The Vietnam war ended with the fall of Saigon, 35 years ago, in 1975. That was also the year the Vietnamese people first began settling in Australia. Quynh Dao arrived in Australia in 1980 and she named her book after the small highland town she grew up in.
Presenter: Sen Lam
Quynh Dao, Melbourne author of Tales From A Mountain City
DAO: Where I came from it's a mountain resort, it's called Dalat. It's about 300 kilometres from Saigon, it's a very popular holiday resort. It has beautiful climate and rolling hills and beautiful forests of pine trees. Before the Communist takeover my life, my childhood, even though I lived in a country at war, my city people say it was a sacred land because for some reason the war didn't affect that city that much, and I had a very peaceful childhood.
But mind you during the war I didn't have the chance to even get out of Dalat, I was very much a small town girl. During the war travelling was very dangerous and risky. The first time that I left Dalat was in such traumatic circumstances because it was a time when the Communists invaded my city. They came from the north so they invaded my city before they came to Saigon, and then hoping, like a lot of South Vietnamese hope that Saigon was somehow protected from the invasion. We stay in Saigon for a while and then the Communist takeover was complete, we had to go back to Dalat and that's how we lived with the occupiers, because a group of soldiers occupied my house.
LAM: And how were the soldiers? Did they treat you well?
DAO: Not really, not really. They called themselves Liberation Army and their manner was anything but. For a short while we tried to put up with that kind of situation, it became impossible, and that eventually they themselves gave us the order to evacuate. They say we need the house, you are a security risk.
LAM: In other words they threw you out of your own home?
DAO: Exactly, exactly, and in a short while my father had to go around the city looking for places for us to stay. Luckily we had a family friend who was so kind. I knew that my country was at war because soldiers were everywhere, and one time, that was the Tet Offensive in 1968 when Dalat was actually affected and houses were bombed, that sort of thing. But because I lived a very protected existence, my parents didn't talk about the war, so for me it was a bit remote, it happened but it was remote.
LAM: Describe to us how your family got out of Saigon, the steps that you had to take, or indeed your parents had to take to get safe passage for not just themselves, but for their children?
DAO: In 1975 we had to evacuate to Saigon and then we got back to Dalat and I lived in Dalat for a few years, and I thought that I would start doing my university course, and then one day when I came back home my brother said to me, we are leaving. We talked to people, we had connections and then we had links with people living in the countryside. And you know that in the countryside where there were river ports that opened to the sea, that's where a lot of escapes happened. And so we just had to manage to find our way to the countryside, boarding buses and looking as innocent as you can. Of course even if my family could manage, it wasn't easy, and I know that many, many families they were not well off, but they saw it as just a last desperate act.
LAM: Did you know you were going to end up in Australia?
DAO: No it's just a miracle.
LAM: You're listening to Connect Asia on Radio Australia, and our studio guest this morning is Quynh Dao, and her book is "Tales from a Mountain City". Quynh Dao you made your way somehow from your refugee camp in Malaysia, is that right, to Australia?
DAO: Our boat arrived to Malaysia towards the end of 1978 and we lived in the refugee camp, it was a remote area away from everyone. But yes we were happy, we saw freedom at last.
LAM: So describe to us what growing up in the 1980s Australia, what was that like?
DAO: Well it was totally strange to me, always a small-town girl of a small town in Dalat and coping with Melbourne which is a big city with a lot of people with new customs, all sorts of cultural differences that I had to cope with. So I have to say how do I describe that? To me it's something I tried hard to cope with but mind you I didn't have a lot of interaction with Australians. At that time I was busy learning English.
LAM: So you didn't have padded shoulders?
DAO: No, actually we went to secondhand shops and bought like a dollar for three pieces. Yes nothing like the fashion and everything.
LAM: Well sometimes you can find quite good things in those secondhand shops if you look carefully?
DAO: Not even the shops, we went to trash and treasure markets and one dollar for three pieces of clothing, it was very good for me.
LAM: Did your experience help you understand better the current issues that are faced by asylum seekers who try to make their way to Australia?
DAO: I feel for them, I feel for them, especially now when the world situation has changed and perhaps attitudes towards refugees among Australian people have also changed. And I think it's a pity because in my mind I always imagine a group of people who are so fearful, who didn't see any future for their children or even themselves in their homeland, and having to make that decision it's heartbreaking.