This year, Khoan Tran, who works in Danbury and lives in Newtown, will mark the 32nd anniversary of a harrowing eight-month escape from Vietnam to the United States.
At the heart of it is a bike trek, although it is unlike any that even the most avid of cyclists in this region has taken. Seeking to find a better life in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, Tran is only 19-years-old when he sets upon his journey across hundreds of miles through the jungles of Vietnam and Cambodia, during the day and at night, through two dangerous border crossings and with guides ready to give him up at every point.
The journey in 1980 starts at a bus depot where his worried father hugs him, tells to take care of himself and with tears of concerns in his eyes, hands Tran a packet of cigarettes. It is a rare allowance from his father – the symbol of a final guilty pleasure to be enjoyed in anticipation of a death-defying trek. The route is full of dangers, including near the end, with freedom only yards away, Tran must fight off a stranger looking to abduct him by scurrying through an opening at the bottom of a fence.
The account ends with a taste of freedom – literally – as Tran enjoys a meal that many Vietnamese, still to this day, closely associate with the United States.
"I arrived in Long Island, New York on December 29, 1980, and was reunited with my eldest brother," Tran writes. "I clearly remember knowing that I had made it to my final destination when I took my first bite from a McDonald's hamburger."
Tran who works at Cartus Corp. in Danbury has had the story of his escape – which he penned 29 years ago as part of his English 101 class at Stony Brook University in Long Island – published on CNN's iReport website and four years ago, the News-Times also published an article about him. He has lived in Newtown for 17 years with his wife, Uyen, son, Justin, and daughter, Cassidy.
Sometimes, it's a reporter's job to tell people's stories. Other times, it's best that the person tells it in his own way. Below, and attached as a .pdf file, is Tran's story in his own words.
My Escape From Vietnam
By Khoan Tran
I survived for three weeks traveling across 400 miles and faced many hardships and obstacles. I am thankful everyday for everyone who risked their lives to let us have a taste of this freedom that can be only found in America.
One of the most difficult and most frightening experiences of my life was my adventure through the forests of Cambodia escaping from Vietnam. It was the most exciting and showed me the meaning of the struggle for freedom. For freedom many Vietnamese people died in the oceans and forests, or were raped and killed by people who were similar to them. I survived and had a meaningful and unforgettable experience to find freedom. The memory is still very vivid.
Life after the Collapse of South Vietnam
When the Second Republic of South Vietnam collapsed on April 30, 1975, almost all officers who served in the South Army Forces’ resistance to the North Communist regime and anyone who collaborated with the South Vietnam government were put in re-education camps for years. Then the Vietnam Communist government used force to kick all former officers' families who lived in the cities out of their homes.
A lot of people including my family were also expelled from the cities and kept in the new economic zones so that the Communists could extort money. They confiscated properties such as houses, factories, stores, cars, and jewelry from people. Everything changed; life became miserable, and we had no religion and no freedom.
My family and I also wanted to escape immediately but because of my circumstances, I had to wait five years for opportunities to escape. In 1975, I was 14 year old and living with my family of 12 people; I had 5 sisters and 4 brothers. My father was a wealthy businessman in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, so we were upper class. Because of this, my father was deprived of all his wealth by the Vietnamese Communist government and more brutally than this, they put him in jail, what they call a “re-education camp,” for three years.
I'll never forgot the day when ten policemen broke into our house during a birthday party for one of my sisters. They came in, handcuffed my father, then they took him out of the house and put him in the police car and drove him away. They put us together in the living room, and they stole everything in the house. They took all my father’s ten houses and everything in them.
They accused him of being part of the American CIA, collaborating with the “American Empire” and making a fortune on the exploitation of the sweat and blood of hard-laboring civilians. These charges were made up to put him in prison without a trial.
In 1978 my father was released from jail. When he realized that life under the Communist rule would be impossible, he immediately began looking for the ways get us out of the country. My eldest brother was a lieutenant in the Vietnamese army, so he had the opportunity to leave for America on an American War ship the day the South Vietnam government collapsed.
