18 Jan 2016

"Boat People" - a Vietnamese family remembers

From Voices, 3:30 pm on 18 January 2016

Nhu Bich Chung (Nikki) was born in war-torn Vietnam. Nikki can't remember much about her hell boat ride from Vietnam to Malaysia as a child refugee. She was only a toddler at the time. Her parents can recall only too vividly these horrendous memories but they can't bear to open old wounds. Instead their eldest daughter Nikki relays some of their experiences for me.

I’m at NAM D Restaurant in the heart of Wellington with Nikki, her mother Thu Thi Le Nguyen-Chung and Nikki's younger sister Tranj. Nikki tells me her father Vinh The Chung is away on this occasion so it's up to the women in the family to share their story. Nikki's mum Thu struggles with English so she and Nikki chat in Vietnamese and Nikki translates for me.

Tranj's children Thomas (6) and Abigail (3) happily play in the background (Aunty Nikki's restaurant is a favourite haunt) while I learn what life was like as one of the original ‘Boat People’. It was a journey that started in Rạch Giá, Southern Vietnam for this remarkable Wellington family.

Boat People - A Vietnamese family remembers

A Vietnamese family remembers Photo: RNZ / Lynda Chanwai-Earle

Vietnam’s history dates back around 2000 years. Northern Vietnam and southern China were peopled by many ethnic groups, During the 1,000 years between independence from China in the 10th century and the French conquest in the 19th century Confucianism reigned and Vietnamese society changed little.

But the Vietnam War (which began in 1954) was an armed conflict between the communist regime of North Vietnam and its southern allies, known as the Viet Cong, against South Vietnam and its principal ally, the United States. The war occurred ultimately against the backdrop of an intense Cold War between two global superpowers: the United States and the Soviet Union.

Over 3 million people were killed in the Vietnam War; more than half were Vietnamese civilians. President Nixon finally ordered the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 1973. In 1975, communist forces seized Saigon, ending the Vietnam War, the country was unified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Post-war Vietnam was unbearable for many of the surviving civilians and so many fled. The term ‘boat people’ came from the flight of thousands of refugees leaving Vietnam's coast to cross the sea via boat or ship. Countless lives were tragically were lost.

Rạch Giá is a provincial city and the capital city of Kien Giang province in Vietnam. It is located on the eastern coast of the Gulf of Thailand, 250 kilometres southwest of Ho Chi Minh City. 

Nikki tells me that she and her parents left Rạch Giá in the middle of the night, escaping in one of the many over crowded boats covertly leaving Vietnam. The Chung's sold everything they had to secure a passage on their boat. They were forced to leave their families behind in order to risk death at sea.

The Chung's boat was attacked by Thai pirates several times on their journey. People died, everything the Chung's had was stolen at gunpoint. Nikki was only a baby at the time. Nikki tells me that her parents arrived on the shores of Malaysia with nothing but the clothes they wore, clutching their only child. It was a miracle this family of three survived.

The Chungs endured a further 9 months in a refugee camp in Malaysia before respite finally came through UNHCR. Nikki was just 3 years of age when she and her parents arrived in Masterton in 1980. Nikki and her parents were one of the first wave of Vietnamese families and former refugees to come to New Zealand.

Mum's first memory was eating roast potato and lamb. Lamb had a very strong meat flavour and we struggled to eat it at the time but now we love it, especially marinaded on the BBQ!

Nikki’s sister Tranj and younger brother Eric were born in New Zealand but for Nikki she grew up witnessing how challenging life was for her parents. They arrived with post-traumatic stress and no English. However the Chungs are full of gratitude for the Rotary sponsors and the Masterton community that rallied around this newly arrived, fragile refugee family.

"When we first arrived my mother was pregnant with my sister so she couldn't go to work but my parents went to English classes at night."

A total of 6 refugee families settled in Masterton. Nikki tells me that the Chungs stay in touch with these families even now.

Pho, traditional beef noodle broth

Pho, traditional beef noodle broth Photo: RNZ / Lynda Chanwai-Earle

"Back then in 1980 we arrived with six other families but we were the only Asians at our local schools. The other families sent their kids to Catholic schools, so I found myself being the only Asian child at my school."

"Our parents wanted us to be totally immersed in Kiwi culture, they wanted us to fit in here. At home we would speak Vietnamese and we ate Vietnamese food but at school we were totally immersed in Kiwi culture."

Nikki tells me that she and her mother first traveled back to Vietnam when she turned 18 in the late 1990's. It was a culture shock. Nikki says the poverty they encountered was a poignant reminder just how lucky she and her siblings were to grow up as privileged children in New Zealand.

We are so grateful to our parents. They sacrificed so much for us, firstly to get us here and then to work so hard to give us a better life.

A lot has happened since then. Nikki decided to try hospitality after a successful career in marketing. Nikki and her family were some of the few Vietnamese in Wellington to create authentic cuisine for the region when Nikki opened their popular Nam D Restaurant off Willis Street in the CBD around 6 years ago.

Her mum Thu's special recipes are part of the menu and Thu still helps out at the restaurant taste testing and preparing the sauces.

Popular Vietnamese drip-drip coffee

Popular Vietnamese drip-drip coffee Photo: RNZ / Lynda Chanwai-Earle

And don't forget the Chung grandchildren Abigail and Thomas. Their favourite food is traditional pho, beef noodle broth. These days Thu can be found in the back of Nikki's restaurant helping the Vietnamese chef make this dish for them. It takes more than 6 hours to slow cook the beef brisket with spices like star of anise and the broth must be almost clear. These quintessential dishes are from Thu's own home cooked recipes and a real taste of cuisine from across Vietnam.

And on the topic of food, it’s a busy Friday lunchtime. NAM D is filling up fast as Nikki treats me and her friends to beetle-nut leaf wrapped beef rolls and classic drip-drip coffee, followed by a bowl of their delicious steaming pho. I'm relishing the taste of lovingly prepared traditional Vietnamese dishes.

For the Chung family their initial journey through tragedy has turned into a celebration of life through their food.

Archival audio supplied by Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision.

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