The Escape and the Return

A refugee’s story of fleeing Vietnam and the journey back


Warning: This feature deals with accounts of sexual assault and may be a trigger for some readers.

Imagine that one day you have no freedom or control over your future. Now, imagine that you must make a decision to stay with your family and live under a communist regime or risk your life to find a better future for yourself and your family.

For Ly Doan, mother of Palo Alto High School sophomore Jace Purcell, this was her reality.

Although this story is not a typical Via Verde travel story, it illustrates the history and culture of Doan’s homeland, and her  emotional returning trip to Vietnam serves as a reminder that for many travelers, their journey is not optional.

Like many other Vietnamese refugees, Doan had a tumultuous and life-threatening journey, all for the promise of a better life away from communism.

Forty years later, her story is finally coming to light.

BEACH BUMS Ly Doan smiles for a picture with her two children, Hallie and Jace at Vũng Tàu beach. The family regularly visited the beach during their return visits, which is a two-hour drive away from Ho Chi Minh City. “This was where we had lots of childhood memories,” Doan said. Photo courtesy of Ly Doan

The Escape

Doan was just 17 years old when she first attempted to escape the communist regime in South Vietnam.

The communists in northern Vietnam took over the region where Doan lived in 1975 with her parents and 10 siblings in Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City. She felt like her future after finishing her schooling was ruined.

“My bright future was gone,” Doan says. “I had plans to go to university and study abroad.”

In 1979, four years after the communists overtook Doan’s neighborhood, she attempted her escape from Vietnam.

The first few tries failed, but after her parents salvaged enough money for another attempt as one of the “land people,” Doan took her four siblings, two cousins and two friends across the border of the Mekong river to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.

The nicknames, “land people” and “boat people,” are used to describe the Vietnamese refugees fleeing by ground or by ship.

Cambodia was controlled by the communists as well and was extremely dangerous due to Pol Pot, Cambodia’s dictator at the time, and his communist Khmer Rouge movement, which targeted educated individuals.

While in Cambodia Doan was cheated again. Her older sister was captured by local authorities and held in jail because she worked for the Vietnamese government. According to Doan, she ate a tube of toothpaste to make herself sick in an attempt to escape from captivity and ran out from the hospital at her first opportunity.

She then chose to leave her family in Cambodia and return to Saigon to  find the man that cheated her. She never found him, but she met her father and older sister.

“It was the most difficult decision I’ve ever made in my life,” Doan says. “I was just crying for the longest time.”

Doan soon made an another attempt at escaping to the border and found a different leader who brought her to Phnom Penh. Expecting to see her younger siblings, Doan found out that they were captured and sent back to Vietnam.

The note that her siblings left said, “We’re fine. They [communists] sent us home. We’re O.K.”

By this point, Doan was about 18 years old and had successfully reached the border of Thailand.

At the border was a large jungle, where numerous guerilla groups were stationed, including the Khmer Rouge, a group pushed out by the Vietnamese communists and Thai soldiers.

“If you fall into the Pol Pot group, you die,” Doan states. “They kill you.”

The Northwest 9 camp where the Red Cross worked at the border of Thailand to help the refugees was Doan’s destination. She eventually found the camp, but was stopped along the way by a group supported by the Cambodian government.

“Crossing the border, people know that you’re trying to escape, and they try to take advantage of you,” Doan says, looking back.

At the mercy of the group, women were kidnapped and assaulted, but not Doan.

“Pretty much all the girls were raped,” Doan says. “I was so naïve [in thinking]that I would survive.”

Doan attributes her courageousness to her being a young teenager.

“I was fearless,” Doan says. “That’s why I could escape.”

With the goal of wanting freedom, an education and the opportunity to have a better life to help her family, Doan fought through nights filled with fear of people grabbing her from her tent and listening to the sounds of other girls screaming.

To escape assault, Doan held onto the soldier’s leg in her tent and talked to him all night.

“Please don’t let me go,” Doan pleaded.

From nighttime to dawn she was “begging, begging, and talking” until she felt that she was safe and let go.

As a young woman, Doan had to resort to making her body unattractive to fend off potential sexual assaulters.

One day, as she was being dragged through the jungle, she grabbed the bamboo stalks  near her in resistance until it cut her hands.

“I used the blood to make me dirty,” Doan says. “I got lucky because … he couldn’t rape me.”

Eventually, through Doan’s persistence, the soldier holding her gave up and let her go.

Fortunately, after fighting for her life, Doan was released to the Red Cross.

She was taken to the NW 9 refugee camp, where many Vietnamese refugees stayed.

Nights were still unsafe because men would find out where the girls bunked and would take them after dark. To remain safe, Doan’s friend cut her hair to resemble a boy and gave her a cigarette to blend in.

Eventually she was moved to a bigger camp in Thailand for about a year, since NW 9 was temporary. There, she learned English and found a job at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office as an interpreter.

