Recollections: My Escape from Vietnam in the Wake of War

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers - Japan Engineer District
Published May 26, 2022
The theme for this year’s Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage month celebration is “Advancing Leaders Through Collaboration.” My name is Triet Bui. I would like to share with you how a series of profound crucible experiences affected me and completely changed and shaped my outlook in life to not only be a better person, but a better leader.

The theme for this year’s Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage month celebration is “Advancing Leaders Through Collaboration.” My name is Triet Bui. I would like to share with you how a series of profound crucible experiences affected me and completely changed and shaped my outlook in life to not only be a better person, but a better leader.

The theme for this year’s Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage month celebration is “Advancing Leaders Through Collaboration.” My name is Triet Bui. I would like to share with you how a series of profound crucible experiences affected me and completely changed and shaped my outlook in life to not only be a better person, but a better leader.

In order for you to best understand my experience, I must define the word crucible. Warren Bennis and Robert J. Thomas, authors of the book Crucibles of Leadership, write:

“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 leaders] 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”.

For better or worse there are many life-changing events (crucible experiences) that significantly impact one’s life. For some, these adversities or traumatic events will overtake them completely. Others who successfully emerge from their crucible become stronger, more self-reliant, resilient, and better leaders.

I was born in Vinh Long, a small province in South Viet Nam at the height of conflict in 1965. It is the same year my dad was drafted into the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN). He attended the Officer Candidate School and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Psychological Operations branch of Civil Affairs. I was three years old when I was exposed to the bloody truth of war as I took in the brutality of the Tet Offensive with my own eyes.

As a noncombatant evacuee, I clearly remembered my mom, at the time six months pregnant with my baby sister… in one hand, she was holding my older six-year-old brother. The other dragging a U.S. military duffle bag through the dirt and over rocks, stuffed not with clothes or our belongings, but rather weighted down with my younger brother and myself who were wedged, hidden inside. During the times I managed to wriggle myself into a position that allowed a peek outside, my eyes fell on the countless 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. Later we received word that he had been injured and evacuated to an Army hospital for treatment.

This injury allowed him to be medically discharged from the service, and 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 him to travel to Saigon, the capital of South Viet Nam, quite often. 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 also left his seat in Congress to serve in the South Vietnamese Government’s Diplomatic Corps, working with different delegations toward the Paris Peace Accord. 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 communists on April 30, 1975. I was ten years old when I witnessed the chaos of South Vietnamese trying to flee from the brutal communists. Spying on the world from our house (located in a government provided compound) I saw first-hand the famous scenes broadcast around the world of my desperate countrymen converging on the US Embassy, swamping the last helicopter as it flew to freedom. That 10-year-old-me could never have imagined that this was the day I would begin to understand what crucible would mean to me: 7 years of living hell under a communist regime… a game of life and death escaping from Viet Nam… the hardship of starting a new life in a country where people neither look like you nor speak the same language.

Imagine the terror of waking up in the middle of the night with men in uniform, armed to the teeth, telling you and your family to vacate your home immediately. Not due to any danger, but simply because you were on the losing end of the war.

This is what happened to my family and so many others.

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 the ten miles or so to our other house my dad purchased when we first moved to Viet Nam’s capital of Saigon in 1972. We were able to stay in this house because the communists allowed my mother to teach at a nearby school.

The government owed everything. They rationed basic commodities such as food, water, fuel, and electricity. The distribution process 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.” Everything was done in the guise of the greater good. 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 lived in fear every single day. Everyone was constantly under surveillance by the police or those that worked with them. You had to report to the police every time you went somewhere, filing a full report of who you saw and what you witnessed your neighbors doing.

When I reached the sixth grade I was put to work in a factory, bottling beer. They forced me to do it, I wasn’t paid. The communists cared nothing about decency or child labor laws.

Eventually, my dad was jailed because he had been a member of the old government, suffering the same fate of many of those who fought for freedom in the South Viet Nam military. Some of those taken disappeared into the jungle never to be seen again. Others came back crippled, returning to empty homes; their families herded to parts unknown, courtesy of the communist’s “relocation” policy forced on those who fell from favor. It was hell on earth, but day after day, year after year we endured.

