THE HUNGRY SEA
A Memoir of a Modern Odyssey
With Leslie Alan Horvitz
Table of Contents
Prologue: Treading water in the South China Sea, surrounded by debris from a sunken boat and body parts of its drowned passengers, threatened on all sides by sharks, with no land in sight, a fourteen-year-old Paul Truong waits for deliverance.
Chapter 1: The child of an important South Vietnamese official working at the US Embassy, Paul is taught to excel at studies and sports. His father, Tien, believes that Paul needs to be trained rigorously because he is destined to make a significant contribution to his country.
Chapter 2: At the age of five Paul discovers chess and only weeks after learning how to play the game achieves an improbable victory in the National Junior Championship (under 21) against youths as much as four times his age.
Chapter 3: As Paul captures one chess title after another, becoming chess champion of South Vietnam at the age of eight, he is poised to become Asia’s first Grandmaster. His chance to test his mastery of the game comes when he is invited to The World Junior Championship (under 21) tournament in Manila scheduled for September 1975. It is a tournament that Paul will never get to play in.
Chapter 4: In early spring of 1975 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces break through South Vietnamese defenses. For the first time in the war Saigon is seriously threatened. Emergency drills are carried out at Paul’s school. In spite of the deteriorating military situation the US Embassy and the Saigon government insist that there is no danger of collapse.
Chapter 5: By the end of April Communist forces have reached the gates of the city. Panic grips Saigon. Tien scrambles to evacuate his aunt’s family but remains convinced there will be sufficient time to get his wife, Paul, now 9, and infant son out of the country before the North Vietnamese seize Saigon. He books a commercial flight to the US for May 1st. On the night of the 28th violence intensifies inside the city.
Chapter 6: On the morning of the 30th Tien’s family reaches the gates of the US Embassy where a panicked crowd has gathered in hope of being evacuated by US choppers from the roof of the embassy. Even though Tien worked at the embassy he cannot prove his credentials to the MPs guarding the gates. Paul slips in with a surging crowd but in the crush his family is left behind. Rather than abandon his family he goes back outside. In desperation the family tries to find alternate means of escaping – there is none.
Chapter 7: That night Paul’s family waits out a pitched battle being fought beneath their apartment windows as defenders of his mainly Roman Catholic district try to stave off conquest by Communist forces. Realizing that he faces arrest and deportation to a ‘reeducation camp,’ Tien goes into hiding.
Chapter 8: Life under the new Communist regime grows increasingly unbearable. Paul’s mother becomes the sole breadwinner, working as a knitter. Paul chafes at the new rules imposed on him at school, refusing to wear the mandatory red scarf of the Communist youth organization, even resisting when he is threatened at gunpoint by a Communist officer in front of hundreds of his schoolmates.
Chapter 9: Refusing to give up hope for freedom, Tien, relying on trusted friends, makes contact with the captain of a fishing boat who is willing – for a price – to smuggle refugees out of the country. Arrangements are made for Paul to accompany friends to a port in the south of the country. But the captain fails to show up and the mission is aborted.
Chapter 10: Undaunted by this disappointment, Tien secures false identity papers – one for him and one for Paul. The trouble is that the papers are intended for an older Chinese man and a younger Chinese boy. Even so, Tien and Paul study Chinese and hope that when the time comes their papers won’t be too closely scrutinized.
Chapter 11: Tien chooses the night of April 30th 1979 – four years to the date from the fall of Saigon – to make their escape in the belief that security forces will be too distracted by anniversary celebrations to pay much attention to two Chinese refugees heading south. Because neither Paul’s mother or baby brother would have much chance to survive at sea they have to remain behind. Father and son have left just in time. Only hours after their departure, police come to the door of their apartment, prepared to take Tien into custody.
Chapter 12: Just as Tien predicted, guards at the checkpoints on the road south are too drunk to realize that the papers are fraudulent. In the morning Paul and his father board a fishing boat with hundreds of others fleeing the country. But no sooner does the boat put out to sea than engine trouble develops and the boat has to be towed back ashore. Paul and Tien are detained in a stockade near the port for the next three months until they can raise $50 to buy their way out and secure passage on a second boat.
Chapter 13: With 650-700 people packed together on a boat never designed for journeys at sea, Tien and Paul embark on a fateful journey they hope will bring them eventually to America. Tien reminds Paul that he must survive, whatever happens, so that one day he can get his mother and baby brother out of Vietnam.