“I was so proud for 100 baht a month,” Doan says with a smile. “That’s like $10 a month, but I was so happy. We had nothing.”

During that time, Doan’s sister and brothers who were sent back to Vietnam were able to take a boat to the Philippines, which was Doan’s and her siblings’ last stop before immigrating to the US.

After moving to the Philippines, Doan got a surprising call.

“Suddenly we heard that my sister and brother were here!” Doan exclaims.

The UNHCR reunited the siblings after interviewing both separately.

“It was a happy time,” Doan says with a laugh. “A very, very happy time.”

In the Philippines, Doan was given a four-month cultural orientation to prepare to enter the US. Doan then went through numerous interviews to be sponsored to travel to the US, and in June of 1981, she first set foot on American soil.

‘They [sponsors] get the ticket for us, we kind of borrow the money indefinitely and when we graduate we pay it back,” Doan says. “And I already paid back all of that.”

HORSING AROUND With the help of two guides, Ly Doan goes horseback riding with her family on a trip to Dalat, the highlands. Dalat differs from the rest of Vietnam with its distinctive French-colonial villas and strawberry, coffee and flower farms. Photo courtesy of Ly Doan.

The Return

In 1994, President Bill Clinton lifted the trade embargo on Vietnam, allowing tourists to enter.

In 1995, after spending 15 years away from home, without any contact with her parents aside from infrequent letters, Doan was finally able to visit her birthplace.

She traveled with her friend and Jace’s father, Sean Purcell, but they were not married at the time. At the airport, Doan saw her entire family waiting for her.

“I could hear my mom call me; she was the loudest,” Doan says. “It was very emotional, it took me a while to sink in.”

At that moment, in the old and disorganized airport, she realized the privileges she had.

“I got my American dream,” Doan says. “I went to community college and then transferred to UC Berkeley. I got my computer science degree and I got a job.”

In contrast to how she spent her last decade and a half, Doan noticed how the people remained so happy and loving, despite living in poverty.

“Going back reminded me of my true values,” Doan says.

It was Lunar New Year at the time of her visit, and Doan reacquainted herself with her many siblings again.

On New Year’s Day, as each family member gave blessings to one another, everyone began to cry happy tears all at once, according to Doan.

“We cried for about 45 minutes without saying anything,” Doan says, as tears welled up in her eyes.

Her dad admitted that he had thought he would never see his kids again.

Because Doan had such a large family, they could never afford to travel far. However, they were able to take a trip to central Vietnam as tourists.

When it came time for her to return back to the US, saying goodbye to her family was heartbreaking, and she had an especially emotional moment with her father. Although they had not lived very peacefully together in the past, they bonded as adults.

“Even when I was at home, I was pretty rebellious, independent, and I always had some conflict with him [Doan’s dad],” Doan says. “My dad wrote me a week later [after she left] saying he was so proud of me.”

Doan laughs as she recounted their moment at the gate, explaining how her father joked about wishing the plane would have to turn around so she could come back home.

“We never expressed our feelings, we just feel it,” Doan says. “We never say ‘I love you,’ I just feel that he loves me a lot.”

Ly Doan shows her son, Jace Purcell, her escape route on a map of Vietnam. Purcell described the poverty that existed in parts of Vietnam, with families living on the street begging. “It sucks,” Purcell said. Doan responded to the comment with, “That’s all they got.” Photo by Kamala Varadarajan

Family Reunion

By the time Doan’s youngest child, Jace Purcell was three years old, Doan decided to bring her family of four back to Vietnam about every two years.From cooking meals together and loudly conversing over a crowded dinner table, every moment is lively and emotional.

“People did not stop talking,” Doan says.

Nowadays, they travel less often, but Doan says it was important to let her kids meet their family in Vietnam at a young age.

“It’s like we’re never apart,” Doan says. “Even though we live very far [and] we don’t talk very much, when we come back, it’s almost like I never left.”

FAMILY REUNION Doan’s family attends a wedding in Ho Chi Minh City. (From left to right): Doan’s mother, sister, father, uncle, aunt, Jace and Hallie. Hallie and her aunt are wearing traditional Vietnamese dresses, Ao Dai. Photo courtesy of Ly Doan

Doan’s Legacy

Jace Purcell first visited Vietnam when he was just three years old. His favorite memories from his travels included going to the red sand dunes of Mui Ne at night and sledding down the cool sand on pieces of cardboard. He reminisced about the Nha Trang beach resort with clear blue waters, motorcycling around Ho Chi Minh City during the long evenings and riding elephants in the jungle.

It was just several years ago when the younger Purcell first heard his mother’s escape story, and he explained what inspires him the most about her past.

“Her courageousness and resourcefulness throughout, and hope to keep her head up after failing three to four times,” Purcell says.   v