La Toàn Vinh Pulau Bidong

November 19, 2008


NOVEMBER 05-1980


I arrived safely, to the end of my dangerous journey at sea, after 5 days facing the death. We were those boat people whose faith had been confined to destiny. In this small boat that carried 69 people, we burst to tears when noticing that we did overcome the risk and danger to finally be here, in Pulau Bidong. It was like in a dream, when I look back to see the immensity of the ocean comparing to the frailty of our small boat. 

We departed from Cần Giờ(Vũng Tàu).  The group was composed by different people categories based on age or location. However we started to act as family members who had the same concern of dealing with the Ocean.   I saw infants who were still in their mother’s arms suffered desperately inside a tiny boat under a burning sunshine.  We cared for each other regardless the size of the boat.  I felt sad, disoriented and lonely even being a man, as it was my fist time away from home and when facing uncertainty in a new country that I would consider as a promised land, as my 3rd country.  During this period of transition, we made a lot of friends who organized different activities to pass time.  We knew that everything was temporary and a farewell was inevitable.  However one should accept the destiny that will separate all relations newly established.  We may see each other again in the next 10, 20 years or more. And it”s true, I met one close friend after 26 years. 


I saw in my memory the island peacefully received almost every day from 2 to 5 landing ships that rapidly increased the number of refugees up to 30,000.


Ecology in the island was awesome.  We had the C beach with its crystalline clear water that stretched smoothly in an arc shape to meet with the hill of Religion at one end and at the other with the longhouse newly build.  Business refugees started their commerce by opening some coffee huts made by cardboards or plastic that rapidly became romantic spots under coconuts trees, for lovers to date.


I draw many sketches of Bidong as the island with its romantic appeal has provided me lots of inspiration.  During my stay, I voluntary worked for the education unit by helping the responsible to prepare models for English teaching and got compensate with papers or ink, in sum with means that enabled me to keep my visual memory intact.

I can still see the island with its big waves that lashed non stop its cliffs at night or the endless pouring rain that lasted day after day.  No one was able to forget about the numerous rats on the island. 


During the whole year of my stay, I collected many unforgettable souvenirs until the time I had to leave the island like my predecessors, and the memory started to fade along with friends who left for ever.  The Jetty quay had witnessed many separations and someone had also wrote a poem about his souvenirs from Bidong

“ Your face and figure will remain in this island,

From that quay you left for ever


Farewell to all memorable souvenirs during my refugee period ..



Boat SS 0937 IAKT 756(KT=Kurla Terenganu)

La Toàn Vinh

zones 10

July 22, 2008

zones 10

Originally uploaded by diligam_te.

Jk’s photographs of Pulau Bidong from 1985


flickr group:  Pulau Bidong photo pool

Hi Jk,

What was Consolacion’s position in Bidong? How did you know her? I’m just curious.
I’ve been finding lots of pictures on flickr and nice stories on


Chào Anh Dúc,

Consolacion was ex-pat teacher (“adviser”) in the Zone B French school. I arrived on Bidong early in 1985 and knew her there until she was replaced by Odile Gilliot. Consolacion then, as far as I know, returned to France. Odile Gilliot replaced Consolacion at the end of her time on Bidong. Unhappily, Odile died (brain tumour) some years ago.

I worked mainly in the Single Young Men’s programme and also did some work in the church. I stayed on Bidong only one year (one of the best of my life, although for many Vietnamese, it was probably one of their worst).


Whilst on Bidong, I kept a diary just about every day and have been working on it occasionally to get it into more publishable form. I have a friend who has offered to do some editorial work on it, but have no idea about the publishing side of things. I daresay that before any possible publication, I would need to change a few names to preserve anonymity. Occasionally I read some of it, and find it recreates the people and places quite vividly for me.
If you look at my pictures on flickr, you will find a few of “Au Co” house (named after a mythical Vietnamese figure); this was the group of unaccompanied minors. It was in Zone F, and had the zone television on its wall. I presume you were among the “unaccompanied minors”.
Many good and generous people responded to the plight of the Vietnamese people in those days, and generally people moved through Bidong quite quickly. In my time, there were some who had been on Bidong for years; then, when Bidong was closed, I think some people were repatriated to Viet Nam. During my time, also, there was one elderly man who wanted to be repatriated. I think his boat (and he) were taken by a group leaving Viet Nam. It seemed a simple thing, to go back home, but it seemed very complicated for the UNHCR people organising it. -JK/diligam_te


Two days ago, La Toan Vinh made a comment on before-pulau-bidong. Mr. Vinh made over one hundred sketches and paintings from 1980-1981. In a series of email exchanges, we communicated about our mutual experiences of Bidong. The drawings are helping me remember some of the details. The artist now resides in Montreal.

Dear Ðức,

It’s OK, I Happy to meet some of BIDONG Man in 80-81


I am living in Montreal now, I escaped from VN since 1980 by CAN-GIO Vung Tàu, then arrived to BIDONG 5 days after

I made some Sketches on BIDONG 1980-1981 and Still keep it on me…

It’s long long time… I hope back to visit that Again in the new year 2008


I’m artist in VN, In Bi-Dong i Worked as designer for H.C.R(high commitee for Réfugees)at Éducation Division then I asked my collegues to give the Materials to make the Artworks as you see…

Thank for HCR helping me to do some thing nice.


Dear La Toan Vinh,
I’ve been thinking about Bidong. I am working on a story about it. Your art work and photos have help me so much. I imagine you sketching on the island…I imagine how you met Ann Cusak.
What became of her and you? Are you pursuing your art?


