Boat People

It was the perfect afternoon. I only rode 40 kilometres today so I was well rested and feeling fit when I walked to the waterfront. The “Hau”, one of the largest flow-on rivers in the Mekong system was busy with ferries, barges, fishermen, working boats and traders in small rowing boats. Stand-up rowing with two oars. A coming and going all day long. I found a stone park bench, drank a cool ice tea, mixed it with water to tone down the sweetness and took out my sketching gear.

I had a few good hours of sketching, with a crowd of kids, and their mothers around me. One brought a colouring in plate and I coloured it in with my water colours. Others asked me to draw them. Great fun. I bought a Ba Pao and something to drink from a road side stall and walked back to the water front to take a few snaps.

“Hello, how are you?” A man in his late sixties came up to me and we started chatting. We talked about his and my journey when he said that he escaped Vietnam in 1979. He stole a 15 meter long boat and boarded it with 40 people. Family, children, friends. Dung had never been on a boat before, yet he was made skipper and took the boat out under the cover of darkness. After 3 days of sailing, without him taking a minute of sleep, they arrived on a Taiwanese military island. They were out of food and water. Whilst sailing, a Soviet fishing trawler spotted them but they weren’t interested in helping or re-supplying this sorry lot of refugees.

The power of persuasion.
Their boat stranded on the rocks on a remote beach and it was making water. He said all people got through a scary night and in the morning they were found by a group of soldiers. The troops ordered them to start up their engines and turn around but the people refused. Then the soldiers shot bullets over their heads as to scare them away but still they refused to leave. In the end the army took them to another island where the engineers fixed their boat and were fed and re-supplied by the Taiwanese.

They sailed out again in their dodgy boat and three days and nights later arrived in Philippine waters. All of them scared, all of them determined. When they approached the Philippines coast they scanned the shore and found a small village where they boarded. They were collected by the authorities and send to a refugee camp with a population of 6000 people, all South Vietnamese.

After ‘processing’ (I hate that term), and 7 months of waiting, Dung and his family were send to Canada. His brother and his family were send to the Netherlands where they still live. In fact Dung was visiting his brother in July and like me watched the Netherlands lose the world cup in that country.

Meanwhile the sun was setting. Activity on the water had not decreased. Ferry after ferry transported school girls, dressed in long white and boys in school uniforms across the water. A big red disc descended behind the tree line across the water. I told Dung about the boat filled with people from Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq that sank of Christmas Island only a few weeks ago. I noticed how he shivered as my words came out of my mouth. The trauma is still there, I thought. The other thing that was difficult for him was that he was not accepted by his own people when he returned. “I walked out on them”’ he said. It had changed now to about 60% of locals understanding and accepting him. Children born out of Vietnamese-American parents face similar rejection.

He asked me, as many Vietnamese people have asked, why I travelled alone. “Where’s your wife, your children?’ Family people as the Vietnamese are, I don’t think they can get their heads around solo travellers. On a bike! Well, neither can I. I have asked myself that same question so often. It is a scenario that I had not planned but this is the way it is but I make sure that I live a good life.

Dung mentioned a few times during our hour long chat how fortunate he was. I told him I felt very privileged that he shared his story with me and that I was a fortunate man too.

We kept on talking. He gave a very interesting account on the Vietnam War but I won’t go into that.

We said goodbye. He grabbed both my hands and shook them and each of us left in thought to our accommodation. A political – economical refugee and a luxury refugee.

29 December 2010
Trà Ôn,
Mekong Delta,


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