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Diep Tran and Trang Vo’s epic refugee escape

In 1983, Diep Tran and her niece Trang Vo fled to Australia in fear of their lives, but the journey was just as hazardous. We present their remarkable stories to honour World Refugee Day on 20 June.

Interviews by David Southwell

Diep Tran

I was born in 1958 and am the youngest of 10 brothers and sisters. During the Vietnam War we were blessed by living in the very far south of the country, in Rach Soi, because the fighting was mostly in the north and the middle.

However, we were still affected because in 1968, during the Tet Offensive, a bomb landed and exploded in front of our house.

Luckily my daddy believed in God and was very wise. He had put three layers of sandbags around one of the rooms. The house got blasted at the front but God protected us. I was asleep along with my brothers and sisters. My parents woke us up and said we have to pray.

When the Communists came in 1975 they captured my brother and put him in the concentration camp.

We were very poor at that time. My sister, Trang’s mother, was divorced and had to work very hard selling things to buy food for her children – Trang, her sister and brother. Every day we go to the market early in the morning and come home late. Sometimes we had enough food, sometimes not enough.

Later when my sister got tuberculosis, she didn’t have money for the medication.

After about six years my brother was released from detention but he was always being watched. The family decided he must leave Vietnam.

My brother said if I stayed in Vietnam, the future will not be good for me, so he asked if I was willing to leave and bring Trang. As it turned out, I also took her mother and sister with me. I was about 22 years old.

We had to be very careful to keep our plan secret. On the night of our escape we went to a small canoe that took us to the boat. It was very scary. If we were caught, we would all be put into prison.

The boat was very small and not made for going to sea, it was only meant for rivers. It couldn’t handle bigger waves.

There were 23 people onboard. It was very crowded. When you sat down you couldn’t move or even stretch your legs.

We sailed for about two days. At one point there was a big ship coming towards us. My brother said the waves from the ship would capsize our boat, so he told everyone to pray to God.

Everyone went silent. We all closed our eyes and prayed to God, even those who weren’t Christians.Screen shot 2019 06 17 at 9.39.46 am

After we opened our eyes we saw that the ship had done a U-turn and gone.

We were always scared of pirates. At the time they always attacked the small refugee boats to steal all the jewellery and kidnap the women and girls, who they sometimes even raped on the boat.

There was a man I knew when we were both living in housing commission units in Carlton. His wife was taken away by pirates off their boat and he never saw her again.

We had to keeping bailing out the water out when it came in and took turns doing this.

Thailand and Malaysia were very close and we knew if we landed in Thailand all the women were in danger of being taken away.

My brother used a magnet and a toothpick to make a compass to show him the direction we had to go.

We eventually landed only a few kilometres into Malaysia and arrived there about 5 or 6pm.

The government told my brother that we should wait in a shed but he needed to protect the wives, sisters and children by getting the men to guard outside.

That night the bus came and took us on the long journey to Kuala Lumpur.

We were excited when we saw colour TVs in the open houses along the road. We had never seen them before.

We were sent to a refugee camp on the island of Pulau Bidong. Living in the refugee camp, you didn’t know what the future was. We woke up and were just waiting around. Every day was just like that, we had no future.

For food we got maybe noodles and a can of meat, some rice and a little bit of oil, too little, we had to save that.

Still I didn’t worry, what I knew was that we had escaped from Vietnam and that was good.

Two months after we arrived, my sister, Trang’s mother, became very sick with her tuberculosis. They gave her some medication but unfortunately she was very weak. She died.

Some people were transferred very quickly to go to America or Australia but, because we were a big group of family, it took longer. If someone got stuck, we all had to stay together.

So, we had to stay in the camp for about six months waiting to be processed to go to the mainland. Once on the mainland it was roughly a four-month wait to go to Australia.

They would announce when people were being transferred off the island to see the American or Australian embassy. You listen and when you hear your name it is amazing. When we got the news people were screaming with joy.

The saddest thing was people who hadn’t been called watching others leave.

When we got our names called to go there were still people from our boat on the island and they cried.

When I got the news that I was to go to Australia I was very happy. That was beautiful.

I’ve got a good life. I always thank God for what we’ve got today. For me, this is my country. I would not go back to Vietnam to live there.

Trang Vo

My parents split up when I was two and I grew up with my mum, sister and brother.

When we escaped Vietnam the fishing boat was so crowded. I had to go right up the front. There were dolphins next to us so it was really exciting for me as an 11-year-old child seeing that.

I can certainly remember the worries the adults had anytime there was a change in the weather, or there was a big ship that was coming towards us and they feared it could be pirates.

We mainly ate rice and water and there was just enough. I believe God took us through that journey. If it had been longer it could have been different.

For me, I had a good time at the refugee camp in Pulau Bidong. There was a church. There was also coconut tree and things like that. Everywhere was open, there was only one area we couldn’t go.

For me it was just hanging out with the other kids. Because we had access to the beach most of the time I was down there. I was told off for this many times by my aunties.

For my aunty and uncle, they were always worried. They worried about what’s happening tomorrow and when were we going to leave?

The worry for me was my mum. She was very sick and she died on the island. When my mum died, I questioned whether God was really there.

When I came to Australia, I was pretty much lost. I didn’t know Vietnamese fully and I didn’t know English fully, so it was a bit hard to know which grade I should go into at school.

We call my generation “the forgotten generation”. I am not really first or second generation Australian. I am actually 1.5 generation.

I hated being told I am Vietnamese because there was so much racism in Australia in the 1980s. People would always tell you to ‘go back to your country’. I sometimes didn’t even want to admit I could speak Vietnamese.

My family was helped in settling in Australia by a Uniting Church minister called Rex Fisher.

P3. sister diep tran and tran vo in vietnam copy

Trang’s sister, Diep Tran and Trang Vo in Vietnam

There was only one Vietnamese UCA church in Melbourne when we first came. My uncle became a Uniting Church minister  and he planted another Vietnamese congregation at Footscray.

I helped him do this and in my early 20s I really found myself. I came to faith with a personal experience, one where you really know God is there.

I did a period of discernment in my 20s but never completed it because of other things in my life. However, I just really wanted to serve God my entire life. That has never gone away.

Now I am a candidate for ministry waiting for placement. I have been supply preaching at North Essendon and I help care for Vietnamese people at St Albans.

In my studies at Pilgrim Theological College I did an essay on the history of the protestant church in Vietnam. That helped me reconnect to my country.

In my studies I also learnt how First Peoples talk about the land – that’s exactly how I feel when I talk about Vietnam, that it’s all hidden underneath.

I have been back to Vietnam twice. I went because my dad was really sick. I hadn’t seen him for 30 years and didn’t even know he was alive. A family friend saw him on the street and contacted me.

I didn’t really want to go back there at first because I was scared. But it really helped me to go back to Vietnam and seeing the people touched me. It made me feel I know the country so much better. I really begin to appreciate where I come from.

On my last trip I took my eldest boy (I have four children) who was around 12. He loved it and settled in with the community so well. I was very surprised.

I have been in Australia nearly 36 years and it’s a relief to better know that Vietnamese part of me and my family. It’s a relief to accept my identity, which I was struggling to.

I definitely want to take all my kids back to Vietnam. I would like them to explore their heritage, so they know and appreciate who they are.

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