My first escape, however, was a failure. A friend of my father who had a fishing boat offered to take my family along with his family to escape by water. My father was to sup-ply gasoline, food, water, and a compass for the trip. The plan was moving forward but suddenly his friend was caught by the police when one of his fellow fishing men betrayed him. After this chance was lost, we knew it would be difficult to leave. It was too risky for the entire family to attempt to escape. If caught by the government, my whole family would be arrested and sent to concentration camps together.
My father decided that we should escape one by one at different times. I was approaching the age for registration into the army it also was very difficult for me to get higher education because my father was considered “reactionary element.” The new regime exacted its revenge by drafting into its army many children of its southern enemies. They gave them very little training and then sent them ahead of the regular soldiers to fight in Cambodia. Vietnam invaded Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge massacred many Vietnamese civilians along with Cambodians in that country in 1978. My father thought it urgent that I should leave first to escape this danger while the rest of the family would find a way out eventually when they had the opportunity and money.
My second attempt was to escape by boat. Unfortunately, when we were about to leave the port the Vietcong caught us. They put me in jail for six months. Life in jail was very horrible and disgusting. This jail was located in the rural area far away from Saigon. Prisoners were forced to perform hard labor. We had two meals a day, consisting of one dirty bowl of rice with fine gravel, and a bowl of soup made with water, salt, and some vegetables. I lost weight and got sick. Every night the Vietcong gave us lessons on their political ideology. We had to write self-criticisms every week, which were reports on our improvement and how our ideas were changing toward communism.
After I got out of jail, I attempted to escape a few more times, but it seemed that I was failing at each attempt to escape. My family was not discouraged though; my father kept searching for a way out. Finally some luck came to us! An old friend of my father knew some Cambodians who knew the way to get from Vietnam to Thailand though the country of Cambodia. These Cambodians lived in Vietnam for ten years, and they spoke Vietnamese fluently in addition to their native language. By occupation they were border traders between Thailand and Cambodia and because of this they knew how to get around within Cambodian territory and some villages of Thailand near the border.
They agreed to take me to Thailand but my father had to pay the guides one ounce of gold in advance and four ounces of gold after the guides returned to Vietnam if I arrived in Thailand safely. A guide came to my house one week before the trip and he explained to me and my neighbor Tuan, who would travel with me, everything we must know about the escape routes and what we should expect to go through. The guides also taught us a few Cambodian words and warned us not to speak our language during the trip. We were to keep quiet and follow whatever they told us to do. The only things we were allowed to take along were one set of clothes, some medicine, and some small towels. I had my bike tuned up ready for the long trip.
It was raining heavily when we started off from Saigon on April 15, 1980. We had to keep the escape plan in secret, so the only one who saw me off was my father. He biked with me to the bus station where we met Tuan and two Cambodian guides. After he bought me a bus ticket, my father gave me a last big hug and told me, “Take care your-self; we will miss you, and I don’t know when we are going to see you again. Remember to write us as soon as you get to Thailand.”
My father suddenly took out from his pocket some cigarettes and gave it to me. He said, “Have some cigarettes, and enjoy it during the trip to Tay Ninh.” I was quite shocked, my father was very strict with us about smoking cigarettes. I never smoked in front of him and I did not think he knew I smoked. He looked very sad and worried. I saw tears in his eyes.
Crossing into Cambodia
The guides, Tuan, and I put our bikes on top of the bus and traveled to the province of Tay Ninh, which is about 60 miles Northwest of Saigon near the border of Cambodia. We arrived there at dusk. It was very dark but we biked from the bus station to one of the guide’s relative’s house to have a break there. We had to wait for the right time to cross the border.
After several hours, we got ready to begin our journey. We had to cross the border at night using trails which the guides knew very well in order to hide from Vietnamese army officers guarding the border. It was a very cold and rainy night and it was totally dark. I could not see far; the only thing that we could see was the flickering light from the flash light that one of the guides held.
When we got to a trail by the Cambodian border, the guides told Tuan and me to hide in the bushes, while they biked around to observe the area. They needed to figure out the right time to cross the border. We hid in the bush for couple of hours anxiously waiting for them; we were nervous, cold, and starving. Our bodies were shivering and we hoped the guides would come back soon. They finally showed up and told us that it was the right time to cross.
They told us to ride very fast in order to cross the border as quickly as possible to avoid getting caught by soldiers. They had crossed the borders many times in the past so it was normal for them, but it was new and very difficult for us. We were extremely exhausted because of the cold of the jungle night and the rough trail. We tried to ride as fast as we could to keep up with the guides or else we would be lost in the dark night of the forest.
