My mom was born Nga Cao in Saigon, Vietnam. She is the third girl among four brothers and three sisters. She was adopted by her aunt and uncle, Qui Cao and Dr. Ha Ta Ngoc, who were unable to have children. She would be raised by them alongside their first adopted daughter, Phung. Mom spent much of her childhood in Bạc Liêu, while also studying in Đà Lạt and in Saigon. Although she was adopted, she still saw her biological parents and siblings often.
They lived a privileged life in Vietnam. Having a father as a doctor does that for your family. Especially one who studied for nearly a decade in Paris, France. Her early life was filled with family vacations, French Catholic Boarding School (she did not enjoy those nuns), and getting into teenage trouble with her siblings.
Since she lived in the city, the war was something faraway and removed to her. She only begun to see the effects of the war when soldiers returned to the city, injured and worn, or when family members would leave to serve in the military. This removed existence created a shrouded sense of safety that didn’t last forever. It was inevitable.
By the spring of 1975, panic grew quickly as the North Vietnamese troops advanced towards the south. It felt like more and more people, displaced by the war, were coming to the city. With their arrival, whispers filled with fear began to spread. That sense of safety around the city faded quickly.
Filled with uncertainty, some of my aunts, uncles and cousins had begun to leave by boat. Due to my grandfather’s age, and the chaos around them the day Saigon fell, my mom and her immediate family were unable to escape and had to face the aftermath of their government’s fall.
This was not how life was supposed to be. Everything had changed. Nothing was promised.
When her father was released from the camps in early 1979, she hoped that the whole family would be able to escape together. But her father was in poor health, making it impossible for him and my grandmother to leave, so the family faced a difficult decision. My grandparents urged them to go–to have a better life away from what was once considered home.
Posing as ethnic Chinese, also called nguoi hoa, my mom, her first husband, my aunt, Phung, Phung’s first husband and my two cousins escaped. At the time, the new government was making deals with nguoi hoa to allow people to leave the country if they paid a large sum of money. Once my family paid, things happened very quickly.
My mom didn’t even have the chance to properly say goodbye to her father. In their rush to prepare, the moment evaded them. No heart to heart. No final words of advice. No hug that felt like an eternity.
Just a simple good bye. It was the last time she saw him—a few years later he passed away while she was in the U.S.
Her mother accompanied them to the dock and saw them off. With only a few steps away from her escape, my mom wasn’t able to hold it in anymore and she cried in my grandmother’s arms before boarding the boat.
That was only the beginning. It wasn’t an easy journey.
“I knew I wouldn’t eat for a week and just have a little bit of water to drink,” Mom recounted. “It’s easier when you’re younger. If I had to do it now, I wouldn’t.” The group had no destination, just a hope that they would make it to a country that would take them in. There was no alternative.
When they reached Singapore four days later, they weren’t permitted to land. The Coast Guard provided them with a few supplies and then the group had to head into the unknown once again.
Two days later, they reached an island in Indonesia, where they were allowed to stay overnight, but were told to leave in the morning. It was a prospect no one wanted to face: pirates, darkness, and death lived out at sea. They knew they had to do something to stay.
That night, under the veil of darkness, they set fire to their own boat.
With no way to leave, they were allowed to set up a refugee camp—one of the first in the area. The U.S. government was quickly contacted, beginning the process of interviews and securing sponsorships from families in the U.S. to enable migration to America.
My mom was fortunate to have reached the U.S. six months after setting up that refugee camp (almost unheard of). Her sister, Oanh, who had reached the U.S. years earlier, sponsored my mom to come to California. My aunt, Phung, and her immediate family were sponsored to Chicago, Illinois. The two sisters had known from the beginning that they would be separated in the U.S.
In October 1979, my mom flew into LAX, where she was reunited with her family and settled into their home in Long Beach. They welcomed her with the best American meal they could think of: pizza and Pioneer fried chicken. Among her sisters, brothers and biological parents, she had found a new home after a long journey. Two weeks later, she was able to secure a job through a family friend and began her new life in the U.S. (she had a tendency to get things done quickly, apparently).
As the years went on, she became a U.S. citizen, gave birth to my brother, David, ended her first marriage, married my father, had me and was reunited with her adoptive mother, Qui, who years later was able to immigrate to California.
She dedicated herself to raising a family and making sure her two sons earned a college education and lived a better life than she had.
It wasn’t easy adjusting to her new life. Learning English, getting used to the culture, and trying to navigate how the United States worked.
“There can be a misunderstanding about refugees,” she went on to explain. “We came here as refugees—not immigrants. We didn’t plan for any of it. We had to try to adopt a new country.”
It may have never been in her plans to end up in the United States. Who knows what she could have been if the Southern Vietnamese government hadn’t fallen?
She muses that maybe she would have been a writer (she did win a writing competition in the newspaper as a girl). One thing is for sure, she found resilience in the chaos that impacted her life.