Not Fleeing War, But Persecution: One Man’s Tale of Escape from Today’s Việt Nam

Published December 12, 2016 in Episode 62

It’s a chilly Monday night in Houston’s Little Sài Gòn. Children leave a Vietnamese tutoring center one by one, as members of several local Vietnamese youth groups gather inside one of its classrooms. A young fair-skinned man dressed casually in a t-shirt, hoodie, and jeans sets up tables and chairs for a gathering. Once everyone is settled down, the meeting begins, and the young man begins to speak.

Thủy Nguyễn speaks to members of local Vietnamese youth groups. (Photo: Loa/Kathy Triệu)

Thủy Nguyễn speaks to members of local Vietnamese youth groups. (Photo: Loa/Kathy Triệu)

His name is Thủy Nguyễn, and he is one of the leaders of the organization, Houston Youth for a Better Việt Nam, a community group he founded with several other young Vietnamese locals. He starts by describing the mission of the group: to learn about Việt Nam and take action to support the Vietnamese people. Everyone listens intently to the humorous and lighthearted Thủy as he speaks. His charming mannerisms, tinged with sarcasm, make him an oddly likeable character. Asked to describe himself, Thủy opts for few words and a cliffhanger.

“Hi. My name is Thủy Nguyễn, I’m 28 years old. I have been in Texas for one and a half years. I came here as a refugee. I lived in Hà Nội for eight years before I came to the U.S.,” - he says.

Thủy was a university student at the Hà Nội University of Mining and Geology. He considers himself good at solving problems in math, physics, and chemistry.

“I majored in Petroleum.” Thủy says. And during his free time, “I joined some protests against China,” he adds.  

This aspiring engineer was taking the usual math and physics classes, and did poorly in his geology class. He lived in an apartment he shared with some friends.

University was pretty mundane, until one day, when Thủy was in his third year. Out of the blue, he received an alarming message from home.

“A friend of mine called me and she told me there’s something in my house. There was a lot of people inside my house. She told me that they were police. A few minutes later, my mom called me. I remember when my mom called me, I was in a class. She told me my father got arrested.”

Thủy’s mom, Nguyễn Thị Nga, was the first to arrive home the night of his dad’s arrest.

“I arrived home and oh my god, my entire house was surrounded by security police,” Nga recalls. “I saw that my doorway was crowded. People from all over the neighborhood had gathered on both sides of my street and a long row of cars was parked in front of my home. I entered my house, and it was completely turned inside out. Even the phone lines, I could see the police were pulling them out. Every single step I took, the police followed me. They had me surrounded.”

Thủy’s father is dissident writer Nguyễn Xuân Nghĩa, one of the leaders behind a political coalition called Bloc 8406. The group named itself after the date it released a stunning Manifesto on Freedom and Democracy in Việt Nam: It was published on the eighth of April, 2006. The document was groundbreaking because for the first time, hundreds, then thousands publicly signed on to it, calling for democratic reforms.

Two years later, September 11, 2008, to be exact, at midnight in Hải Phòng, the security police raided the family's home because they were after Thủy’s father, Nguyễn Xuân Nghĩa. A poet, novelist, and journalist, Nghĩa was known for his numerous pro-democracy writings. Thủy’s dad was one of dozens of activists who were arrested at the start of an intense crackdown on dissent in Việt Nam.

“They confiscated all the computers in my house. Everything related to his activities. All the papers, computers, forms, all the things in the house. My mom was crying a lot because now she’s the only one in the family.” Thủy says.

Police eventually charged Nguyễn Xuân Nghĩa under Article 88 of the penal code: conducting propaganda against the state. It wasn’t easy on Thủy. His family was broken. He traveled constantly between his hometown in Hải Phòng where his mom still lived, his university in Hà Nội and wherever his father happened to be imprisoned, after multiple relocations. When Thủy and his mom went to visit his father, the ordeal lasted weeks on end.

“We spent a lot of time visiting him and prepare everything one to two weeks in advance.” Thủy says.

The trips took several bus rides, hours long, and when they arrived they were told to wait four hours.

