There was no cloud that early morning and the sky was really
beautiful. Although the sun had not risen up, he could tell it was on
the left side. He lay along the boat with his feet toward the front
and people were everywhere around him still in sleep. He didn't hear
anything beside the boat engine and the lapping sound created by
water on both sides of the boat. He was deadly tired and the cord
which wrapped around his waist and the right arm had tightened up
and caused him extremely pain. Hoa suddenly said while he tried to
sit up and untighten the cord
-"You're finally awake"
-"Yeah, help me untighten the damn cord", he said. "It makes my right arm numbed".
Hoa then aided and helped him walk to the top of the cabin and gave him a glass of water. He sat there for half an hour waiting for the feeling of his right arm come back and realized that he was no longer sea-sick and vomitted. He finished his glass of water at the moment Hoa came back with his waterproof bag. "I have the Colt-45 with ammunition along with little food in it", Hoa said.
-"Why we go to the South", he asked. "Watch for Con Son island (the
most eastern part of Vietnam)".
-"I hope not", replied Hoa. "We had gone to the East for 40 hours before we turned South".
-"When did you change the direction?"
-"What? We've been on the boat for 2 days?"
-"2 days and 3 nights to be exact. You were too sea-sick to know it"
-"What about you? No problem at all"
-"Well, I did vomit a few times but could still move around OK. And, I have not vomitted since yesterday afternoon. You're OK now, too, right. Oh, want to eat something?"
-"Wait till noon. I'm afraid of vomitting again and wasting food which we only have enough for 15 people. I hope we're heading to the right direction. By the way, the boat is OK, isn't it?"
-"Yes, the boat's OK but we may not want to run it straight like the last 2 days. We should let it rest for couple hours today".
They both talked for another 10 minutes and Hoa lay down for a sleep. Hoa lay next to him on top of the cabin and snored almost right away. Hoa had probably stayed awake for 2 days, he thought. He opened his bag and took the watch out. It was just 6:20AM that morning.
He walked around to see who they had on the boat. They were 4 teachers in Houses One, 1 in Houses Five, 5 lady teachers in Houses Two, 2 soldiers and 13 students; 9 boys and 4 girls. So, all together they had 9 ladies who might eat less (than men) and probably more than half of them had not been able to eat anything for the first 2 days because of sea-sick. Therefore, if they somehow made it to somewhere in within 7 days and if people only ate 2 times a day, they might run out of food only in the last day, he thought and was more optimistic than the moment when he first awoke.
He woke Phuoc (to replace Xem) to drive the boat. People started awaken and he sat there next to the fresh water tank kept reminding them not to overuse it. They actually had plenty of drinking water but he still wanted to save some in case their journey unfortunately lasted a lot longer than a week. He asked Tan to see how many still had sea-sick. "Only 5 lady teachers", Tan answered.
They stopped the boat and started cooking at 10AM. Surprisingly,
Nghia who acted as a chef with 4 other boy-helpers prepared the
meal for about 20 people in only an hour. They divided into 2 groups
and he ate with the first. Before they had meal, he announced that
they could only had 2 meals a day (about 4 bowls of rice) with the
exception of the boat crew who had another snack at midnight.
Although he saw some people unhappy and disgruntled, he still
finished what he had to say before he picked his chopsticks up
-"I have talked to Hoa and he agrees with it", said he. "So, if anyone resists, he'll go without food".
It was a good day to sail and the wind helped pushing the boat going
faster. At 6PM, Nghia again prepared dinner for everyone but that
time with the help of girl students. He and Hoa sat next to each
other on the top of the cabin. Suddenly, the boat swinged hard to the
left then right with people's laughing in the back. He looked down
and saw Khiet teacher driving the boat
-"I'm going to pick on Khiet to get others' attention", he said to Hoa.
-"OK, but don't do it too hard".
