My Real Birth Day Story

Tien Nguyen
5 min readSep 2, 2023


Aged photo of my parents on their wedding day in 1981
My parents Hien Nguyen and Tu Tran on their wedding day.

My parents don’t like to talk about the past. Like many Vietnamese immigrants, they prefer to focus on the future.

Both were born in the late 1950s as the country was descending into the war that would consume their childhoods. In 1975, when the North won, they punished those in the South who had opposed them, including my family. My mom’s oldest brother, who was a major in the South Vietnamese Army, was sentenced to 10 years in a re-education camp and my mother left school at 16 to help take care of his children. She and my dad, whose father had also fought for the South, were no longer allowed to study beyond high school. Like most people in the south, my parents lived in deep poverty and fear under a government that would do and take whatever it wanted.

At the end of 1986, my parents finally decided to flee the country with their three young children. My two older sisters, Chi, 5, and Thùy, 3, and me, Tiên, just 11 months old.

L to R: Chi, Thùy, and me celebrating my first birthday in a refugee camp in the Philippines.

Our family was among the ~ 800,000 ‘boat people’ who escaped from Vietnam on fishing boats in the two decades after the fall of Saigon, risking our lives on the open sea to reach refugee camps on the shores of another country.

My mom said everybody lost somebody. A parent, a sibling, a spouse. Our family lost my dad’s sister Cô Cúc, who was fifth of nine children. Cô Cúc boarded one of these fishing boats, without her siblings and against my grandparents wishes. Her boat got caught in a terrible storm, according to my grandmother, though no one really knows what happened. Our family never heard from her again. No one ever brings it up except for my grandmother, who in her dementia, will tell the story on repeat of how she begged my dad to convince Cô Cúc not to go.

Maybe it’s no surprise then that my parents rarely mentioned life in Vietnam. Our family culture was one of avoiding emotions. No one said “I love you” to each other until I left for college.

When any details from the past slipped out, the stories sounded like folklore. It would go something like this: “You know your dad escaped the communist police once” my mom would say as she snapped the ends off a green bean. “They were chasing him at night so he stopped running and laid down in some tall grass. He was only a few feet away from them, but they never saw him.”

Another classic family tidbit is the story of my birth.

I was born in the early hours on January 1st in an abandoned hospital in Saigon. The place was empty except for my parents, my mother’s cousin, and the midwife. My dad was hiding from the police for helping people escape the country. I imagined crumbling walls and wailing sirens as the midwife gently placed me in my mother’s arms, my father standing next to her teary-eyed.

I wrote a version of this birth story and sent to my mom.

My mom responded to the story with a single text: “Nice start but missing a lot of detail.”

Once I asked for her help translating a letter to my grandfather about his life to Vietnamese. She added a sentence of her own saying that “Tiên needed a lot of help even for this very short letter.”

I texted her back that she should write the story herself.

This is my mother, Tú Trần’s, story. Enjoy.

Your sister Thùy was only 6 months old when I learned that I was pregnant with you. I was scared, sad, and worried. I didn’t know what to do. The only thing I knew for sure is that I wanted to keep you no matter what.

Ba (Dad) was a fugitive then. He had broken out of the prison where he had been held for being a member of a secret group of political dissidents that were organizing against the communist government. Now he was helping people escape from Vietnam on fishing boats — an illegal thing that he continued to do. Since he was on the run, we couldn’t live at our house. We had no legal documents; that’s why you and your sisters have no birth certificates. Our income was unstable. Nothing was certain.

I remember one evening when we were taking English lessons at my cousin Hảo’s house. My brother rushed in on his bicycle with Chi and Thùy and a bag of clothes. He told us not to go back home because the police had come to your grandmother’s house searching for your father.

After that we stayed with Hảo, who is your godmother, and her family. Chi and Thùy were only toddlers and without Hảo taking care of us, I wasn’t sure if we could make it. Her house had only one bed and she gave it to us; Hảo and her children slept on the floor. Her husband had already left Vietnam on a boat escape that Ba organized.

I was so worried for Ba’s safety. Words can’t describe the relief I felt every time he snuck to see us at night. It was only at that moment that I would know for sure he was still alive. He started talking about building a boat for our own escape out of the country. His brother had written to him from Galang, a refugee camp in Indonesia, urging him to leave the country at once. Refugee camps in Indonesia and Malaysia had begun to close their doors to immigrants since there was no more funding from the United Nations. The world was simply tired after so many years of hundreds of thousands of immigrants flooding in from Vietnam.

Thirty-eight weeks into my pregnancy, Hảo and I went to a private hospital for a check-up. Trương Minh Giảng hospital was a three-story house — a place for middle class people. I was the last patient they accepted before turning the hospital over to the government. Under communism, nothing can stay private.

During the check-up, the midwife said that I could go into labor at any moment. Hảo hurried home to get clothes for me and also to try to get word to Ba. We had no phones at the time. Evening came and the hospital was dark. The building didn’t have power because the city provided electricity to each region on a rotating schedule. I guess the staff was used to working on this schedule because I didn’t see any signs of concern.

Finally, the electricity came back on. The midwife began to massage my stomach, trying to turn your head down. Hảo was right there with me, helping the midwife since there was no doctors or nurses. At last, you came out so smoothly and you looked so beautiful. But no hair 😊. An hour later, Ba arrived, and he named you Minh Tiên. Minh means bright, intelligent and Tiên means origin or fairy or angel. I like to think of you as my bright fairy lady.