Since immemorial times, the image of a boat has evoked departure, separation,
and loss. It causes many of us to break into tears because it evokes a disconnection
of human bonding, no matter how temporary it was. One could not look at or think of
it without a tightening of heart. Men who were understandably mystified by and
afraid of the unknown tended to shy away from stepping on any boat. Despite forcing
us to leave behind sweet memories, comfort and safety, a boat also takes us into
the unknown, the un-chartered world. It therefore represents a connection between
the known and the unknown. Those who liked to explore the unknown enjoyed using
a boat to go here and there and to expand their horizon.
Although aware of this dichotomy, our Lac Viet forefathers still used the boat as
the symbol of their young nation which they carved on their bronze drums some
two-and-a-half millennia ago.
| They knew that although traveling or exploring
involved risks, the process was needed to further their knowledge and to search
for new lands, new resources, and new ways of life. It was an essential need for
humankind. A boat has also been used throughout history to escape harsh environment,
infertile lands or authoritarian regimes.
Leaving a known environment for an unknown world involved two processes: decision-making a
nd risk analysis. The Plymouth Pilgrims made the faithful decision to leave Europe for an
un-chartered territory across the ocean. In the process, they founded a new land they
called America. Similarly, when the South Vietnamese made the faithful decision to leave
their country following its collapse in 1975, most of them did not know where they were
heading to. They did not have any visa or work permit from any country; they neither knew
nor studied the language and customs of the world, and most of them did not even carry any
paper or documentation with them. For many, the voyage was unprecedented and full of
unknowns, yet they proceeded with it anyway. They did not have any other choice: it was
either freedom or enslavement under a communist regime. That initial and spontaneous escape
which was followed by a flood of other departures resulted in the largest sea diaspora in
the world. These modern seafarers came in waves and in all kinds of boats. They assumed
all the risks because the process of leaving the country on such a scale and on the spur
of the moment had rarely been accomplished before. They, therefore, qualified as the modern
Pilgrims of the world.
Like a newborn infant who separates from his/her mother at birth, or a teenager who leaves
home to follow his/her lover, a separation suggests moving from a dependent status to an
independent one. While some departures are accomplished on a willful basis, others are forced.
Departures, like in the Vietnamese diaspora of 1975, are not only forced on the individuals
involved, but also accepted in a willful manner: forced because under the guns of the communists,
they chose freedom over slavery, and willful because they made the choice on their own.
Many, however, could not leave the country for some reason or another. Others, despite the risks
of facing the enemy head on, opted to stay back. These were choices they had to make for themselves.
The unknown risks of escaping abroad by boat were numerous and included: encounters with local
or state police, loss of jobs and property, beating, jailing, death at sea, encounters with pirates,
rapes, murders, technical problems (engine failure, vessel breakdown, food, water, and fuel shortage,
directional loss), medical emergencies, sea storms, denial of landing, and asylum problems.
These seafarers did not know the extent of all these risks when they first decided to take off,
nor could they predict all of them with accuracy. Like the pilgrims of previous years, they were
entirely powerless during their migrations.
Besides these almost insurmountable hurdles, are the garden varieties of emotional problems,
immediate and delayed, these voyagers could also experience like feelings of fear, confusion,
guilt, nostalgia and emotional losses in the face of such a sudden and seemingly permanent
disconnection. They sensed that this would be the last time that they were able to see their
fatherland alive. They neither wanted to stay with the communists nor completely cut off their
umbilical cords. Unable to resolve this dichotomy, a few became desperate, jumped off their
vessels in front of Vung Tau and drowned themselves. They became the first victims of the
diaspora. Others sailed all the way to the island of Guam and with a delayed change of heart
decided to return to Vietnam on the Thuong Tin 1 boat.
The rest, as we know, continued their voyage to the unknown and established many new Vietnamese
"colonies" aboard, the largest one being located in the United States. The following pages
expressed the personal feelings, experiences, sorrow, and pride of a group of pilgrims who dare
to take on the seas and the unknown so that their offspring could live in freedom.
The Lac Viet Boat is the logo of our organization.
Nghia M. Vo