Fleeing Vietnam With The Boat People: The Story Of The Captain Of A Refugee Vessel

Nam Pham


Nam Pham was born in Saigon in 1955, the second youngest in a family with ten children. His father worked for the government, but retired when Nam was very young. His three older brothers served in the Republic of Vietnam military, two in the Army and one in the Navy. He had a happy childhood, and worked hard to get a good education. He remembers meeting American Soldiers while visiting his brother’s unit, describing them as very nice and recalls feeling that the United States was helping the Vietnamese. In 1972, he joined the Navy and underwent training at Cam Ranh Bay. He then returned to Saigon to receive additional specialized training to be a health care provider. When the Republic of Vietnam fell, he made a desperate journey to get back to Saigon to take care of his family. Since he had only been in the military a short time, he only had to attend a few days of “reeducation” training, while his brothers and brothers-in-law had to spend anywhere from three to eleven years in communist prison camps. When one of his brothers was finally released, Nam was shocked to see how his health had deteriorated. After the war, Nam continued to work as a health care specialist, but facing discrimination, he sought to leave the country. His brother who had served in the Navy had escaped to Rhode Island, and sent money back so Nam could leave Vietnam. Unfortunately, his first attempt was a failure, but he learned from that experience, and began organizing a plan to escape. He acquired a boat and routinely transported cargo from Saigon to Vung Tau, learning how to bribe communist guards while becoming familiar to them and trying to act like a “good citizen.” When he was finally ready to flee the country, his 10 x 20 foot boat was nearly swamped when 91 refugees crowded the decks. Sailing for Malaysia with only rudimentary navigational skills, they soon encountered problems when the engine failed after three days, and they were adrift for four or five more days. They were found by Malaysian fishermen who offered food and water in exchange for gold, and would only tow the boat into port if the refugees gave them a woman. Nam refused, but one of the girls on board volunteered, and Nam sent her over to the Malaysian fishing boat with ten Vietnamese for protection. Finally arriving in Malaysia, he spent several months in a refugee camp before traveling to the United States by way of a refugee camp in the Philippines. His brother was his sponsor, but Nam soon grew restless in Rhode Island and moved to California to be near friends. He achieved success in America through hard work and dedication, and is thankful for the opportunities available in the United States. In this interview, he talks about organizing his escape from communist Vietnam, and becoming successful in America. He recalls an episode when he first came to this country and was working in a restaurant. Some of the employees made fun of his poor English, and the manager stood up for Nam, threatening to fire anyone who ridiculed him. At the end of the interview, he reflects on what his service means to him and his appreciation of America as a true friend to those in need.


conflicts Vietnam War
topics Refugee Leadership Courage Life After Military Vietnamese Navy
interviewer David Siry
date 18 January 2019


name Nam Pham
service Republic of Vietnam Navy
unit Republic of Vietnam Navy
service dates 1972 1975