EXIT VISA is a factual novel about the aftermath of the Vietnam war and its effect on the lives of six Vietnamese. In a vivid and gripping narrative, it chronicles the horrors experienced by those who fled after the fall of Saigon.
Most books on Vietnam finish when the war ended, but what happened when the communists took over? Why did the people flee in their thousands? What took place in the re-education camps and the New Economic Zones? This factual novel describes in detail what happened to cause the flood of refugees, all desperate to leave, all needing an Exit Visa.
EXIT VISA gives a vivid description of the last days of the Vietnam war; the murder of the Kampucheans during Year Zero; working on the Ho Chi Minh Trail; living in Saigon after the communists took over; the fleeing of the 'boat people' from Vietnam; the boat journey to Malaysia; resettlement in Australia. This is one of the few books published (in English) that describes these events through Vietnamese eyes.
In this novel a young schoolteacher and her family flee the approaching communist army. A brutal and corrupt police sergeant bribes his way out of Saigon and onto a jet. An elderly jeweller watches in despair as the city and people he loves are destroyed. A Khmer Rouge fanatic, trained to torture for pleasure and to kill on orders, seeks sanctuary in Vietnam; a young communist soldier loses his faith in the new order and goes into hiding and starvation with a frightened woman and her children. Each is seeking an Exit Visa, no matter what the price.
DA NANG, 1975
We set off again in the morning. The streets stank, refuse littered them and everything looked tattered: shop windows smashed, and there were makeshift shelters everywhere built by the crowds of refugees flooding into Da Nang.
Before we reached the docks we could hear the people. It was like the airport all over again. Thousands of people crammed onto the docks, all fighting for a place on a few ammunition barges that the navy was towing out to sea.
When we arrived, a navy ship was pulling a barge out from the docks; we walked along the edge of the crowd trying to see. When I was able to peer through the crowd, I shuddered. It was horrible just to watch what was happening in front of my eyes. The people were so crazed, so desperate that they had crammed themselves onto the barge like flies on a piece of meat. Many of them were clinging to the sides, unable to find enough room to stand on it. They were hanging on with their fingers, and as I watched the barge rocked and twisted as it passed through the ship's wash. They fell from the side like ants and disappeared under the water. I saw a head bobbing about and saw another trying to swim hopelessly after the barge. I felt sick in my stomach knowing there was nothing anyone could do to save these crazed people.
Father said to Anh, 'It doesn't look good here. I think we should move back from the dock and wait. Perhaps a big ship will come in.'
'But if we move away from the dock we will lose our place! If a ship comes in we won't be able to get on board,' Anh argued.
Mother turned and said, 'We can't stay here, it's too dangerous. The children must have some food and water. If a big ship comes in, we will see it. I don't want to get on one of those little barges.'
'Perhaps I should stay here and watch for a ship in case ...'
Suddenly the chatter of the crowd rose to a high-pitched babble. A small navy patrol boat came into view, towing a barge behind it.
'Look!' Anh said. 'Let's wait awhile and see what happens; perhaps we can get on board.'
So we stood on the edge of the crowd watching the boats manoeuvring alongside the dock. Many people fell from the dock into the water as the crowd jostled for a place at the front. Some of them drowned. No one tried to save them; each person was thinking only of himself. I didn't like the thought of getting on a barge at all. I hoped a big ship might pull in and we could all fit safely on it without panic.
The crowd became more and more excited, frenzied; people were trying to anticipate where the barge would stop. The crowd was so thick it was almost like one big animal, all the bodies pushing forward together, like a big Chinese dragon.
And then it happened. The barge swept in and stopped near us. I tried to get away, but it was impossible. We were all swept forward, pushed along by the panic-stricken crowd, all desperate enough to kill to get on that barge. I could do nothing; we had been near to the edge of the crowd which became the front. We were swept forward while I clutched at Mother trying to hold us together. Father was holding little Xe in his arms; Anh held Han by the arm, but I could not see them. In a brief terrifying moment I was carried forward against my will and fell down into the barge. Mother disappeared from my grasp and for an instant I saw her crumpled body underneath mine, struggling, and then I was swept on without her. A torrent of people trampled over her, fell on her, jumped down onto her. I tried to get back to her but could not move at all except when the crowd carried me along. I was terrified, panicking and screaming. People all around me fell and were trampled to death. They died under a stampede of feet, unable to breathe, their heads kicked and trodden on by crazed people, mad people.
In a moment I was pushed near the side of the barge, crushed tight against the people around me. I could see Father nearby. I called out. 'Father! Father!'
