Above: Duc and friends in 1977, on the boat in which they fled Vietnam.
It’s been 40 years now since Duc fled wartorn Vietnam and came to Australia as a refugee, leaving behind everything he knew.
But the memories are vivid.
Over a cup of tea in his Bankstown home in Western Sydney, Duc shares some of the highs and lows of what was a tumultuous time. He starts by responding graciously, when I naively ask him whose decision it was to leave Vietnam: “We didn’t have a choice,” he said.
In 1978, with the Vietnamese war over and the country united under communism, it was no longer safe for those who had been loyal to the South Vietnamese cause. Former Vietnamese Naval officers, like Duc, were now seen as traitors and were forced to flee. They formed the second wave of Vietnamese to flee their homeland.
Duc and his sweetheart Hoa travelled to Jakarta in Indonesia by boat, and from there were brought to Australia on a plane. They were among the 56,000 Vietnamese refugees allowed into Australia by the Fraser government.
- Games are Banned: New Rules Making Refugee Lives Even More Miserable
- Heartbroken for Nauru’s Lost Children
Landing in Australia was “Heaven”
New arrivals in Australia like Duc worked hard, but there were fun times and hilarious situations as they found their way in this new, foreign land. He describes Australia as “heaven” in comparison to the destruction he had witnessed in his former home.
In 1980, Duc married Hoa, and in the following years they welcomed three children. Duc worked hard to provide for the young family, working during the day at a factory and driving taxis at night up until 1992.
It was during one of his taxi driving shifts that Duc had an encounter with a group of Australian Vietnam war veterans which would change his life—and theirs.
Australian society during the 1980s and 1990s was a melting pot of people trying to recover from the Vietnam War. Australian soldiers had returned traumatised, and so too were its refugees. They all saw the war and its many tragedies differently, from almost opposing perspectives – and their emotions and opinions clashed.
“As a taxi driver I had to cop a lot,” he says.
“I still remember one incident on ANZAC Day. Some veterans were going out early for the Dawn Service so I picked them up at maybe two or three o’clock in the morning. There were four of them in my cab and when they looked at me. they asked if I was Vietnamese and I said yes.”
“One of them said, “You make me vomit, you make me want to vomit,” Duc recalled. “Every time I hear the word Vietnam, whenever I’m sitting close to the Vietnamese people, it makes me vomit.”
In Duc’s voice, even all these years later, I can hear the hatred that was encapsulated in that Aussie war veteran’s statement.
“And how do you think I felt with that?” Duc asks me.
I don’t answer him. I can’t even imagine.
“Actually, at that time I blew up to him”, Duc says, with a chuckle which breaks the thick air surrounding our conversation. “I stopped the cab. I gave them a discourse! I said, why do you say that?
”It’s because of you that I lost my life at Vietnam!” was the war veteran’s raw, pain-filled response.
When Enemies Become Friends
By now, Duc had heard about the traumas suffered by the Australian Vietnam veterans and how they had been treated on their return. He knew that the traumas had plagued their physical and mental health in the aftermath.
”I lost my life and I lost my friends because of you people, because of Vietnam,” the Aussie veteran continued.
Sipping his tea, Duc reflects: “I understood what made him feel that way but I had a reason to react and I said, “Ok, let me tell you the other side of the story.””
Here, Duc’s voice holds the hurt, pain and loss of the war and everything and everyone who disappeared with it: “I told those four men, ‘You lost your life. You lost your friends. How many friends? 521 friends was it?’”
“You know what I lost? The whole country was lost! A million people had to get out of Vietnam!”
Duc knows war history. He knows Australia lost 521 soldiers during the terror which was the Vietnam War. He knows it was terrible for this nation. That those 521 soldiers were and are still dearly missed.
“I said to them, “Do you know how many people, how many friends I lost? Do you know what I lost because of the war?””
I can hear Duc’s pain as he recalls the conversation, 24 years later.
“And you think that we created the war? No, you guys came in and you left us behind!”
Here, his voice breaks: “You know what I lost? I was a navy officer. I had my family. Now I come here, working on the street, earning money from the street, at two o’clock in the morning, and picking up people like you, harassing me!
“And not only me; the whole country was lost. A million people had to get out of Vietnam!”
“So that’s the other side of the story that I want you to see,” he said to the four, now silent.
That cab drive ended with all five men having a drink together at the club. The unlikely group became friends and still today, they contact each other, catch up, laugh over old jokes. Men whose lives were torn apart by the same war, from different perspectives and with opposing opinions, laughing over old times.
Here’s to the power of story.
About the author: The above story is from a book being written by Joni Leimgruber, published with permission. Joni is a freelance writer and blogger with a passion for refugees and their stories. Joni writes at wordsbyjoni.wordpress.com, and you can find her on social media (Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) at @wordsbyjoni.