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NEWS | Nov. 22, 2022

Life Lessons Through My Escape from Vietnam

By Triet Bui, Facilities Branch Head and Branch Manager NSWC Corona Division

I would like to share how a series of profound crucible experiences affected and completely changed and shaped my outlook in life to be a better person, and a better leader.

“We came to call the experiences that shape leaders “crucibles,” after the vessels medieval alchemists used in their attempts to turn base metals into gold. For the leaders we interviewed, the crucible experience was a trial and a test, a point of deep self-reflection that forced them to question who they were and what mattered to them. It required them to examine their values, question their assumptions, and hone their judgment.”1

For better or worse, there are many life changing events or crucible experiences that significantly affect one’s life. For some, these adversities or traumatic events will overtake their lives. Others who successfully emerged from the crucible become stronger, more self-reliant, resilient, and better leaders.

I was born in Vinh Long, a small province in South Vietnam at the height of the conflict in 1965. It is the same year my dad was drafted in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). He attended the Officer Candidate School and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Psychological Operations and Civil Affairs branch.

I was three years old when I was exposed to the bloody truth of war through the scenes of the Tet Offensive. As a noncombatant evacuee, I remember my mom who, at the time, was six months pregnant with my baby sister; while in one hand holding my older brother who was six years old, and the other hand dragging a U.S. military duffle bag stuffed with me and my younger brother. As I peeked outside, I could see dead bodies scattered all along the roads. I could hear the gun fire, explosions, and people screaming for help. We took refuge in a Catholic church for a couple of weeks. During this time, we completely lost contact with my dad and only found out later that he was evacuated to an Army hospital due to an injury he sustained.

Medically discharged from the service, my dad returned to his prior civilian job as an Inspector General for the Education Department. After the Tet offensive, he successfully ran for and was elected as a congressman for our province. His new position required frequent travel to Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam. Life was a bit mellow for us since my mom taught at the same school we attended. During this time, my dad survived many assassination attempts staged by the Viet Cong as he traveled to meet his constituents.

In 1972, as the last American forces left Vietnam, my dad left his seat in Congress to serve in the South Vietnamese Government’s Diplomatic Corps. He was working with different delegations for the Paris Peace Accords. As a true believer of freedom, democracy and justice, my dad was betrayed by the very same system that he worked for when the South Vietnamese government surrendered to the North Vietnamese on April 30, 1975. I was 10 years old when I witnessed the mass confusion of the South Vietnamese trying to flee from the communist regime. I could see from our house, located in a government provided compound, as my countrymen swamped the U.S. Embassy trying to get on the last helicopter.

This was where I began my crucible experiences through seven years of living hell under communist rule – a game of life and death through my escape from Vietnam and a hardship of starting a new life in a country where people neither look like me nor speak the same language.

Imagine yourself waking up in the middle of the night with men in uniform, armed to the teeth, telling your family that you need to vacate your house immediately, because you were the loser of the war. This is what happened to us. We gathered our broken bicycle, some pots and pans, the clothes on our backs, and took off. Our house was now the property of the communists. We walked a good ten miles to our other house that my dad bought a few years earlier when we moved to Saigon. We were able to stay in this house because the communists allowed my mother to teach at a nearby school.

The communist government owned everything. They rationed basic commodities such as food, water, fuel, and electricity. The distribution process was controlled by a cadre of uneducated men and women who were quick to accuse and label you as enemy of the “New Government of the People.” They were very happy and ready to send you off to jail or the “New Economic Zone” in the middle of a jungle where nothing would grow. We were constantly living in fear. Everyone was constantly under surveillance by the police, who required you to report where you go, who you saw and what your neighbor was doing. I started working in a beer bottling factory when I was in the sixth grade. It was forced labor without pay. There were no child labor laws in Vietnam at that time.

My dad was put in jail for his involvement with the old government, the same as many of the ARVN Soldiers. Some of them perished in the jungles without a trace. Some came back crippled only to find out their families had moved because of the communist-enforced “relocation” policy. It was hell on earth, but we endured for the next several years. 

I remember that during the 80s, so many people tried to escape from Vietnam by boat or by walking through Cambodia to Thailand to find their freedom, but only 20 percent made it. The rest were caught and jailed or died along the way.

I was 17 when my uncle, a former South Vietnamese naval officer, got released from a “re-education” camp. Through his connections, we were able to secure a place for our escape with his family using a boat. I helped move his family from Saigon to the extraction point near the delta in Can Tho, a province 100km (62.14 miles) South of Vietnam.

It was August 8, 1982, when we took off with 92 others on a small boat to make our way to freedom. We left the delta under the cover of darkness. I could see a storm approaching off the horizon, and could hear a siren from a communist coast guard patrol boat.

Unable to locate the “mother ship” to which we were supposed to transfer, the boat owner, the mechanic, my uncle, and I gathered to decide on whether we should abandon the trip and surrender or continue to march on in our attempt to be free. I was the only one to vote for the continuation of the escape. My decision at the time was based on my intuitive experience that by using the darkness and the approaching storm as covers, we would be able to elude the communist patrol boat.

While the risk of being caught was high, continuing with the escape outweighed the thoughts of abandoning the 92 other people, mostly women and children, or surrender to the communist. We agreed to continue with the trip. As a result, my uncle taught me a quick lesson on basic sea navigation, and I took over the helm. I was the captain of the boat for forty-eight hours until my uncle regained his strength to take over.

Over the next several days, we encountered “pirates,” Thai fishermen who saw an opportunity to pillage. It was hell on earth to witness defenseless people being robbed and beaten. All the women were raped several times; some girls were taken away when the pirates left. Our boat was disabled, and it was drifting aimlessly on the South China Sea for many days.

We were rescued by another crew of Thai fishermen. They provided fuel, food and helped to fix our engine so we could continue with our journey. We successfully landed at Puau Bidong Refugee Camp, Malaysia on August 22, 1982.

As we go through life, some of us will face life changing events or crucible experiences that significantly affect our lives. I do believe that by developing our positive coping skills, we will grow stronger and be better of who we are and what we do.

Reflecting on my life crucible experiences, I learned that freedom is not free; resiliency is important; being flexible allows you to adapt quickly to changing environments; intuitive thinking is a product of experience and education, and it is priceless when combined with lifelong learning. My experiences helped me assimilate much easier when I started my new life in America, especially when I enlisted in the Air Force and later commissioned as an officer in the Army. I became more resilient, flexible, adaptable, and empathetic toward life. These experiences influenced my life deeply and certainly enabled me to become a better person, and a better leader at an organization level.

(This essay was written for the 2022 Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, with the theme, “Advancing Leaders through Collaboration.”)

1 “Crucibles of Leadership” by Warren Bennis and Robert J. Thomas