Excerpt from a statement about his
experiences as a refugee, 1975–76
Published in Hearts of Sorrow: Vietnamese-American
Lives, edited by James Freeman, 1989
"When we set out on our journey, we had no idea what would happen to us or what country would allow us to land. All we knew was that we had to get out, even at the risk of losing our lives."
After the Vietnam War ended in a North Vietnamese victory in 1975, huge numbers of South Vietnamese people began leaving the country. Some of these people had supported the South Vietnamese government or its American allies. They worried that the country's new leaders would consider them enemies and take revenge on them. Other people wanted to leave Vietnam because they held religious or political views that would make it difficult for them to live under Communist rule. These people worried that they would be persecuted (harassed or attacked because of their beliefs) by the new government. Finally, some people fled because they believed that Vietnam would suffer widespread poverty as it struggled to recover from the destruction of the war.
Many people immigrate to foreign countries in search of opportunities to provide a better life for their families. But the people who decided to leave Vietnam after the war were not typical immigrants. In fact, the people who fled Vietnam were considered refugees. Refugees are forced to leave their homeland out of fear of persecution. Refugees often must leave quickly under dangerous circumstances. Sometimes they are forced to leave belongings and loved ones behind. In addition to the struggles of adapting to a new culture, which are common to all immigrants, refugees "must also come to terms with the losses of the past that include home, country, family, work, social status, material possessions, and meaningful sources of identity," James Freeman commented in Hearts of Sorrow.
The first wave of refugees began departing South Vietnam shortly after North Vietnamese troops captured the capital city of Saigon in April 1975. Most of these people were high-ranking government officials or military officers and their families. These refugees had an easier time than many of the people who left Vietnam later. In fact, many refugees in the first wave received assistance from U.S. officials and military advisors who were still in Saigon. They were taken to temporary receiving stations on nearby islands in American military transport planes. There they learned to speak English and were processed for entry into the United States. As a result, most of the first wave of 130,000 refugees had successfully resettled in America by the end of 1975.
But a much larger second wave of refugees began fleeing Vietnam the following year. After winning the war, the Communist leaders of North Vietnam reunited the two halves of the country to form the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. They then introduced a series of changes designed to transform Vietnam into a socialist society. For example, the government took control of all farmland and business activities and placed restrictions on the lives of the Vietnamese people. These changes created terrible hardships for the Vietnamese. Before long, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people decided that they could not live under the new government. A similar situation arose in Cambodia and Laos), the countries along Vietnam's western border. Communist forces took control of those countries and instituted harsh reform policies that convinced many people to leave.
Rather than military officers and government officials, the second wave of refugees from Indochina consisted mostly of ordinary citizens. Many of these people were very poor and unable to read or write. Some of the refugees walked over land into nearby Thailand, but most attempted to escape Vietnam's poverty and repression (denial of basic rights and freedoms) by leaving the country by water. They set out from the coasts in a variety of small boats and rafts. Many of the boats were overcrowded and had very little food, water, or other supplies on board. Most of the refugees headed for Thailand or the island nations of Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, or the Philippines. This second wave of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos became known around the world as the "boat people."
Even if they succeeded in gaining passage on a boat, the refugees still faced a difficult and dangerous journey to freedom. After all, they had to cross hundreds of miles of open ocean in small, poorly equipped vessels. Many of the boats sank during storms. Thousands of refugees died at sea from drowning, exposure to the elements, hunger, thirst, or disease. To make matters worse, Thai pirates roamed the seas and attacked the overloaded boats. The pirates robbed passengers of their food, water, and valuables, and they often raped or kidnapped the women on board. An estimated 30 percent of the refugee boats departing Vietnam were attacked by pirates.
Many of the boat people also had trouble finding a place to land. Between 1976 and 1978, hundreds of thousands of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos landed in nearby Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Guam, and the Philippines. But these countries were relatively poor and lacked the facilities to handle such large numbers of new people. As a result, the refugees were forced to live in unpleasant conditions in overcrowded refugee camps for months or years until they were allowed to enter a wealthier nation like the United States.
