I often wonder how the hellish communist jail would have affected my 15-year-old sister and me mentally and physically, had we been jailed on our first failed attempt to escape communism in Vietnam.
We left Saigon on a bus to Ben Tre at 9am. We spent the rest of the day on a boat travelling on a river with a middle-aged couple and their two children.
Around 8pm, my sister and I were told to leave our shoes in the boat and move to a small canoe, stationed near a clump of big reeds. We waited quietly for the ‘big fish’ to take us out of Vietnam waters.
An hour later, we heard several gun shots as near as 10 metres away.
The boatman quickly vanished. We were terror-stricken and swiftly clambered ashore to shroud ourselves among the shrubs. We heard the voices and footsteps of the local police coming near to where we were hiding.
At dawn, we began to find our way out of the village.
Around 7am, we came to a ‘monkey bridge’ made of a 20-centimetre-diameter log placed across a canal. We were terrified and dared not walk on it.
More and more villagers were queuing impatiently behind us. I decided to make a move. I straddled the log and used my hands to drag myself along. My sister followed suit.
A woman who’d crossed the bridge before us greeted us with a warm smile. “Are you OK?” We shyly smiled back at her and didn’t answer. The woman trailed behind us until we got to the province market.
At the market, we were reunited with the middle-aged couple and their children. The man told me the market was uproarious with the news that some defectors were captured last night and urged me to quickly buy shoes to wear as it’d be a tell-tale sign that we were one of those defectors.
Back in Saigon, I learnt that my friend who like me had just finished year 12 was killed on another canoe. He was a thin tall boy who always smiled. Another man in his 20s was also killed. The boat with 70 passengers was captured and the people were all jailed.
I was told that my sister and I were very lucky not to be recognised as the defectors. The province Ben Tre was notorious for its communist guerrilla activities during the war and its callous jails for defectors post-war.
I think the woman who’d trailed behind us gave the impression that we were her two city relatives who were visiting. I felt a deep gratitude to the sensible protective action of that woman. There are still good people in this world!
A shaky monkey bridge,
On Chinese New Year’s Eve,
In a far strange village.
Two sisters failed to leave,
And their friends were shot dead,
On Chinese New Year’s Eve.
Two sisters filled with dread,
The hellish ruthless jail,
And their friends were shot dead.
Their friends’ death – they bewail.
A horror time of escape.
The hellish ruthless jail.
On Chinese New Year’s Eve.