Ship of Fate tells the emotionally gripping story of a Vietnamese military officer who evacuated from Saigon in 1975 but made the dramatic decision to return to Vietnam for his wife and children, rather than resettle in the United States without them. Written in Vietnamese in the years just after 1991, when he and his family finally immigrated to the United States, Trần Đình Trụ’s memoir provides a detailed and searing account of his individual trauma as a refugee in limbo, and then as a prisoner in the Vietnamese reeducation camps.
In April 1975, more than 120,000 Indochinese refugees sought and soon gained resettlement in the United States. While waiting in the Guam refugee camps, however, approximately 1,500 Vietnamese men and women insisted in no uncertain terms on being repatriated back to Vietnam. Trần was one of these repatriates. To resolve the escalating crisis, the U.S. government granted the Vietnamese a large ship, the Việt Nam Thương Tín. An experienced naval commander, Trần became the captain of the ship and sailed the repatriates back to Vietnam in October 1975. On return, he was imprisoned and underwent forced labor for more than twelve years.
Trần’s account reveals a hidden history of refugee camps on Guam, internal divisions among Vietnamese refugees, political disputes between the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the U.S. government, and the horror of the postwar “reeducation” camps. While there are countless books on the U.S. war in Vietnam, there are still relatively few in English that narrate the war from a Vietnamese perspective. This translation adds new and unexpected dimensions to the U.S. military’s final withdrawal from Vietnam.
While Lipman's introduction provides a clear, concise overview of the political and military situation in Vietnam, Trần's account is particularly noteworthy for elucidating the reasons these Vietnamese evacuees chose to repatriate to their homeland despite the opposition of both the U.S. and communist Vietnamese governments. . . . Highly recommended. [Starred review]
The memoir provides a searing account of the experiences of one such repatriate: Trần Đình Trụ, a former Republic of Vietnam (RVN) naval officer who captained the ship that sailed the repatriates back to Vietnam.
Eloquent and intricate, the translation [by Bac Hoai Tran and Jana K. Lipman] brings non-Vietnamese speakers and readers a concise narrative that respects the palpability of Trần Đình Trụ’s struggles put in writing. Able word choices manage to evoke the same specific sentiments as the Vietnamese equivalent. . . . Specialists and non-specialists alike will find this translation into English enriching and useful; the historical elements along with the pull of betrayal, loss, and suspense make the memoir an informative and intriguing read. . . . Trụ’s narrative, along with its translation, contribute an important perspective that, while being indeed a Southern Vietnamese perspective, draws upon the complexities of political positions and sides rather than advocates them.
Trụ’s story is told simply. Admirably so. Although the memoir necessarily tells the story from his political point of view, Trần Đình Trụ does not resort to hyperbole. The prose in the translation is elegant and accessible to broad audiences, yet conveys an emotional tenor befitting the story. Ship of Fate adds an important voice to the Vietnam War literature.
[T]his memoir provides one of the most vivid illustrations of the shock and loss experienced by noncommunist and anticommunist Vietnamese during and after the fall of Saigon. The decision to return looks puzzling in hindsight, but it is more understandable when situated to the context described in this memoir.
Trần Đình Trụ (Author)
Trần Đình Trụ is a former naval commander in the South Vietnamese Navy. He has lived in Texas since 1991.
Bac Hoai Tran (Translator)
Bac Hoai Tran, formerly lecturer of Vietnamese at UC Berkeley, is the Vietnamese language coordinator of the Southeast Asian Studies Summer Institute at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Jana K. Lipman (Translator)
Jana K. Lipman is associate professor of history at Tulane University.
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