The Price of Freedom

..the true story of a Vietnamese military 
officer's escape from Vietnam, 
and its aftermath
by Thor May 
first published in Australian Society  pp.33 - 34, Vol.3, No.10 
Melbourne, October 1984 
Mekong boat

§ § § § §

Picture a Vietnamese fishing town of about 10,000. It is 5a.m., and already there is a busy traffic of fishermen, bamboo sellers, and market women. The air is washed by a pre-dawn coolness and islands of light still flare in the shadows. It is too early for policemen, too early for anyone on government business. 

This is the hour when a man like Sang can buy his bamboo, choosing each stick carefully for its length, thickness, and, above all, its straightness. The sellers are thin, leathery men who spend their days in the bamboo forests and plod through the night with their creaking oxcarts. There is a good profit in quality bamboo. 

Sang describes this other world in his slow, ironic way, lingering over the flavour of each memory. How could his new Australian friend, this English teacher, grasp what it had all meant? I sucked my stubby, and watched him bob his young daughter on his knee. Sang is an athletic man, though oddly proportioned, with a long body and strangely short legs. I have learned to respect his intelligence. Now he tries again to take me back, away from this nondescript backyard in a Newcastle suburb to the harder reality of life in communist Vietnam. 

Sang had recently come from a re-education camp for officers of the old regime, one of many spread across the country. He worked on a cotton plantation, a "people's experiment", manned by prisoners and soldiers. The new soldiers, Sang learned, were to serve the people. He studied his guards. In truth, they remained unexcited about growing cotton. As for the paper certificates awarded to outstanding workers. ... well, what could you say? 

Party cadres appeared to believe in words however, and feared them. Their public religion was simple but rigid. Of Sang they demanded a new faith. He gave them what they wanted. The prisoner was to study Marxism, and for this he was graded. Also to be assessed: the living compound and garden plot. That was hard, for five times a year they were moved to new camps, l00km 200km apart. Sang persisted, carrying baskets of pig manure to fertilise his vegetables. It was a chore familiar to any peasant. For four months out of five, he won the model prisoner award, and after a year was among the first to be released. 

I look at Sang. with a query hanging in the air, but he simply shrugs. I know he has been a paratroop officer, not a farmer. 

"The other officers thought they were gentlemen", he says quietly; "they didn't want to know there had been a revolution. " 

So Sang went into the bamboo trade. It wasn't a bad business, as things went in a wrecked economy. There was also much to discuss in the coffee and noodle shops down by the wharves. For a little while in the early morning it was safe to joke. Conspiracies were made, and plans to flee the country, some rash, some calculated. Sang listened, and learned, with the professional ear of a trained insurgent. If they caught him at that sort of thing there would be no remissions for growing nice vegetables. For peasants and fishermen, for the little people a year in prison perhaps... but not for an officer of the enemy. 

Carefully he probed the possibilities. You might join the new administration, become an apparatchik. But as a southerner there couldn't be much chance of a career. You knew the old regime had been corrupt, but this new one in its own way seemed even worse. Your friends and neighbours hated it. They would hate you too if you shifted loyalties. Nothing was going to improve for years. Maybe it was best to get out altogether. 

I glance out across the familiar line of suburban Australian roofs. What would it cost me to say that I was no longer a part of this country, to walk out on everything I understood and everyone I knew, learn a new language and new values in my late thirties? There is no answer to the question, not here and now. San had faced a decision I wouldn't know how to contemplate. 

It is difficult for me to read the cost of that decision in Sang's calm demeanour. He speaks of the setbacks quietly. There had been a partner who began to drink too much. He had to be left behind. A girlfriend, a geography teacher, was to come, but sent her younger brother instead to an escape rendezvous. The escape, like many others, was aborted anyway. She got no second chance... The soldier talks. His training has rammed the ultimate plan through to this unlikely, sleepy corner of the world on a later summer afternoon. 

"But how do you escape?", I persist. "What is the actual way out?" He smiles his ironic smile ... 

A river mouth, a sandbar, a beach. Already most of the fishing fleet is out, on the early high tide. Smaller boats surf over the bar from time to time. Children and adults paddle along the beach; some are swimming. A couple of security officers, disguised as picnickers and carrying only concealed side-arms, move among the crowd. It is a scene repeated a hundred times up this beautiful coastline. 

Almost inadvertently a fishing boat seems to drift in towards the bathers. Nobody notices. No, twenty people notice; they have been waiting. Quietly, in ones and twos, they begin to swim out to the seaward side of the trawler where quick hands pull them aboard. Strangers, a girl here, a man there, see what is happening. Making immediate decisions - no time for preparations, for farewells, for betrayal - these instant refugees join the swimmers. A hundred people make it to the boat. Eventually, even the security guards see what is, happening, but their side-arms are useless. They run back to the camp for rifles and machine-guns. Too late; the gull has flown. And the patrol boat? The patrol boat is on the wrong side of the bar at the wrong turn of the tide. 

The rich, the bourgeoisie, the educated, the timid, the late-risers, are not the escapees here. They hate the system, and stay to suffer, paralysed by their own caution, tied down with possessions and genteel hopes. At desperate extremes, they invest the family gold in the promises of Chinese middlemen and gamble at poor odds that they understand too late; betrayal, robbery, rape, and miserable death lurk. 