-"Well, we need to let them know about our food situation"
He jumped down and asked everyone to the front of the boat, except Xem who drove the boat at the moment. And he said after all people had settled down. "We only have enough food for 15 in 7 days. Our number, however, is now about double of what we thought; therefore, each has to eat less with only 2 meals a day. I know some of you dissatisfied but there's no other way we could do differently".
He stopped and looked around before he said again. But that time, his
voice was acrimonious. "I, like everyone of you, don't want to go
without food; therefore, we have to make it to somewhere in 7 days.
So, I don't want to see anyone doing anything stupid".
-"I just learn to drive the boat for a minute", Khiet protested.
-"Let me remind in case you forget", he shot back. "We ESCAPE".
-"Still, the weather is good and I sure won't turn the boat over", Khiet resisted.
-"The weather probably changes tonight", said he. "You can help boy students bailing water out of the engine room if you're bored of doing nothing".
-"Hung soldier is the leader", Khiet still resisted.
-"I do not ask you to be their leader", ordered he. "I want you to do the work".
-"I won't do it", Khiet protested.
"I'll shoot you if you repeat the last sentence and don't co-operate", he angrily said. Khiet looked around to see if anyone's with him and sat down quietly when he found none.
That dinner was sorrow and unfriendly. Although he did not want to hurt anyone's feeling, he still thought he did the right thing. There was a need to get everything under control to prevent a chaos which might happen when food ran out. He and Hoa planned an escape, not to seek love from people. And, if they both somehow got everyone to somewhere safe and sound, they would care less about someone's hate, he thought and felt better. Like lunch, he ate with the first group and Hoa was with the other.
There was a storm late that night. Although he was no longer sea-sick, he still could not sleep because of the cold (Hoa was with the night crew). The wave and rain wetted him and he had to use the outside of the front cabin wall to block the wind. And from that point, he could hear Hoa clearly. Hoa gave out instructions to the people to help control the boat and Khiet was Hoa's right hand man that night. He lay there smiling in the storm and falling into sleep.
He awoke at about 7AM in the fourth day. The weather after the storm looked promising but it was still a little chilly that morning. He walked to the back of the boat and found out that the day crew had started for an hour. Still, none had done anything, except Phuoc who was driving the boat. He let people rest for another half an hour before they all raised 2 sails and bailed the rest of water out of the engine room. And, they had everything done at 9AM.
Like the day before, they shut the engine off and started cooking at
10AM and he again ate with the day crew and 9 ladies. They started
the engine and headed South after the first group finished. And,
while girl students got the meal ready for the second group, Phuoc
(the boat driver) suddenly yelled from the back
-"Teacher teacher, there's a ship in front of us".
He looked and saw a big ship at (the direction of) one o'clock heading
toward them. While he still hesitated, Hoa ordered everyone go
inside the cabin or down to the engine room, except 5 big guys who
would act as fishermen. He and Hoa also got inside the cabin and he
did not forget his bag.
-"You still think we're around Con Son, don't you?" he asked.
-"Well, we had passed it but the storm last night could push the boat back", Hoa answered. "Anyway, we do this just in case".
Everyone was nervous and none bothered to say anything for about 15
minutes. Xem, who was the main driver, had taken over (from Phuoc)
-"What do I do now?"
-"Drive the boat straight in the low speed", Hoa said.
"So, we're heading at the ship, aren't we", Xem again asked. Hoa did not say anything but nodded his head. A thought ran through his mind and he said to Xem
-"Turn the boat to the East when we're about 100 meters away from the ship. And, if I shoot at it, you run (the boat) in the full speed". He then yelled to those 5 big guys in front to see if the ship had a flag.
-"I can't see very clear but they may have no flag", Tan replied.
-"Wait till it get a little closer and check to see if there's a flag", he ordered. "If not, read those letters in front of the ship".
Actually, the ship was still far away (about 10 kilometers) at that
moment; however, they could see it clearly because that was a very
big ship and it was sunny that afternoon. It was about 2PM when they
were about 1 kilometer apart and Tan finally could spell
the word in front of the ship out
-"Teacher, it's P A N A M A".
