The Dragon Fruit Orchard

The Dragon Fruit Orchard

by Ngan Ha


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This is the journey of a young woman who was profoundly affected by the war in her home country of Vietnam. She was thrown into the tragedy of the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975, escaped alone to the United States and established her life here as a medical doctor. She struggled with the profound cultural shock, learned to grow and deal with the prejudices against her perceived unconventional lifestyle, and protected her integrity. The second part of the book is about the saga to adopt an infant from Vietnam alone; how she fought all the obstacles and the stigma of single motherhood in her culture to triumphantly bring the child to the US. In doing so, she managed to raise her child alone as a full-time professional and found happiness and peace of mind. A deeply moving, emotionally-harrowing tale of one woman's journey of immigration--first as an emigrant to the United States from her home in Vietnam, next as a single woman striving to adopt a child from her native country. Ngan Ha 's remarkable story is a triumph, one propelled by the author's dreams and fierce determination. --Amy Friedman, author of Desperado's Wife

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781952648526
Publisher: Marilyn T. Beall
Publication date: 09/01/2021
Pages: 220
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Ngan Ha was born in Vietnam and grew up in Saigon during the climax of the war. Growing up was tough for a traditional young girl whose life was restricted by so many rules of family and society, beside the uncertainty of war time. She attended medical school in Saigon amidst the chaos of the war, then emigrated to the States as a refugee in 1975.In the US, she practiced medicine for almost thirty years, while raising a family as a single parent.Recently retired, Ngan Ha is pursuing a music education at a local college. She enjoys reading and gardening in her free time. Another book is in the making.

Read an Excerpt

The Dragon Fruit Orchard

By Ngan Ha

Balboa Press

Copyright © 2014 Ngan Ha
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4525-2191-6


I never thought I would see most of them again at the same place. As soon as I finished signing in and picked up my name tag, I felt a pull on my sleeve and heard a loud voice:

"Lan! I wouldn't have recognized you if we met on the street." I turned and saw a woman in an aquamarine dress. Her face was animated with a broad smile; she was staring at me. She did not have a name tag. I searched my memory, and found her a minute later. "Oh my gosh, Ngan! You look different now but I still recognize your voice."

"So do you! I am not sure if I could tell without your name tag. It's been a very long time. How are you?" Before I could say anything, she grabbed my arm, pulling me along while scanning the hotel lobby, saying "Come! We'll go look for the rest of them."

I had met them in 1966 when we started pre-med year at Saigon University. For seven years I went to the same schools with them, at the most tender age of my life, just before I turned seventeen. The war was in full force. Four years into my college life, I faced an unfortunate turn of fate, and suffered a major crisis. Most people in my school misunderstood it, there was no one to support me and set the records straight, and I spent the rest of my college years in isolation.

So much water had run under the bridge, now more than thirty years later, I had been a successful practicing physician in California with a happy family, I wondered if their perception of me had changed. Nevertheless, I was proud of my integrity and my accomplishment. I was ready to share my story and hoped we could now relate in better term.

* * *

It was July 2006 at the Marriott Hotel in Anaheim, California, where the class reunion took place. I was eager to see how everyone looked now. There had not been such a large reunion of my medical class since the great exodus that sent our people scattering around the world after the communist invasion of South Vietnam in 1975. In previous smaller reunions, mostly locals attended, and I had gone to only a couple of them. Some of my classmates had become successful in this country and were now wealthy, many who came later eventually built thriving practices, and a few others were still struggling.

But I felt no one had gone through as much as I did. I had just turned twenty-five and was a little over a year out of medical school when I left my country to escape the aftermath of a lost war. Without knowing anybody, and with very little English in my language store, I had no idea what awaited me in a new country; at the time, I didn't even know where I would end up. I had $100 to my name, and it was in my pocket. Until then, I had lived in complete shelter and was very immature in regards to the matters of people and the world; most of my time had been devoted to studying, besides, young women in my country were expected to get married and continue to be sheltered and protected.

Without warning, my world turned upside down, and I was alone in it.

* * *

Ngan and I first saw a classmate who used to live in the same neighborhood as I did during medical school, someone I had seen every weekend at Sunday Mass at the local church, though we never became close friends. Then we saw a woman who had come all the way from the Dordogne in France, and she still had the same good look and nasal voice after all these years. Others came from different parts of the world: Australia, Denmark, England, New Zealand, VietNam. Many of them looked like total strangers to me until their voices gave them away. With many others, it took me a while to put the faces and names together. The greeting, hugging, and handshaking created a great excitement I had not experienced for years.