He turned towards me. I could see tears streaming from his eyes, his face almost unrecognisable with grief, holding up his childless, empty arms.
I could hear my own screaming -- terrifying me, but I could not stop. A high-pitched desperate cry of pain and terror, the cry of a mother bird coming back to her chicks and finding only a fat-bellied snake.
I ran out of breath, barely able to breathe now for the pressure of people pushing against me, almost asphyxiating me. Suddenly the barge lurched and jerked away from the dock. I saw men jumping or failing from the docks, fighting for a place. The barge was packed with people pressed together, unable to sit or move. And underneath their feet lay dozens of dead people, crushed and trampled to death: my mother, my little four-year-old sister.
I could not see the navy boat that was towing us. I could not even move. The waves bumping the boat caused people to be squashed against me, making me feel sick. The barge held many men and soldiers. There were some women and children and some older people, but they probably weren't there because they fought hardest to get on board but because they were pushed on.
Anh and Father were close by -- they could hear me if I yelled. All I wanted was to get off the barge and onto another ship, or land somewhere. And all I could think about was my mother and sister crushed to death, lying somewhere under all those soldiers' boots. To die in such a pitiful way, not peacefully, not among friends in a soft bed, not with honour, the honour of being killed for holding some belief or fighting for some principle, just hundreds of boots, shoes, and feet squeezing you until the breath stops and the nose squelches blood, the mind goes blank with pain and death.
Because I could not see the navy boat I was unable to tell precisely when we were cut adrift to float like driftwood in the sea; it was only when I realised we were not moving forwards, but backwards, and sometimes sideways. The waves rocked and tossed our boat about much more than before, and people started to be sick, to vomit. And since they could not move they were sick on each other, and the stench of the sick made others vomit, and we vomited on ourselves, on each other. And then the sun made me feel dizzy and weak, but I could not sit down, and everything swirled and went black, but I was held from falling by people pressed against me, being sick on me, each of us sweating, dripping with sweat, the heat of our bodies locked in so that no breeze could penetrate into that barge. And then the thirst came: unquenchable.
TRIN THI CHOY
South China Sea
Screaming woke me. It was all around piercing into my head. Loc was holding his arms about me in his sleep, but without warning we were sent sprawling across the floor on top of a tangle of other people. The boat was lifting up sharply and tilting up so high we could not even sit up, then falling away in front of us like a somersault. Parents tried to hold their children from falling and injuring themselves, but it required great strength. We were thrown against each other with every twisting, crashing wave. The light was dim down below, coming from a small electric bulb. People began to vomit as they slid about helplessly, crashing into each other and the walls. Then the water began to wash in across the floor until it was ankle deep. It soaked our clothes, blankets and belongings. It carried vomit on its crest as it raced from one side of the boat to the other. The children wailed in terror.
'Trin, I'm sorry, but I must go up and see what's happening. I feel so tired.'
'Couldn't you stay with me?' I asked.
'If I could -- yes! Remember I love you, won't you?'
'I know. I think of it always. And I love you, Loc.'
He bent and kissed me. Then, clutching the handrail, he clawed his way up to the wheelhouse. I was concerned about Loc, for I knew there was something very wrong. Something desperate was about to happen. I could feel a disaster pressing in on me, trying to smother me. I feared for Loc, but knew that if I stayed with him he would be safe. I followed him up to the wheelhouse and stood behind him on the steps.
The sky was black and the wind whistled through every small opening, a howling, rain-driven gale. A man burst in from outside where he had been on deck and began screaming that three boys had been washed overboard.
'Turn back! You must get them. They are my sons. The waves ... turn back or they will drown!'
'We can't!' Loc shouted. 'We would all die. The boat would sink if we tried to turn it around. We cannot stop now, and we could not find them in the dark. If anyone else is on deck get them below.'
The man went outside again, and never came back.
The boat was rising and falling, ploughing over the tops of enormous white crested waves, then dropping down the other side into the trough. The wind was viciously strong, driving bitterly cold rain, striking at our faces like little pebbles.
Chu was at the wheel, the engine was at near full throttle, roaring in protest, but he eased it back to a murmur as we crested each wave. Luan and Loc peered out through the smeared glass trying to see the white-crested mountains we were climbing. But darkness was almost complete, and it greatly intensified our fears.
'Can I help?' Loc asked Chu. But he did not reply. He looked grimly out of the little square of glass and suddenly I could see he was shaking, quivering, and to my horror he let got of the wheel and collapsed on the floor. He vomited, he cried and wailed. He was in some terrible state of shock, or panic.
