While 1954 doesn’t spark anything important to most people, it was the start of one of the worst wars in history. The Vietnam War pitted Northern Vietnam, Viet Minh, against the southern part, as the communist territory of the north set out to unify the entire country under communist influence. The southern part also, referred to as Viet Cong, fought to preserve their land, which was the core of the Vietnam War that would last 21 years.
To aid the South, the United States deployed over 500,000 military personnel by 1969, however, this was one-upped by the Soviet Union and China, who both aided the North and proved too much for the US, who withdrew their troops in 1973. By 1975, the South fell victim to a complete invasion by the North.
While looking in retrospect, we see the disastrous nature of such a war, as children and adults alike were terrorized and forced to survive by any means necessary. One woman who faced such hardships was Luyen Nguyen. (Luyen on the right and her mother on the left in the image below).
Born in 1968, Luyen is now a successful business owner and a single mother in the Northern California area. However, she faced the direct consequences of the Vietnam War and as we sat down with her, shares her experiences.
Born in the small village town of Mỹ Tú in Southern Vietnam, Luyen and her two siblings were raised by her mother, after her father was murdered by the communists for working alongside the southern government.
Luyen was born after the war had started, and she details vivid memories of the terrors and risks she and her family faced once North Vietnam began to invade when she was just a child. She describes the protocols she took when attacks struck down on her village, such as having to hide in a hole built under her bed or running to the rice fields near her home to protect themselves from raining bullets. Whenever an attack struck down her village, Luyen had to hide in a hole underneath her bed in order to be protected from attacks. She details witnessing her home burn to the ground while taking cover in the rice fields from the spraying bullets. Knowing the severe consequences of the communist north closing in on southern territory, her mother began to devise a plan to escape the country. When Luyen was only five years old, they fled on foot in the middle of the night, bringing only the little money they possessed and a bag of lemons. Luyen described being hushed by her mother to avoid being caught by any members of the Viet Minh, a certain execution. She remembers hearing the sound of waves for the first time as they boarded a small boat and left her war-torn country.
While this departure seems like the end of her struggle in Vietnam, her journey to the U.S. may be just as hard. Fleeing on a small fishing boat overcrowded with people, they were at the hands of Thai pirates, famine, disease, and deadly conditions. On the first night, she details being fired at by pirates who took advantage of refugee boats that passed through the same waters. They were infamous for robbing them of their valuables, murdering, and abducting young girls who were later forced into prostitution. Luyen also remembers becoming seasick and throwing up in the small boat, even at one point hallucinating.
After days adrift, as if matters couldn’t get worse, the gunshots from the Thai pirates damaged the engine, and the wind became their only source of power. Still, with thousands of miles to cover, she grasped onto the little hope that wafted among the survivors. She says that their boat encountered a pack of dolphins that stayed with them for days. She took it as a sign. A sign of hope, safety, and a conclusion to her struggle.
Ten days had passed at sea when they discovered an oil rig in the Indian Ocean. The rig was inhabited by Malaysian Naval officers who took them into their own care and soon brought them to a designated island for Vietnamese refugees in Malaysia, where the population would soon exceed 5,000.
It was here that Luyen says she felt her happiest. Although living in the unsanitary and unsafe conditions on the island rampant with rats, snakes, disease, and suicide, her family felt free for the first time in decades. They were no longer under the control of the communist North, nor were they ducking for safety during violent airstrikes. Their fears of the war had concluded, but they were still left to find a permanent home. Luyen explains that it was her and her family’s dream to come to America. She envisioned freedom, education, and opportunity. All of which only the wealthy in Vietnam were privy to.
It would be two years until Luyen and her family were sponsored by an American family and brought to the United States. Their patience, struggle, and grit paid off once they reached the U.S., and were taken in by a family in Iowa. Luyen describes the uncanny experience of coming to America. Explaining how the homes and neighborhoods were a substantial change from the huts and villages she grew up in. “I thought we were in heaven,” she remarked when she first saw snow.
In these fine details, Luyen expresses the consequences of what the war stole from her childhood, but also what many children in America take for granted. Education, family, and safety. She desires her story to be told to illustrate a new perspective of the war through a young girl’s experience. While at the time she was too young to understand, she looks back in retrospect and expresses gratitude for what the U.S. did to aid the Southern part of Vietnam. Her own journey provides her with the experience of a young girl surviving the war as she sees a similar fate for the citizens of Ukraine. Her compassion and empathy for the children in Ukraine stem from her experience as a young girl. She urges the United States to aid Ukraine as she remembers the significant support they gave South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Even at one point saying, “If America sits back and [doesn't do anything], we’re no better than Russia.”
Luyen, now a mother and successful business owner, says that the struggles she persevered through gave her the grit to overcome anything. She appreciates the fine details many Americans take advantage of and reflects on her experience as a reminder of where she came from. Today, her selfless personality continues to show as she gives back to her community through funding, support and recently renovating three homes in Vietnam. While the big cities in Vietnam are glamorous and attractive to tourists, the countryside is still struggling from severe poverty and lack of opportunity. Many homes she said don’t have proper plumbing, electricity, air conditioning, and proper roofing. Luyen describes how one family takes cover in the corner during the severe rainstorms because of the deficient roofing, but also how she renovated this home to provide safe conditions for this family. While her journey forced her to mature and persevere through every part, it provides her the motivation to give back to her community, and the relentless grit to overcome any obstacle she may overcome today.