No one seemed to care much about the lectures given by a faculty member and some classmates who held academic appointments. All were eager to go to the dinner that followed. There, no one was disappointed: the food was delicious, the conversations were flowing, and the homegrown entertainment was fabulous. I was surprised to find a friend who had been so principled during medical school was now such a free-spirited man. He jumped on the stage, sang a romantic song, told a dark joke, and made others follow his act. Another man who used to be a playful, uncommitted guy now had become a serious Zen master. The warmth of the ambiance was so joyful that I was disappointed when it came time for me to leave; I missed the second half of the night, as I had to pick up my ten-year-old daughter, Julia, at nine.

The gala the next evening brought back so many memories. An old flame asked me to dance, but I declined; I did not feel comfortable because he came to the event without his wife. I had hoped we could be like any ordinary friends at this point, but it seemed there was a lot of gossip ready to erupt if I danced with him. That's the Vietnamese mentality: assumptions are instantly made, one might spend years clarifying one's actions, and there was no chance of being casual without being mistaken.

Huan came to our table midway through the evening. He had gone into the army right after graduating in 1973 and was stationed in central Vietnam. He pulled out a chair and sat down after a loud hello to everyone—he always was trying to be the center of attention. He looked happy and excited. Lots of us had heard about his heroic escape from the city where he was stationed, and we wanted to hear the details.

"Tell us how you got out of Vietnam," people noisily inquired.

He started a long narration, and everyone was quiet.

"Well, the end of March 1975, my post was abandoned, as we could not defend ourselves, so we were told to leave any way we could. My brigade disbanded instantly. With a rifle on my shoulder and a backpack, I ran in the direction of the beach, not knowing where my comrades were going, as each frantically ran a different way. I heard the gunshots continuously coming from the hidden enemy; I had to lie down low many times but thought there would be no way out except charging ahead. When the sound of the shotguns died down, I got up and ran like a madman. After a couple of hours, I saw a small hill with heavy bushes, so I hid my rifle and backpack there and ran out toward the seashore."

Huan stopped for a sip of water, and everyone else took a breath.

"Go on, what happened next?" one person anxiously asked.

"Well, I looked left and right as I was running, and about an hour later, I spotted a military ship with an American flag about one kilometer out in the water. When I got closer, I saw a mob of hundreds of people waiting on the beach to get on; it did not look like the small ship would come in, nor like it could take all of them. I thought my only chance would be to get to it before the mob got close. I took off my boots and my shirt, plunged into the water, and started to swim. I had no idea if I could make it; I saw two other swimmers around me paddling their arms and legs desperately, like me. After more than an hour in the freezing water, I got to the tail of the ship. I saw three people already holding on to a protruding part of its metal shell, their bodies submerged in the sea; they squeezed to make room for me. I was able to put my hands on it, and the rest of my body was still in the water.

"You must have felt relieved to be able to hold on to the ship," one classmate commented.

"I felt as if I was given a life again," Huan said. He continued, "Inside the ship, there were hundreds of people it had picked up along the way. The crew was shouting, 'There is only room for a few dozen more people.' Then I heard a commanding voice say, 'No matter, we pick up whomever we can.' Then the crew shouted again, 'People, please squeeze in to make room for more.' When they finally saw us hanging on to the side of the ship, trembling in the freezing water, they pulled us up one by one, and I collapsed on the deck. When I woke up the next day, I heard that the ship had moved in farther to take about fifty more people still waiting on the shore. If I had not swum to it, there would have been little chance I could have gotten on, and who knows what would have become of me."

We were in awe of his courage and good luck. "Yeah, you might have rotted in a prison camp if you didn't get on the ship," one classmate said.

"I've always thanked my lucky star," Huan agreed. He told us that the ship had to change its itinerary because of the unexpected load of refugees, and it landed in Thailand three days later instead of going to Singapore as originally planned. "The rest is history," Huan said.

The others at our table took turns telling tales of their survival. Later, we moved to the corner of the room to avoid the noise of the band. We had so much to catch up on; everyone was trying to fill in the more-than-thirty-year gap. I was listening quietly; I wanted to hear all the dramas in the lives of the people who had spent seven precious years with me in the same medical school. Bui talked about another classmate whom I used to avoid because of his bluntness.

"Do you all know what happened to Phi?" he asked.

"I know he died in battle not long after becoming active in the service. It was so sad, but I don't know any details," one man in the group offered.

"It was tragic," Bui's voice trailed off. "I was in the same fighting unit with him after I was drafted. Most of us did not know how poor his family was, but he and his father were determined that he would become a doctor, so his father labored for years, hauling heavy construction materials on his tricycle all over the city at any time of the day to make ends meet. On weekends, he did other odd jobs for meager pay because he didn't have any skill. His wife sold vegetables at the market daily. Phi himself helped out whenever he could, doing the same heavy manual work with his father. During our third year of medical school, he enlisted in the military as a reservist so he could get a stipend while continuing his education. He graduated with us in 1973, and he had to go to the front line immediately. At that time, there was heavy fighting in Binh Long, and he lost his life a year later when his shelter was hit by a powerful Vietcong bomb. He had not had a chance to live his life nor to repay his family for their lifelong sacrifices; he was only twenty-seven. I could not even imagine his parents' grief and devastation, having to bury their young son whom they loved so much and had great hope for. I was lucky to be away in combat training with the troops at that time, so I escaped the bomb. After hearing the news of his death on my return, the only thing I could do was curse the war for days."