'Chu!' Loc shouted at him. 'You must help us. Luan take the helm! Where's Lat? Lat! Lat! After a few moments he appeared from below trembling and looking afraid. Luan was struggling with the throttle.
'Take the helm, Lat! Drive it!'
He bent down over Chu who was shaking fiercely as if he was having a fit.
'We are all dead' Chu moaned. 'We are dead. Dead.' Then he coughed and vomited on the floor, his body shivering and shaking. Loc rolled up Chu's sleeve, and even from where I was standing I could see scars, sores, and needle marks along his forearm.
Lat clutched the wheel grimly, peering determinedly into the blackness as the waves smashed over the bow of our tiny boat.
'What's wrong with Chu?' he asked without turning around.
Loc shrugged. 'I don't know, but we must get by without him. I think he's withdrawing from drugs.'
Lat called out, 'It's stuck! It's stuck! The helm is stuck again.' Loc moved across, and they both put their strength to the wheel, but it would not move at all. They tried twisting it backwards and forwards, but it would only turn a little, not enough to be of any use.
Loc yelled above the sound of the wind and the roar of the engine, 'I should have removed all the wood when I was down there before. This is my responsibility. Can we get through the storm without it?'
The boat lifted high into the air, and this time it began to twist before it came down. I had no knowledge of boats, but it seemed to me that unless we could correct ourselves after each wave we could soon capsize.
'No! We must free it or we will roll over.'
'Then I'm going down to try and unjam it,' Loc said firmly.
'You can't! You'll die if you go down -- you couldn't even see, it's black out there. The waves will smash you to bits.'
'What will happen if we have no rudder?'
'Then I've got nothing to lose. You will have to stop the engine. Luan, you can run forward when I go under and tell him when to stop it, and when I'm ready you must tell him to start up again. How long will we last without the engine driving it?'
He shrugged, 'I'm not a sailor. Ask the captain.'
But the captain was curled in a corner, like a foetus, crying and moaning. We had all forgotten him.
'Luan, you must get someone to hold the rope for me.' Loc began to tie it around his waist.
'Who? A strong young man. Kon?'
'No. Bring me an old man. Bring me Ngoc.'
'Ngoc! He can't help you. He is old, weak.'
'No. I don't know about his body, his soul is steel. Bring me Ngoc.'
He chose a strong yellow-handled screwdriver from a box of tools. When he turned he saw me standing near the steps behind him; he gave me a little smile, then turned and pushed his way out into the storm. Hand-hold by hand-hold they proceeded to the stern in single file.
'Loc,' I said weakly, but he did not hear me because of the wailing wind, the heavy drumming rain, and the rattling roar of the diesel engine that separated us. I was miserable -- Loc was leaving me, and I was afraid to follow him down the side of the boat and into the darkness.
Loc was dead. He was laid out on the floor of the wheelhouse while we squatted around him listening to old Ngoc.
'Loc was so brave! I couldn't believe he was going down underneath in the dark, in the middle of a storm. The waves were huge. I could barely keep hold of the boat. He went under, Trin, and the waves washed him straight out and I had to pull him back to the boat with the rope. But he went under again and I counted up to a hundred before I pulled him out. The boat was nearly rolling over by then. When he came out, he was gasping for breath. It seemed crazy for him to go down again, but I would not tell him that. I would have done whatever he asked. If he asked me to go down with him --yes even that. But the last time I pulled him up ... he was dead. I saw his head straight away. It must have been smashed on the propeller.'
Loc was lying in front of us, almost naked, dripping with water and blood. A cloth was placed over the top of his head, and in his hand he clutched, tight as a vice, a yellow-handled screwdriver.
Ngoc reached over, and carefully, with respect, pulled the
screwdriver from his grasp. He stared at it a moment not knowing what to do with it, then slowly offered it to me.
I turned it over and on the handle was written: TURNER
It seemed to me to be a message to me, and later, when I showed Ngoc, he agreed with me. The screwdriver, taken from a dead hand that had freed the rudder, became a command.
'The rudder is still free' yelled Lat. He was standing behind the wheel, spinning it back and forth and making the engine roar.
Outside the waves lifted our tiny boat like a leaf, and the rain driven by the cold wind lashed at us through the cracks in the door.
'He was the most important person on the boat. Now what will
we do? I thought the captain. . .'
'The captain!' spat Duc. 'What use is he to us now? Loc was our leader all the time, but we didn't know it. He didn't push us
around, he led us, and we didn't even know it.'
