was very young, I can remember the emotions of my family leaving their love ones and homeland.

  18. Long,
    I was only 3 years old, but I still have memories of the boat trip and the refugee camp. Some things are just imprinted in our memories.

  19. Hello Wandering Chopsticks,
    Thanks for sharing. I too was a 79'er by way of Pulau Bidong, Malaysia. Your posts are delightful readings...

    BTW, I thought Pho 54 got the name because it started in San Diego, circa 1980-81 on 54th avenue.

  20. An Choi,
    Maybe the Pho 54 in San Diego started that way? I've seen Pho 54s all over the place though, and I don't think they're related to the San Diego location.

    Thanks for the nice words. I've met some others who went through Pulau Bidong too. Conditions got pretty awful there.

  21. WC, Your post leaves me with a lot to think about. in my family, my mother was out before the country fell, so no time on a boat for us. But of course after that came the long years of trying to (legally) get the family out . My grandfather passed after a difficult time in the camps, but I can still remember seeing my minute grandmother stepping hesitantly out of the plane ramp and into her new American life. The hardships the family experienced are beyond counting, and the details you provide remind me that some--too many--had their own extreme experiences and soul-scorching flights from vietnam. To survive is in some ways the biggest act of self- affirmation. Thank you for reminding us of what they endured.

  22. Tammy,
    Funny. I link to this post now and again for random stuff, but hadn't reread it in quite a while. It's got me thinking all over again.

    I really like that, "To survive is in some ways the biggest act of self-affirmation."

    Someone once said to be Vietnamese means to endure. It helped us endure war after countless war after all. Dispersal. Resettlement. And we go on.


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