Eventually, the number of refugees became too great for the Southeast Asian nations to handle. Caring for the refugees placed a huge strain on their economies, food supplies, and living space. The local people grew to resent the refugees and began pressuring their governments to stop accepting them. In fact, sometimes local people would line up on beaches and throw rocks at refugee boats to prevent them from landing. In 1979 the leaders of several Southeast Asian nations announced that they would no longer allow the boat people to land.
In the late 1970s wealthy countries such as the United States, Canada, France, and Australia increased their immigration quotas in order to accept some refugees. But these countries did not want to appear too generous, because they did not want to encourage more people to attempt the dangerous journey.
People in the United States also changed their views of the Vietnamese refugees over time. At first, America welcomed the refugees. After all, many people in the first wave of refugees had helped the United States during the Vietnam War. In addition, the refugees generally opposed communism—a viewpoint that was supported by the U.S. government and many American people. Finally, the United States had a long history of helping refugees from World War II and other conflicts.
But as the second wave of refugees from Indochina began pouring into the United States, some Americans began to resent them. At the time, the U.S. economy was in bad shape, and many people were unemployed. Some people worried that the refugees would take jobs that might otherwise be filled by Americans. Others believed that they would end up paying higher taxes in order to support the newcomers. Many Americans still felt great sympathy for the boat people and wanted to help them. But many others pressured the U.S. government to reduce the number of Indochinese refugees it allowed into the country.
Over time, the United Nations and a variety of international relief organizations came up with funds to help the boat people. They also convinced the Vietnamese government to institute the Orderly Departure Program, which allowed a certain number of people to leave the country each year. This program gave people hope that they could immigrate through legal channels and helped reduce the flow of boat people making the dangerous journey out of Vietnam by sea.
Nevertheless, the flow of refugees from Vietnam continued into the early 1980s. By 1987 more than 1.5 million refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos had resettled in other parts of the world. Over 800,000, or more than half of the refugees, ended up in the United States. Canada, Australia, and France each took in more than 100,000 Indochinese refugees.
The narrator of the following excerpt, Phuong Hoang, was an educated man who worked as a teacher in one of the central provinces of South Vietnam. After North Vietnamese forces took control of his town, Phuong Hoang began to worry about the safety of himself and his family under Communist rule. He decided to leave the country. He then purchased a boat and spent the next year learning to operate it and secretly storing supplies for a voyage to the Philippines. With the help of an Italian freighter captain, Phuong Hoang and his family survived their journey and eventually resettled in the United States.
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from Phuong Hoang's statement:
- In the excerpt, Phuong Hoang mentions that the Communist soldiers who searched his home were amazed at his modern conveniences, such as his television, ceiling fan, and flush toilet. He claims that the soldiers had not seen these items before because North Vietnamese citizens were forced to join the army at a young age, so they knew no other life. In general, North Vietnam was less technologically advanced than South Vietnam during the war. The American forces brought a great deal of technology to the South, and U.S. soldiers also influenced some Vietnamese to adopt modern conveniences. But Phuong Hoang was different from many people, even in South Vietnam. The majority of the people were poor farmers who lived in rural villages, and only the educated and wealthy people had televisions or electricity.
- Phuong Hoang recalls that the new Communist government required him to attend reeducation sessions every day for a month, but his situation could have been worse. Immediately after the Vietnam War ended, about 400,000 South Vietnamese people who were viewed as threats to Communist rule were sent away to be "reeducated," or forced to go along with the government. These people included not only former South Vietnamese government officials and army officers, but also doctors, lawyers, teachers, journalists, engineers, and other intellectuals. They were held in prisons that had been used during the war or sent away to work farms, sometimes for a period of years. Many were forced to perform hard labor and received very little food. Some of the people Phuong Hoang says disappeared may have been sent away during this time, while some others may have been killed.