Chapter 14: On the second day at sea the fishing boat is set upon by Thai pirates who rob the passengers and abduct several women. A few hours later the boat is attacked again; this time the pirates rape the women while their husbands and sons are forced to look on helplessly. Before the terrorized refugees can recover from this assault they suffer a third and fourth attack. By the time the fourth group of pirates climb on board the refugees have nothing left to take. In retaliation the pirates sink the boat.
Chapter 15: Several hundred Vietnamese are thrown into shark-infested waters. There is no land in sight and no apparent source of help. Then, miraculously, the survivors – about 300 in all – are rescued by a passing US tanker.
Chapter 16: To the disappointment of the refugees, the tanker can only take them so far – to an island belonging to Malaysia. They are crowded into a squalid refugee camp inside an old abandoned soccer field where their numbers are further reduced by disease and starvation. Like other Asian countries, Malaysia regards the Boat People as a burden. Then the refugees receive word that they are being taken out to sea once again in a boat no sturdier than the one that had sunk.
Chapter 17: It soon becomes obvious that the Malaysians aren’t just trying to tow their boat out to sea – they want to kill them. The Malaysian naval launch alternately speeds up and slows down with the intent of putting so much strain on the refugee boat that it will rip apart and sink. Only the audacious action of a teenage girl who severs the line with a knife spares the refugees from certain doom.
Chapter 18: With no food, no fuel and barely any water, the boat drifts farther south until it comes within sight of a deserted Indonesian island. But any hope of landing is shattered by the appearance of three Indonesian patrol boats. The Boat People are warned that if they approach the island they will be blown out of the water. Both because of his natural leadership abilities and his fluency in English, Tien takes charge.
Chapter 19: Tien tries to negotiate with the Indonesian captain – to no avail. In desperation, Tien orders the captain to ram their derelict vessel against one of the patrol boat in hope of sinking themselves and forcing the Indonesian navy to rescue them – basically it’s a mass suicide attempt in which suicide is not the object. When that fails to work, Tien asks refugee families to throw overboard the bodies of relatives who’d succumbed to exposure and disease in order to drive home to the obstinate Indonesians the gravity of their plight. Suddenly they hear the rumble of an aircraft overhead – it’s a Red Cross plane.
Chapter 20: Although he vehemently denies it, the Indonesian captain in all likelihood has experienced a change of heart. Whatever the cause, the refugees are permitted to land on the island. Tien waits with Paul until all the refugees have gotten off the boat safely before getting in a launch himself. By this point he is so weakened from dehydration that he faints. Paul fears that he might not make it.
Chapter 21: Hours later, though, Tien recovers, only to discover that scores of refugees have died as a result of drinking from a stream on the island that turns out to have been contaminated. From that point on the survivors take the precaution of boiling the water. Little by little, aided by Red Cross emergency deliveries, a camp is established under Tien’s direction. He is too busy to find food for himself; that job falls to Paul who soon becomes an expert in foraging the woods and streams for dinner.
Chapter 22: With the refugee crisis now on the world’s radar screen, delegations from several Western countries begin arriving on the island to interview refugees with the aim of distributing visas. Tien is determined to ensure that everyone has a home to go to. Because of his past association with the US Embassy, he has no trouble obtaining visas for himself and Paul, granting them permission to live in America.
Chapter 23: In December 1979 – eight months after setting out on their odyssey – Tien and Paul begin the final leg of their journey that will take them from Indonesia via Singapore and ultimately to Newark, NJ. Still wearing the same T-shirts, shorts and sandals that they had on when they left Saigon, they are picked up at the airport by relatives they haven’t seen in years. Bewildered by lights up in the streets for the Christmas holidays, Paul is stunned to see something that he had never experienced before: snow.
Chapter 24: Tien and Paul struggle to adjust to life in their new home, sharing apartments and taking any work they can get. (At one point Paul holds down no less than seven part time jobs simultaneously while going to school.) In their own way, each succeeds in realizing the American dream. But their greatest achievement comes seven years after their arrival in the US when they are finally able to get Paul’s mother and brother out of Vietnam. After being cruelly divided by war and geography the family is finally reunited.
Sign up for my free email chess course for Beginners and Club Players. In this free course, I focus on helping beginner chess players see the entire board. You will learn how to attack your opponent from move 1 and create a new threat with every single move! I’ve created this series of lessons designed to help beginner and club level players understand the game at a deeper level so that you can start beating higher rated players immediately. Start getting free tips from me directly to your inbox!
– GM Susan Polgar