A Refugee’s Story of Escape from Communist Vietnam

May 3, 2019 Updated: May 3, 2019

In Vietnam, April 30 is celebrated as Reunification Day or Liberation Day, but it marks sorrow for millions. It’s the anniversary of the fall of Saigon, the capital city of South Vietnam, which was captured by the communist North.

April 30, 1975 was a day for the history books. America participated heavily in the unfolding of that day. But even though only 44 years have passed since then, the accepted version of history may already have departed somewhat from the true picture of what happened.

At the juncture of this anniversary, let’s take a walk down memory lane with Guo Huaguang, who is a Cambodian-Vietnamese-Chinese-American, and relive his experience during those turbulent times, adding some nuanced color to the picture of this recent history.

Mr. Guo, as we shall call him throughout this story, was born in Cambodia in 1941. His parents had migrated to Cambodia from southern China during a turbulent time in China’s history. The last Chinese imperial dynasty, the Qing Dynasty, was overthrown in 1912 and replaced by the Republic of China (ROC), led by Sun Yat-Sen. Sun was the father of the Three Principles of the People—nationalism, democracy, and the people’s livelihood.

The young republic was fraught with warlord rule and then struggled with the Soviet-supported Chinese Communist Party and invasion by the imperial Japan. Civil war raged between the nationalist government led by Sun’s successor, Chiang Kai-Shek, and the Chinese Communist Party led by Mao Zedong from 1927 to 1949.

The communists won the battles and established the People’s Republic of China in mainland China in October 1949. The ROC government retreated to Taiwan, where it remains today.

Mr. Guo’s parents worked hard to open stores and made a good living in Cambodia. Mr. Guo went to Taiwan for college and graduated from Taipei School of Education in 1963. After that, he returned to Cambodia to start a teaching career.

In August 1941, the Imperial Japanese Army entered the French Protectorate of Cambodia, where it stayed until 1945. In general, however, the Cambodian population escaped the brutalities inflicted on civilians by the Japanese occupiers in other countries of Southeast Asia.

On March 9, 1945, Norodom Sihanouk proclaimed an independent Kingdom of Kampuchea, which he ruled until October 1970. The Khmer Republic was established after the Cambodian civil war and the coup on March 18, 1970, which toppled the Kingdom of Kampuchea.

To escape the unrest caused by the coup and civil war, Mr. Guo moved to South Vietnam in 1970. By then, he was married with three children. His eldest son was born in 1960, his second son in 1962, and his daughter in 1965. The family stayed for a year on average in each town, getting to be pseudo tourists while Mr. Guo taught school. Military struggles between the North and South did not disturb their lives too much until the town he lived in was captured by the North Vietnamese Army.

American involvement in the Vietnam War was extended. Political patience waxed and waned domestically. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, many large antiwar protests took place in the United States, and Congress refused further funding for the war. The American military started to carry out an exit strategy from South Vietnam beginning in 1973. It was the strategy of Vietnamization—arming the South Vietnamese to fight on their own.

Even though the South Vietnamese had more artillery, tanks, armored cars, and aircraft than their communist enemies to the north, rising oil prices meant that many of these could not be used. America’s retreat gave North Vietnam a perfect advantage to push south. One town after another was lost to the North. The town of Ba Xuyen, where Mr. Guo lived, fell in April 1974.

Living Under Communism

At the time, Mr. Guo was a school principal. During the first month of communist control, the communists tried to calm people’s nerves, promising that everything would be wonderful. A month later, however, three soldiers and an officer came to the school office with guns and put Mr. Guo under house arrest. The mayor and the school security guard met the same fate.

A twisted idea in communist logic is that intellectuals are anti-revolutionary and must be punished to realize their sin. In Vietnam, school summer break came early (in April), but in order to prevent Mr. Guo’s family from fleeing, the communists took his children away from home while he and his wife remained under house arrest. His sympathetic students threw canned food through the window in the evenings to keep Mr. Guo and his wife from starving to death.