-"We're free", he happily announced. "It's the Panama ship".
They all jumped out and ran to the front of the boat yelling and waving. And, the ship captain blew 3 long horns to acknowledge that they had been seen.
Their boat finally parked along the Panama ship but the captain only agreed to let him aboard alone. Even though the captain could not imagine how a bunch of young men managed to survive the storm in the night before, he saw them all strong and healthy and their boat was still in good shape. For that reason, they would not be rescued, but the captain was willing to offer them food and everything they needed to complete their journey to Singapore where the ship had just left. He tried to convince the captain in his "broken english" that they might not survive if there was another storm and were willing to go to Hong Kong, where the ship was heading. Though he could not make the captain change his decision, he was comforted that there was no other storm in the area in the next 2 days. Finally, he had to write down what they needed and returned to the boat.
The captain, himself, instructed and led his korean crew of 5 men to give them double of whatever the amount he had had in a sheet of paper. They were also given some luxuries such as tablets for sea-sick and headache, cigarettes, toothpaste and brushes. And, before they departed in the opposite directions, the captain again comforted them and promised that he would send a telegraph to inform the Authority of Singapore about the boat and their position.
They had a big dinner with rice and 4 different dishes and people could eat as much as they would. They sat together and talked about their future and that dinner did not get finished until 2 hours later. And if that wasn't enough, Tan would suggest that they all had another meal at midnight when the crew changed and, of course, none disagreed. And, he did not sleep until it was sometime after 3:30AM.
However, he got up early in the next morning (which was the fifth
day). He stood right up and looked to the horizon in front of the boat
but there was still nothing but water. And, Hoa confirmed that from
the top of the cabin.
-"Are we still heading to (the direction of) SouthWest", he asked. They had changed course since leaving the Panama ship as the captain's advice.
-"Sure, but our boat engine is so small that it takes longer to get to Singapore than the captain expected it", Hoa replied.
He nodded his head in agreement. He then jumped up and sat next to
Hoa on top of the cabin. They both agreed to run the boat at the full
speed and would not rest the engine like the 2 previous days. And,
Hoa decided not to sleep that day, either. People started getting up
and looked forward to seeing something else beside water and Tan
sometimes climbed to the top of the mast yelling "Land land ..
Singapore". Each and everyone of them stood up each time Tan yelled
and although they knew they were cheated, none complained.
Tan finally got bored with the game he played and suggested that
they had an early lunch. They finished that meal at about 11AM and
Tan again could be heard at the top of the mast. However, his voice
was kind of strange that time. People again stood up but there was
still nothing. They looked up to Tan and did not see him laughing.
Tan kept looking ahead without blinking his eyes. Hoa asked Khanh to
climb up for a look.
-"Teacher, I'm not sure what it is but there's definitely something there", Khanh said.
The boat was about 30 kilometers from the beach at 8PM that night. They shut the engine off because they did not want to land at night and there was a disagreement. Hoa wanted to run around for another half a day to get to the City of Singapore. He, however, would prefer to go straight and land at whatever town they saw first, even if it meant in Malaysia. And, the rest did not know whom to follow.
They all agreed to vote by raising hand and Hoa won with more than
half willing to go to Singapore. They thought that Singapore might
have been a better place for refugees at that time. In fact, there
was no difference. Anyway, he got upset and asked Hoa to have the
boat running along the beach in the next morning (about 1 kilometer)
so he could swim in.
-"Tell me why we have to land in Malaysia", Hoa asked.
-"I just want to get off the boat as soon as possible, especially when there's another storm coming tonight", responded he. He then went to sleep early that night.
The storm woke him up sometime after midnight. It was heavy rain
and the wind howled horribly. Hoa had started the boat engine and
ran closer to the beach. He tried to crawl close to cabin and heard
the conversation between Hoa and Xem, the boat driver of the night
-"Teacher, I don't know how long the boat can take if the storm keeps on like this".
