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"If We Die, We Die Together"

April 24, 2015

They say that everyone has a story. Ordinary people you see everyday who have lived through extraordinary times. Fong Vong is the Accounting Manager at KCTS 9, as well as a Vietnam War refugee. This is her story.

Fong Vong (second from right) and her family with their American sponsors. They arrived in Seattle four months after fleeing Saigon.

Fong Vong doesn’t remember the exact date when she left Saigon.

“On April 26 or 27, we left our house in Saigon.”

But she does remember what her father said as they fled: “If we go, we go together. If we die, we die together.”

Fong was 17 years old when her father gathered her mother, along with her two brothers and two sisters, to get out of Saigon.  Fong’s father had served with the South Vietnamese military and held a prominent government position. He knew that if the North Vietnamese discovered them, it would mean a death sentence for his family.

“We still have our birth certificates, ID, and on the birth certificate, [it had] my dad's position. It said position, title, he’s a military man. So we all tore up our birth certificates,” Fong says.

They left Saigon and drove to a fishing village several hours outside of Saigon. A relative had told them they might be able to escape by boat. Fong’s father carried a small firearm as they traveled. He knew that a single gun would not make a difference if they were discovered, but he carried it for another purpose.

“He still have small gun with him that he hiding and he said, If we got caught, he will kill us and he will kill himself. Because he know that they will kill us all … they will torture us to death.”

They reached the fishing village without incident and waited for almost two days before they caught a lucky break.

“We heard that there was a group of Chinese. 80 or 85 people that would organize escaping. At that time, my mom saw a woman in there, and actually is her friend that was there. And her friend said, ‘Wow, how do you know that we are leaving here?’"

My mom said, ‘No, I accidentally came onto the boat, so I didn’t know.’

Fong's family traveled by boat for seven days, from the south of Vietnam to Singapore.

'Okay, go in with us because I have money that I put it in there with them, so you just say that you are part of my family.' So all five of us, including my mom and dad, you know, went with her.”

That crowded fishing boat would be their home for the next seven days, and would be burnt into her memory forever.

“Talking to you and telling you, my mind still have the pictures that I was on the boat. And, you know, when I fled with the boat, from Vietnam to Singapore, every night we sit on the boat. All the water around you and then, all you had [to] look at, the sky with the water … My mom told me, even now, she doesn’t like ocean because of that. She doesn’t like ocean. Me, I think, that’s okay, first few years when I here, I never go near to the ocean because when I see [it] that brings back the memories, I almost cried, you know.”

Battling rough seas, dehydration, starvation and pirate attacks, approximately one-third of refugees who tried to escape by boat never completed their journey, the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees estimates. (See a gallery of those who left by boat on the First Days Story Project website.)

Fong’s family made it to Singapore, but their journey was far from over. The Singapore government sent them to a refugee camp in the Philippines. The next four months would see Fong’s family travel to Guam and then Fort Chafee, Arkansas, until they finally reached Poulsbo, Washington, where Fong’s uncle lived. They were sponsored by a local church.

Fong Vong and her youngest brother at their home in Silverdale. The television was a gift from a high school teacher to help Fong and her siblings learn English.

“Two weeks with the sponsor family, and then finally we move out on our own, and find a house and rent a house and live in Silverdale, building our own life there, starting from there.”

For a 17-year-old young woman, the transition to life in America was difficult, but she was determined. She remembers her first day at school:

“When the bus comes, we need to find out where the bus comes ... we just know only minimum English and we said, ‘Is this go to school?’ And the bus driver say, ‘Yeah, yeah, is go to school.’ So we just hop in — me and my two other sisters, my sister and brother — and then we hop to school bus, and then we went to the counselor.

[Do] I know a [what] counselor mean? So I went to the counselor's office and said, ‘We are new. How do we find class?’" she recalls.

"I remember there was one time, in my home economics class in high school, there was a girl laughing at me, because I couldn’t answer the question or I don’t understand it. And I was really so upset that I went home, and I told mom, ’You know, mom, I really need to master this language here.’

After high school, we have a tutoring, and after tutoring we went to ESL class in college, in community college, study until 10, 9 or 10 at night.”

Fong (left) and her family celebrating Christmas at their home in Silverdale.

Fong (right) and her sister on the day they graduated from Western Washington University.

Through hard work and late nights, Fong’s family has survived and thrived. However, the journey did not leave her unscarred. Even up to two years ago, she was still haunted by nightmares and had difficulty sleeping.

Her brothers and sisters all have families of their own now, and one of her nieces is going to radiology school and another one is studying to become a doctor.

“They are at UW right now. I’m really proud of my family, and, you know, thanks for America!”

Fong (in front in the green sweatshirt) with the KCTS studio crew and volunteers as they prepare for a cooking pledge production.



Made possible in part by

Enrique Cerna

The son of Mexican immigrants, Enrique Cerna was born and raised in the Yakima Valley.  Enrique joined KCTS 9 in January, 1995. He has anchored current affairs programs, moderated statewide political debates, produced and reported stories for national PBS programs in addition to local documentaries on social and juvenile justice, the environment and Latinos in Washington State.

Enrique has earned nine Northwest Emmy Awards and numerous other honors. In June, 2013, he was inducted into the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Northwest Chapter’s Silver Circle for his work as a television professional.

More stories by Enrique Cerna

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I appreciate the local programing you have put together focusing on the connection between the Viet Nam War and Washington state.

I wanted to call to your attention a biography about Milton Wan of Seattle written by Seattle writer Joe Blondo. Published in 2009, Caught Between Cultures: A Story of Milton Wan and Viet Nam is a fascinating account of one man's journey. Check it out. ISBN 978-1-60860-836-2.

Dear KCTS,

I've enjoyed the coverage of the what we were able to do for the good people of South Vietnam and wish we could have done more for our fellows in freedom and liberty.

I sure wish South Vietnamese veterans could have been on hand to sing the South Vietnamese national anthem when the Vietnamese communist party chairman was in Wash. DC a couple of weeks ago just to remind him that we haven't forgotten.

Further, I am very concerned that we as Americans are turning our backs on the freedoms and liberties that all those Vietnamese came here (AND CONTINUE TO COME HERE) to share with us. Airport security, camera surveillance, lax on-line habits, and a nosy IRS and the individual mandate make me wonder whether we'd actually rather be closer in governmental control to communist Vietnam, Cuba, China, and N. Korea.

I'd like us to honor our ever expanding new Cuban and Vietnamese fellow Americans by recommitting ourselves to the freedoms and liberties they came here to enjoy. If things continue as they are with an ever-expanding governmental presence in our daily lives, those Cubans and Vietnamese and others might come to know our country as the ones they risked their lives to flee.

So sad.

Good night,
John Peeples