Like Dandelion Seeds Blown Far From Home

One of my favoritest things to do when traveling is to connect with fellow Vietnamese Boat People who, like me, somehow ended up far far far from home.

So, prior to arriving in London in March 2023, I got onto Facebook, and searched for Vietnamese Boat People in London who would want to meet up with a Vietnamese Boat Person from Alaska via Melbourne, that we could share our stories about the winds of life.


Meet Sonny Tran who, at the age of 12, fled Vietnam with five siblings.

Their parents, who were hard-working business owners, were constantly persecuted under Communist rule. His parents, like mine, were confronted with stark realities and hard decisions.

A month after my family fled, his family fled - May 1979 - along with 1,500 others, crammed onto three wooden boats.

They were out in the open ocean, met with starvation, dehydration and on death’s doorstep. Unbeknownst to Sonny and those on his boat, one of the other two boats is rescued by the UK merchant marine vessel, the SS Sibonga.

The skipper from the first rescued boat tells Captain Martin that there are another two vessels out there - another thousand souls lost at sea - and begs him to please look.

Captain Martin directs the crew to engage in a search and rescue mission.
They find another boat five miles away - Sonny’s boat. He remembers being lifted up onto this gigantic vessel by a giant cargo net.

They certainly would have died without the compassionate leadership of the ship’s captain, Captain Martin, who could have easily kept steaming ahead - which is what many of those ships did at the time.

Sadly, they could not find the third boat and the fate of those people is unknown.

It is estimated that the oceans around Vietnam are the final resting place for half a million to a million of our kinsfolk and yet, on that day, a thousand people were saved.

The SS Sibonga travels onwards to Hong Kong and everyone stays on board until the UK government and the Hong Kong government come to an agreement: the refugees could disembark and be processed in Hong Kong, as long as the British government would agree to take them.

And that is the story of how Sonny and his family got to the UK, where they rebuilt their lives, and learned the Queen's English wrapped in big warm coats and the kindness of strangers. Sonny becomes a successful telecommunications and information technology engineer, and his siblings become doctors, a surgeon, and a dentist.

Here come the bits that got me blubbering:

In 2019, Sonny's sister - by happenstance - discovers the whereabouts of Captain Martin. She travels to northern Ireland, to a nursing home, to thank Captain Martin for not turning away from their plight.

Sonny then starts a Facebook group, to re-unite SS Sibonga staff, rescuees, and the staff who helped to resettle their community into life in a strange new country. He then rounds up fellow rescuees, to travel to Captain Martin's nursing home, to celebrate their 40 year rescue reunion, which you can watch/read about here:

Video of Sonny's reunion with Captain Martin

What most struck me about my time with Sonny is just how aware he is of the preciousness and precariousness of life, and the gratitude and the kindness that pours and pores out of him.

Each year, nearing Captain Martin's birthday, there is a Facebook post to remind each other to send birthday cards to the man who changed the course of their lives.

This living reminder - to acknowledge the kindness of strangers who did not have to help us - opened up floodgates of gratitude in me for the named and nameless Captain Martins who helped me and my family to be alive, and to have the opportunity for incredible lives.

I know that if we asked the Captain Martins of the world about this, they would say that they couldn't not help us.

After I picked my chin off the table and stopped crying, I shared with Sonny my family's story. And now he's shaking his head at my seven-month pregnant mother, the horrors of pirates, my little sister born in a refugee camp, my dad near-death and saved by Doctors Without Borders, and the community who helped us to re-settle in rural Australia.


Even though we come from the same story-line of desperately seeking refuge, our journeys were vastly different, and yet there is a common thread: the hunger for a life free from oppression, and immense gratitude towards those who turned towards us and helped us.

BBC interview with Captain Martin and his wife, shortly after the rescue of Sonny’s boat.
(Skip to 11 seconds)


When the Sibonga Facebook group formed, the radio officer of the SS Sibonga, Mike Price, shared this incredible photo into the group, forty-two years after the original moment that changed Sonny's life (and another five hundred lives) forever: the Skipper of the first rescued boat, telling Captain Martin that there are another two more boats desperately in need of rescue.


If you would like another tear-jerking story, please watch Lauren Vuong’s story of thanking the man who rescued her family:


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