“[In the visiting room] they told us that we are not to have phones, any recording devices. We have to communicate with him in front of them because they don’t want us to talk about politics, any details about what’s happening outside related to politics.” Thủy says. “So when we were talking to him it’s like, when we talk to him, if we mention something about politics, they gonna stop us. And sometimes they will stop the conversation and send him back to his cell.”

After his father’s arrest, Thủy wasn’t allowed to see him for an entire year. When they finally met again, Thủy was shocked to find how much his father had changed:

“He looked really different. He got older. He had a lot of white hairs. I think he’s getting older inside. And I asked him about how the prison was. He told me that there was a lot of pressure because the police interview him everyday, day and night, and it makes him tense. We meet him for just one hour and we go back. Wow.”

Thủy’s father was in prison for six years. During that time, Thủy was constantly harassed by the security police. They were persistent, and went to extremes to disrupt his life. Sometimes, instead of lashing out directly at Thủy, they got his university professors involved.

“They went to my school and they asked my teacher to invite me to go to police station.” Thủy recalls. “Man, I remember some of my teachers really were a--holes.”

Thủy’s professors would ask him to visit them in their offices, and the police would be there.

“[From there], they invited me to go to police station for ten days -- consecutively -- in a row”. Thủy says. “Every day. It was a tough time. They interviewed me about stuff related to [pro-democracy party] Việt Tân, and about the protests I joined.”

On another occasion, he remembers being prevented from joining a peaceful assembly outside a Hà Nội courtroom.

“The police didn’t want me to go there to join the crowd, so basically they asked my teacher to invite me to my teacher’s office.”

Thủy hadn’t suspected this professor was taking police orders. He willingly met with his professor on a Saturday morning, thinking they’d discuss his coursework. But when he went, he learned that he was brought there for nothing.

“For nothing!” - Thủy says - “Invited me to go to his office and did nothing there! When [they] don’t want dissidents to go anywhere, [or] to join the masses, they would invite him to the police station or places like that.”

Life went on this way for quite a while -- even after his father was released from prison in 2014 and began serving his three years of house arrest. Thủy’s mom, Nga, no longer had to live alone, but the police harassment did not let up. She says:

“They would mix shrimp paste with paint and throw it at my house,” she says. “My husband’s house arrest was no better than prison. Our friends in Hà Nội love my husband, and often came over to see how he was doing. But the police told neighbors to monitor them. The police would chase our friends’ cars and shatter their car windows. My husband’s house arrest is so bad, even when our friends come visit, they won’t let up.”

“I couldn’t do anything I wanted to do in Việt Nam.” Thủy recalls. “I graduated but I had no job related to the field I studied and the government harassed me so many times. I was really fed up with my life in Việt Nam. I was asking myself, is it the kind of life that I want? Absolutely not.”

From left to right, member of Vietnam Pathway, Thủy Nguyễn, Nguyễn Thị Nga, Nguyễn Xuăn Nghĩa, Jenifer L Neidhart de Ortiz, member of Vietnam Pathway (Photo: T  hủy Nguyễn)

From left to right, member of Vietnam Pathway, Thủy Nguyễn, Nguyễn Thị Nga, Nguyễn Xuăn Nghĩa, Jenifer L Neidhart de Ortiz, member of Vietnam Pathway (Photo: Thủy Nguyễn)

Thủy realized then that his circumstances might qualify him for refugee status in the United States. However, the process is a long one, and involves a detailed application and several interviews -- all to determine whether or not the applicant really is a refugee.

Vivian Tan is regional press officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a United Nations refugee agency that helps protect people who are forced to flee, including refugees and asylum seekers. Tan explains:

“A refugee is somebody who has been recognized under the 1951 refugee convention as a refugee which is basically someone who fled persecution in his or her own country. And an asylum seeker is somebody who has sought asylum but whose claim is in the process of being determined. So, an asylum seeker could eventually be recognized as a refugee or could have his or her claim rejected if the credibility of this person’s claim is not clear.”

From 2013 to 2015, there were approximately 10,000 applications for asylum from Việt Nam. Applications don’t guarantee that asylum will be approved. Of the thousands of applications submitted each year, about 25 percent are rejected. And for Thủy, his application would trigger unwanted attention from the Vietnamese government, who already had their eyes on him. The decision was difficult, but it was pretty clear to him.