It took us a whole night to cross the border but at dawn we came to the first province of Cambodia called Kong Pong Cham. I begged the guides to get us something to eat. We were very tired, hungry, and thirsty. They agreed to stop at a little market place for us to rest. They ordered some Cambodian food for us to eat, and water to drink. I was so thirsty that I drank almost a gallon of water. After a one-hour rest, the guides took us to a friend’s house. At this house we met another Vietnamese man who also paid the guides to take him to Thailand. His name was Ysa and he was born in Vietnam of the Champa people, a minority mountaineer group. He spoke Vietnamese and Cambodian fluently.
Secret Words in a Letter
The guides asked us to wear Cambodian clothes and helped us put turbans around our heads to look similar to the Cambodian villagers. The guide leader forced us to write to our family saying that we are arrived in Thailand safely. He explained that the reason we had to write the letter in advance was because when we get to Thailand there would be no time to write, and they would be in jail if the Vietnamese soldiers caught them with our letters. He also told us that the letters would get lost easily if he carried them with him on the trip back to Vietnam.
My father already prepared for this situation and told me that if the guides forced me to write a letter, I should go ahead write the letter home. However, I was not to use secret words which only my family and I would know. If they return a letter that does not have the secret words, my father would not pay the guides the rest of the money. He would know that I did not get to Thailand safely. They left our letters at this house to pick up on their return trip.
Now we knew in our heart that these guides were not honest people but were untrustworthy and dangerous. But we did not have any other choice, since we were now in Cambodia and we did not know how to get back to Vietnam. We had only one choice—continue the trip.
We continued our trip next morning. The guides told us that we still have about 300 miles to go. At this province more of their friends joined our group. They were all border traders so they always go together as a group to protect themselves. We rode for couple of hours under the hot sun; it was about 100ºF and it turned out to be my unlucky day.
We were riding down hill when my bike suddenly hit a rock and got a flat tire. I fell down and got scratches and bruises. The front wheel of my bike was bent badly and needed to be fixed. We were in the forest with not even a single house around. The leader of the guides was very upset about my bike. He threatened to send me back to Vietnam. Other guides refused to help me bring my bike to a repair shop at the closest village which turned out to be about 10 miles away.
Ysa was my hero and my savior. He volunteered to help take my bike to the repair shop. He begged the guide’s leader not send me back to Vietnam and asked him to send one guide to lead us to the village to get my bike fixed. He finally agreed after Ysa gave him some of his money and I wrote another letter to my father asking that he pay him extra money to repair the bike. I got on Ysa’s bike and carried him while he held my broken bike. We followed the guide to the repair shop.
We took turns carrying my broken bike under the extreme heat. We were very tired and sweaty. Our bodies needed water and my throat was so dry it hurt. There was no way of finding water in the jungle since it was dry season. I began to see spots before my eyes and felt faint. I started to doubt that I could make it. We went over many hills full of rocks while I carried Ysa. Finally, we got to the village; while we waited for my bike to be fixed, we drank gallons of water. Ysa was my savior so I owe him. He had a big heart; he was willing to help me in this dangerous situation. Even today, I wonder what would have happened to me if Ysa did not take a chance and help me.
We continued on with our journey the next morning after spending a night sleeping on the market’s food tables with no blankets. We rode all day to get to the next province call Kong Pong Thom. We saw so many Vietnamese soldiers on the streets of this province so the guides told us to ride in the middle of their group to avoid getting caught. At small street vendors, they ordered food for us to eat. However, the guides warned us that not to say anything when civilian Cambodians tried to talk to us. They told us to just pretend we were deaf.
The next day, the guides negotiated a ride to the next province with a truck driver. This truck had a closed trunk full of rice bags. The driver agreed to drive us to next province but told us that we had to stay inside on top of the rice bags with our bikes. The inside of the truck was dark with just a little window, so there was not much air.
The road we were traveling was full of deep holes and I felt so sick that I threw up several times. From time to time the truck had to stop at the check points which were controlled by Vietnamese soldiers who opened the trunk to check for hidden weapons or escaping Vietnamese people.
