April 30 is the Journey to Freedom Day. It’s the national day of commemoration of the exodus of Vietnamese refugees and their acceptance in Canada after the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.
This First Person article is the experience of Andrew Nguyen, a filmmaker and CBC producer whose family came to Canada from Vietnam as refugees. It was originally published in September 2021. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
I was only four years old when my family fled Saigon in 1979. I only have a few fragments of memories from our escape. But when I was in high school in the late 1990s, my mom, Tina Nguyen, told me she had kept extensive journals of the journey.
My parents, younger sister, an uncle and I escaped on the Skyluck. It was a rusty 3,500-tonne freighter with four cavernous lower decks and a top deck that looked like a cobweb of cranes and cables.
That ship carried the five of us, along with approximately 2,700 desperate Vietnamese refugees, to Hong Kong. We would eventually settle in Canada in July 1980, but the journey took 18 difficult months.
Memories can be tricky — I was on the Skyluck but don’t remember much because I was so young, and mom is aging. I’m afraid of losing this chapter of our history.
I asked my mom if she still had those journals. She said she would look for them, but I could sense hesitation in her voice. Maybe they were still too difficult to share.
A few years later, when I was in my 20s, she brought out a shoe box from her closet and said, “Here it is.”
Inside the box was an assortment of notebooks and paper. One of them caught my attention. It appeared hand-crafted, made from rough, yellow paper stock, and bound together with thick thread.
My dad made this from materials he found aboard the Skyluck. The slips of paper were actually labels peeled carefully from cans of yellow beans — a food staple during the five months we lived on the boat.
There were two other notebooks in the shoe box. I started calling them the Skyluck Journals.
We rushed out without saying goodbye to mom and dad. By the time we got to Ben Tre, it was past noon. We stopped here for a quick lunch and then went to the meeting point at Dai Sanh store. They led us to a nice, fully furnished house at Nga Ba Thap. Waiting. First night away from home.
The journals contained all the hallmarks of a sweeping epic: a daring midnight escape, mutiny on the high seas, danger and thrilling action, the discovery of a new land.
I was floored and excited beyond belief when I first saw them. It had been nearly 20 years since she had written them.
Unlike oral stories, these weren’t distorted through time and retelling. They were tangible proof of our history on ink and paper — stories written mere hours after they happened.
Over several weeks, my mom and I sat down together and translated about 15 of the journal entries. As a four-year-old, I don’t remember much of the journey — just little snippets like I was eating an orange when my mom told me we were going on a short trip. I hoped these would help fill in the gaps of my own memory of my family’s story.
In the late ‘60s, my mom had just started law school in Saigon, and spent her afternoons with friends at cafés and picnics at the park. The Vietnam War felt very far away. But in 1974, the mood started to change.
People from the central regions of Vietnam were fleeing the fighting, many of them to Saigon. On April 30,1975, my mom stood on the balcony of our home in the city centre and witnessed what once seemed impossible: communist tanks rolling towards the Presidential Palace. Saigon — and by extension, the rest of Vietnam — had fallen.
By the late ‘70s, people were fleeing the country altogether because of lack of food and jobs. My parents were labelled co-conspirators of the previous government. But even talking about escaping could mean imprisonment.
Quietly, my parents started discussing how they would leave. My mom was worried we would die at sea. My dad looked at her, and replied with a firm sincerity, “We will go together. If we die, we die together.”
Listen to the radio documentary The Skyluck Journals.
Last memories of Vietnam
I just finished hanging up the mosquito nets when the order came for us to leave. We bundled everything up and were moved to another house. It was very crowded. Third night away from home. We are still eating and sleeping like usual. So difficult, can’t describe it. No electricity, no water, no other houses nearby. In the middle of nowhere. My last memories of Vietnam. Oh mother, oh father.
Down the river to the sea
In my mom’s journals, she refers to me as Su-Su — that’s my Vietnamese nickname. And my sister Karen is referred to by her Vietnamese name Truc Co.
As the translation progressed, the stories started to take shape — like the one about the night we left shore and sailed down a river on a small fishing boat to reach the Skyluck.
The price to get smuggled out of Vietnam was heavy — literally — at 12 to 15 ounces of gold per person. My mom was able to save some money by working a side job as a bookkeeper. She bought small pieces of gold until there was enough to pay for all of us. And even then, there were no reassurances you would even get on a boat.
Down the river to the sea
Late last night, my brother-in-law told us that we are leaving. I half believed him. Are we really going? They told us, just be ready. We stayed up all night waiting. At 4 a.m. we left for the boat landing. So crowded. Everything was in chaos. Finally, we got onboard and waited down inside the boat.
