Jenny is a Vietnamese immigrant who came to Australia in 1987 following a daring attempt to leave her country by boat. She’s outwitted Communist agents, tough-talked conniving boat captains, and has taught English professionally since she lived in Saigon. We’ll hear all about that – and more – in this multi-part interview.
ON OUTWITTING THE VIET CONG
J: The Communists wanted to make everybody poor. When they came in [to Saigon] your money became waste paper. They announced it on the loudspeaker: “your thousand dollars will become ten dollars.” If you had a safe deposit box, it was confiscated and became government property. Watches were considered valuable enough to be taken. You lost everything. If you wanted money, you had to write an application form. You could only get money for a couple of reasons: for a funeral, if you were unwell, or if you were getting married. And all of these things needed proof.
Who’s going to get the money? Nobody is going to get the money. It was a police state.
If you belonged to a rich family, they would bring a metal detector to your property. I belonged to a rich family. They dug up everything. Even my bathtub.
But I beat them. In the kind of terraced house I lived in, the gate was made of metal. There’s a rail beneath it which itself locks into. And if all that is made of metal…
L: If you run a metal detector over it, it’s just going to detect metal.
J: Exactly! It was simple! I put my gold underneath it. I wasn’t smart. They were stupid. I still had to very careful, though. There was a barbershop across the street from me. The barber bought a lot of watches – Omegas – and hid them behind his mirror.
One day I came home and his door was locked and sealed. He was gone. Somebody had told the Vietcong.
When I went shopping in the market, I bought meat first and put my vegetables on top. So when I walked past my next door neighbours, they’d look in my basket and think ‘They aren’t wealthy – no meat, only vegetables.’
The Communists tried to cleanse your brain by making you as poor as anything. They thought ‘Clean people would be honest to the government.’
ON HER ESCAPE ATTEMPT
J: My sons were three and five. I tried to buy sleeping pills for them, from the black-market. No luck. The pills were made out of flour.
They took us out onto a larger boat and attached the motor. The boat was made to look like it was transporting thatch, but there was really only a thin layer on top – we were all hidden underneath, seventeen of us. There was a man in there with a very bad cough. And everywhere the boat passed, the Viet Cong would stab a bamboo pole inside to try and catch
anybody hiding. If they caught you, the boat would be stopped and everybody arrested.
They didn’t find us.
After seven or eight hours of that, travelling on the river, we came to open sea. And the owner of the boat threw us on an island and went to pick up more people. He said ‘Get up there or I’ll shoot you!’
So all seventeen of us ran. This was about eight or nine o’clock at night. A fishing boat came up and the captain offered us passage back to the mainland. It could only take ten people – who was going to stay behind?
Not everybody spoke Vietnamese, but I did. I told him to turn off his lights and go around to the other side of the island, where my family would be waiting for him. If everybody went, everybody would die. I had to use a bit of cunning.
L: Did he go back for the other people?
J: I think so. Really, he just wanted to rob us. I spoke in Chinese to everybody, because he didn’t speak Chinese. “Don’t tell him we have any gold. If you have any gold, you are dead.” He’d take them to another island, steal their valuables, and leave them to drown when the tide came in.
L: So how did you make him take you back?
J: I’d sewed some gold in the hem of my trousers. I tore it out, and said “It’s that or nothing! And you aren’t going to get it until I see the mainland. Now, quick!” I was very forceful. I had two kids. But he agreed. I even shook the guy’s hand.
Some people followed us in the darkness, and swam out after the boat. I told him that they were my family – I thought it would help to have more people if there was a fight. He let them on board.
He got us to the mainland. The group hid and I went with my cousin to find a bus that would take us back to the city. Incognito.
And then I saw the policeman coming.