-"Don't worry! We land in the morning no matter what".
-"We go to Malaysia?"
"Yes, we're all to Malaysia", Hoa confirmed. He lay there and smiled alone by himself. They had been friends for years and he knew that Hoa would always do his way; of course, unless he was definitely wrong. But he was right and there was a violent storm. And, people got tired and too scary to go on for another half a day.
That storm came abruptly but it also stopped quick. It was only a drizzle at 5AM to start their sixth day in the sea. He and Hoa stood on the top of the cabin looking at the small town located on the left bank of a river. Hoa then instructed Xem to drive straight to the beach next to the boat yard.
Rain finally stopped at about 6AM and they were only 500 meters away. They all stood up and looked at people walking back and forth at the boat yard. And, Hoa told Xem to slow the boat down while Hung soldier asked them what to do with the guns. We no longer needed guns so I had thrown them both away, Hoa said and they all agreed.
People at the boat yard started paying attention to the coming boat
and they kept pointing to the other side of the river when they
realized that in deed a strange boat. Escapees looked at the right
bank and there was a military base with 3 long round-houses
surrounded by a barbed-wire fence. And, there was a watch tower
about 5 meters high in the middle of the base but there wasn't any
-"Go to the beach at the right bank", Hoa instructed Xem.
They shut the engine off after the front of the boat hit sand; however,
there was no one in the base at that moment. They waited for 10
minutes and Hoa decided to start the engine to get to the other side.
However, people at the boat yard kept giving them hand signal to the
base and they again brought the boat back to where it was on the
right bank, in front of the base gate. Another 5 minutes passed with
no sign of anyone and there was none on the watch tower, either.
-"Malaysian soldiers may have no night guard and sleep late because they have no war at all for a while", He said. "I go inside to see if I can find anyone".
-"Need me with you", Hoa asked.
-"They should have someone speaking english because Malaysia used to be British Colony", he said. Hoa could only speak french; therefore, Hoa should stay with others on boat. I went with Hung teacher, he continued.
Then he and Hung teacher jumped down and walked into the base. He
knocked at the door of the middle long houses. About 5 minutes later,
someone said something in malaysian right at the inside of the door.
He did not understand what it is so he spoke loud in english
-"We're refugees and we need your help".
Twenty Five of them finally were welcome and allowed to be in that
base. While some prepared the meal, he was asked to come with a
young second lieutenant into his quarters and he was helped to write
a short report about their journey and the health condition. And, he
finished that at the time the base captain came back from the Headquarter.
"I had talked to some UNHCR (United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugee) officials and they will have a bus here to
get you guys to a refugee camp", said the captain. Although he did
not know what UNHCR meant at the time, he would not care to ask.
As long as they were brought to a refugee camp where it had some
vietnameses with the same ordeal, they then should be fine, he
-"Thank you thank you very much", he said to the captain.
The UNHCR bus came at 12:30PM and they were offered sandwitches
and sodas. And, they were given immunization shot before they
boarded the bus and it was time to say good bye to those nice
malaysian soldiers. Although they did not stay there long, they could
tell that there was a difference between those soldiers and commies'.
Anyway, students started singing and dancing right after the bus left.
Tan, who was the most active student, walked to the front of the bus
and smiled with the malaysian bus driver. Tan then turned to him and
said loud to his schoolmates
-"Hey, the teacher even laughs when he falls into sleep" (he was sea-sick again after they landed).
And, they laughed and yelled louder. Hoa slowly rose to his feet and
said to Tan
-"Go back there with your friends. He was sea-sick and may get mad if you wake him up".
"We finally come to the safe place and he won't get mad again", Tan explained to his schoolmates. "The teacher smiled a lot back in our school and was nice to us all". Hoa slowly turned back to students and said. "How about me?", Hoa jested with them. "I may have to smile more with you guys from now on". Students laughed harder and they kept on laughing until the bus reached the destination, a refugee camp.
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