- Phuong Hoang describes some of the restrictions the Communist government placed upon the people's basic freedoms. For example, he could not travel freely or speak with certain friends, and his activities were always watched and viewed with suspicion. Many people in South Vietnam found this situation intolerable, especially educated people. Such repression was one of the reasons that many Vietnamese fled the country as refugees.
- Phuong Hoang discusses some of the careful preparations he made before beginning his dangerous journey to freedom, including stockpiling gasoline, food, water, and other supplies. Many of the "boat people" left Vietnam with less advance preparation than he did, and many used smaller or less seaworthy boats. For this reason, more than 10 percent of the refugees died at sea. Still, most of them—like Phuong Hoang—felt it was worth the risk.
- Once they are picked up by the Italian freighter, Phuong Hoang and his family have trouble finding a country that will accept them. For a few years in the late 1970s, there were so many refugees leaving Indochina that some countries decided that they could not afford to become involved.
Excerpt from Vietnamese refugee Phuong Hoang's statement:
In my town, there were only low Communist soldiers, not officers. If people made them angry, the soldiers would kill them and go on. I saw this happen in the market. A soldier grabbed hold of a man and said, "Two days ago you sold me a watch, and it doesn't work. That's wrong. I'll kill you for that." He raised his gun.
The women in the market cried and pleaded with the soldier, "That man did not know the watch was bad; he bought it from someone else and just sold it to you."
The soldier pushed them aside, shot the man, and left. We lived in an area like that; it's not right at all to kill people just because someone feels like it.
When the American soldiers were in our town, they did not act this way. Sometimes on holidays they drank a lot and sang loudly, but that was all right; they were good. They'd walk around the town, and say hello to people; we liked them. Our own soldiers also had good discipline, and good weapons, unlike the Communists, so I could not understand how we lost so quickly. The Communists did not know anything about modern life. What they had was good propaganda, a lie.
Within a few days, the Communists came to every house and searched them. They were quite bewildered and uneasy at what they saw. "What's this?" they asked, pointing to our ceiling fan and our electric lights. When I turned on the fan, they ducked. One young man decided that it was a machine to cut off the heads of prisoners.
"Don't you know?" I asked. "Haven't you ever seen one?"
"Never." When they were small children, they had been picked up and taken to the jungle, where they had been taught how to fight. That's all they knew. They had no understanding of the city. "What's that?" they asked, pointing to the television set. I told them about it, explaining that it was like a movie, but not a real movie. When they saw the toilet bowl, they wanted to know what we wash in it. They were so young and strange. They wore a peculiar uniform; they talked in a funny way, and they expressed very different opinions and ideas.When they talked to us, they used words we did not understand; their customs were unfamiliar to us. They had never seen a watch. They assumed that our floor was made of mud, so after drinking some tea, they poured the rest on our tile floor. To their amazement, the liquid was not absorbed. . . .
I was forced to attend reeducation sessions each day for one month. There the Communists said that with a rifle they shot down B-52 planes. One South Vietnamese man laughed and said, "I cannot believe this. A B-52 flies so high that a rifle cannot shoot that far."
You know what happened? The next day that man had disappeared. When we saw this, we worried about our own situation.
Each day we had to listen to them boast and lie, "Our army is so courageous, so powerful, we beat the American people! We beat the South Vietnamese Army! Life in South Vietnam is fictitious ; the prosperity of South Vietnam is fictitious!" Day after day they repeated the same thing. We could not live with that, so after a while I said to a teacher who was a friend of mine that we had to find some way to get out of Vietnam. This was very difficult, because the Communists were watching us at all times. It would take us about a year of careful preparation before we dared to attempt an escape.