Mr. Guo was ordered to write a report of “self-criticism and confession” to submit to the Revolution Committee. However, whenever he tried to submit his report, he was kept waiting in front of the office of the Revolution Committee for an entire day. Then he was dismissed and told that he had to rewrite it because the confession was deemed insincere, often without even a glimpse of the report.

This torment went on for a year before he was relieved from house arrest. Mr. Guo lost much of his body weight and was no longer allowed to teach. He was, however, permitted by the Revolution Committee to sell cigarettes or other things for his livelihood.

Around May 1975, Mr. Guo looked for an opportunity to escape. One dark night under a new moon, he sneaked out of the house and was followed a few minutes later by his children and then his wife. Everyone wore a few layers of clothing, since they could not take anything significant with them.

We will spare recounting the many disheartening difficulties they had getting everyone to the bus station. A bus ride from Ba Xuyen to Saigon took five to six hours. All the bus stations were patrolled by the Liberation Army. The family started walking on the route of the bus. Luckily, the bus driver was not a strict rule follower, and Mr. Guo and his family boarded the bus.

Still, there were dangerous moments when soldiers inspected the bus. Thanks to a quarrel between a young man and the soldiers, the family managed to make it to Saigon. There they rented a room and stayed until August 1979.

Escape to Thailand

Mr. Guo did not really intend to settle in Saigon. Saigon fell in 1975, shortly before their arrival, and they were trapped without a way to leave. People sold off everything to get on boats and leave by sea. Boat fares skyrocketed. After a long time, Mr. Guo found work with a Chinese boat owner as a foreman, and he saved enough money to buy boat tickets for his family of five by August 1979.

The communist regime was devious with departing boats. The boats were only allowed to depart on days with a storm forecast. People died, boats capsized, and the humanitarian crisis caught the attention of the United Nations. On August 24, 1980, the United Nations disallowed any further boat departures of refugees.

In light of the danger of escaping by boat, Mr. Guo decided to flee through a land route via Cambodia to Thailand. He negotiated a sell-back of the prized boat tickets to the boat owner for 2 kg (approx. 4.4 lbs.) of gold.

With half of that gold, Mr. Guo purchased three bicycles. One was shared by his two sons, who were then 19 and 17; one was for his daughter, who was 14; and the other was for him and his wife. They rode the bikes from Saigon toward the border town of Chau Doc, but the wheel of his sons’ bike became bent and useless halfway through the journey. At that point, they were still over 100 km (approx. 62 miles) from the Cambodian border.

The family trudged on to Chau Doc on foot. By the edge of the Mekong River, they hired a boat to take them to Phnom Penh, which cost 25 grams of gold for the family. Unfortunately, the boat was intercepted by border guards, and they took all the rest of the gold.

By that time, Cambodia had already been ravaged by the Cambodian Genocide carried out by the communist Khmer Rouge regime. The genocide resulted in the death of close to two million people, over 20 percent of Cambodia’s population at that time. The regime leader, Pol Pot, was a communist idealist and a fervent Maoist. Under his leadership, the Khmer Rouge forced Cambodians to leave cities and go into communes and labor camps, and the regime carried out mass executions and mass imprisonment.

Mr. Guo’s father died of starvation during this period, and his older brother’s family was executed for allegedly complaining about his brother’s allegiance to the communist ideology. The genocide triggered a large flow of refugees to Vietnam and Thailand. Then a Vietnamese invasion defeated the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and ended the genocide.

Around November 1979, when Mr. Guo’s family reached Cambodia, there was border fighting between Cambodia and Vietnam, even though they were both under communist control. Without money or transportation, the family continued walking.

One night, they stayed in a broken house. Guo’s wife got a terrible stomachache from drinking fertilizer-laced water in the village, and she was in pain all night and into the morning. The children were very frightened. By morning, when the family decided to continue on their journey, they cried and kneeled and begged to stay.

Finally, they arrived at Phnom Penh. The city was under Vietnamese control, and Pol Pot had run away. The bridge to the city was guarded. Like many other people, Mr. Guo’s family was blocked from passing the bridge for five days. Once they entered Phnom Penh, even though the city was emptied out, they could not stay inside houses. They slept under trees and in open areas.

