The thought of growing up on an island surrounded by turquoise waters, sandy white beaches and tropical vegetation sounds like paradise and makes it hard to imagine anyone would want to leave such a place. But LONG HAI NGUYEN talks about the prospect of freedom and opportunities in the land of Australia that inspired him to leave his life and family in the tropics behind.
A few years ago I travelled with my dad to Viet Nam and found out that he grew up on the small island of Cu Tron, which is one of 21 islands that make up the Nam Du archipelago, a relatively unknown set of islands that cover 40 square kilometres in the Gulf of Thailand. These Vietnamese islands are main tourist destinations, which begs the question—why did he ever leave in the first place? My dad finds it hard to articulate and express himself clearly in English, but in my curiosity to find out his reasons for leaving his island home, I ask him to tell me his story to the best of his ability. He recalls the tranquillity and beauty of growing up amongst a small population of inhabitants who lived simple lives, relying on the plentiful marine life and tropical vegetation around them. As the oldest of 11 children who were all born and bred on the island, dad had plenty of responsibility to be the ‘provider’ for the family.
When I ask him what one of his earliest memories is, he doesn’t single out any particular time, he simply says, “I always looked after the family. I had very hard times, I couldn’t go anywhere”. Each morning my grandpa would decide on what dish they would have for dinner and then my dad would set out to catch the family meal. He spent his days fishing, swimming around the island for sea snails, making coconut milk and coconut oil and getting wood from the mountains that they used for cooking. With fishing rods he made out of bamboo, he would sit out at the rocks where the turquoise waters were teeming with fish and says “You could see all the fish, thousands of them”. Dad becomes quite animated when he talks about some fish that were “So evil, they beat other fish. They hid underneath the rock and came out, so the other fish would have to come out. I knew that fish well”.
Western influences were slowly becoming more obvious, such as the fashion of high-waisted denim, circa 1975.
Not only did they have an abundant supply of seafood, but there were plenty of coconut trees, mango trees, jackfruit trees and an array of vegetables that were grown in their garden. “We grew everything ourselves. On the island, they didn’t sell beef or meat the same as here”. “We didn’t have refrigerators so everything we had was fresh”. He tells me about the system used to purchase and trade meat. A couple of days prior to whenever someone was going to slaughter their livestock, they would go around with a notebook to neighbouring villagers and ask which part they would like to have, such as the head, leg, or rump and prices increased according to the cut of the meat. Whenever the animal was to be slaughtered, those who had put down a preference in the notebook would be rounded up so the animal could be killed in front of them, to ensure absolute freshness was guaranteed.
“I’ve learnt a lot of things here about culture, law. I’m never against any law from Australia. I love Australia. I want to live here. I listen and learn more everyday”.
His stories of island life sound so idyllic, so I ask him why he decided to leave. He describes what Viet Nam was like during this time. It was 1975. Viet Nam was experiencing the aftermath of war and although it was officially declared over, dad was scarred by the upheaval around him. While there are countless of horrific war stories from this era, dad and his family were fortunate enough to avoid the cruelty that others endured during these years, due largely to the fact that they were living in relative isolation. Having said that, dad’s mind was not immune to the things he was beginning to learn that were being filtered down to the island. Dad learnt concepts such as “Communism, North and South, nation, freedom”. “When the Americans came and fought, I learnt it’s so evil and I cannot sit here and die”. Dad envisioned a future in which he would have the opportunity to live in freedom, something he didn’t believe would be possible back home. He and his brothers started to make plans to leave Cu Tron, despite the protests of their parents. “I thought, one day, we have to go and I want to bring everyone in the family”. While some of dad’s aunties, uncles and cousins had made their way to the US, dad and his brothers had heard about Australia, and had the impression it was a good place to live. He didn’t know a great deal about this foreign country and didn’t know if he would even make it there, but he believed that it would offer more opportunities and freedom and simply said, “We have to go to Australia”. When dad announced that he and two of his brothers were leaving and also wanted to bring one of my aunties, grandpa said no. Defiantly, dad and my uncles Phong and Chil made their way to Thailand via boat, where they awaited approval to go to Australia. When I asked dad how he felt about escaping from Viet Nam, he says, “I felt very unhappy about leaving my family behind, but what could I do? I had to leave. I had to come here”.
While my dad and uncle Chil spent 18 months in Thailand, my ever-savvy uncle Phong somehow managed to secure a place on one of the very first boats of Vietnamese migrants to make its way to Australia, but that’s another story altogether. For a year and a half, dad was repeatedly told by officials that he wouldn\’t be granted permission to come to Australia, but was also not allowed to go back to Viet Nam. During this tumultuous stay in Thailand they were robbed and had all personal belongings taken from them, but dad\’s just grateful that they weren’t killed. Dad and my uncle Chil occupied their days with what they knew best—fishing, swimming and being resourceful so that could make a little money to get by. They made some money by selling things they collected, such as engines, copper and other bits of machinery and were also fortunate to have family in US who occasionally sent them small amounts of money. The uncertainty of his future caused dad a lot of worry and heartache, until he received word from my uncle Phong that he and my uncle Chil were being sponsored to come to Australia for one month. My uncle Phong had made his way from Darwin to Sydney and sought refuge with my aunty Jo (who would later be the point of contact between my mum and dad) and she had offered to sponsor my dad and uncle to Australia. My dad made his way to Australia via the comfort of a plane, unlike my uncle Phong’s boat trip, which was undeniably fraught with danger. He arrived in Sydney where he was granted permission to stay for on month and needless to say, he didn’t return to his home country. Dad now lives in St.Albans, with his panel beating business in Sunshine, which are both located in the western suburbs of Melbourne. These suburbs are made up of a myriad of ethnicities that make up the vibrant and multicultural settings in these areas. He still works 7 days a week, which is a testament to his deep-rooted work ethic and he continues to send money back home to Viet Nam to support the family he left behind. It’s hard to imagine that dad once grew up on an island where life was seemingly so much simpler and when I ask him if he regrets coming to Australia at all, he firmly states “Not at all. I love Australia”.
“I’ve learnt a lot of things here about culture, law. I’m never against any law from Australia. I love Australia. I want to live here. I listen and learn more everyday”. He is genuinely proud to be an Australian citizen and says, “I’m not pure Australian, but I’m Australian now”. Nowadays, all but one but of dad’s brothers reside on the mainland, although still in relative remoteness in the tropics along the Mekong. They moved years ago when my grandparents were getting old and wanted to live a more comfortable life, with a proper house and where they could have access to medical treatment in their later years. Dad says, “They lived there too long”, and through his story I have a better understanding that even paradise can get old after awhile. I ask about my uncle who still lives a modest life as a fisherman on a very small island close to Cu Tron. He visits the mainland sometimes, such as when my grandparents are sick or for special occasions. I met him during my time in Viet Nam and he was noticeably a lot darker than the rest of the family, which reflects a life out at sea and constantly working under the sun. Everyone jokes about his skin colour, as darker skin is not preferable in most Asian cultures, because it represents the working class. But my uncle is unperturbed by their harmless jokes and continues to live out on the island with his small family, despite the fact that everyone else thinks it’s odd that he still lives in the “old ways”, as my dad says. Dad hopes that one day he will have enough money that his brother doesn’t have to live on the island anymore. “It’s a hard life. Sometimes, it’s a little bit dangerous.” Who knows, one day he might also find himself leaving his piece of paradise behind but I hope that somehow our family can retain its roots out on the islands, from whence we came.