"Thank God you were away," one woman said with relief in her voice.

I didn't know that part about Phi's life. Tears welled up in my eyes when Bui finished the story; many others were also crying. Several years later after this reunion, our class would organize a memorial service in the United States to honor him.

Bui said he himself was captured by the communists after the takeover of South Vietnam in 1975, when he was unable to run away from the fallen city, being a medical officer in his military unit at the time. He was condemned to a concentration camp in the deserted highland in the North. The ten-day transport by train from the South was treacherous; the prisoners were packed in cabins with little food or drink and no medical care. He developed an ulcer in his leg, and it got so severely infected that he thought he would lose it. Luckily, his body was strong and he recovered, but that left him crippled, and he is unable to bend his leg or crouch down to this day. After his release from the camp three years later, he found a fisherman who took him, his wife and a few others to Malaysia on a cramped boat with few safety features. Luckily the sea voyage was spared of pirate attacks; they landed safely after four days. Bui finally resettled in Florida in 1982 and slowly built up his medical practice there. Everyone in the group was so relieved at the happy ending.

There were other groups of people huddled together at different corners of the room telling their stories. I imagined their stories about life-changing experiences were full of drama—as we all went through the profound shock of the abrupt collapse of our country—as well as each individual's escape—many were captured, humiliated, and tortured before making it out of the country. It was a long night, everyone was scrambling to talk, and I could hardly get a word in; I left at ten to pick up my daughter Julia at the babysitter's.

The next day, Chung, another classmate, came to my home for a visit; we did not have much chance to talk the previous days. He reminisced about the time when we both went to pharmacy and premed school in the same year and spent many long hours every week in the same pharmaceutical lab during the late 60's.

"How could I forget those days? But if you did not mention it, I'm afraid they never would have surfaced from my memory," I told him. We talked about the old professor, the lab assistants who worked with us, the ridiculous dry herb samples that we had to learn to recognize, and the dangerous chemicals we were exposed to, though we did not know it then. We had little time to socially connect back then, and we both dropped out of pharmacy school after the first year. The rigorous curriculum of medical school kept everyone focused, then my personal crisis took over my emotional life and the brutal end of the lost war in 1975 added new dramas to everyone's life. That year at pharmacy school had been blocked out completely from my mind.

"There have been so many twists and turns in my life that some memories have been buried deep," I said.

"We fortunately still have them to treasure." Chung sounded grateful.

The visit was short, as I had to catch a flight later to Florida for a vacation with Julia, who was eagerly anticipating it. But it was sweet of Chung to come, and I appreciated it so much.

The phone rang after Chung left; it was Thu. "Hey Lan," she said. "Want to join us for pho in an hour?"

"I'd love to, but I have to leave town in an hour. How come you didn't tell me about it yesterday?" I asked.

"We are talking about you; Dung asked why you haven't gotten married."

Oh my gosh, they think I can answer that question in a few sentences! I thought to myself. Thu had become a close friend after we both settled down in California, she in Sacramento and I in Los Angeles; though we didn't see each other much, we maintained regular phone contact. Too bad my flight is in three hours and I have to miss this lunch, I thought. Thirty-three years had passed, and now we were all trying to catch up with each other. I wanted to clear my name and restore my reputation, which had been smeared for several decades because of my crisis during the student days. The upset feeling I had toward people in my school for their unfair judgment of me had faded away; now I could treat them as ordinary friends, and I hoped they would do the same toward me. I was proud of being successful in the United States, my new country. I will share my life story next time my class gets together, I told myself.


At age ten, I started at an all-girl junior high school in Saigon, Trung Vuong High School, about four miles from my home. That was quite a distance for a child with a small bicycle to travel back and forth every day. There was a group of girls who lived scattered along the way, and I would stop by their houses to get them to ride with me to school. They were slightly older and bigger than me, and they had bigger bikes that were appropriate for their sizes, so I had to pedal faster to keep up with them. The chitchat was incessant along the way.

"Hey Lan, did you bring any mangos today?" The girls loved the mangos from my back yard, as well as the guavas, cherimoyas, and star fruits that were so plentiful in the early summer, and I usually picked dozens of them every week to distribute to the girls. Every Monday, my school sack was full of fruits and would weigh me down, but I did not mind. That seemed to be the only thing I could share with them. An, the most talkative of the bunch, would fill us in about what she was up to and who did what.


Excerpted from The Dragon Fruit Orchard by Ngan Ha. Copyright © 2014 Ngan Ha. Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press.
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