Looking back, I remembered the staggering number of people desperately trying to escape Viet Nam during the 1980’s by any means necessary. Some trusted their fate to the sea relying on boats. Others cast their lot in with the ground, the jungle, snaking their way through Cambodia to Thailand in a bid for freedom; but the odds were never in their favor. Only around 20 percent escaped alive. The rest were caught and imprisoned, many died along the way.

I was seventeen when my family threw our lot to fate. Our chance came when my uncle, a former South Vietnamese Naval officer was finally released from a “re-education” camp. He had connections and tapping into them allowed us to secure a spot on a boat alongside his family for our escape. My role was moving my uncle’s family from where we were in Saigon to the designated extraction point near the delta in Can Tho. This was no small tasks as Can Tho is a roughly 100 kilometers (62 mile) trip from Viet Nam’s capital.

I will never forget August 8th, 1989: We took off with 92 others on a small boat bound for the freedom we had all been denied. We left the delta under the blanket of night, thick clouds covering the world in velvety darkness, scarred by the occasional brilliant flash of light as a storm encroached the horizon.

Our desperate situation was made all the more harrowing as in our race against time, we failed to locate what was called the “Mother Ship,” a larger boat we were supposed to be transferred to. As we searched, flailing helplessly in the darkness the sound of the siren of what could only be a communist coast guard patrol boat sent shivers down our spines and froze our collective heart. Our moment of truth had come. The boat owner, the boat’s mechanic, my uncle, and I huddled to make a life-or-death decision: Do we abandon any hope and surrender to communism, or do we decide that the value of freedom is so great that we continue on against all odds?

I was the only one who voted for freedom.

I was confident that by using the serendipitous inky darkness provided by the gathering storm as cover, we could elude the patrol. Besides, what right-minded person would put out to sea on the cusp of a violent storm? I felt in the deepest depth of my being that the conditions would cause the communists to turn back. While the risk of being caught was truly high, I could not fathom how we could abandon the lives of 92 innocents (mostly women and children) to the cruelty that would befall them were we to simply give ourselves over to the communists.

Thankfully I was able to convince the others to press on. During the journey, my uncle taught me basic sea navigation so that we could operate in shifts. He surrendered the helm to me, and I captained the boat for forty-eight hours while my uncle rested.

Over the next several days, we encountered Thai pirates: fishermen who preyed on those unfortunates they found adrift. You cannot imagine the hell of being held, forced to witness defenseless women and children being beaten and raped over and over. The pirates took whatever they wanted: money, belongings, and even people. I will never know the fate of some of the girls that the pirates took with them as prizes. Sometimes my mind returns to them.

Our boat was disabled, drifting aimlessly on the South China Sea ,day after day. So many that we lost count. One day, another boat approached. Based on our previous experience we braced for the worst, but instead found kindness. This group of Thai fishermen provided us with fuel, food, and had the mechanical know-how to assist with fixing our engine. Their actions recued us. Because of them we were no longer adrift, we were able to continue on our journey and finally landed in a refugee camp in Pulau Bidong, Malaysia on August 22, 1982, after 2 weeks at sea.

As we go through life, some of us will face life changing events, crucible experiences, that significantly affect our lives. I do believe that by developing our positive coping skills, we can grow stronger and be better in who we are and what we do. My personal crucible experiences taught me that freedom is indeed not free; resiliency is important; and flexible thinking allows you to adapt quickly to changing environments. I’ve learned that intuitive thinking is a product of experience and education, and it is priceless when combined with lifelong learning.

These experiences helped me to 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, more flexible, more adaptable, and even more empathetic toward life. These experiences influenced my life deeply and have certainly enabled me to become a better person, and a better leader at an organization level.
This is my experience as an Asian American. I am proud to call myself Vietnamese and proud to be an American. Happy Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month to all!