When you listen to Ha-Le Thai tell her story, it feels as though the events happened to a character in a book or a movie. For Ha-Le, her story is all too real. She has seen and experienced in one life, what people would sometimes live through in five lifetimes.
Gunfire and bomb explosions
“I was born in Vietnam when the country was at war. My earliest memories began from age three, of being on the move with my father who was fighting in the Vietnamese army.
“The first time I understood we were in the middle of a war was hearing the thrum of an aeroplane flying overhead. It made me feel so frightened! From the age of four, I saw people die from bomb explosions and gunfire. One minute they were alive, the next minute they were gone. Because of what I saw from such a young age, I developed trauma and anxiety,” said Ha-Le.
“In Saigon, I saw people die on the streets, and felt like the war was a giant monster on my back, constantly chasing me. Every minute, I had horrible thoughts that I was also going to die.”
Ha-Le (the only girl from her family) and her husband eventually managed to escape Vietnam and travelled to Hong Kong as refugees.
From one horror to another
“Living in Hong Kong as refugees will always remain an unforgettable memory,” explains Ha-Le, her voice trembling. “We were placed into detention camps after being processed, the living conditions were inhumane. I was pregnant at the time and the authorities put me in a female prison which also housed female murderers, while I waited to give birth. I can’t tell you how much I cried all through my time there. I had nothing to give my daughter when she was born, only breastmilk.”
After 13 months of living in such terrible conditions, they were granted residency status and moved out of the camp to go and live in the outskirts of the city. “My husband taught as a teacher and I got a job looking after Vietnamese refugee children in the camps. From the money we earned, we rented a small place to live in. I was still so weak from travelling to Hong Kong from Vietnam and from childbirth. By this time, I’d also developed bad insomnia and couldn’t sleep for months. It was a blessing to have our own place at the time where we could escape the camp’s horrible conditions,” said Ha-Le.
The family had to wait two more years before being accepted by Australia as refugees. In 1991, the couple and their two and half year old daughter boarded a plane from Hong Kong to Sydney.
Massive culture shock
“I had dreamed of Australia day and night while we were waiting in Hong Kong, revealed Ha-Le. I remember looking out the window and everything looked so different – especially the houses. I felt so strange and suddenly homesick for Hong Kong, the place that had taught me to fight for my life – as surprising as it sounds. It was also my first time on an aeroplane and it all felt so surreal that I cried.”
“We landed at the airport and all I saw were white people around me. I felt so nervous because I only knew how to say hello and bye in English. My husband spoke English well so we were really lucky that he could communicate with the officers.”
Early days in Sydney
The family lived with a relative for the first few months in Campbelltown as they familiarised themselves with their surroundings. “My husband would explore the suburb every day, and come back home reporting all the things he had seen or heard. He would take me out too so I could become used to the place, though my English was so poor. I couldn’t understand anyone, and they couldn’t understand me! By this time, my mental wellbeing was not good because I suffered from bad insomnia. Many nights passed where I felt like I didn’t belong here, I felt lost,” remembered Ha-Le.
The turning point
“The wonderful thing about the human spirit is that the worst thing that happens to you will build you up, open your mind and heart to learn. I was at rock bottom and asked myself if I wanted this feeling to stay with me forever. I looked over at my daughter and thought that we had paid a very high price to get out of Vietnam and the three horrible years in Hong Kong. I couldn’t do this any longer to myself or her anymore.”
Making that conscious decision was a huge turning point in Ha-Le’s life. She started learning English and after a year and a half of living in Australia, she was accepted by TAFE to study for a Diploma in Child Studies.
Writing the book Waratah
What was it like for Ha-Le to write a book in her second language, English?
“I have loved writing since I was young. I wrote my memoir, Waratah in English because I dreamt of sharing my journey with people. I went through a lot, I fell down many times and picked myself up. If I could share my story with others to inspire them, give them hope that whatever situation they are in now, the best thing is yet to come. I’d planned to write my book since I came to Australia and I held that dream alive until 2018 when I completed it,” she explained.
It took Ha-Le three years to write and edit her book, Waratah while working with an editor and a coach. Waratah is available on Amazon and is an amazing read on staying alive, holding onto hope and building a better life for those you love.
Images supplied by Elevate Communication