School Community Coordinator Hoi Vinh grew up dreaming of becoming a medical doctor when he was a kid. He spent eight years studying at the University of Medicine of Saigon, but with the Vietnam War raging on, his dream was shattered.
The youngest with three older brothers, Vinh grew up in a poor family in Vietnam. After serving his time in the military for South Vietnam, the South Vietnamese were met with defeat in 1975.
“I’m very sad, of course,” Vinh said. “The Americans didn’t help us anymore. They only give us enough guns—weapons to fight.”
Recalling his time back in Vietnam, Vinh reminisces on how difficult it was to travel around due to the limitations placed on South Vietnam.
“We cannot go from this place to another place,” Vinh said. “We need a permit from the government—even from a town to another town. We [also] didn’t have enough food.”
Vinh’s father died when he was young. Since then, he felt the need to carry the responsibility of providing for the rest of his family.
“About 1963 to 1965, my dad did nothing [to be involved with the war]. He did nothing and stayed home,” Vinh said. “[Yet] Viet Cong communists come in and take him to kill.”
Vinh attempted to flee from Vietnam three times, the first two resulting in failures. He went with his sister-in-law and her seven children, along with two other boys. Their first escape was unsuccessful, because a communist police officer was standing guard at their rendezvous point. In their second attempt, they took a small boat to get to a bigger boat at the Saigon River. However, the small boat leaked, forcing them to return. On their way back, they were spotted by the police and had to jump in the river to avoid getting caught.
“The hardest thing was to keep the escape secret,” Vinh said. “We told nothing to the kids, but they observed us as we prepared. They told no one.”
Finally, Vinh planned his escape to Indonesia by boat in order to live in the safety of a refugee camp. He and his family were stacked in a van and eventually separated from one another. His niece was the only one left with him. When they were waiting for the boat to arrive, he started to feel worried.
“We thought they cheated us—this happened often in Vietnam those days,” Vinh said. “Each person must pay five gold tails; our family of 11 paid 55 gold tails [to get on the boat].”
After waiting for hours, Vinh and his niece boarded. It was then when they spotted the rest of their family. But even as they finally escaped, the passage was not peaceful.
“Nobody helped us,” Vinh said. “We came on a small boat with 54 people. At night, we cannot all lie down—some must sit.”
He lived in the refugee camp for six months, where his hardships continued. Nonetheless, Vinh said that to him, “[he] was happy even having nothing to eat.”
“I just try to work,” Vinh said. “To get money—to support my family. It was hard at that time, but everything is okay now.”
Vinh’s first job was a teacher assistant at an elementary school for one year. Soon, he found his place at San Gabriel High School and has been working here since 1986.
Even with the terrifying episodes that he went through, Vinh is open to sharing his experience.
“[I talk about it with] my son, my wife [and others],” Vinh said. “I live happy now.”
Similar to how Vinh persevered through countless obstacles, he wants students to take from his experience and persevere to survive throughout their lifetimes.