The escapees at this moment in history are the quick and the dead, the poor, the audacious; the swimmer who decides in five seconds to leave his wife, his children and his country. They are the illiterate lads who join a mutiny on a fishing vessel; and the few, hardened, trained specialists in anarchy, daring and death - the Sangs. 

But in the end, he sighs, it is not easy for anyone. Everyone pays a terrible price, though for some it is higher than for others. And then, in a rush, he tells me the exact manner and price of one particular voyage into the New World. 

A large trawler sat off the coast. Its captain had decided, at last, to bite the bullet. Such skippers were becoming scarcer; the reckless and impetuous had cleared out long ago. The big boat waited on a dawdle of river craft, vessels too small or unseaworthy to contemplate an escape voyage. They slipped by the river patrols with a cursory inspection. One bought dieseline, but only half the quantity ordered at a prepaid price. A bad omen. Then the people came, in small groups, on other boats. The captain's family was not among them; they had missed the rendezvous. 

Every escape carries the seeds of betrayal and loss. A single event can bring lives undone. The trawler skipper refused to move. They crowded him nervously, the passengers, caught between fear and despair. Some argued furiously. Others watched the dark etching of coastline, waiting for a small blob, a patrol vessel, to detach itself and cut off all hope. Sang became harsh, sarcastic. The river boats weren't there to ferry them back, he berated the unhappy captain. As soon as they came home, crossed that bar, the inspectors would board the vessel as they did every time. It was a one-way trip to a long prison term. 

They set a course for Malaysia. But overnight the skipper turned the boat about again. Another argument; another win for Sang. Five times they went in great circles on that voyage. The fuel situation became critical. Many passengers wanted to put ashore at night on a beach in the far south of Vietnam. Insane, said Sang, producing an automatic weapon. His margin of support became narrower. At last there was only one ally, a young woman called Thoa, who argued with passion and cunning, and they took turns staying awake. But it was the relentless law of dieseline consumption that put them within reach of an Indonesian island and out of reach, forever, of home. 

The islanders were kind, extraordinarily hospitable. Later, as the refugee trickle became a flood, they were to come to regard these ragged Vietnamese speakers as predators, a threat to their own finely balanced survival cycle. But to Sang they were kind. Sang and Thoa were thrown together, lonely and defiant, eventually in love. A pregnancy, when it came, was as good as a marriage certificate among stateless, wandering imigres. And thus, on the long and meaningless immigration forms that eventually recognised them as people again, it was written that Thoa and Sang plus child were one family unit. 

So that was how it happened. I think back to a long line of B-grade movie plots, and realise miserably that there is no adequate response to a tale like this, told by an honest man to your face. But I know he has more yet to reveal to me about the consequences of that faraway decision in a coffee and noodle shop. Somehow I am becoming part of the story. My small role in the drama has yet to be made clear. We sip our beer silently for a moment or two. 

I have been to Sang's house once before, and didn't like it much. There is no welcome in the clean, ugly fibro walls of the weatherboard cottage, crudely split down the middle into two flats. Through the brittle partition you can always hear three pensioners arguing in scratchy old voices. "They are kind", says Sang. "Twice a week they bring our garbage can in." 

Thoa has quickly prepared fresh rice, lettuce, and broiled pork with chilli. She has no English to speak of, but in my English classes is quick to laugh and eager to try. Tonight there is a strange reserve, and she soon leaves us to work on some take-home material from the shirt factory. 

I know there is a reason for this dinner invitation, and suspect some kind of business proposition. We have a good rapport, Sang and I; we ask some of the same questions of life. But Sang is finding no easy answers. Six months ago he was talking of social work, helping people after all the killing. But in Australia he has lost the status of an educated man among poor fisherfolk. A mendicant Buddhist philosopher, his idea of community aid won't count for much against bright young things with degrees. Sang has finally decided that in the West, you make money first and become a great man later. 

I know that he has been pursuing his conclusions with the usual military zeal: no fancy clothes, no expensive cars; a quest for profit. Thoa wants none of this. She wants conspicuous consumption, a decent flat, nice clothes. Yet, irrationally to Sang, she sends every cent of her own wages from a shirt factory back to two daughters in Vietnam. "Yes", says Sang, a little cruelly, "she left her own daughters. Is she a good mother?" Of the husband he knows nothing. 

Now Sang seems to be placing facts with the calm reason of a strategist. I am becoming uneasy. What is this campaign? What am I being manoeuvred into? 

The topic, it seems, is divorce, not a subject easily dealt with in Vietnam. But the Australian law is a revelation: bigamy, de facto relationships. . . Sang can walk out at any time. No, those immigration forms weren't a marriage certificate. But no, his chances of keeping custody of the child are probably poor. He will be expected to pay maintenance for it. I half convince him that it is more likely to find a stable family life with Thoa anyway. 

So is this the end of all ever-afters, when the last burnished sunset has set on romance and adventure, when the kiss is sealed and death defied? Sang and I both have much to learn about the melding of two cultures. Neither of us has a clever outline for the next exciting episode. Silently Thoa clears away the empty beer bottles. It is already very late. 


The Price of Freedom
copyright (c) Thor May 1997, all rights reserved



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