Vietnam Highlands. Free Image by ThuyHaBich from Pixabay.

Forty-Three Years

They believed each other to be dead. 43 years later, childhood friends discovered they had survived war.
United States, Northern America

Story by Y-Danair Niehrah. Edited by Melaina Dyck
Published on November 7, 2021. Reading time: 4 minutes

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Forty-five years ago, my father Y-Luin left Vietnam nestled in the cargo hold of a C-141B. A few days later, Saigon fell. This is his story…

Y-Luin is Degar-Montagnard from the Rhade tribe, an ethnic minority who called the central highlands of Vietnam their home. His father, Y-Thih, spent years in and out of prison fighting for autonomy and equal rights for the Degar people.

In the early ‘70s, Y-Luin was the only Degar student in his high school in Saigon. His father found work in Saigon with the Vietnamese government while his mother stayed home in Buôn Ma Thuột. At the time, Y-Luin was on top of the world. He was the head of athletics of the high school. He had multiple black belts in different martial art forms. He got his baccalaureate and passed his pre-med exam.[1] Y-Luin had his eyes set on studying medicine in France—Paris maybe.

He spoke about the future a lot with Thế Huỳnh Hữ, his best friend. They’d spend late nights under the jungle moon practicing martial arts together, studying for exams, and dreaming about what their future homes would look like.

On April 25, 1975, Y-Thih told Y-Luin to leave the city, never telling him that the whole time the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) had taken Biên Hòa Airbase. Y-Luin believed it was a surprise—maybe his father had pulled some strings; gotten him into a school in France. He boarded that C-141B to Guam as a refugee not knowing his mother had been killed by a boobytrap in Buôn Ma Thuột.

Y-Luin never said goodbye to Thế. It was one of the biggest regrets of his life at the time; things he’d mention when decades later I would sit with him over a bottle of wine to ask about his childhood. My brother and I would routinely scrub the internet looking for Thế on social media, to no avail.  

Thế and Y-Luin believed each other to be dead.

Forty-three years later, my father came across a YouTube video about his high school reunion from the 1970–1975 classes and saw that someone had commented looking for my father and giving his contact information. A couple of emails and a phone call later and they were reunited.

They first saw each other on Christmas Day, 2018. Almost half a century later, they were still cracking jokes about each other, especially since my father lost most of his hair since they last saw each other. The war took home from both men. We learned that after Saigon fell, Thế had spent nine years in a labor camp before managing to escape on a boat out of the country in 1984.

In the wake of the tragedy, they both found success in America: raising families and forging their new homes—with one of the biggest blessings being that the kinship they thought they had lost in 1975 now blooms stronger than ever.


[1] A pre-med exam is taken to enter medicine as a field of study.

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Y-Danair Niehrah

Y-Danair Niehrah

Y-Danair Niehrah is a Degar/Montagnard-Vietnamese American living in Charleston, SC. Outside of his editorial work in the publishing industry, Y-Danair loves to write historical and genre fiction and hopes some day to teach craft to other aspiring writers. 

Topic: Migration

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