“The engine ran for one day, and it broke down. We tried to fix it, but it was helpless. After that, we just let the boat drifted to wherever it wanted to. We floated out at sea for 26 days without any food or water. A lot of people died of starvation during those 26 days. I lost my dad, three sisters, and my brother—their bodies tossed overboard into the ocean.”—Huy Tran
Skip the B.S.
By Dr. Skip Eisiminger
CLEMSON South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—1 December 2021—For over 40 years as a writing teacher, I made keeping a free-write journal mandatory. I told my students at all levels that my main concern was for their journal writing to be unconstrained by any fear of my red pen. Unlike other work they did for me, the journal was not graded on correctness, only development; specifically, a half-page, college-ruled, single-spaced entry per class day. To this end, I gave them about five minutes at the beginning of each class to start, continue, or conclude an entry, but hoped they would be hooked by this endeavor, I winked and told them they were free to make entries of any length at any time they wished.
After laying down these and other ground rules in the summer of 1991 for an English 101 class, Mr. Huy Tran shyly approached me after the first class and asked if he could tell a longer, continuous tale in his journal. “Certainly,” I said, with no idea what he was planning. The few who’d taken this approach before him had usually toyed with some rock lyrics or a sci-fi saga, but Tran’s story was exceptional, and here it is in its raw entirety.
My US history teacher [in high school] have often told me that I have a very interesting background and urges me to write about it. Well, I never have gotten around to do it. Something just get in the way at the moment that I have gathered enough energy and enthusiasm to begin to write. Finally I hope that this journal will offer me a chance to tell my story.
The year was 1980, and the place was Saigon, Vietnam. There was a family that lived in Saigon, near the airport of Tân Sơn Nhất.
We lived in a fairly large house. There is something like a front porch as you walk up the steps to enter the house. This is where my mom sells food and among other things. There is a gigantic steel, sliding door to keep buglars out. When used, it makes the house looks like a prison. There is another set of doors that separate the “porch” from the main house.
Before the fall of Saigon, my mom has a restaurant that sells nothing but noodle soups. Now she sells desserts in the front porch for on-going passengers. I’m not really sure what my dad do now, but before the war, he works at the Tân Sơn Nhất airport as a translatter, for he is able to speak English as well as Vietnamese. I can remember he sometime get out the old radio and listens to American music, which of course was illegal.
I was a really bad child. I have this habbit of never staying in one place for more than three months, for I would get tire of it. Therefore I would stay at home for the winter, at my grandparents on my mother’s side during the summer, at my other grandparents durig the spring, and usually back home durg the fall. I like my grandparents on my fathers side most. They always treat me like a king there. Every time I come, they would treat me with something very special, like fry eggs.
I finished the third grade in Viet Nam. In 81, my parents decided to leave the country, seeing there wasn’t much left to cling to. My dad could have left in 75 with his American Friends, but he had to come back for us, and time just ran out for us. My mom and dad handled all the processes and steps, like contacting a boat to take us and gathering enough people to have enough money to leave the country.
It was about one in the morning when we started on our journey. My dad decided to split our family into two groups, so that we would not attract much attention. My dad took me and my little brother; he was only one year old. My mom took my older sister, and my two younger sisters. We, my dad, my brother, and I, had to get out to the boat first to make sure everything was all right. We left a day before my mom did. It took us all night to get to the right city, where the boat was. We spent the next day looking for the boat and finally found it. That night we had to sleep out in the street waiting for my mom and the people. We didn’t get much rest because the cops continuously went around the streets and arresting everything who didn’t have any papers.
[Mid-term: “Fascinating story, Tran; keep it up.” SE]
It was about one or two in the morning when my mom met us at the harbor. There was a little canoe waiting for us there. It took about four or five people one at a time out in the bay where a bigger boat was waiting. The boat was about the length of a room, about 24 feet or so. It had a small engine and a single sail. It contained two decks; the lower deck is the engine compartment.