If we wanted to visit a friend a few kilometers away, we needed a special pass. To get it, we had to answer questions: "Why do you want to visit your friend? What subject will you discuss with him, and for how long?" It was terrible. When two people talked together, the Communists would come by and ask, "What did you talk about with that person? Tell me."
This was the most terrible aspect of the Communist government; we could not talk together because every time, they would ask, "What did you talk about? Was it against the government?" They were always listening to overhear us. . . .
By now life had changed a lot. I could not trust anybody, even my wife or children, for inadvertently they might say something that could incriminate us. When my children came back from school, they told me that their teacher asked them, "What did you eat at dinner? Did you have chicken or pork? Did you have a lot of it? What are your father's opinions about our government? Does he like it or dislike it?"
My children were old enough so that I told them, "Never listen to those teachers; when they ask, just say that you don't know."
Education had now become nothing: no English, no French, just the history of Ho Chi Minh and General Giap, and work in the gardens, that's all. . . .
For one year we lived like this. We learned that all the promises of the Communists were lies. They talked one way and did another. They claimed that all people would be equal, not too rich or too poor. Everyone would plant rice, and it would be divided with the poor. All houses would be divided equally. There would be no more unemployment. And there would be freedom: people would be able to go anywhere and do what they liked. It took only a few days to find out that everything they said turned out to be the opposite of what life would be like under their rule. . . . They claimed to have liberated us from a bad government; instead, they had enslaved us.
Not long after I had completed my month of reeducation, a former student of mine came to my house and asked if I wanted to escape from Vietnam. He said that lots of students wanted to flee, and he mentioned several whom I knew. I replied, "No, this is my home, and I am happy here." I didn't trust him; I thought he might be an agent for the Communists. A couple of months later, he returned and asked again. This time, I thought that maybe we could trust him. I asked my friend, the teacher, what to do. We invited that young man to a restaurant, and while we gave him food and drink, we investigated his mind.
The student said, "I have a fisherman's permit that allows me to take a boat out to sea." This was quite valuable, for the Communists controlled the seashore to prevent escape. City people were not allowed to walk along the coast, and boats were not allowed to pass from the river into the sea without a valid permit. And people who wished to buy or sell their boats also needed a permit from the Office of Marine Products.
My friend and I bought a boat, 12½ by 3⅓ meters [about 41 feet long and 11 feet wide], for 35 million piasters in pre-Communist currency, a lot of money. We paid both the seller and the Office of Marine Products. Our payment was half in money and half in gold. In addition, we paid another 3 million piasters for fishing nets. Instead of staying at home, I could now go out fishing.
Although we had a boat, we did not know how to navigate. Neither we nor the student with the fishing permit had ever done anything like this. We did not even know how to anchor the boat. . . .
Around three in the afternoon, the fishermen would go out to fish. They would stop at a Communist checkpost located just before the riveremptied into the sea. After showing their permits, the fishermen would proceed to the open sea. If their permits had expired, they could be sent to jail; that happened to one of my friends. My son, my friend, and I also pretended to go out to fish. The problem was that our fishing net was too big and heavy for the three of us. We caught hardly any fish.
Our real purpose was to learn how to navigate. Once out at sea, with no mountains or landmarks, how could we tell north from south, east from west? We needed a compass, but at first we could not find one. A person caught buying a compass would be thrown in jail because the authorities assumed that such a person was trying to escape. We studied the stars in the night sky. I found that there was a kind of star cluster in the west. I didn't know its name, but I recognized the shape of the stars. Every night I would look for it. Finally I also took the chance and bought a small Japanese pocket compass. I still have that compass. I worked with it until I learned to use it. I also found an old tattered map of Southeast Asia that had been published in a newspaper. I measured the angle to the east that I needed to follow; then I measured the distance from my home town to Manila, the intended destination for my escape: it was about 1,500 kilometers [900 miles]. I drew a bigger map which I put in my boat. . . .
