THE BLOG

I Went To A Vietnamese Refugee Camp In Indonesia To Learn About My People

How did that delicious bowl of pho migrate across an ocean and land on your table? How did the Vietnamese get to America?

After the Fall of Saigon in 1975, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people fled their country on boats of all sizes. This first wave of immigrants to arrive in America by boat started the kinds of Vietnamese neighborhoods that I would eventually grow up in. Other refugees, like my family, didn't come to America by boat. At least not right away.

Those who didn't have access to larger boats, and those who were not part of military evacuation, had to travel on the small fishing boats available to them. Many didn't escape and many perished at sea. The desire to escape the war torn country was so intense that even these small boats were loaded with up to a hundred people. This obviously didn't make for safe methods of transportation, though it did make easy targets for pirates at sea.

Most of the fishing boats travelled only as far as their little engines could take them. After that it was left to the currents and the winds to carry them onward. In an effort to aid the Boat People, the UN founded a handful refugee camps for the fortunate ones who managed to survive the journey. Some wound up in camps in the Philippines, some in Malaysia, and others, like me, in Galang, Indonesia. After years of harsh living conditions, the U.S. eventually eased restrictions on the entry of Vietnamese refugees, allowing them to arrive safely by plane and (bigger) boats from camps like these.

I decided to travel back to Galang to learn more about my roots and my ancestor's history.

There never have been direct flights to Galang. The easiest way to get there is to fly into Singapore, take a short ferry ride over to Batam, and rent a car and driver to go to Galang.

I was a bit disillusioned when I arrived at my hotel in Batam and learned that the staff weren't even aware of the old Vietnamese refugee camps that were only 25 miles Southeast. I understand that it's not a typical tourist attraction, nor something that visiting Singaporeans and Indonesians would likely visit, but it came with the realization that outside of Vietnam many people don't know about these camps.

I ventured off to the Galang camp not long after checking into the hotel. The temples still remain and the administration buildings have been turned into museums and working areas for the staff. Unfortunately, most of the barrack housing have been destroyed. The powerful history is being erased and it is difficult to get a true sense of what life was like back when it housed hundreds and thousands of Vietnamese refugees. I wanted to be able to imagine those times, but it felt as though I were being forced to put it behind me.

I wandered around the grounds for a bit, unsure of what to film for my YouTube video because there wasn't much I saw that was worth filming. I was on the side of a road looking at a monument when I waved to a motorbike passing by and said, "Xinh Chao" ("Hello" in Vietnamese). I thought I heard him respond, "Chao Anh" ("Hello, older brother"), but perhaps that's just wishful thinking.

camp

A few minutes later I met an Indonesian man who spoke Vietnamese. His name is Abu Galang (he's the man you see guiding me in the video). Abu's mother used to cook for the camp, so he grew up around Vietnamese children. Not only did he pick up the language, but also the specific verbal mannerisms. It was truly amazing to hear an Indonesian man speak better Vietnamese than I could.

Abu still works at the camps all these years later as a guard and I was fortunate to catch him on his day off. If it wasn't for him, I would have had no idea where to go. It turns out area there is so massive that a driver unfamiliar with it would have limited knowledge on where the monuments or sites were located. Abu showed me just how much there was still experience in Galang. Meeting him reinstated my hopes and allowed me learn more about the camp. Here was an Indonesian man who was part of the history itself, preserving the spirit of Vietnam.

camp 3

As a history major in university, I know to appreciate remnants of the past. As a Vietnamese American I know to appreciate how my ancestors, the pioneering individuals who shaped the Vietnamese identity abroad, lived and endured. Visiting the camp and touring around with Abu allowed me to capture and grasp the beautiful and haunting imagery of a grievous era, without which us Vietnamese Americans would not exist.

The sacrifices and hardships of this time should never be forgotten, and to really know the identity of Vietnamese people abroad, is to visit these camps.

Thank you to all of the individuals and the first generation of Vietnamese immigrants who weathered hardships at sea, on land, and in their new host countries. Thank you to those who made it possible for my friends and I to live freely today.

In my ongoing journey to see more Vietnamese refugee camps, I hope to visit Bi Dong in Malaysia soon.