Warrenton’s Lan Kim Ly talks about her escape from a communist prison
Lan Kim Ly has been a successful business owner in our area for decades, owning and operating a series of nail salons in the Piedmont region. Few of the clients at Ly’s current business, Angel Tips Nail Spa in the Waterloo Plaza, could guess that 40 years ago, the genial Ly was imprisoned and forced to perform slave labor for the communists who took over South Vietnam.
Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese suffered the same fate after the 1975 fall of Saigon. When the Vietnam War ended, the new government in Vietnam operated what they called “reeducation camps.” The Vietnamese term roughly translates in English “to transform and remake sinful, imperfect people.”
As Ly explains it, “Two primary groups of people were captured: any man who had an affiliation with the South Vietnamese government, and any business owner.” Ly’s father was a South Vietnamese soldier who had fought against the communists during the war. After the fall of Saigon, men like Ly’s father were told to register with the new government and then report for reeducation.
As Ly’s father knew, reeducation camps were actually prison camps where people as young as 15 were forced to perform hard manual labor while being indoctrinated by the Communist government. Many prisoners were abused, even tortured, and the deliberately-low food rations the government gave them caused severe malnutrition and high rates of disease in the camps.
As the communist soldiers began to set up camp in South Vietnamese homes, they stole valuables and spied on the locals. Many Vietnamese decided to flee the country with their families. “Taking a small boat or walking were the two main ways of escape,” Ly says. Going by boat was costly, so families who had lost everything often opted to escape to Cambodia or Laos on foot. “The likelihood of being caught was high, since you were so exposed while walking,” Ly says.
Those who tried to escape Vietnam by boat had to pay a large “boat fee” to be taken to the Phillipines, Singapore, Hong Kong, or Thailand. It was a risky proposition. Anyone caught escaping by boat was imprisoned. Also, “the small boats were not made to tread such large waves,” Ly says. Many died in boat accidents.
But conditions in Vietnam had deteriorated so much that many were willing to take the risk. “People lived in fear of being imprisoned for any reason. We had no life,” Ly says. “We pined for freedom every day. This is why we tried to escape, and unfortunately a lot of us were caught.”
Ly was just 15 years old when she was captured trying to escape by boat. She was separated from her father and brothers, then imprisoned in a camp called A-30.
The reeducation camps, Ly says, “were just a disguise for overcrowded prisons that supplied slaves to underdeveloped regions in Vietnam for the communist regime.” While her father and brothers were forced to chop wood, pave roads, and build towns, Ly and the 120 women in her prison camp were sent out into the rice fields. “We would stand barefoot in mud up to our knees. When we lifted our legs, we would have several leeches stuck to our legs, growing fat off our blood.” The young women learned to use rice leaves to remove the slippery leeches, which were too slimy for the women to grip with their fingers.
Ly describes living conditions in Camp A-30 as “horrid. Roughly 120 women were forced to share one sleeping hall. There were two rows of approximately 70 beds each, but the beds were made from uneven branches tied together.” Sleeping was painful, and privacy was nonexistent as each young woman’s bed was just inches from her neighbor’s.
“Twice a day, we were fed cooked rice made from the grains that were not in a condition to sell. At times, they [the guards] would allow us some salt to flavor our rice, but we never had any vegetables or meat,” Ly says. The shared hardships forged a bond between the women in A-30. “My group of friends was imprisoned between one and three years,” Ly says. “During those traumatic years, we banded together as a family to help and protect one another.”
One of the girls in A-30, Minh Nguyet Truong, was imprisoned with her sister, Minh Anh. Truong was given “chef privileges” by the communists. Unbeknownst to them, she would “secretly cook up real food from time to time,” Ly says, using preserved foods that visiting families and others smuggled in.
Acts like this kept morale up in the camp, as did the young women’s hope that they would one day escape and make their way to the United States. The girls were never told when they would be allowed to leave. “They told us, ‘Whenever you become a better person, you will be let out,’ but of course that standard was vague and no one knew when they would complete their time,” Ly says.
The women of A-30 were gradually released, one by one. After Ly was let out of prison, she once again tried to escape Vietnam. She left on a small boat with 65 other people to cross to Indonesia. But as their boat approached land, it struck a reef and was badly damaged. A military ship intercepted them and tried to force the group to return to Vietnam. But the boat people were tenacious. They bailed their small vessel out using old military helmets, then tried to reach soil again. This time, a Christian soldier in the predominantly Muslim military noticed a young girl wearing a cross necklace in Ly’s group. Something must have seemed strange about this girl, because the soldier boarded the small boat to check on her. “He waved a hand in front of the girl’s face,” Ly says, “and she did not move. Then he knew that she could not see.”
“This girl is blind,” the soldier told his captain. “We must not send her away again.”
“And thank God,” Ly says, “the captain finally said okay.” Ly spent four months waiting for her immigration paperwork to be completed. Then she was invited to come to the United States. She arrived in California, then made her way to Virginia, where her sister had settled.
The women from A-30 did not have an easy time realizing their dream of coming to America. “Many were here without a supportive family, struggling with language and cultural barriers, and no financial assistance,” Ly says. One of her friends escaped to Hong Kong only to be told she must repatriate there. “I can’t! My fifteen-year-old brother is in the United States, and he needs me!” Ly says her friend pleaded. When the officials relented and she was allowed to fly to California, Ly’s friend found that her brother was sleeping on an acquaintance’s sofa. “There is no room for you,” he said sadly, and so she began her new life in America sleeping in a closet, hoping for better days.
Ly has never been able to locate the people who escaped with her by small boat, but over the years, she has been able to find some of her friends from Camp A-30. In January, she was able to reunite with several of them. “I finally felt whole again, knowing that my prison family made it to America, and also found success and happiness,” Ly says. “We are all now nurses, teachers, business owners, wives, or mothers to successful children.”
“More importantly,” she says, “we are all individuals who were victimized in so many ways but continued to dream and fight. That strength and persistence allowed us to fight for our futures and our unborn children’s futures, that they would not have to endure the pain that we did. All boat people leave behind a legacy that is a testament to our strength as South Vietnamese people. I am proud of my history and who I am.”