April 2014

The Nation Reviewed

How a Vietnamese veteran found refuge in Australia

By Alex McClintock
Al Hoang’s journey from soldier to prisoner to boat person to a second life

At the Fairfield Showground in Sydney’s south-west, the air is pulsing as two sound systems do battle.

R&B is blasting from a deserted stage, while Vietnamese karaoke counterattacks from a nearby tent that bears the logo of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) Veterans Association.

It’s Tet, Vietnamese New Year, but the crowd is yet to arrive. Al Chi Hoang, a stern-faced former second lieutenant with a booming laugh, shelters from the sun in the grandstand. With him is a knot of other men in their early 60s; these are the South Vietnamese veterans whose tent, with the help of a middle-aged woman, is trying to outdo Beyoncé. An estimated 15,000 Vietnamese veterans of the Vietnam War now call Australia home.

“I didn’t have a military dream,” says Hoang. “My dream after completing school was to teach English. English teachers earned a lot of money then.”

His plans were interrupted when the South Vietnamese government beefed up its conscription program in response to the Tet Offensive of the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army, and the growing anti-war sentiment in the West. By 1972, South Vietnam had more than a million men and women under arms. One in five would be killed or injured.

Hoang was drafted in 1971, a year into a law degree. He attended an accelerated nine-month officer training program at the Thu Duc reserve cadet college and was thrown straight into action.

“Can you believe it?” He laughs. “I was 21. They gave me a map, they gave me a backpack, an M16 and a revolver, and they put me on a chopper from headquarters straight to the battle. It was wartime.”

Hoang’s first engagement was at An Loc, near the Cambodian border, where the ARVN, supported by the US Air Force, withstood a two-month siege from the North Vietnamese Army and the Vietcong. It was a baptism of fire; Hoang was shot in the leg. Later, he would be shot in the gut. (“But not very hard.”)

After Hoang recovered, his unit, the 18th Infantry Division, moved to secure the area south-east of Saigon being vacated by Australian troops. Even without the Strine, the place names are familiar to the Australian ear: Vung Tàu, Long Tan, Quang Tri.

In the absence of the Americans and Australians, the 18th was called to clear an ambush along the strategic northbound Route 2. One of Hoang’s best friends was killed as the battle began.

“He was a couple of years older than me and just married. We’d just had a coffee the previous night. The next day we went to the battle, me on one side and he on the other. They shot him right in the head. Bad luck. To be honest, it’s been 41 years and I still see him. Even last night.”

Looking back now, Hoang says, it’s clear that the South was always going to lose the war without American support. But the order to surrender, on 30 April 1975, took him by surprise. He left his weapons and his uniform behind and took to the road with the hundreds of thousands of others who were fleeing the communist advance on Saigon. He headed for his aunt’s house and was there a month when a knock on the door signalled he’d been found. Like more than a million other South Vietnamese, he was sent to a “re-education” camp. He would spend the next seven years locked up, often in solitary confinement.

“We had hard labour seven days a week. They tried to implant communist philosophy in your mind by forcing you to discuss, every evening, Mao and Lenin. We had a cup of boiled rice and salt a day.”

Aged 30, Hoang was released into a Vietnam he hardly recognised. He’d spent more time in re-education camps than he had in the army. It was like his service had been erased; the government had even bulldozed the cemeteries that held his fallen comrades. He made plans to leave immediately.

“I had seven years to think in the camp. Of course we were bitter, because we were left behind by the Americans, our so-called allies, our ‘big brother’. When I was in prison, I thought, ‘If I have a chance, if I have a second life, I will go to any country but the USA.’ And that’s what I did.”

Hoang became a boat person (“pretty much like what happens now”). He came to Australia via a Malaysian refugee camp, where he was grilled by US military intelligence about missing-in-action Americans. Speaking little English, he did “jobs the Aussies didn’t want to do”. Eventually, he passed the public service exam but, weighing just 49 kilograms, he failed the medical for Australia Post. They only offered him a job after the Daily Telegraph put him on the front page.

In 1997, aged 46, Hoang returned to studying law. He is now a solicitor in Cabramatta and has held various posts in Vietnamese community organisations. He marches in Anzac Day parades most years. He married a fellow refugee and has a 27-year-old daughter, an economist. But he’s never returned to the country of his birth.

“Of course I miss Vietnam, very much so,” he says. “My daddy was born in 1918 and he deceased in 2007 and I could not go back … As a person who was on the other side of the battle, they will never accept me.

“Would I go back if the system changed? I’m not sure, to be honest with you. We will see. Australia is my country now.”

The grandstand’s other occupants, teenage girls dressed in traditional white ao dai tunics, are quietly oblivious as Hoang’s former colleagues unfurl the ARVN flag.

It’s yellow and red, with an eagle in the centre. The motto reads, “Our country, our duty.”

Alex McClintock

Alex McClintock is a Sydney-based freelance writer and a contributor to VICE and the Guardian.

@axmcc

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