Everybody was to hide in the lower deck, and in the upper deck, sugar canes were laid to cover up. The boat started to leave the harbor, but it was stopped by two VCs (Viet Cong-communists). We heard their walked above us, kicking some of the sugar canes about. Everybody was so tense. Miracously, all of the babies kept quiet too. After several minutes, they let us go.
As soon as we got out to sea, we were hit hard by a storm. Because we had so many people in the little boat, about 100  people, the boat was about to sink into the ocean. We decided that since it would take us about two or three days to reach a port, we can afford to throw all the food away in order to keep the boat from sinking, and that was just what we did. We went for a little while, about 30 minutes, when all of a sudden, the verocious wind knocked down our little sail; therefore, we have to rely on our engine.
The engine ran for one day, and it broke down. We tried to fix it, but it was helpless. After that, we just let the boat drifted to wherever it wanted to. We floated out at sea for 26 days without any food or water. A lot of people died of starvation during those 26 days. I lost my dad, three sisters and my brother—their bodies tossed overboard into the ocean. [Seven in the Huy family began this journey; five perished.]
There were still half of us alive, when we encountered a German Ship heading for Hong Kong. Thank goodness It stopped and offered help. From our appearance, they have figured that we must be starving, so they got next to our boat and lowered down some food and drink for us. Everybody jumped all over the place trying to get the food. After several minutes, because of the mass confusion the boat tip over. Many people were trapped on the inside of the boat. [Forty-five more died.]
My mom was able to hang on to the tip of the boat, and I wasn’t trapped by anything. There was a boy who was trapped by some large piece of wood pressing his body against the boat. I tried to help him, but I couldn’t pull him free. I had to go up to get more air, and I just left him down there to die; I felt so helpless. At that time I didn’t know how to swim, but I was able to grab hold of a rope that was connection some of the life saver that the German ship has thrown down. I was floating for about 15 or 20 minutes, then a small boat from the German ship came by and pick me up, and the other 15 survivors. [Sixteen of the original 118 survived.]
We spent four days on the German ship. Everybody slept through the first day, and on the second, they began feeding us. We couldn’t eat anything. I could remember that they tried to make us eat eggs and toast for breakfast, and sausages, and such, and we just couldn’t handle the strange taste. When we reached Hong Kong, My mom and I were separated. My mom was taken to a nearly hospital, and I was put into a camp called “Jubilee.” I was questioned by several persons at a time. I told them I was nine years old, but my mom later told me that I should have said I was younger so that I can start school in the US at a lower grade.
[“A+, Tran, you have my deepest sympathy.” SE]
After about a year, Tran’s uncle received permission to bring his two surviving relatives to Greenville, SC. Tran entered school in the fourth grade and graduated from Wade Hampton High School nine years later. He finished Clemson with a degree in biology and entered the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston a short while later. Before his freshman year was complete, however, he dropped out, and enrolled in Johnson and Wales, a culinary school in Charlotte NC where he graduated. After serving as a chef in several restaurants and saving as much money as he could, he returned to Greenville, where he and his mother opened the Mekong Restaurant in a former Arby’s on Wade Hampton Boulevard, not far from his high school. Mrs. Huy had been operating a smaller noodles-only restaurant at a downtown location ever since arriving in Greenville.
In 1991, at the end of the summer session, I was so impressed by what Tran had written, I photocopied it for my “Student Lives” file and returned the original to its author. To the best of my knowledge, I never paid another student journal that compliment. Thirty years later and eleven years after my retirement, I stumbled upon the yellowing copy in my files and began wondering if I could contact him, but the first thing I found when I Googled him was his obituary. He’d died of a heart attack a little over a year earlier at age 47, leaving his mother, his wife, and a one-year-old son. Every detail following the end of Tran’s journal has been gathered from his obituary and the notes his friends and food critics have written on-line. From these, it’s clear that he was widely loved and admired.
