In Saigon, Anh’s extended family pools money together to buy a boat—nine meters long by two and a half meters wide. Under Vietnamese communist law, it is illegal to purchase a boat, and therefore dangerous, so the family must carry out the purchase secretly. Anh’s father huddles together with Anh’s uncles, planning the family’s escape from Vietnam on the boat. Anh’s father is charged with navigating a smaller boat through the city’s canals to get to the bigger boat. On the day of his departure, he kisses his wife and children, Anh and Khoa, good-bye. His brothers, Uncles Five and Seven, have already died trying to escape Vietnam.
The elaborate and dangerous preparations that the family must undertake to buy the boat, and to prepare for their escape, allude to the oppressive circumstances under which they live in Vietnam. The government seeks total control over the movement of its population, therefore policing their attempts to escape the poverty-wracked country. That two of Anh’s uncles have died on a previous voyage also points to how dangerous such an attempt at escape can be.
In small groups, Anh’s family and family friends, numbering forty people in total, leave in motorized canoes to the “Motherfish,” the boat that they have purchased, which is docked out at sea. Anh, two and a half years old at the time, leaves with his Uncle Thanh and Aunty Huong in a canoe. His uncle and aunt, who have hidden him in the hatch of the canoe, have trouble keeping him silent. They are fearful of the Vietnamese patrols that go up and down the waters, looking to catch “boat people”—Vietnamese who are attempting to escape the country by boat.
The nerve-wracking moments when the family, in small groups, attempts to make it to the “Motherfish” underscore the danger of this undertaking. Given how heavily policed the country is, it is extremely dangerous to attempt to escape. Anything can go wrong—in this case, Anh’s infant cries can land his aunt and uncle in trouble, should they be heard by the patrol guards.
Evading Vietnamese patrols, the entire family makes it safely to the “Motherfish.” The first morning of their voyage, they must cross the border into international waters—one of the most dangerous parts of the trip, given that here, too, they must avoid Vietnamese patrol boats. Indeed, as they approach the border, they find themselves pursued by a patrol boat. Anh’s father, who is in charge of navigating the Motherfish, cracks both boat’s engines, but the patrol boat comes after them at great speed and begins shooting. One of the boat’s engines cuts off. Suddenly, however, the patrol boat turns back—the family has crossed into international waters, and the patrol boat doesn’t bother to follow them beyond the zone of surveillance.
The family faces their first moment of true danger when they are pursued by the Vietnamese patrol boat. The fact that the boat begins shooting at the family reveals the violence to which the Vietnamese authorities are prepared to resort to stop people from fleeing the country. Barely having embarked on their journey, the family’s lives are already under threat. It is merely a matter of luck that they cross into international waters quickly enough that the patrol boat ultimately leaves them alone.
On the second day of the journey, the family faces their second major test: a huge storm picks up. The women and children take shelter in the hatch of the boat, where they are tossed and turned by the heaving boat, crying and not knowing whether they will live or die. The conditions on the boat—with forty people on board—are extremely cramped and oppressive. Eventually, the weather settles, and the sea becomes calm. Anh’s mother rushes up to the deck and is relieved to find that not only are her brothers and brothers-in-law alive, but also her husband, Tam, has survived the storm.
The terrible storm that overtakes the boat points to the many dangers that the family faces from all sides. Having just escaped Vietnamese patrol boats, the family is now at the mercy of the elements, and their lives are threatened once more as the boat is almost shipwrecked in the storm. Again, however, the family is lucky in that they survive the ordeal, all unharmed. The storm, however, emphasizes their vulnerability out in the open sea.
A boy named Loc, who has been sent by his mother on the voyage, has been having a hard time dealing with the cramped, difficult conditions on board the boat. He is hallucinating. One night, he jumps into the sea. The family members frantically look for him, but the sea is too dark, and there is no trace of him.
Loc’s tragic suicide reveals just how unbearable conditions are on the boat. The cramped, meager, perilous conditions require huge psychological strength to withstand, and Loc’s suicide indicates that some are unable to bear the strain.
One day, the passengers spot a boat in the distance. Thinking that they will be saved, they wave and jump. The boat that approaches is full of pirates, however, who descend on the family with guns and knives, and strip them of all their valuables, including their one working engine.
The pirates represent yet another threat that the family must contend with on the voyage. Completely at their mercy, the family must give up their few valuables. This pirate attack again reinforces the family’s terrible vulnerability on the voyage.
The pirates take the big engine but thankfully miss the small broken engine in the back. Now, Anh’s father Tam turns his attention to fixing it. Miraculously, he manages to get it going again using an elastic band from one of Uncle Eight’s sandals. When the engine revs to life, everyone cheers, including Tam.
This moment of triumph represents one in which the vulnerable refugees exercise some agency and control over their fates. Tam’s ability to fix the engine also alludes to his ingenuity and creativity as the leader of the expedition.
The family’s elation is short-lived, however. They are again attacked by a pirate boat. These pirates are even more brutal than the previous lot. On top of again taking anything and everything the family has, one of them attempts to drag Aunty Huong to the pirate boat—where she will clearly be raped. Another pirate picks up Anh’s baby brother Khoa and dangles him over the edge of the boat. When the baby’s life is threatened, the family finds their courage. They are ready to fight to the death to save Khoa’s life. Sensing this, the pirates board their own boat. As the pirates are leaving, one of them, a young man who seems gentler than the rest, throws the family a gallon of water. The family have again experienced incredible luck: the gallon of water saves their lives, as by this point, they are out of all provisions, including water.
That this second pirate attack is even more brutal than the first, attests to the fact that the dangers the family faces on the voyage are limitless. Each peril gives way to a greater one—even children and women are exposed to the threat of the pirates’ violence. And yet, here too the family is lucky, as well as courageous. It is their courage in rising to defend infant Khoa that leads the pirates to retreat. They are extremely lucky, however, in gaining the gift of water from the young pirate who drops a gallon overboard to them. In the midst of their vulnerability and suffering, the family encounters fortune.
On the fifth day of the voyage, the family spots another boat on the horizon. This time they are fearful because of the terrible experiences they’ve had with the pirates. But they are in luck: this is a boat carrying German sailors, who, after rescuing the family by helping them board their own boat, take them to safety.
The family’s good luck continues when they are spotted by a German merchant ship, ending their perilous journey on their small boat. They are extremely fortunate to have survived all of the perils that they have faced.