Saturday,  May 26, 2007 3:24 AM


The wooden boats were designed to haul little more than fruit along the rivers of Vietnam.But more than a million South Vietnamese, fearful after Saigon fell to communist forces in 1975, became the cargo, risking death on the South China Sea.

The vessels, maybe 6 feet wide and as long as 40 feet, were a salvation for those who made it to a friendly shore and a deathtrap for those who fell victim to storms or pirates.

Visitors to the Asian Festival today at Franklin Park will get to see one such vessel used by a group of “boat people.”

“Freedom is what we were searching for when we left Vietnam 24 years ago,” said Trang Nguyen of Lewis Center. She was 14 years old when she escaped in one of the slender boats. “It almost cost us our lives. I want to share that story with people so they realize and appreciate what they have.”

The boat on display today at the festival is being exhibited across the United States. Paying for the tour are Vietnamese-Americans like Nguyen and Loc Tran who want other Americans, and especially their children, to see.

The boat was on display yesterday outside Tran’s Ocean Seafood restaurant, 2225 Morse Rd.

Madalenna Lai is president of the Vietnamese Cultural House in California, which is helping to sponsor the tour. In the past five years it has traveled to 40 states.

Lai, 64, made the crossing in 1975 with her four children and her sister and her five children. Lai was reunited with her husband after he spent 10 years in a communist prison. She carries dozens of pictures and recounts the stories of those who survived.

Outside Tran’s restaurant, Vietnamese refugees who became Ohioans gathered to share stories in their native tongue.

The boat on display was found abandoned in Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines.

The sides and bottom of the 35-foot boat are spotted with holes. Planks affixed crossways served as seats.

It is a smaller version of the boat Nguyen and her 17-year-old sister used to escape Vietnam in 1983. Their parents used their life savings to send their daughters for a better life. As they neared the moored boat, police spotted them. Some men accompanying them fought the officers as the women ran for the boat. Most of the men made it to the boat as the officers opened fire, she said.

Thirty-six people made it on board.

After less than 48 hours at sea, the boat’s small motor failed. They drifted for eight days and consumed all the food and water, which was rationed to less than a half cup three times a day. A U.S. helicopter spotted them and notified a merchant ship to pick them up.

As difficult as Nguyen’s experience was, Tran endured worse. Nearly 100 people were squeezed into the boat he was in.

There was so little room, no one could lie down to sleep during the seven days it took to reach Thailand. Water was limited to a half cup a day.

Their boat was attacked twice by pirates. Tran said he had to swallow a slender gold ring, his only possession other than the clothes he was wearing.

Another man on board was assaulted when the pirates found he had tried to hide something gold in his mouth.

Tran’s parents had borrowed $1,000 for his passage. It would have taken Tran more than three years to earn that much taxiing people around Saigon on a bicycle, he said.

Tran and Nguyen say they know they are the lucky ones.

And both say they plan to make sure their children realize it.

“Freedom is what we were searching for when we left Vietnam 24 years ago. It almost cost us our lives.”

Trang Nguyen
Vietnamese refugee