Ysa, Tuan, and I were surrounded by the guides who bribed those soldiers with several packs of cigarettes and money to keep us from getting into trouble. After 70 miles the truck driver dropped us off and we continued by bike west to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.
On the way there we passed the huge rice fields where the guides showed us where the Pol Pot regime killed and buried many Cambodian people. I was terrified to see skulls in the rice fields. We had to walk up to our thighs in water through these rice fields. One of my sandals broke so I continued barefoot. My feet were bleeding from tripping over roots. As we walked I wondered why Pol Pot was so brutal that he had millions of his own innocent people killed.
At the Capital the guides took us to a relative’s house to rest. I had a chance to take a shower for the first time in almost two weeks. We left Phnom Penh the next day with only six guides since the rest of the guides went on to do their own business in the capital of Cambodia. We continued to ride for several more days and went through several more villages. We got another ride on a truck for 50 more miles.
After three weeks, we finally got to the Battambang province, which is close to the border of Thailand, and we spent a night there. We were only 15 miles from the border of Thailand so the guides prepared us for what was going to happen when we crossed the border.
They promised that if we got caught by the Vietnamese soldiers patrolling the Cambodia-Thailand border, they could get us out. Because we did not trust them at all, we prayed and hoped that we would not get caught. We arrived at the small village named Soisiphon near the border at dusk. The leader asked us to write another letter home to say that we got to Thailand safely while we stayed at another house that night. I wrote my father a letter but did not use the secret words.
May 6, 1980 was the big day since it was the day we would cross the border to freedom! Between the borders the Vietnamese communists built many gates so they could watch the border traders who passed through. They allowed Cambodian civilians to cross the border to trade with Thai civilians. To catch escaping Vietnamese, the Vietnamese and Cambodian soldiers randomly asked people where they were going as they crossed the border.
When we got to the gates three guides crossed though the gate first and the soldiers did not ask any questions. Tuan was the next one to cross the gate when suddenly a Vietnamese soldier stopped him and spoke to him. Tuan did not understand the question so he answered the soldier with broken Cambodian words. Immediately the soldier recognized Tuan’s Vietnamese accent. He yelled at him in Vietnamese, “Come here boy, try to escape huh?” He took Tuan to custody.
I was next. My heart was beating so hard and my legs started shaking, but it was too late to turn around to go back to Cambodia. I had no choice but to cross this gate. I took a deep breath and walked with my bike forward toward the gate. One Vietnamese soldier stared hard at me but no one asked me anything. Each second took way too long as I walked through the gate. Once through the gate I felt so relieved that they did not realize that I was Vietnamese. Ysa crossed last; he spoke Cambodian fluently so he had no problems when they stopped him at the gate. He answered the soldiers’ questions without any problems.
We were very worried for Tuan and wondered what would happen to him now. He nearly finished the hardest trip of his life only to be caught at this border. Even though they had promised help, the guides told us that they could not do anything to get Tuan released. They told us that they would find a way to rescue him later. They forced us to continue on without him. Although Ysa and I were very upset and urged to them to work harder to get Tuan out, the guide’s leader threatened to leave us at the gate too if we did not continue on.
After the gate we entered an area called “no-mans land” which is about three miles between the Thailand-Cambodia borders. This “no-mans land” was where the guerrilla military base camps for the Pol Pot, Para, and Thailand guerillas were. It was a very dangerous war zone and as we continued we heard a lot of gun shots very near to us. The guides told us that there was fighting between Pol Pot guerrillas and the Cambodian government and that this was backed by Vietnamese Communist regime.
After five hours of riding we finally got to the first Thailand village where the international Red Cross was located. The guides did not want go with us to the Red Cross for some reason, so they pointed far ahead of us where the flag of the Red Cross flapped in the wind.
Red Cross Station
Ysa and I gave the guides our bikes and thanked them for leading us here. Now I wrote my father another letter saying that I’m safe and could finally write my secret words. I was so happy that and I cannot describe my feelings at that time. It felt like a re-survival after many long, horrible, and scary nightmares. Ysa and I walked to Red Cross office with bare swollen feet and told them, “We are Vietnamese. We would like to take refuge at the Red Cross.”
