Unlike most memoirs about the immigrant experience that center around overcoming hurdles to build a new life, Jolie Phuong Hoang instead structures Three Funerals For My Father: Love, Loss and Escape from Vietnam around her father’s death as he tries to escape Vietnam by boat in 1985. Her younger sister also drowned on that journey. It takes Hoang three decades to come to terms with her father’s and sister’s deaths and her book tells their stories and how her father did whatever he could to bring his family to safer shores.
Hoang’s parents did their best to make a living after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, but the family lost most of their savings after the new government required them to turn in all their cash for a much smaller amount of the new currency. By the early 1980s, her father knew it was time to leave Vietnam. With ten living children (two others had died of early childhood diseases), it wouldn’t be easy. One older sister decided to stay because she was married with children and didn’t want to risk the dangerous journey with her young kids. Hoang’s father decided to send six of his older children, including teenaged Hoang, on a merchant boat he purchased ultimately for this purpose.
Writing in the alternating voices of herself and her father’s ghost, Hoang shows both perspectives of a man who wanted to get his family to safety and a woman who returned to her birth country decades later to visit her father’s grave. In an early part of the book, Hoang’s father tells of the beginnings of his plan to get his family out of Vietnam.
Both over-the-counter and prescription drugs were secretly traded out of people’s homes, including ours. I travelled frequently, sometimes for months, to buy rare medicines on the black market in Saigon, concealing my purchases in the lining of my coat or inside a secret compartment in my small travel bag. My trips also included searching for contacts who could arrange our escape.
His six older children reached Indonesia after being turned away in Singapore and Malaysia. Yet even from afar, back in Vietnam, he continued to try to help his family resettle.
Father searched ceaselessly for a way he could help us to get a connection in America, Canada or Australia. In his letters, he gave us names of people to write to. He mentioned the names of distant relatives and acquaintances to whom he had sent money in exchange for their help. I don’t know how he found these contacts, and we were never sure what happened to their offers of assistance. But his relentless efforts finally saved us.
After eighteen months in the Indonesian refugee camp, they were able to resettle in Ontario, Canada. Around that time, Hoang’s parents and three more siblings made a trip on a boat they didn’t own, but found through a snakehead. This was the journey in which Hoang’s father and youngest sister drowned at sea. Hoang writes of these calamities through the voice of her father. Even until his last breath, he tried his best to save his whole family.
The three funerals in the title refer to the first on Con Son Island in Vietnam, where Hoang’s mother and two younger sons were imprisoned after they were caught in that terrible shipwreck. The body of Hoang’s younger sister was never found, but her father’s body was recovered and brought to Con Son. The second funeral took place a year later when his bones were exhumed and brought to the family home in Da Lat before Hoang’s mother and brothers were successfully able to leave Vietnam. And for the third, in 2015 her father’s ashes were brought to California, where they could be buried next to his wife after she passed away.
Hoang’s memoir is a moving tribute to her father’s memory and the lengths he took to make sure his family was safe. It’s a sad book and one that begs to question if the family would have been better off all together in Vietnam rather than split apart for years—or for good. In the end, Hoang realizes that her father wanted the family to be overseas, no matter what.
Father’s vision opened the path for us to live freely in the larger world. His courage gave us wings so that we could fly into our brighter future.