*(Photos: Bertin Huynh)
It’s 45 years since the end of the Vietnam War – an anniversary largely overshadowed by COVID-19. For Australia’s Vietnamese refugees, their experiences of that conflict have impacted their response to the global pandemic, as Bertin Huynh reports.
TON HOANG YEN HUYEN
Ton Hoang Yen Huyen is just Yen to friends and family.
“Things changed like heaven to hell,” she says of the Vietnam War. “My father worked for the democratic government. So, after the war ended my father lost his job, our businesses were closed. We couldn’t do anything. Everything was under government control. They sent some of us to re-education camps – many of my uncles.”
Yen remembers clearly the night she escaped. “Late at night we had to sneak out. We followed our neighbour. They said the boat was good boat because only around 75 people – but when we got there, they count more than double that.
“The hardship we went through in Vietnam made us stronger.”
Ton Hoang Yen Huyen
“I think we are very lucky. Australia is a good country. When I talk to my friends overseas, things sound a lot worse. But I think hardship helps us learn. When there is no food, we learn to not waste food. This COVID-19 will be like this. The hardship we went through in Vietnam made us stronger, I hope this COVID-19 will be like this for my family.”
Starting in 1978, Victor Truong spent two years on Bidong Island in Malaysia. The trip there cost him 10 gold taels. He describes these pieces of gold as paper thin, the size of playing cards. Some of the others on his boat had sown the taels into their clothing, and jewellery into the seams. He remembers how the ship’s crew tore it off them.
“There were no toilets, just holes dug into the ground. Sometimes you just didn’t want to go because the smell was too much. And when we showered, we had to all shower together. Everyone. Man, woman, boy and girl – all at once. Not sure any of us even got any cleaner. So many people got sick and if they didn’t die on the boat, many died here.”
“The war only affected us, but this virus affects everyone.”
Fortunately, Truong had siblings who’d made it to Australia, who sponsored him to join them. “They (the government at the time) don’t want any single men,” he explained. “Only accepted woman and families.”
“I don’t think this coronavirus is much to be scared about,” Truong adds. But his wife works in healthcare and he admits he is worried for her. “I do think this (the coronavirus) is more important. The war only affected us, but this virus affects everyone. It will have a bigger impact.”
HAN AND NHAN PHAN
Han and Nhan Phan fled Vietnam shortly after the war ended. Nhan in 1977 and Han in 1978.
Each left for different reasons. Han’s family lost everything while Nhan’s father had supported the fallen regime.
They both fled on fishing boats to Malaysia before they were admitted into Australia. They talk a lot about balancing many jobs and study, and then raising a family and still needing many jobs.
“Overall, I actually think the coronavirus has been good for us. There was a lot of fear in the beginning but the overall result [is] positive. The kids started working from home and I see my mum a lot more. [It] forced us to build stronger relationships, we only take them for granted before.
“When we look back at all we have faced – leaving Vietnam, through refugee camp, coming to Australia – this COVID-19 seems so small,” Nahn says.
Han feels the same but also worries about their health now. “I am no longer 20-years-old young man! If I am worried about anything, it is that I am getting old. Need to watch what I eat.”
“You have cholesterol!” Nhan interjects. She worries about her daughters; often nagging and always caring. “We can’t live like our children.”
“We had to be resilient back then,” she adds. “When we talk to younger people, we hear about so many more mental health problems, about talking to a counsellor. This virus has brought that up. For our generation they would think you are weak or crazy. After all we went through, I think live has prepared us well to face this issue.”
— Bertin Huynh @bertinhuynh