For one year, I learned and practiced navigation, changing oil, and fixing the diesel engine. I also bought small quantities of fuel, a gallon at a time, and sometimes only a liter or a quart so that I did not attract attention. Had I bought large quantities, the authorities would have noticed, asked me what I used it for, and might have taken me to jail. . . . In the afternoon, my friend and I would go out in the boat and remain on the sea overnight. Our aim was to transfer some of the diesel fuel in small cans to a larger tank, originally taken from a truck, that we had transported and hidden between rocks and covered with grass and leaves on an island nearby. Usually the Communists were on the lookout for people carrying a lot of fuel, water, and food, signs of an intended escape. Those people they put in jail. Since we carried only small quantities at any one time, the Communists did not suspect us when they searched us. . . .
Then one day in August, the guards [at the checkpost] stopped me. They said, "Month after month you go out, but you bring back no fish. You don't look like a fisherman. What do you do? Do you have relatives in another country beyond Vietnam?"
"No," I lied. "I had a little fish which I salted already." I am not surprised that they questioned me. I looked and behaved differently from fishermen. . . .
I think the officials realized that I was not what I claimed. "You cannot go out there unless you have a permit," they said. "Let us see your papers."
I replied, "I have applied for a permit at the Office of Marine Products. Please let me go out this afternoon only. I just need to catch fish to feed my family. If by tomorrow I don't have a permit, then okay, I'll stay home." I knew that I would have to leave the next day. Because I was not a fisherman, I could not get a renewal of the permit.
I took the boat out, anchored it near the island, and returned to shore in a small bamboo raft about three feet wide.
The following day, Sunday, August 8, 1976, at eight in the morning, my friend and I led our families to the small raft. We were dressed in swimming suits, nothing else. It appeared that our little group was going out to swim, fish, and have some fun. At that moment, neither my wife nor my four teenage children had any idea that this was to be their last day in Vietnam. I had told no one in my family of my plans, not even my son who sometimes went with me out on the boat,for I feared that by accident they might say something that could betray us.
The raft held only a couple of people. I made several trips back and forth between the shore and the island until all 19 people were on the larger boat. As they climbed aboard, I said, "We are leaving our country. Get into the boat quickly and lie down so that you are not seen. If the patrols spot you they will shoot us."
They were surprised; they had had no warning; they had carried nothing with them. Everything had been left behind, including their clothes. On the boat, I had stored water in diesel cans and some special dry food that contained vitamins. I expected to supplement our food by fishing along the way.
I turned over the engine, accelerated, and fled as fast as we could away from a shore that we would never see again. For two hours we went at full speed. At that point I figured we probably were safe, since the Communists used patrol boats that were no faster than ours. None of the passengers in the boat said anything. They were too seasick.
For three days and four nights we traveled eastward. On the journey, we did not talk. I spent my time fishing and bailing out water. Along the way, we passed several ships. We called to be rescued, but they did not stop. On that fourth night, when we were within 100 kilometers [62 miles] of Manila, the sea became quite rough; it was terrible, with huge waves battering us. We would have died had we not been saved by an Italian oil tanker traveling between South Korea and Saudi Arabia. Not only did the captain save us, he also attached and pulled along our boat. Later we were able to sell it in Saudi Arabia; we received $3,000 in U.S. currency.
The captain of that tanker was formerly from East Germany. He picked us up because he realized that, as he had done years before, we were fleeing from Communist oppression. He offered to put us ashore in a free country. For two days we anchored in Singapore while he tried to get permission for us to land; Singapore refused. We traveled to Saudi Arabia, where we remained for two weeks while the ship was loading oil. The other family that had escaped with us had relatives in Canada. At that point, the Canadian government accepted them. My family remained on the ship. We went to Madagascar, South Africa, Angola, then up to Spain, into the Mediterranean Sea to North Africa, and finally to North Italy. Our journey took two and a half months. In Italy the International Rescue Committee processed our application, and ten days later we flew to the United States to begin a new life in an unfamiliar land.
