When the war between Vietnam and Cambodia peaked in 1978, Ms Hoang’s mother feared the communist government would take her three oldest children away to fight, so she made the decision to send them to find asylum.
In 1979, after four previous attempts, Ms Hoang and her two younger siblings left their family behind to sail to Malaysia on a 25-metre wooden boat with 370 other people.
‘The first few hours I was just so sad, when the boat took off I looked back and saw my mum and other siblings were still there ” the feeling of separation overwhelmed me,’ she said.
‘Once we were out into the open seas, we were tossed about in a horrendous storm and at that point people were scared.’
Ms Hoang said that fear escalated in the final days of their journey when pirates intercepted their boat.
‘Our captain told all women and children to go down to the bottom of the boat and smear our face and body with oil and whatever we could pick up ” vomit or whatever ” to make us smell and look bad so hopefully the pirates would spare us,’ she said.
‘We were quite naive because in reality if we were caught they would just strip us naked and rape us.’
Ms Hoang said when they made it off the coast of Malaysia they were refused entry because of a ‘push back’ policy in place at the time.
Their seven-day ordeal at sea ended when they arrived at an Indonesian island.
‘During that time people started to die” we lost about four people and their bodies had to be thrown to the ocean – that was the hardest thing for me to forget,’ Ms Hoang said.
‘I’ve had nightmares ever since.’
Ms Hoang and her siblings lived in Indonesia for 10 months before resettling in the United States in 1980.
The 50-year-old who moved to Australia six years ago said people smugglers needed to be stopped because the practice put people’s lives at risk.
‘The policy we have now is very harsh, it appears to be punishing the boat people and they already suffered before they came here,’ she said.