I had nothing left except my dirty worn clothes which I had been wearing the entire trip. The people at International Red Cross welcomed us to the world of freedom. Before we went in the Red Cross station, we stopped by a little house at a market nearby. The lady in the house warned us that the people at the Red Cross check everything in your body to look for money or valuable things. We listened to her, and I gave her a little gold of mine which I hid it inside the sandal. When I came back to ask for my gold back after I checked in from Red Cross, someone in that house said that the lady had gone back to Cambodia.
I was very disappointed and I slowly walked back to the Red Cross station about 5000 feet away. Suddenly, a stranger grabbed my wrist from behind, and I he asked me some questions in Cambodian which I did not understand. I pointed to the Red Cross sign indicating that I came from there. He knew I was Vietnamese, so he held my right wrist and starting dragging me back to the Cambodia jungle.
I was terrified that even after I checked in at Red Cross station and thought I was safe, I was not out danger yet; this was a life or death situation. I heard stories of how men kidnap Vietnamese people who were trying to escape through Thailand, and try to sell them to Pol Pot guerrilla or Para group for some money or rice. Those guerrillas would keep us in their Army or keep us enslaved forever. I had to think quickly about how to fight with this guy. There were so many people walking in the market at that time. One lady was walking toward us. I moved myself to the left a little bit so the lady would walk between us. The man had no choice but to let go of my wrist so the lady could pass.
At that moment I turned around and pushed him down with his bike. Then I jumped up and knocked my sandals off my feet, turned around, and ran toward the Red Cross station. The man got up and on his bike and chased after me. I ran as fast as I could on my swollen bare feet on the very hot 100ºF dirt road. He yelled in Cambodia for help in catching me, saying that I robbed him so people would catch me. He and several people were chasing after me. I almost got to the Red Cross entrance when they grabbed my shirt.
The Red Cross guards did not know what was going on, so they pointed their guns up to the sky and shot some rounds forcing me to stop. I saw my group was sitting together behind the military fence and they called me to get in quickly. I saw a dog-size hole at the fence, so I dived in that hole to get inside the Red Cross center. Several people who checked in the Red Cross at the same time spoke Cambodian and told the Red Cross guard that I already checked in earlier and not to listen to the strange Cambodian guy who was trying to take me back. I could barely walk on my burning feet. It took almost a week for my feet to heal. I learned a big life lesson from this incident.
The Red Cross drove us to NW9 after one day there. NW9 is a refugee camp near the border of Cambodia also run by the International Red Cross. My adventure was over. I finally reached my goal and found freedom. As soon as I got to the refugee camp I sent two letters: one to my family and the other to my eldest brother in Long Island, New York. I let them know that I made it to Thailand safely and told my brother that I could not wait to reunite with him. I stayed in NW9 refugee camp for 8 months, and one month at Phanat Nikhom refugee camp in Chonburi, Thailand waiting for my brother’s sponsor papers to be completed.
I’m glad I survived and made it to this free country, and I am thankful everyday for everyone who risked their lives to let us have a taste of this freedom that can be only found in America. I am thankful to the American government, churches, and many charity organizations that helped us adjust at the beginning of our new life in America. I also am very thankful to my parents whose sacrifices gave me the chance to come to America. Their irrepressible spirit and character are enduring inspirations and gave me the strength to face my darkest hour.
I arrived in Long Island, New York, on December 29, 1980, and was reunited with my eldest brother. I clearly remember knowing that I had made it to my final destination when I took my first bite from a McDonald’s hamburger. My family and I are naturalized citizens, and our family was reunited in Long Island in 1984, 1985 when the Vietnamese government finally granted the rest of my family’s visas to immigrate to America. I have been working for Cartus Corporation in Danbury Connecticut for almost 17 years doing computer support, and live in Connecticut with my wife Uyen and my two kids Justin & Cassidy. I have 43 members of my family living in the United States and it still continues to grow. Most of my brothers and sisters live in Long Island, NY and the rest are in different parts of the country.
After Tuan got caught at the Thailand border, the Vietcong sent him back to Vietnam. He stayed in prison for one year but once he got out of prison, he made a final attempt to escape and he made it to Thailand. He now lives in Westminster, California.
Ysa now lives in Virginia. He earned his B.S degree in electrical engineering and is working for the Navy in Maryland.