Twice imprisoned, thankful for freedom in a new land

  • Written by Jean Parietti
  • Published in NW Stories
Eric, left, and Henry Tran spent 27 months living in refugee camps in Thailand and Indonesia after escaping Vietnam in 1982. Photo: Courtesy Henry Tran Eric, left, and Henry Tran spent 27 months living in refugee camps in Thailand and Indonesia after escaping Vietnam in 1982. Photo: Courtesy Henry Tran

Henry Tran lifts a pant leg, revealing a mark running across his ankle.

“They handcuffed me,” Tran said, explaining how the communists in Vietnam used handcuffs on his ankles and wrists to tightly restrain him in a cell with 12 other prisoners. A bucket was their bathroom and they were allowed out of the cell for just one hour a week.

Tran prayed to God a lot: “Please help me, get me out.”

It was the second time he was imprisoned after South Vietnam fell to the communists in 1975.

Born in North Vietnam, Tran was about 10 when his Catholic family escaped to the south after the country was divided in 1954, with the communists controlling the north. “We know that the communists, they never believe in God,” Tran said. The south offered religious and personal freedom.

Later, Tran served as a member of South Vietnam’s military police for 10 years, until the fall of Saigon in 1975. Like many others who served in the military in the south, Tran was sent to communist prison camp.

The prisoners were worked hard: cutting down trees, digging trenches, building dams. “No food,” Tran said. “Just one bowl [of rice] for one day. A lot of people die. No medicine, no nothing,” he added.

Henry Tran getting feet washedHenry Tran has his feet washed during Mass while living in a refugee camp in Thailand in the early 1980s. Photo: Courtesy Henry Tran

After four years, Tran was freed in 1979. He joined some friends who were trying to organize an anti-communist group. “They loved their country,” explained Tran’s son, Eric.

Shortly after joining the group, Tran was recaptured and sent back to prison. After six months of being restrained six days a week, he was moved into a cell by himself.

Tran’s wife, Thoa Nguyen, was allowed to visit him once every month or two. She saved up whatever money she could, to bribe the guards and build rapport. Eventually, Tran was allowed to work in the fields, where just two guards were assigned to six prisoners.

During her visits, Nguyen would also slip her husband some money. One day in October 1982, Tran and his fellow prisoners gave the guards some of that extra money. The guards left to go drinking, Eric Tran explained, and “that’s when they escaped.”

Two months later, in December 1982, Tran and Eric, then 9, were able to escape Vietnam on a small boat, the first leg of a long journey to a new life in the U.S. They arrived in Seattle on March 28, 1985, but couldn’t bring the rest of the family here until six years later.

Today, Tran is an active member of Vietnamese Martyrs Parish in Tukwila. All his children and grandchildren live nearby, and Thanksgiving is his favorite holiday. It’s a time for him to say: “Thank you God, thank you American people for everything.”

Read more stories about the origins of the Vietnamese Catholic community in the Archdiocese of Seattle at