Dhaka, Bangladesh
Living on the Edge

Off the track

Living on the Edge

Manish Nandy

From the Tan Son Nhat airport she took a taxi and, bypassing Ho Chi Minh city, went straight to the Vung Tàu port area. The area had changed, and it took her time and much walk before she found the spot she was looking for. Yes, this was place she caught a boat in the dead of night thirty years ago. Linh was 24 then. But she had to take a decision that would have daunted someone double her age or experience. She had to decide whether to take the boat. She was Vietnamese, but of ethnic Chinese origin, a Hoa. For centuries turbulent changes in regime in China had pushed thousands of migrants in Vietnam, and in early twentieth century the exodus rose with the civil war in China. The Hoa community was diligent and enterprising, and in time prospered in trade and business. Both North and South Vietnam declared interest in integrating the community in Vietnamese society but at an onerous price: they had to adopt Vietnamese names and abandon their culture. North Vietnam’s relations with China deteriorated with the Vietnam War of 1967-68. The Hoas’ position became untenable after the reunification of Vietnam. The authorities banned private trading, closed thirty thousand businesses overnight, confiscated currencies, and forced owners to work as farmers or as soldiers. All resistance was met with violence. A mass exodus began. Now, in the summer of 1979, Linh had nothing to keep her back in Vietnam. There was no future for her or her three-year-old son except dire poverty and social ostracism. The only alternative was to flee the country illicitly, in an unsafe boat run by coyotes, and pay an extortionate price for a nightmare journey. Accidents and drownings were common; so were skirmishes and violence. Pirates robbed and raped migrants, regularly and mercilessly. And at the end waited an uncertain future: nobody knew which country would accept them, or even what shore they would be able to reach. Linh gritted her teeth and made up her mind. She took every penny she had saved and sold everything she owned except the clothes on her back or on her son. With the money she bought a few small ingots of gold, the only payment the coyotes would accept. Then she negotiated the earliest possible day of escape: the following Saturday night, when the piers were quiet and the guards often drunk.

Share |