At 6 a.m., the boat began to leave. Su-Su and Truc Co were sleeping soundly. We moved smoothly down the river. At 8 a.m., we arrived at the mouth of the river. I took the kids up to the deck. Altogether, there were seven small boats. We were so lucky to get on the leading boat because my brother-in-law was the captain. Then, we made our way to sea.
WATCH: Tina Nguyen reads an entry from her journal about her escape from Saigon.
I think at 10 a.m., we met up with the big boat. When they opened up the hatch, we all looked like tattered blankets. No one bothered to climb up. They lowered a cargo net and pulled us up onto the big ship.
Cold. Tired. I just wanted to lie down. Noon. I snuck up on deck to have a quick shower and to wash my clothes. I was comfortable for half an hour. But by the time I came back down I had a headache. Everybody has the same pounding headache. My two poor children, there’s no room to walk. People are lying all about like sardines in a can. The boat is not providing any food except milk for the children. Truc Co is so lucky, she got several bottles, but her face is so dirty, just like a cat.
The dangerously overcrowded ship departed on January 21, 1979, according to mom’s diary.
The original plan was to sail to Australia. But the smugglers had no intention of going anywhere. The gold that had been paid by all the passengers was transferred to another vessel and the Skyluck was left sailing in circles in the South China Sea.
The captain and crew, meanwhile, were planning their escape — but leaders among the refugees forced them to sail to Hong Kong.
I asked my mom, knowing what she does now, if she would make the same journey again. She said simply, “No. It was like hell.”
A bitter New Year’s day
For more than 10 days I didn’t bother to write because there wasn’t enough food. Could not lie down. Could not sleep. The boat continues to move aimlessly. The ship departed on the 21st of January and has been going around in circles. We are getting hungrier every day.
New Year’s day, it’s so bitter. I’m still hungry as usual. My worries are escalating. Everyone shakes their heads in despair. Some hot-tempered people had a talk with the captain. Empty promises every day. Oh my God. I miss my family so much and my tears are welling from hunger. At the bottom of my misery, I somehow feel safe and keep on praying.
Most of our food portion is saved for the children. I eat very little, but I don’t feel hungry as much. I feel helpless because I can’t take care of the children. I think it will be very sad to bring up these memories — 15 days on this damned boat.
Arriving in Hong Kong
We translated the journals up to the point when the Skyluck arrived in Hong Kong waters, and then took what was supposed to be a short break. But then life got busy.
I graduated from university, got married, had children, became busy with my work — the usual life stuff. Before I knew it, almost 25 years had passed. My dad died in 2010 from lung cancer, and my mom was approaching 70. I thought to myself: I may not have much time left.
This past spring, I asked my mom if we could continue translating the journals. She happily agreed.
Over the following three months I listened to her stories, over phone calls and text messages. We laughed at the funny parts, and cried together at the sad parts.
Coming back to the journals after such a long time felt natural, but also different. In my 20s, I was drawn to the action and high stakes of our harrowing escape from Vietnam. As I grew older, I now see it as a story of hope and love — they were stories about how a young woman’s choices allowed her to save her family against impossible odds.
Arriving in Hong Kong
Waiting all day, but still, all we see are endless skies and blue water. The ocean is unsettled. Waves as big as a house. The boat rocks dizziness onto our faces. We had a bowl of congee this morning, and then waited desperately. Hunger has reached its peak.
It has been 20 days. There was sudden news that the captain attempted to leave the ship. Panic struck everyone. The younger men were asked to guard the lifeboats on deck and to surround the captain’s quarters. We are determined to land in Hong Kong. At 12:30 in the morning, we arrived in Hong Kong harbour without being spotted by the coast guard. But one hour later, we were discovered. We were surrounded and forced to leave the harbour.
All the men went up on deck and pleaded to stay. Negotiations lasted until the early morning. We were allowed to stay but the ship had to move to some other location. I am writing this as the ship moves. Thank God we have finally made it. I hope that we will land soon.
After 17 days, the Skyluck finally sailed into Hong Kong waters. But it was forced to anchor off of Lamma Island, under guard, a few kilometres southwest of the main island.
Authorities disabled the ship’s engines and reassured the people that they would land soon. But days became weeks, and weeks became months. Almost five months later, the refugees were becoming desperate.
While living conditions remained difficult, there was one thing that brought moments of levity and laughter: the flea market.
