Back in the early 1970s, as a newspaper reporter in Vientiane, Laos, I became convinced there was no future for corrupt U.S. backed regimes in Southeast Asia.
For villagers subjected to carpet-bombing in Laos and Cambodia, there was little doubt as to who the enemy was. In Vietnam, it was easy to depict the U.S. as an occupying force, successors to the French colonialists.
The collapse of all three regimes happened in 1975, starting with the “liberation” or “fall” of Saigon in Vietnam, and the Khmer Rouge victory in Cambodia, and then the Communist Pathet Lao takeover in Laos.
My friend, then reporter John Everingham, stayed behind in Laos after that takeover, then swam across the Mekong River with his girlfriend to seek refuge in Thailand. Thousands of others, including Hmong tribes people in Laos and other friends of the regime did the same.
There was a sense of panic in Vietnam: Catholics and others, including business people, shop owners, and friends of the Americans who feared retribution and re-education camps planned to escape.
Many fled Vietnam by sea and became known as Boat People. They paid large sums of money, faced the uncertainty of rickety boats, pirates, rough and unpredictable seas, and an often unfriendly welcome in neighbouring countries.
Caroline Vu, a Montreal physician, takes us back to that time and place in Palawan Story, her novel about Kim, who as a teenager fled her hometown of Hue, Vietnam by boat and ended up in a refugee camp in the Phillipines.
Though Vu left Vietnam in 1970, Palawan Story is a composite of her own life and an imaginary boat person’s saga. It is written in the innocent voice of the main character and reflects the thoughts of her age and milieu, including concerns and fear in South Vietnam of a Communist takeover.
The combination of dramatic episodes and more banal tidbits, in the dialogue, has a poetic truth to it.
We are immersed in the sights, sounds and smells that are part of life in any Southeast Asian urban setting where neighbourhoods teem with activity.
Kim’s reflections are those of a youngster. Readers will appreciate her confusion about the true nature of Charlie Company, the group of frustrated U.S. soldiers who unleashed the horrific My Lai Massacre of some 350 innocent civilians in 1968, first revealed to the world in the investigative reports of a young Seymour Hersh.
We also read about the Tet Invasion of that year when Communist forces staged attacks in South Vietnam and committed atrocities – a show of force that shook up much of the remaining confidence that U.S. backed forces could win and led to a massive escalation of the U.S. bombing campaign.
But Kim’s story is not political. It’s about a talented young woman as she comes of age in survival mode, separated from her family.
She uses white lies and has to be somewhat manipulative to get what she wants, never losing her humanity in the process.
This lovely story is more than an individual journey; it is more than a throwback to the period of the Communist takeover in Vietnam and its thousands of Boat People: It is a reminder of the trauma and obstacles refugees face in their search for protection and a normal life.
Looking at how Caroline Vu and her heroine Kim have adjusted and succeeded in their new homes, this is a timely reminder of what tens of thousands of Syrians and others face as they wait in refugee camps to be accepted in countries such as Canada.
Palawan Story is available through Deux Voiliers Publishing, for $18.50.