Under the cover of darkness, Jaime Vuong smuggled her four-year-old daughter Alyssa and infant son Ben onto fishing boats to escape the oppression of Communist Viet Cong rule.
It was 1984, nine years after the fall of the former South Vietnamese capital of Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City.
“Our home, valuables and assets were forcibly confiscated by the Viet Cong,” said Dr. Alyssa Tran, a primary care physician for the past seven years at WellMed at Northern Hills in San Antonio, Texas. “My parents’ freedom and self-dignity were stripped, which led to my father’s multiple attempts to flee Vietnam.”
David Giang, tried unsuccessfully to escape the country four times, with the intention of starting a foundation for his family in the United States.
“He was imprisoned and beaten after each attempt. My mother sold our remaining household items – including family heirlooms – to buy my father’s freedom.”
The couple remained determined to join relatives living in America. With Vietnamese authorities keeping a close eye on her father, Dr. Tran’s parents made the difficult decision to let her mother try to escape with the two children, with hopes of reuniting later.
Reaching the harbor of Ho Chi Minh City, the trio boarded the first of many fishing boats with sympathetic crews who agreed to take the frightened family to an unknown, but safer place. It was the beginning of a long, treacherous journey — jumping dock to vessel and hiding in the dark quarters of unfamiliar Vietnamese fishing boats.
“My mother would give us sleeping pills while we were under the galley, to help pass time and because we had nothing to eat. We needed to remain silent; any noise or raucous would risk our safety and the lives of those who helped us. ”
The family reached the city of Manila in the Philippines. “We spent several months in the refugee camp learning English, getting vaccinated and prepping to come to America.”
Young Alyssa shouldered tremendous responsibilities during this time. “I remember taking care of my brother when my mom was in school in the Philippines, going to fetch water from the wells, and standing in long lines to receive our food stipend for the day,” she recalled. “I was basically keeping us safe while my mom was in school preparing for our new lives in America.”
The health care her family received in the Philippines made an impression on Dr. Tran. “We had a lot of contact with the community center where there were many nurses and doctors helping us refugees,” she recalled. “The doctors took charge of the often chaotic environment. It was then that I realized I didn’t want to be any other profession; I wanted to be a doctor and be a leader in helping people improve their health.”
A San Antonio family physician who cared for them upon their arrival further encouraged her. “He recognized our family’s struggles and was always there to support my brother and me,” Dr. Tran said. “When I said that I wanted to be doctor, he shared his joy of practicing medicine and inspired me. He gave me the self-confidence to pursue this crazy dream.”
Dr. Tran and her family flew to San Antonio from the Philippines with the help of an aunt and uncle in the U.S. Army, who they lived with initially.
Eventually, her family moved in with two other immigrant families in a tiny three-bedroom house. Dr. Tran’s mother worked two, sometimes three jobs at a time to make ends meet.
Sesame Street on PBS taught Dr. Tran English and helped her care for baby brother Hue Binh Giang while her mother worked 16+ hour days. She was in English as a Second Language Classes (ESL) when she started public school, but didn’t need ESL classes by second grade. In third grade, the school placed her in Gifted and Talented classes. “This surprised not only my parents, but my teachers as well.”
Dr. Tran’s father arrived in San Antonio to reunite with the family in 1986. From that point on, the children’s job was to stay out of trouble. “We each recognized our duties were to excel in school to ensure our parents’ sacrifices were not in vain.”
Today, Dr. Tran practices medicine in the neighborhood where she grew up. She cares for a large Vietnamese-American population in San Antonio and the surrounding areas. Her fluency in Vietnamese and knowledge of their homeland’s customs and traditions put her patients at ease.
“Many patients were hesitant to share their true stories and medical history prior to establishing care at Northern Hills,” Dr. Tran said. “There is something uniquely different about sharing one’s history through an interpreter versus speaking for oneself. The latter is more special.”
She and her siblings are forever grateful for the many struggles and sacrifices her parents endured. Dr. Tran’s parents had two more children after establishing their new life in America. Today, her father is retired from his 20-year career as a welder at an engineering firm. Her 66-year-old mother continues to work in the nail salon she built and now owns. Her brother Bihn is a senior human resource manager for Panda Express Group.