“I have to do something. So I decided to apply for refugee in the U.S.,” he says.

“I am very supportive of my son leaving Việt Nam, because Thủy has the same love for his country, just like his father.” Thủy’s mom tells Loa. “His first year at the university, Thủy already protested against China in front of the Chinese embassy. It’s because of this and his father’s arrest that the police began to watch Thủy very closely. The government would not leave Thủy alone. They would never let him be. Wherever he went, whatever he did, the police harassed him, and this closed the doors to his future.”

Now it was on Thủy to prove that the Vietnamese government was persecuting him based on his political opinion.

“For the first two years, I was in the process of interviewings, of interviews from the U.S. government. They asked some questions related to Communist Party and my activities in Việt Nam, political activities. After two years, they approved it. Actually, just a year and a half [ago]. And then, they gave me the ticket to fly to U.S., Houston, to be exact.”

Thủy thought he had made it. He had an approved application for refugee status in the United States, even a ticket to fly. He didn’t need anything else. His nightmare would soon be over.

But he had no idea.

“When I went to the airport, the police stopped me and they confiscated my passport. I really thought they would give me back my passport, but actually they didn’t. Damn them, the Vietnamese police. You should not trust them. They’re really a--holes. I couldn’t go out of Việt Nam because I didn’t have [my] passport anymore.“

Thủy was angry with the police for taking his passport, but he knew all he could really do at the time was go home and wait.

“A few days later, the police invited me to their place and asked me how I applied for refugee status, and where I would settle down in the U.S.,” Thủy recounts. “A lot of questions were related to my refugee process and the people who helped me. And they didn’t say anything every time like I sent them letters requesting for my passport back. They invited me to their place and explained to me why they wouldn’t do so.”

The police interrogated him to find out who helped him. Eventually, Thủy was sure they didn’t intend to ever return his passport. They only wanted to intimidate him.

“After one year I decided I have no choice. I can’t stay in Việt Nam that way.” Thủy says. “I waited for more than a year for the refugee status and the police intervened and did really terrible things. After a year, I decided that I have to leave this country. So I went to Thailand.”

Thủy decided to go to Thailand because he knew the United Nations would protect him until they could legally bring him out of Thailand and onto a plane to the United States. He couldn’t risk alerting authorities so he didn’t reveal his plan to anyone. For weeks, he kept up his usual routine so as to not raise any suspicion. Then, with help from some friends, Thủy traveled discreetly to the border between Việt Nam and Laos. He still needed to travel to Thailand from Laos, but what he feared the most was leaving Việt Nam.

“That checkpoint, there’s a lot of Vietnamese police. They were checking all the trucks, and cars coming in and coming out of Việt Nam.” Thủy recalls. “My friend told me to just cross it and [I’d] be fine.”

There were vehicles lined up on both sides of the border. But there wasn’t much going on outside besides a few police officers. They were patrolling the area. To blend in, he needed to appear natural when he walked from his truck to the border--a distance of 100 meters. Though he was wary of his friend’s plan, he didn’t have time to hesitate. With none of his possessions, Thủy headed for the border.

“I was the only one who walked across the border — in front of them — and they didn’t notice me. I thought, 'How the hell [did] I cross that checkpoint and [was] fine if the police noticed me crossing by them?' But I did it!" he laughs.

Thủy’s parents are still living in Hải Phòng where they run a small shop. Undeterred by constant harassment, Nghĩa continues to write. As for Thủy, he’s doing well in the United States. This isn’t exactly the life he pictured for himself, but being a community leader in Little Sài Gòn helps him to feel connected to the homeland he was forced to flee.

Thủy with members of Houston Youth for a Better Vietnam. (Photo: Loa/Kathy Triệu)

Thủy with members of Houston Youth for a Better Vietnam. (Photo: Loa/Kathy Triệu)

With his newfound life in Houston, Thủy is free to speak his mind. At the local youth group meeting, he is able to share his experiences with Vietnamese American activists and work with them to build solidarity between Vietnamese people in Việt Nam and in America.

“I think I feel like I was born again. It’s like you have the rights to decide what you want to do, what your future is, and you do what you want to do.” Thủy smiles.