Fateful beach


When I heard that the beach (Vung Tau) was overcrowded during the long Tet holidays, I tried to imagine the sand, the surf and the separation (forced) I endured years ago.

We drove through neighborhood barbed wires and violated curfew, the day before Saigon fell, to spot escape routes.

I tricked my family into stopping along the way: my friend’s house (on pretext that we needed extra supply of fuel) to bid farewell. I couldn’t spell out why we had to leave much less where we were heading, except that there would be boats waiting further down the Delta, we hoped.

Earlier in the day, we did try the airport and US embassy to no avail (an uncle with proper visa got hauled over the barbed wires by the Marines to eventually board precious Frequent Wind‘s helicopter).

(see Last Men Out for eye-witness blow-by-blow accounts ).

Out of the corner of our eyes, we spotted a convoy of unmarked buses (Frequent Wind plan B contractors). Our petit Simcar immediately tailed the convoy whose eventual stop was the No 5 dock, just a few kilometers from today’s Thu Thiem Tunnel. Before we knew it, we had junked the car with extra fuel in it to climb over the sandbagged side of a barge. That barge got towed as soon as it was filled with clueless people like ourselves.

That river always required skilled navigators, one of whom was my friend’s dad. They had it all at their disposal to flee Vietnam had they chosen to. Instead, we were the ones who bid good-bye after taking the can of gasoline.

In the middle of the night, the tow-head left us with onyl sandbags to fend for ourselves.

At dawn, it returned to continue on to International waters, where the 7th fleet was spreading out in formation over the curved horizon, out of firing range.

Neighbor boats got hit, then exploded,  Hollywood 3-D style.  That boat carried Chu Tu, one of our best social writers at that time. Choppers covered the sky like arrows in Gates of Fire (we fleed in the shade then).

That morning rain was our supply of water, and Vung Tau, to this day, still was from my point of view, a D-day reversal. “Ain’t no sunshine” then.

Only rain and tears. Currency wiped out, flags down, guns dropped and choppers abandoned.

In the back of the war ship that we eventually boarded, a man sat tossing worthless money into the seven seas, as if performing a burial rite (he would have preferred rice over money). I couldn’t remember a word during the 4-day ordeal, except for a neighbor, in flight suit, asking me for a change of civilian clothes to help him blend in.

Premier Ky perhaps was on that same ship, whose milk supplies sustained many hungry children.

When we finally reached shores, a priest and a nun had already stood there to hand out sandwiches and coca colas.

My brother to this day still savours the taste of that ham sandwich (perhaps cost up to ten bucks, Pentagon‘s pricing), which sure tasted like honey in Mose’s desert.

He was a pharmacist but got drafted during the war to train military x-ray technicians.

Like a movie’s trailer, he now retires but has never returned to visit Vietnam or Vung Tau.

Unlike his youngest brother, me, who couldn’t wait to live out my life script (my last Tet in Saigon was 36 years ago hence a lot to catch up) except for Vung Tau.

I felt reluctant to go back where I had sat down and wept (by the River of Babylon…..) on my first trip back.

Today’s Vung Tau and Can Gio River are still opened to containers and cargo ships. Perhaps the winding topography still creates strong demand for skilled navigators, successors of my friend’s dad. But for me, one blind trip out was more than enough.

That trip stripped me not of weaponry (as some people were required to do before setting foot on US war ships), but of (fire)walls. I was operating on proprietary software, but forced to use open source, out in the open seas.

I was on the losing side, yet at Penn State a few months later, I joined others to chant “push them back, way back” at home games.

Friends in fellowship groups weren’t sure how to “place” me. “And there he was this young boy, ” who could at one moment “strumming my pain with his fingers”, then at another, struggled with his required readings.

For years since, from Palm Spring to Palm Beach, I have tried to live down that painful past. “Push them back, push them back, way back”. ” And he looked right through me as if I wasn’t there”.

Those who had never left everything for the unknown would never understand.

So I thought I could be of  help. There I was, organising makeshift concert in an over-crowded refugee camp in Hong Kong, to help relieve the stress I had come to know too well.  “I walk alone in the middle of the sunset”. I hoped people there realize that out in the open seas, there were those with open hearts. For we all shared and surfed away from that fateful beach for unknown shores.

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