War. Secret escapes. Stranded at sea. Pirates and eye patches. It’s a story of survival almost too wild to believe, and it’s inspiring a UQ student to want to change the lives of vision-impaired people.
Son Ngo could no longer feel his legs. The heat and musty air inside the hull of the rickety wooden boat made it hard to breathe, but he wouldn’t dare move a muscle or make a sound.
Wedged between 10 other desperate South Vietnamese asylum seekers and piles of coconuts, 10-year-old Son and his mother were finally escaping Saigon – via the city of Tra Vinh – and the brutal communist regime that followed the horrors of the Vietnam War.
Son (Bachelor of Engineering ’96) was just two years old when his father – a high-ranking South Vietnamese military officer – was killed 15 days before the war ended in 1975.
He and his mother were forced to live with his maternal grandparents, who had managed to bribe communist officials to leave the family alone. But when their connection to the old regime began to resurface in 1982, Son’s grandfather organised a boat for their escape.
Disguised as coconut merchants en route to the river markets, they headed off in an eight-metre boat putting along unnoticed – past the armed soldiers stationed along the Mekong River, and around the floating, bloated bodies of the victims of failed escapes.
The plan, simple as it was, had worked.
But as the boat reached open water and Son finally emerged from the hull – stiff and desperate for fresh air – his relief was short lived.
Even as a boy, he knew this boat was never meant for the ocean. And when the engine broke down and the inexperienced crew had no idea how to fix it, they were at its mercy.
Thirty-seven years later, the dangers and hardships Son faced are not lost on his eldest son, Eagle Ngo. In fact, Eagle’s mother Thuy Nguyen made an equally dangerous journey to Australia, so Eagle’s determined to make the most of life’s opportunities.
The UQ Bachelor of Science student already achieved a perfect ATAR score of 99.95 while at Brisbane Grammar School, co-authored a children’s book in 2018, and gained provisional entry into a Doctor of Medicine degree at UQ once he has completed his undergraduate studies. He also has his eyes set on a career as an ophthalmologist.
“I became aware of Mum and Dad’s story from about the age of seven,” Eagle told Contact.
“Of course, the story was simplified: they came to Australia by boat because there was a war. But as I got older, more details emerged.
“It wasn’t just that they came over by boat. It was a perilous journey and, even when they arrived in Australia, they faced many more challenges.
“If they can go from being oppressed in Vietnam to starting new lives in Australia, then I know I can’t waste the opportunities provided to me.”
Floating helplessly at sea with no food or water on board for many days, Son couldn’t believe his eyes when he spotted a bigger boat in the distance.
His heart sank when he realised it wasn’t a rescue vessel, but Thai pirates.
“The pirates boarded our boat brandishing weapons and my mum shielded me with her body as they ransacked the boat and our belongings,” Son recalled.
“They even checked our teeth for gold fillings, but soon realised we had nothing to take.
“One girl was dragged back to their boat, but she was so sickly that they dumped her back to us.
“In the end, they must have felt guilty because they left us with a pot of rice, some canned fish and a container of water. Ironically, that supply of food probably saved our lives.”
The supplies lasted three days. On the third night, with water gradually inundating the small boat, a passing oil tanker spotted the burning clothes tied to the waving oars in the distant darkness.
“The pirates boarded our boat brandishing weapons and my mum shielded me with her body as they ransacked the boat and our belongings."
Son can still vividly remember the beaming lights and overpowering smell of industrial cleaner from the giant vessel.
“To this day I still love the smell of industrial cleaner,” Son said.
“The ship’s crew were strong, gentle and kind. They checked our health and gave us food and water. It was like stepping into heaven.”
Son and his mother were taken to Bidong Island, a refugee camp in Malaysia, before being transferred to Melbourne after the Australian Government had accepted them as refugees.
“It was freezing and I was wearing a pair of shorts and a singlet when we landed at Melbourne airport,” Son said.
“We were greeted by nuns, who handed out clothes based on what they thought would suit us. I hadn’t had a haircut for more than three months, so I got lots of nice dresses and pretty pink jumpers. At least they were warm.
“With our first social benefits cheque, my mother went to the flea market and bought me some boys’ clothes, including a green vinyl suit and red plastic cowboy boots.
“Needless to say, I didn’t make many friends in those first few months.”
Just months later the pair were on the move again, this time to sunny Brisbane, where Son attended West End State School.
Thuy Nguyen did a double take. Even in 1982, West End State School was quite multicultural, but the boy across the playground wearing a green vinyl suit and red cowboy boots certainly stood out from the crowd.
If she had spoken to him then, she would have realised quickly they had more in common than just their Vietnamese heritage.
Her life in Brisbane was all seven-year-old Thuy knew. She had no memory of her own fateful boat voyage to Australia as an infant six years earlier.
Thuy (Bachelor of Commerce ’97, Bachelor of Laws ’98) was born in the coastal city of Nha Trang, in Central Vietnam, and was the youngest of four children at the time. Her parents were business owners, but were deemed enemies of the state once the communist north seized control after the war.
“My parents knew the communists were watching them closely,” Thuy said.
“They stripped from my parents what they could, but we were more fortunate than others – at least we still had our home and our lives.
