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A Tết One Cannot Forget, A Poem About Vietnamese Refugees and Our Resilience on the Island of Pilau Bidong

January 27, 2019

Here are some photos I have kept for more than thirty years. Taken on the island of Pulau Bidong, Malaysia, the photos show Vietnamese refugees on the first day of the Lunar New Year (February 17, 1988). It was on this island that more than 300,000 people landed after escaping the nightmares of crossing the sea:  On their journeys, they faced being detained, extorted, robbed, arrested, and shot at by the Viet Cong, and robbery and rape at the hands of Thai pirates. They suffered hunger and thirst on fragile ships that drifted in and out of numerous storms.  A few hundred thousands souls lost their bodies in the middle of the ocean.


In this refugee camp, I spent a year as a social worker for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, through the  Malaysian Red Crescent Association. My main job was to be in charge of the Community Development Department, to run activities for my refugee brothers and sisters while they waited—often for years—for the day that some country might offer them the chance to start a new life. That year, they temporarily forgot their grief and worries, and mobilized each other to make flags, create lion dance costumes, and even build a Tết tree out of bamboo. We huddled together to scrupulously draw Tết greeting cards.  At that time, there were about 2,000 unaccompanied minors in the camp.  We took turns rehearsing with the children, teaching them to sing and dance. We gathered our musicians and performing artist brothers and sisters together to sew costumes and rehearse musical and folk opera performances.


On the eve of Tết, we had no firecrackers. Suddenly, everyone took sticks and began hitting them against the tin walls to mimic the sound of firecrackers rumbling through the island. The Malaysian police tried to stop us, but forty officers could not stop seven thousand Vietnamese men, women and children from knocking on our tin walls on this Tet New Year's Eve.

On New Year’s morning, we stood in front of the National Altar we erected on the beach to welcome spring.  Because we continued the tradition of scout troops for our kids while on the island, we were able to gather our boys and girls scouts together.  We wore our scarves and uniforms and stood with the children solemnly as if we were reciting the “Scout Oath.”


Photos by Nguyễn Bá Trạc

A poem I wrote during that unforgettable Tết:



New Year’s Eve
Seven thousand people beating tin walls in lieu of firecrackers
Sounds of joy
mixed with sorrow
Has the nightmare passed yet
When will spring come?
What comes after Tết
where will we go
Life in exile still floating on ships
How long to wait?

When Tết comes, wounds fester
Open lesions, skin that never heals
Bullets still explode in hearts
in history
in souls, on the blood and bones of soldiers of the past
Fragments of hearts and minds dissipate away
Cynical pain like plucking flesh


Looking back home
Brothers, sisters
Aunts, uncles, mother, father
My Love
Leaving is knowing a lifetime of rift

Many leave

No hope of return
Swallowing humiliation
Drinking from a shared cup of bitterness
The story is decades long
On the other side, people dried up from suffering
lost in the dark corners of mountain forest
On this side, people drift in the middle of the vast sea
Deep ocean, lost bodies, deserted island erecting graves

A little girl of twelve
impregnated by pirates
A boy of eleven, head wrapped in white
Eyes of innocent child steeped in tears
Looking for father's shadow yet only found silver waves
Dear child
Please fold your funeral scarf
Soon tomorrow will come to carry you somewhere


New Year’s Eve
Seven thousand people beating tin walls in lieu of firecrackers
Sounds of joy
mixed with sorrow
Has the nightmare passed yet
When will spring come?

Happy as Tết, smiles still bloom
Sadness is hidden between the moon and stars
This night the wind came to meet us
Carrying coconut trees reaching for the sky

When did spring come
Did you hear sea breeze waving pennant flags?

Even if the sky has no blooms
Looking out from the island, still trusting that spring has come…


Nguyễn Bá Trạc - Pulau Bidong, February, 1988




Đêm giao thừa
bẩy ngàn người đập vách tôn thay pháo
Tiếng vui mừng
xen lẫn buồn lo
Cơn ác mộng qua chưa
Mùa xuân tới bao giờ?
Nhưng sau Tết ra sao
sẽ đi đâu
Đời tha hương vẫn những chuyến tàu
chờ đợi bao lâu?


Khi Tết đến vết thương mưng mủ
Vết thương đời mãi chẳng mọc da
Đạn vẫn nổ trong tim người
trong lịch sử
trên linh hồn, trên máu xương người lính cũ
Mảnh tâm tình tan tác trời xa
Những niềm đau như nứa tuốt thịt da


Nhìn về quê
Anh chị em
cô dì chú bác mẹ cha
Người yêu dấu
Bước ra đi chắc trọn đời xa cách
Mấy người đi
mà có ngày về
Nuốt tủi nhục
uống chung niềm cay đắng
Câu chuyện dài đã mấy chục năm
Bên kia người heo hắt lầm than
người mất hút xó rừng hốc núi tối tăm
Bên này người trôi giạt giữa đại dương
Biển sâu mất xác đảo hoang dựng mồ


Bé gái mười hai
mang thai hải tặc
Bé trai mười một đội vành khăn trắng
Mắt con thơ đẫm lệ
Tìm bóng cha chỉ thấy sóng bạc đầu
Cháu ơi
hãy xếp vành khăn lại
Một mai đây mang tới phương nào


Đêm giao thừa
bẩy ngàn người đập vách tôn thay pháo
Tiếng vui mừng
xen lẫn buồn lo
Cơn ác mộng qua chưa?
Mùa xuân tới tự bao giờ?


Vui như Tết, nụ cười vẫn nở
Nỗi đau buồn đem giấu giữa trăng sao
Đêm hôm nay gió muôn trùng họp mặt
Đưa những thân dừa vươn ngọn tới trời cao


Mùa xuân đến tự bao giờ
Có nghe gió biển phất cờ đuôi nheo?


Dẫu trời chẳng nở cành mai
Nhìn ra hải đảo vẫn hay xuân về…




Nguyễn Bá Trạc

San Jose




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