I felt numb; they talked while I sat at his side. My Loc was dead. Our boat continued to lift and fall and twist, but it kept going. My tears fell to his chest, and I grieved. I couldn't understand why life always took those I loved from my grasp. My brother, my mother, my father, Xe and little Han -- all dead, and now Loc. Death seemed to follow me. What was life for? What did it matter now if I also died? Why hadn't we stayed in Saigon? Why did he have to go down again? Couldn't someone else have gone?
Oh, but Loc was like that. He wouldn't stay in Saigon. I heard his voice in my head telling me, It's better to die on your feet than to live on your knees. And that's why he went back down.
Ngoc was sitting down on the other side of me crying, looking at him. Luan stood watching out the window. He would not look at Loc. But when I saw his face I understood. It was bloated and wet with tears. It was not just his death that upset everyone -- I knew now that they all loved him -- it was something else. Now we were on our own. He had been a secret leader all the time, and now we had lost our strength. How could we succeed without him?
We stayed like that for an hour and like in some magic story we sailed right through the storm and into clear skies, so clear we could see the stars through the open doorway. The waves were very choppy but no longer dangerous.
I stood up. My clothes were drenched, and I was shivering in the biting wind. But I didn't want to leave Loc's body.
'Luan, will you cover him up for me?'
'Yes, I'll get a blanket.' And he went below.
When he returned, Phong was following him. Luan covered the body carefully with the blanket.
Phong looked down at Loc and said with a wide smile, 'Looks like we'll be having a burial in the morning after all.'
I spun around and felt my open hand lash out like a whip across Phong's face. I hit Phong so hard that his head spun quickly and hit the wooden doorway. He stumbled and fell backwards down a few steps and landed on his side. He got up looking dazed, glaring up at me.
'Come back up here,' I said, 'and I'll claw your eyes out.' I had no idea that such a fury within me was possible.
Phong bent over and fumbled with his clothes and just as I
thought he was about to go away he stood upright and started up the steps with a snarling, 'You die, slut.' And in his hand he held a long, gleaming knife, pointed at my throat.
'Stop!' Ngoc called sharply. He was standing behind me.
And strangely Phong did. He paused, turned and went back down the steps and disappeared into the crowd below. I turned and looked at Ngoc and was amazed to see that in his hand he held gun, still pointing at the empty steps.
He said fiercely, 'I would have killed him, I swear it.'
'You should have,' Duc said. 'Someone will have to one day.'
When we got to the police station it was noisy with drunks; I didn't like it at all. They put me in a cell with Joe and Phong.
'What happened, Joe?'
'They have gone to get an interpreter. When they have one they will question all of us.'
Phong was walking around grinning and smirking.
'Fuck it all! What happened tonight?'
Joe talked quickly; he was nervous and frightened.
'They caught Phong at the house trying to kill Trin. The pigs came and... Phong told them ... everything. We're in trouble, Dang! We've got to get a good lawyer right away. Right away!'
'What do you mean, he told them everything?'
Joe looked frightened. Phong was relaxed and smirking at me. I hated the sight of that face. I could feel myself getting mad, my head felt near to bursting; I could feel a terrific pressure inside it.
I shouted: 'What did the cunt say!'
'That you told him to kill Trin, that you would pay him three thousand dollars to do it.'
Phong stood in front of me and said, 'I'm not going to get into trouble by myself. You would have dropped me, said you didn't know me. Well it was your idea, Toadman! You're in it too now, and that way I know you'll have to get me out of it if you want to save yourself.' He was sneering at me.
But I could hardly see, I was in a long tunnel, there was blackness all around except for Phong's sneering face at the end of the tunnel, and suddenly I had him by the neck. I was pushing his head back against the wall, pulling it forward and smashing it back, shaking his bones, trying to crack his sniggering skull. He reached out to stop me, but my arms are very long, much longer than his shitty little things and he could not reach me. I never felt stronger or angrier in my whole life, and finally I was punishing the little turd for dragging me into the shit. I knew I had to stop before I killed the little runt, but I could not stop. I felt a bursting hatred coming up out of my belly and I wanted to stop his stupid, smirking mouth. My thumbs were pressed deep into the guts of his throat. Joe was clawing at me to stop, but I could not, I was beginning to enjoy it. I was bashing his head down onto the floor now, and my thumbs had almost disappeared into his soft throat. His eyes were bulging out and suddenly Aussie cops were all around me trying to get my fingers out of his throat, but they could not. I felt a great strength in me and I knew I was stronger than all of them. It was a test of strength, there were more cops, someone had a headlock on me but none of them could get my long thumbs out of Phong's throat, or stop me pounding the stupid grin off his face.