My wife suggested I call the restaurant and ask if I could speak with either Tran’s mother or wife, but the young woman who answered said that neither woman spoke much English. I explained what I had, and said I’d like to give a photocopy of it to the family. The woman, a Vietnamese-American waitress, said she often served as a translator for the family and volunteered to help.
We arranged a convenient time for all involved, and, one Friday afternoon, Ingrid and I drove over to Greenville with the ten-page journal. The waitress I’d spoken to seated us and went to get Mrs. Huy. My first impression of her, given the deep creases in her face and the dark circles under her eyes, was that she was still in mourning. She smiled, however, when I gave her the journal, thanked me softly in broken English, pointed to Tran’s signature at the top of the first page, tucked the journal under her arm, and returned to her kitchen: the main cook had called in sick, and there was much to do before the supper rush.
After she left, we ordered a few spring rolls and some pho soup. Given the emptiness of the restaurant at three in the afternoon, I invited the waitress to join us, and asked how Mrs. Huy was doing.
“Not well,” she said, “but as you know, she’s a survivor.”
The waitress said our meal was on the house, but we insisted on paying and left, sadder than when we arrived.
As with most of the students I taught, I saw Tran for the last time during his final exam. In his case, I’m sure, like most foreign students, when he wasn’t writing his essay, he was furiously flipping through a bilingual dictionary. After that summer session, I often used a summary of Tran’s story to illustrate what was possible in keeping a journal. I hope that by reproducing it here I’ve given it a life extension it might not otherwise have received.
I have promised the Huy family that I will not profit from its publication, and, if I do, I’ll return that money to the rightful heirs. (Surely, there’s a film or a novel here.) After typing up Tran’s words, I called the Mekong Restaurant one more time to ask Mrs. Huy if she was OK with my plans to publish the journal and my remarks in The Weekly Hubris. By way of her translator, I heard her shout from the kitchen that it would be fine.
The injustice of Tran’s untimely death—after surviving so much—is sobering, but I am pleased to think that, one day, Tran’s son will be able to read his father’s story of courage and determination.
The Italian film maker Federico Fellini said the pearl is the oyster’s autobiography, alluding to the lustrous layers covering its irritant: for me, Tran’s journal sparkles like a rough-cut, blood-red gem, and here are some of its highlights:
• the steel door used to keep “buglars” out;
• Tran’s father risking arrest listening to American music on a radio;
• the Viet Cong coast guard roughly kicking the sugar cane aside, below which cowered 118 refugees refusing to cry in the dark;
• the “verocious wind” that shredded their only sail;
• discarding hundreds of pounds of food and water in the South China Sea only to face 26 days without food or water;
• watching the stiffened bodies of his father, three sisters, and a brother being tossed overboard;
• the stark contrast of the German freighter beside the refugees’ “helpless” boat;
• the panic that caused their boat to capsize;
• the screams of 45 drowning people;
• Mrs. Huy clinging to “the tip of the boat”;
• nine-year-old Tran’s decision to leave a trapped boy to drown;
• the revulsion felt by 16 starving people when served eggs, toast, and German sausage;
• and Mrs. Huy’s academic foresight in wishing Tran had said he was younger, so that he could start school at a lower grade.
Rough-cut as the story is, it is more worthy of respect in its raw, unpolished state.
Editor’s Note: Of course, there are no images to illustrate Huy Tran’s story. That the story was written, and survived in Dr. Eisiminger’s files, is miracle enough. The story of Vietnam’s “Boat People” has been amply documented, but Huy’s version of the tragedy, written in the hard-earned prose of an immigrant snatched early from the stream of life and dropped into an alien flood, is particularly moving.
To order copies of Skip Eisiminger’s Letters to the Grandchildren (Clemson University Digital Press), click on the book cover below or contact: Center for Electronic and Digital Publishing, Strode Tower, Box 340522, Clemson SC 29634-0522. For Wordspinner: Mind-Boggling Games for Word Lovers, click on the book cover.