They stayed in Phnom Penh for over a month, trying to find a way to the Thai border 500 km (approx. 311 miles) away. Every night there was a train to Thailand, and every night the train was fully stacked with people, even on top of the train. It was going to be difficult for the young daughter to brave the train.

Mr. Guo had received a small donation of gold from a friend in Phnom Penh, so he was able to pay 10 grams of gold to get a truck ride to the city of Krong Battambang toward Thailand. It was around the Chinese New Year in the middle of February 1980. Krong Battambang was also an emptied-out city. They continued to walk toward the Thai border.

At night, only Vietnamese soldiers were on the road. The family would walk separately so as not to call attention to themselves. Usually, Mr. Guo’s wife and younger son would walk together, the older son by himself, and Mr. Guo with his daughter.

One night, they hired an ox cart drawn by a single ox. Around 3 or 4 a.m., a fight suddenly broke out between Pol Pot’s men and the Vietnamese. Firearms erupted all around the ox cart. Pol Pot’s men ordered them to go in a certain direction, and Mr. Guo thought the men were trying to protect them. Instead, the men robbed them. The only valuables they had left were two gold rings his wife hid inside her mouth. They relied on those two rings to continue the rest of the way to the Thai border.

Refugee Camp

Finally one day, they saw the Red Cross flag signifying the location of a refugee camp. They were so happy that they practically rolled off the mountain. They were admitted into the refugee camp in Thailand in September 1980. There they waited ten months to be accepted by a receiving country.

Even in the refugee camp, there was still danger. Some Thai camp guards committed robbery or rape in the camp. Mr. Guo called on the young men in the camp to be organized into three shifts, each with 20 to 30 people, to patrol and protect the refugees from the criminals.

One day, after Red Cross doctors visited the camp, Mr. Guo jumped onto the departing Red Cross vehicle to complain about the situation. This resulted in a decision by the authorities to move the camp guards outside the fence. Mr. Guo thus achieved renown as de facto camp leader.

The remainder of their time in the refugee camp was pleasant. Mr. Guo wrote many articles and a book titled “Tears and Blood Over the Land” to record their tragic encounters with communist brutality over the years. The book was published by a Taiwanese publisher and distributed to many Chinese associations across the United States, Australia, France, and other countries.

It may have been due to his leadership and good reputation in the refugee camp that Mr. Guo’s wish to move his family to the United States was granted.

San Francisco

At 5 p.m. on June 23, 1981, after ten months of waiting in the Thai refugee camp, Mr. Guo and his family landed in San Francisco. Two people of Chinese descent picked them up and transported them to a fully furnished apartment. The U.N. refugee settlement agency had rented the apartment for them two months before, a neighbor later told him.

They were shown around Chinatown and where to shop, and physical checkups were arranged for them. They were granted two years of welfare benefits to give them time to settle down.

Mr. Guo was very grateful to the United States. He immediately focused his energy on journalistic writing, initially for a Chinese newspaper called “The World Journal.” He later started his own Chinese language newspaper, “Chao Zhou Guardian.” He declined welfare only three months after his arrival.

He was active in the San Francisco Chinese community and became influential on the political scene. Mr. Guo was opposed to the policies of San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos and was very vocal in his criticism through his own newspaper. In 1992, he threw his support behind the mayoral campaign of former police chief Frank Jordan. With his influence, Jordan had the support of the Asian community and was elected. Jordan was the mayor from 1992 to 1996.

Today, Mr. Guo is still very active in the Asian community and pays close attention to the political process in San Francisco. In October 2018, he voiced his opinion at a San Francisco city council meeting regarding the Chinatown subway station naming controversy. He proposed that the station should be named after Sun Yat-Sen, who once resided in San Francisco.

The desire for democracy, which has long been held by many Chinese people, has not died even though it was denied in their motherland. Naming the subway station after Sun would touch on that longing.

The political influence of mainland China in San Francisco is very strong, so it is not surprising that there is also a push to name the station after a communist supporter, Rose Pak. But the name that Mr. Guo suggested, “Sun Yat-Sen Station,” reflects the countless Chinese who hope for Sun’s Three Principles of the People—nationalism, democracy, and the people’s livelihood.