On a wave of hope

16 Dec 2019

This article was written by Michael Jones for Contact Magazine.

War. Secret escapes. Stranded at sea. Pirates and eye patches. It’s a story of survival almost too wild to believe, and it’s inspiring a UQ student to want to change the lives of vision-impaired people. Son Ngo could no longer feel his legs. The heat and musty air inside the hull of the rickety wooden boat made it hard to breathe, but he wouldn’t dare move a muscle or make a sound.

Wedged between 10 other desperate South Vietnamese asylum seekers and piles of coconuts, 10-year-old Son and his mother were finally escaping Saigon – via the city of Tra Vinh – and the brutal communist regime that followed the horrors of the Vietnam War.

Son (Bachelor of Engineering ’96) was just two years old when his father – a high-ranking South Vietnamese military officer – was killed 15 days before the war ended in 1975.

He and his mother were forced to live with his maternal grandparents, who had managed to bribe communist officials to leave the family alone. But when their connection to the old regime began to resurface in 1982, Son’s grandfather organised a boat for their escape.

Disguised as coconut merchants en route to the river markets, they headed off in an eight-metre boat putting along unnoticed – past the armed soldiers stationed along the Mekong River, and around the floating, bloated bodies of the victims of failed escapes.

The plan, simple as it was, had worked.

But as the boat reached open water and Son finally emerged from the hull – stiff and desperate for fresh air – his relief was short lived.

Even as a boy, he knew this boat was never meant for the ocean. And when the engine broke down and the inexperienced crew had no idea how to fix it, they were at its mercy.

Thirty-seven years later, the dangers and hardships Son faced are not lost on his eldest son, Eagle Ngo. In fact, Eagle’s mother Thuy Nguyen made an equally dangerous journey to Australia, so Eagle’s determined to make the most of life’s opportunities.

The UQ Bachelor of Science student already achieved a perfect ATAR score of 99.95 while at Brisbane Grammar School, co-authored a children’s book in 2018, and gained provisional entry into a Doctor of Medicine degree at UQ once he has completed his undergraduate studies. He also has his eyes set on a career as an ophthalmologist.

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