Some people from my town had fled before the Communists arrived in 1975. As far as I know, my family was only the fourth to escape once the Communists took over. Later, many others would escape. But when we set out on our journey, we had no idea what would happen to us or what country would allow us to land. All we knew was that we had to get out, even at the risk of losing our lives. We were very lucky to have been saved by that captain. Looking back on it now, our sea voyage, with only a toy compass to guide us, was very dangerous. Still, it would have been better to die at sea than to live another day under Communist rule.
What happened next . . .
According to Edward F. Dolan, author of America after Vietnam: Legacies of a Hated War, the refugee crisis "ranks as one of the war's greatest legacies, a legacy that is marked by tragedy, hardship, and hope—tragedy because it has uprooted so many people from their homes, livelihoods, friends, and cultures; hardship because their journeys to freedom were marked always with danger and the threat of death; and hope because the flight has always held out the promise of fresh and successful lives in new lands for all."
About half of the Indochinese refugees who ended up in the United States settled in California, mostly in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas. Other states with large refugee populations include New York, New Jersey, and Illinois. Many of the refugees managed to build successful lives in their new country through hard work and determination. In fact, many Vietnamese refugee families pooled their money in order to open their own businesses. Some areas of American cities have been revitalized by the addition of Vietnamese grocery stores, restaurants, and gift shops. On average, though, the refugees from Indochina have not obtained the standard of living enjoyed by white Americans, or even that of non-refugee Asian immigrants, like Japanese Americans.
Many refugees experienced problems as they tried to establish themselves in the United States. For example, some refugees struggled to learn English. Their poor command of the language often cost them jobs and other opportunities. In addition, many refugees faced discrimination in housing, education, or employment due to their race. Sometimes the people in poorer American communities resented the refugees and lashed out against them with violence. Many Vietnamese refugees settled in Florida, Mississippi, and Texas and became fishermen on the Gulf of Mexico. But some local fishermen grew angry when the Vietnamese crowded into their traditional fishing grounds. In some cases, the Vietnamese had their fishing nets cut or their boats damaged by local fishermen.
Other refugees had trouble understanding and adjusting to their new culture. The problem of adapting to the new culture sometimes caused conflict in refugee families with children. While the parents tried to preserve some of their Asian traditions, the children often found it easier to succeed in American society if they behaved more like Americans. "Both parents and children often feel deep discomfort about this conflict between parental authority and children's freedom," Freeman wrote. "The parents see themselves as sacrificing for their children, who abandon them; the children see themselves as performing well, yet their parents reject them because of their social behavior."
Did you know . . .
- The United States did not always welcome immigrants from Asian nations. For example, one of the earliest American immigration laws, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, was passed specifically to prevent Chinese laborers from entering the country. Later, the National Origins Act of 1924 banned immigrants from any part of Asia. These policies began to change in 1952, with the passage of the McCarran-Walter Act. This law eliminated race as a barrier to immigration and set special rules for refugees fleeing from violence or repression. In 1980 President Jimmy Carter signed the Refugee Assistance Act, which increased the number of refugees admitted from Southeast Asia and established programs to aid in their adjustment to American society.
- Before 1970 only 11 percent of all immigrants to the United States came from Asian nations. Instead, most immigrants came from Europe (39 percent) or Latin America (38 percent). But between 1970 and 1979, the flow of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos increased the percentage of immigrants from Asia to 34 percent. This percentage was second only to immigrants from Latin America, who made up 41 percent of the total coming to the United States during those years. Between 1980 and 1984, Asians made up the largest proportion of immigrants to the United States at 48 percent, while the number of immigrants from Latin America dropped to 35 percent.
- All of the Vietnamese refugees who came to America are not the same. For example, they practice three major religions—Catholic, Buddhist, and Confucian. They also belong to a wide variety of ethnic groups, including Khmer (Cambodian), Hmong, Montagnard, Tonkinese, and Annamese.