The flea market
It would be a shame if I didn’t mention the flea market on the ship. Ever since we started receiving Spam in the rectangular can, people began trading food with one another. We are given only a limited number of items: Spam, sardines, yellow beans, oranges, condensed milk and bread — but it was enough to form a little market during food nights.
The distributions take place four times a week in the late afternoon on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. On those days after dinner, the flea market opens. The most hilarious time is when clothes are distributed because it is a random lottery system. Most people are given mismatched items they cannot use. Families without kids are given children’s clothing and men end up receiving women’s items.
WATCH: Tina Nguyen reads an entry from her journal about the flea market.
As for news of our landing, it’s hard to know who’s telling the truth. We get information from the representative committee, from the Hong Kong police, from the newspaper and even from the crew of the garbage boat. Yesterday, a woman who went to give birth in Hong Kong came back and said the landing will take place in two days.
Whether we land is no longer the issue. It would be the same suffering, just in a different place. Who knows if things would be better. The issue for me is to begin resettlement, find jobs and to take care of the children’s education.
The truth about dandelions
With the Skyluck anchored off Lamma Island, the refugees were desperately trying to get the world to take notice of their plight. They wrote messages on the side of the ship: “Have pity on us. Let us land.” They wrote letters to the UN high commissioner.
When those efforts landed on deaf ears, several young men tried to swim to Lamma Island in an attempt to deliver messages to the media. Most of them were rounded up and sent back to the ship. One man drowned. Then they staged hunger strikes. But despite all of it, nothing.
Finally, they gathered one night to make an ultimate decision: cut the Skyluck’s anchor chain. With a storm on the horizon, the ship might be pushed towards shore, or back out to sea.
At 10 p.m. on June 28, 1979, the ship prepared to restart the engine. At 9 a.m. the next morning — the most terrifying day of my life — the ship crashed into the cliffs of the island. No matter the cost, we were determined to come ashore.
The ship listed towards the island and water was pouring into the fourth and bottom deck. There was utter chaos as people scrambled out and made their way to land. Police had already lined up on the rocky cliffs, waiting. Parents and children were separated and screamed for one another. Below, the waves crashed, the rain poured down, and the sea was in endless motion.
WATCH: Tina Nguyen reads an entry from her journal about the sinking of the Skyluck.
Finally, at 5 p.m., we were reunited at the ferry dock. Two hours later, we got to the island. We went through a medical check-up and were vaccinated. Then we walked up a winding trail to the camps. Exhausted beyond imagination. Upon seeing water, I quickly took a shower, headed to bed and passed out. Here, we have real beds and fresh water for washing — amazing! But the next day would be horrible.
At 6 p.m., they distributed canned food. She was so excited and ate five slices of bread with condensed milk and laughed happily. My little girl, you’re no longer hungry. Your mother no longer clenches her teeth, hiding tears of sorrow.
The next morning, my husband and son arrived at our barracks, along with all our things. I’m so happy they finally allowed us to reunite — happiness beyond happiness! Later, we went to get food stamps and temporary IDs. We are out of danger.
Goodbye Skyluck, and farewell to all the days we suffered on that ship.
After the Skyluck sank, we and the other rescued escapees were moved into a refugee camp in Hong Kong.
After nearly 13 gruelling months, we finally left in the summer of 1980 for Montreal. Canadian immigration authorities then took us to a military base by bus.
On the way to Montreal, my mom recalled seeing bright yellow flowers covering endless green fields. She’d never seen such a beautiful sight. She would later learn those flowers were dandelions.
But it didn’t matter that the flowers were weeds, nor did it matter that new challenges would come. Because in that moment, she saw a country where we could thrive, and a chance to dream again.
After we arrived in Canada, my mom put her diaries in a closet, hoping to never relive these painful memories.
But as we’ve worked on this project together, she told me she realized that she always had the strength to do it — and that my sister and I deserved to know the full story.
So far, we’ve only made it through half of her diaries, but I am determined to complete the translations while my mom still has her strength and clarity.
The toughest moment was hearing my mom share her memories of the day the Skyluck sank. Her voice swelled with emotion as she recalled that day. It broke my heart to hear my mom cry, but I’m so grateful to her — for doing it, for surviving, for loving us, and for reliving it so that I could learn our shared story.
Written by: Andrew Nguyen | Copy Editors: Jonathan Ore, Tamara Baluja | Translations: Anh Thang Dao | Lead Digital Producer: Althea Manasan | Artwork + Graphics: Ben Shannon | Senior Developer: Geoff Isaac | Animations: Ben Shannon, Andrew Nguyen | Radio Documentary: Andrew Nguyen, Alison Cook