This is a letter from Phi Minh Tam, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Class of 1963, writing to the Director of Alumni Affairs and his fellow alumni about his attempts to escape Vietnam in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Below is a photo of the copy of the letter, followed by a transcript of the text.
Escape from Vietnam
A Letter from Phi Minh Tam ‘63
EDITORS NOTE: Phi Minh Tam is a 1963 magna cum laude graduate of the College who majored in wood and polymer chemistry, and later earned an MS degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in chemical engineering. He has had a wide professional experience and is presently classified as a refugee on parolee status with the expectation of gaining permanent residency and U.S. citizenship. His resume is on file in the ESF Alumni Office, (315) 470-6632. His current address is: 10711 Jennrich Avenue, Garden Grove, Calif. 92643.
June 25, 1981
Mr. Justin Culkowski
Director of Alumni Affairs
College of Environmental Science and Forestry
Syracuse, NY 13210
Dear Mr. Culkowski,
It’s very kind of you to write and offer your help. Your idea of a story on my experience is wonderful. It’s a pleasure for me to enclose here a draft of the resume which was prepared for job application. It contains the highlights of my academic and professional background. Only that period during which I lived under the inhumane communist regime lacks the details which constitutes the most painful part of my life.
During the last days of free Vietnam, like many other government officials, I could not convince myself to abandon my responsibility and run away with the exodus. Two weeks after the communist takeover, hundreds of thousands of us throughout South Vietnam were packed off to concentration camps from which some were eventually released. But for many, they will never live a day of freedom again. In a sense, I was fortunate to be an engineer. My work consisted of the national standards program, construction of industrial testing laboratories, establishment of quality control and quality assurance for the trade and industry, quality inspection to improve exports, etc. That kind of contribution would be appreciated by the communists. I was released after one year when they carried out their policy of leniency towards the southern intellectuals. Never really trusted by the totalitarian regime and unwilling to cooperate with them, I went to work as a hand laborer in a friend’s rubber factory which was still tolerated because it was a small three-man operation and it made spare parts much needed by industry.
All the time the police used very subtle coercion. They suggested that I work for the regime or resettle in new economic zones which are, in fact, concentration areas for the unwanted civilian population. Even if I cooperated with them there would be no future for my children whose only crime was to be born of a reactionary parent. My wife and I finally decided to leave our country because there was no hope either for us or for our children. Taking advantage of the expulsion of Vietnamese of Chinese origin, we registered under Chinese names and borrowed enough to pay for 45 ounce-of-gold fare for the four of us. On the night of November 10, 1978, we embarked along with 400 others people in an old 80-foot wood boat. About five hours out in the open sea, we were struck by a small storm and the old boat which was supplied by the police for the trip broke into pieces. We were sitting on the bottom of the boat. I knew we were all going to die. I had very little time to decide whether to die with my family or try to save myself. I decided to abandon my wife and my eight-year-old son who were standing in the darkness close to me. I decided to save my three-year-old daughter whom I was carrying at the time. I decided I should live so that our family and our friends knew what happened to us. I made it to the surface of the cold water. I carried my daughter with one hand and with the other I hung to a bunch of fishing floats that Providence put there. My daughter died of cold and exhaustion a few hours later. I was picked up by a fishing boat some 20 hours later along with two dozen other people. We were all brought back to the police who did not give us anything to eat and allowed us to sleep the night in our wet clothes. They did try to send out a search party the next morning. I wanted to get back home before they made any decision about our fate. I climbed over the fence and made it safely home with the help of many people who took the risk to give me money and transportation.
The authorities in Saigon knew what had happened to my family but did not take any action against me as they usually did in the case where they discovered anyone attempting to escape. They said the loss of my wife and children was enough punishment for me and I would serve as an example to deter other people from attempting to escape. Friends thought I had to pay too high of price for freedom but still did not have it. Knowing that I would not give up the will to have freedom again at any cost, many friends helped financially. I attempted the hazardous undertakings several more times. Not until last November did I land safely on the shores of Malaysia with 252 other people. Three did not make it to the shores of freedom. They could not endure the hardship of the trip.
I am here now to restart life from scratch, but I am glad to be given the opportunity to contribute to the economy and the culture of this great land. Through you and all alumni, I want to thank the American people for having helped and suffered so much for the freedom of Vietnam which remains an unfilled dream.
Sorry I cannot send you any pictures. I practically lost everything I had. I hope the picture enclosed recently when I was in Malaysia will help my friends remember how I look.
With most cordial personal regards, I remain
Yours most sincerely,
Phi Minh Tam