“We even had access to returnees imprisoned for criminal offenses af¬ter they came back, and we found zero incidents of mistreatment,” Keisuke Murata, the deputy director of UNHCR’s Hanoi office, told me. “The government understands their reintegration into society is impor¬tant, and it has worked hard to close this chapter of the war. Given the industrious nature of the Vietnamese and their basic instinct to seek bet¬ter lives, I can safely say that although many returnees were disoriented at first, the great majority managed to regain their livelihoods within a few years.”
In the course of the Diaspora, the United States accepted enough Vietnamese refugees, including more than 90,000 young Amerasians fa¬thered by American servicemen, to fill a city the size of Baltimore. Aus¬tralia—whose restrictive and racist immigration policies through the 1960s had been based on fear of the “yellow peril” to the north—became the home of 200,000 Vietnamese. Another 200,000 went to Canada, where Vancouver took on the trappings of a distinctly Asian city. Slowly the Asian detention centers emptied, and in August 1997, twenty-two years after the end of the war, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said in Hanoi: “The saga of the Vietnamese boat people, one of the most tragic examples of human suffering in the region’s recent history, has fi¬nally come to an end.”
“IT’S OVER?” Nguyen Van Y asked, incredulous. “Then what am I doing still here? When the French ship picked us up, we thought three, maybe six months in the Philippines, then the United States. That was nine years ago.”
I was sitting with Van Y in the noodle shop he ran in Puerto Princesa, on the Philippine island of Palawan. “Mr. Bojangles” blasted out of a boombox on the stove. His two friends pulled their stools closer to our table to hear what Van Y was saying and to examine the photograph he held, of himself as a twenty-one-year-old soldier in the Mekong Delta, wearing a South Vietnamese uniform. They too had served with the army of the South, and they nodded when Van Y said he could never return to a communist homeland. One of them, Tran Nhu Ban, added: “Nine years is a long time to wait. We hope the Americans will recognize our plight, but I’m not sure anyone knows about us any more.”
Indeed, a year after the United Nations had cut off resettlement funds and declared the refugee crisis over, few people did. The three former sol¬diers were part of a lost, forgotten fraternity whose scattered members, perhaps 3,000 in all, were never resettled because of a variety of circum¬stances. They lived in a twilight zone of statelessness—unwilling, in most cases, to return to Vietnam and unwanted by any new homeland. They had either failed to convince screeners in the Philippines or Hong Kong that they were political refugees, or they had been deemed by U.S. inter¬viewers to have medical problems or character flaws. They had invested a decade in making the dangerous escape from Vietnam to get, really, nowhere.
The last best hope the twilight people had was a twenty-eight-year- old Vietnamese Australian lawyer, Hoi Trinh, who had abandoned a con¬ventional legal practice in Melbourne, and the high salary that went with it, to work for a subsistence stipend trying to resettle the last of the boat people. Trinh lived in a dumpy Manila flat crawling with Vietnamese refugees, whom he fed and let camp out for free. He had become a surro¬gate dad to a four-year-old boy named Minh whose father, an Amerasian, had committed suicide after being denied entry to the United States. He drove consular officers at the U.S. and Australian embassies nuts because he came up with the damnedest arguments to show why so-and-so had been denied justice and was entitled to immigrate. But he was often suc¬cessful, and every couple of weeks he put someone else on the plane to start a new life in Orange County or Perth.
Trinh was the same age as I when I went off to cover the war. At that age I thought little about anyone but myself; he thought mostly about others. I never met a Vietnamese quite like him. First, the notion of help¬ing strangers is as alien in Vietnam as the concept of volunteerism. Sec¬ond, anyone who turned his back on a high-salaried job to work basically for free would be dismissed in Vietnam as retarded, and Hoi really didn’t care if he had two pesos to rub together as long as he was winning his le¬gal battles, one by one, to find homes for the asylum-seekers. And third, whereas Trinh trusted everyone, the Vietnamese were largely distrustful of and unconcerned with anyone outside their immediate circle of family and friends. It was a distrust born in centuries of wars between regional dynasties and, more recently, in the xenophobia of a communist system that encourages watchfulness and makes undercover security spooks an essential apparatus of state control.
Trinh and I had met in Manila, and he took the flight to Palawan with me so I could meet some of the people he was trying to help. I asked him how he had ended up in Australia. Trinh said his father—a high school principal when Saigon fell—had been sent off to a reeducation camp in the Mekong Delta in 1975. “We got to visit him once there for two days,” Trinh said. “I didn’t understand why my dad was there. I was seven. I asked my mom and she said, ‘He has to be here. There has been a change.’”
Chinh Trinh was released in 1977 and dispatched, with his family, to Phu Quoc Island. The authorities told him he could never teach again. He was to be a farmer. Phu Quoc had no electricity, no running water, no doctors. Hoi Trinh’s baby brother died there of an unknown disease and an absence of medical care. Trinh sold cigarettes and watermelons on the beach. “My mom and dad were terrible farmers,” Trinh said. “What did they know about farming? They were educated city people. The soil was awful on Phu Quoc. Nothing grew. My parents tried potatoes, but they didn’t get any bigger than my thumb.” After ten failed attempts, Chinh Trinh escaped Vietnam in 1980. He spent twelve days adrift in an eighteen-foot boat and made landfall in Thailand. The family was re¬united in Australia five years later.