- Vietnamese Americans continue to observe many traditions in their new country, including the annual Tet holiday, the lunar new year. It is celebrated each year in late January or February, during the full moon before the spring planting season. In U.S. communities with large populations of Vietnamese immigrants, the Tet festivities are held in large fairgrounds. People decorate booths with colored lanterns, set off fireworks, perform religious ceremonies, eat festive meals, and exchange gifts with family members.
Dalglish, Carol. Refugees from Vietnam. London: Macmillan, 1989.
Dolan, Edward F. America after Vietnam: Legacies of a Hated War. New York: Franklin Watts, 1989.
Grant, Bruce. The Boat People. New York: Penguin, 1979.
McGwire, William. Recent American Immigrants: Southeast Asians. New York: Franklin Watts, 1991.
Strand, P. J. Indochinese Refugees in America. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1985.
The Hmong People of Laos
The ethnic Hmong population of Laos stood as one of America's steadiest allies during the Vietnam War. This tribe of hardy highland farmers had long been a part of French Indochina. When armed resistance against French colonial rule erupted in the 1940s and 1950s, Hmong warriors fought on both sides. By the early 1960s, however, the majority of the tribe was in the anti-Communist camp.
U.S. agents took advantage of tribal animosity toward the Communists, building Hmong guerrilla groups that included thousands of tribesmen. By the mid-1960s the Hmong were recognized as one of the U.S. military's best weapons in Laos. The Hmong conducted countless guerrilla raids against North Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh Trail and other Communist supply lines and bases throughout Laos. They also rescued American pilots who were shot down, blocked Communist raids, and guarded Laotian radar installations used by U.S. aircraft in their bombing runs over Laos and North Vietnam. These Hmong troops were supervised by Laotian commander Vang Pao, who was a Hmong himself. At the peak of Hmong involvement in the war, Vang Pao commanded nearly 30,000 soldiers from the tribe.
As time passed, though, the war's violence took a heavy toll on the Hmong. U.S. bombing raids destroyed many of their farms and fields. In addition, the Hmong population (approximately 250,000 before the war) lost many of its youngest and strongest men to the war. A U.S. Air Force study, for example, stated that "by 1971, many [Hmong] families were down to the last surviving male (often a youth of 13 or 14), and survival of the tribe was becoming a major concern."
As the Hmong people lost their young men and their farms to the war, they became dependent on rice shipments and medical supplies from the United States for their survival. This dependence made the Hmong even more vulnerable to the war's cruelties. For example, when a few Hmong villages tried to stop Vang Pao from drafting their teenage sons into the Laotian military, he threatened to cut off their shipments of rice and other supplies. Faced with starvation, the Hmong villages had no choice but to go along with Vang Pao's demands.
When the governments in South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos all fell to Communist forces in 1975, the Hmong tribespeople expressed great fear for their future. Convinced that the victorious Communists would punish them for their wartime opposition, thousands of Hmong families fled into Thailand. Most of those who stayed behind—an estimated 100,000 Hmong—were murdered or imprisoned by Laos's new Pathet Lao Communist government.
Those Hmong who escaped to Thailand endured terrible conditions in their new home. Crowded into disease-ridden refugee camps, many Hmong families struggled to survive on meager supplies of food and water. Thousands of Hmong tribespeople died from malnutrition and disease during these first few years, despite the efforts of the United Nations and various international relief agencies.
In the late 1970s Hmong families began migrating to the United States from the refugee camps in Thailand. Between 1975 and 1995, an estimated 110,000 Hmong refugees resettled in America. They were initially sprinkled throughout the country. As time passed, however, Hmong families concentrated in several areas of the country. Today, large Hmong American populations can be found in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and California. Some Hmong have found jobs working on farms or in factories, but they still have the highest percentage of families on welfare of any Southeast Asian immigrant group.