Already more than 300,000 Vietnamese have left, whether clandestinely or not. The reservoir seems inexhaustible. A strange and casuistic official policy is at work, heartbreaking and confusing. The dossiers of the legitimate cases of separated families—the wife in Vietnam, the husband in Paris—remain in suspension in Hanoi, while Vietnam tears off parts of itself and expels them. There is no possible doubt that the exodus is arranged, organized. In fact the export of human beings considered “socially irredeemable” brought, in 1978, some 115 million dollars to the Vietnamese treasury, a treasury being drained by an expansionism that seemed more mystical than rational. This was about two and a half percent of the gross national product.

Candidates for departure have had to pay twelve taels of gold, to be divided among the authorities, the middlemen, the captain of the boat. An old friend, a former emigration official who recently arrived from Saigon, told me how before her eyes the cadres divided up pieces of gold and banknotes spread out on their desks. A special tax is paid directly to the national bank in order to obtain a receipt showing one has the right to leave. The functionaries in charge are often changed—they may choose, with their gains, to leave themselves.

You are a Vietnamese? You have, let’s say, a Chinese grandfather? That’s enough. Pay and leave. The well-informed Far Eastern Economic Review in Hong Kong has described how reluctant “Chinese” are given encouragement. No school for the children. No work. The threat of “re-education.” Confiscation of funds sent by relatives abroad. Finally people become convinced.

At this pace, there is a shortage of boats. They are hastily patched together in the shipyards of Saigon, in Rach Gia or Vinh Hoi in the fourth district. If the motor won’t work a Japanese “Yanmar” used for fishing can be found—it will bring a higher return this way. And the boats need escorts for some distance. The patrol boats from a nearby and less-favored district are sometimes tempted to interrupt their passage to get part of the take themselves.

The predictions of the numbers of “Chinese” and Vietnamese that may leave this summer: as many as 300,000, 500,000? As well as their relatives, and others who leave clandestinely, desperately…. And perhaps two million people in reserve?… One begins to understand a little better the actions of the Thais, the Malaysians….

—Jean-Francis Held
from Le Nouvel Observateur

This Issue

August 16, 1979