“Friends were taken away for questioning and never returned. My father knew we could not continue to exist in Vietnam like this; unsure who in our family would be next. Unfortunately, circumstances meant that my father had to leave without us. It was very tough for my mother after my father left. To keep the authorities at bay, she made up the story that my father had abandoned us and escaped Vietnam.”
The story satisfied the authorities while Thuy’s mother organised her family’s escape.
But, just like the boy in the green vinyl suit and red cowboy boots, Thuy and her family found themselves at the mercy of the ocean after their boat’s engine burnt out in the middle of the South China Sea.
Thuy’s mother would later share with her the moment she thought her family would perish.
“A storm began to brew not long after our boat broke down and my mother began tying myself and my siblings to her with rope.
“When my 12-year-old brother asked what she was doing, her haunting response was: ‘so I can find you in the afterlife’.
“It broke her heart to see her three older children break down at that point, but she did not know how else to relay the truth to us.”
Miraculously, an oil ship proved the saviour again, and Thuy and her family were taken to Japan before being transferred to Australia.
“They stripped from my parents what they could, but we were more fortunate than others – at least we still had our home and our lives."
With the assistance of the United Nations, the family were reunited with their father in Brisbane. He found work at the West End Glass Factory, while Thuy’s mother worked in a cannery by day and Chinese restaurant by night.
In 1982, her parents risked their savings by purchasing a Chinese takeaway restaurant of their own at Everton Hills.
“My parents always considered education important and, when the business eventually flourished, my father enrolled us at All Hallows’ School in Fortitude Valley,” Thuy said.
Not wasting her opportunity, Thuy decided to pursue a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Laws at UQ.
“I joined various social groups and associations. I found the UQ campus facilities had so much to offer students and there was always so much to do,” she said.
“I finally met Son in 1995, when a group of us from all academic and racial backgrounds decided to revive a struggling UQ Vietnamese Students’ Association. It was a memorable time and long-lasting friendships were established.”
Son and Thuy were married in 2000 and had successful careers in engineering and law respectively. Their careers took them around Australia and even back to Vietnam, before settling in Miles, in regional Queensland.
“After practising law in Australia and Vietnam, I decided it was time to look into a career change,” Thuy said.
“Son and I had been working in the corporate world for so long and, by the time Eagle was a toddler, we realised we barely had time for our little family.
“At that time my brother wanted to sell his supermarket business in Miles and purchase a bigger one in Childers. He gave us the opportunity to work in his business for a trial period and then purchase it if we were happy.”
Son said that the couple’s skills in engineering and law made the transition into business smoother than expected.
“We became good at implementing procedures and putting systems in place,” Son said.
“It was then easier to hire and train people to manage and run our businesses, so that we could focus on other things. For me, I was able to focus more on the children and exploring my artistic and creative passions.”
Eagle Ngo with his parents Thuy and Son. Image: Anjanette Webb
Eagle Ngo with his parents Thuy and Son. Image: Anjanette Webb
The family – now with four children – moved back to Brisbane once Eagle began high school, with Thuy commuting back and forth to Miles during the week.
Son has had recent success as a graphic novelist and has published five books in the Legendary 12 series, a concept that combines stories about the Chinese zodiac from his childhood with those he created as bedtime stories for his and Thuy’s four children – Eagle, Jaguar, Saigon and Marlin.
And it appears Eagle is following in his father’s footsteps.
The first-year student and UQ Vice-Chancellor’s Scholarship recipient has already combined his creative skills with his career goals, co-authoring a children’s book with his uncle and Sydney ophthalmologist, Dr Jason Cheng, about amblyopia (lazy eye) and patch therapy.
“Uncle Jason is one of the people who inspired me to pursue medicine and, hopefully, ophthalmology down the track,” Eagle said.
“I had a few opportunities to hang out with him when I was younger and my aunties would tell me about all the cool things he does, particularly with overseas training of doctors and the work he does at eye camps.
“We had been discussing the issue of children feeling self-conscious about wearing an eye patch, so we came up with the idea of a book to encourage kids to wear a patch.
“He gave me guidelines around the age groups we wanted to target and from there I brainstormed a couple of story ideas.
“I went with a superhero story, Amazing Amber and Her Lazy Laser Eye. The hero has laser eyes but one of them doesn’t work very well, so that’s the analogy for lazy eye.”
While his Uncle Jason has had a big influence on Eagle’s career goals, the 18-year-old is also inspired by the work of the Fred Hollows Foundation, and even volunteered with the organisation while still at school.
“I’m really interested in ophthalmology as a career path. It combines the influence of my uncle and Fred Hollows, as well as the hands-on skills I have gained in my science studies.”
Son and Thuy have watched on in awe of their eldest son and are proud to see him continue the family’s UQ legacy.
“When my mother and I arrived in Australia in 1982, we felt we were such a burden on the country,” Son said.
“We were given such an opportunity and we felt we needed to make a difference to our lives and to our new country.
“I noticed Eagle had taken this to heart from a very young age.
“He is a great role model to his younger siblings and it has definitely made our job as parents so much easier.
“We are very proud of all our children.”
Visit Global Engagement to learn more about UQ's collaboration with Vietnam.
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Image and video credits
Getty Images / piola666
Getty Images / HNH Images
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