Pulau Bidong picture on flickr very similar to sketch

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This morning some one told me that Malaysia isn’t an Island.

Then I did a Google search on Pula Bidong which turns up Binh Danh’s project. I didn’t even spell it correctly but Google was smart to suggest the correct spelling. I’m excited. It triggered some memories. I remember lying on the island during Christmas time. The PA system broadcast Christmas music. We got better treats from the Uni-chief organization. I can remember eating chicken in a can. Yeah, there were parts of chicken complete with bones stuffed into a can. I remember missing family, other normal Christmas where I got to play with my neighbor’s train track toys.

I remember the same god damn PA system announcing the names of people who would be selected to go and I would be jealous because my name wasn’t called. I can’t recall the elation of the moment when they called my name though. I drop everything whenever the PA spoke, and I listen attentively to every word echoing through the hills.

I learned to swim on the island. My mouth takes in liquid salt, the sea water. The pajama pants I swim in is thread bare.

The refugee’s boats beached and then the weather would eat it away until only a small hull is left where color fishes swim among feces. Once the Boat is beached, the inhabitants would tear away at the planks and salvage every bit of wood for fire or shelter.

To pass the time, the men usually gather around the bunks and deal out hands of cards. They wager in Crackers or biscuits, each shape with its own unique currency. In dire times, the residents of Pulau Bidong consult the oracles that are on the faces of the playing cards. They were sure there were ghosts to communicate with. They ask when they would leave the island. They ask the spirits to carry messages back to love ones at home in Vietnam.

The Wells-I remember waiting in long lines to fetch water from the wells. The people who came before me dug the wells for fresh water. The sandy soil is sometimes red like the color of cinder or lava. The refugees would build a square or round wall often three or four feet high. We used whatever vessels we could find to carry the water. Some of the water containers were made from empty biscuit tins.

The Falls – Sometimes we would fetch water from the water falls, but those were too far up the hill. People would wash their laundries and their bodies. The dirty run offs travel to the lower falls. If you want to bathe, you would have to find the highest fall in order to avoid the dirty run offs. As a boy, I witnessed the strange rituals of a public bath. Beautiful women nonchalantly bathe themselves in clothes. It was a strange sight. The clothes were second skins, wrinkled and shedding. When the threads are submerged in water, they become transparent to reveal the skin beneath. From the mixture of textile and skin a pattern emerged, a new creature emerging.

The Bakery – Early in the morning, my sister and I would go to the bakery. The man loads our cardboard boxes with warm loaves of bread, covers the top with a cloth to keep the heat. The steam rises in the glow of the sand ovens. Men stoke the fire, others knead the dough. We take them to the street and squat down to sell the bread on Vendor row. Sometimes we would have left overs. So my sister and I would open up a can of sardine, put it over a low flame. She slices the bread in half and I stuff the fish to make a delicious sandwich.

The Swimmers would gather at the rocks to journey out on a make shift raft to the merchant boats beyond. They would float back tins of biscuits, green apples wrapped in tissues, Coca Cola bottles. My Uncle bought a few of these merchandise and made my sister and me to sell it on the streets.

The Diarist-Every time I walk past his bunk, he would be writing some thing in a book or a letter. I wonder where he got the paper and pen? I suppose that image has stuck with me ever since and my affinity to write in journals or diaries. I had no scholarly obligations. What I experience I try to keep it all in my head. I didn’t have the luxury of pen and paper. The Diarist must have the fore sight to bring some along. If I did have a journal would I remember the details more clearly? Because each day it seems to have faded away.

The Bed-Sometimes, we wake up with tree saps in our hairs. During sleep, the barks of trees secrete their chemical juice, sticks to our clothes, pajamas, and skin. The men, usually, went into the forest with machetes to fall limbs and carry them to the place of sleep. They fasten the knotty limbs together into a platform, build posts and sink them into soft sandy grounds to support the bed.

The Skiff – In the evening, the metal skiffs mark the horizon. The twilight shimmering and reflected in the waves, marks the end of the day. The patrol boat crosses back and forth in the horizon.

The Cafe – At night, the scent of ground coffee beans brewing in the oceanic breeze. Lovers stroll hand in hand, their feet touching waves, sand creep between the toes. I will forever have an image of lovers sitting down, facing the ocean, an arm around a shoulder. The lanterns hanging from rafters, light the shop.

Bean Sprout – We cultivate mung beans into bean sprouts. We sow the mung beans into sandy soils, put up railings to protect the bed. Then cover the seeds to preserve the moisture. Slowly the beans sprout forth, like magic, like fables.

Some Related links:

2007/12/08/la-toan-vinhs-sketches-of-bidong – I decided to post this particular post in the time capsule under the category of memories with tags Palau Bidong. Years from now I’ll look back at it.

Images of Pulau Bidong found on the web.

Pulau Bidong Research



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I did attend some of the classes or church service but I don’t recall this image. It’s possible that in 1978 it was not yet built.

I remember visiting some graves but I don’t remember this one. It’s possible that in 1978 it was not yet built.

This I did not see.

  • Some Facts:
  • The Island is almost a perfect circle of 1 mile in diameter

Thank you ‘Reader’ for this link:

I lived on Pulau Bidong

Pulau Bidong research


Hello Duc,

I tried to post a comment on your blog, but do not know if it was successful.

I have recently posted some pics from Bidong (1985) at:

Search under “Pulau Bidong 1985”:

Please say hello for me to Consolacion; she might remember me, and also Odille Gilliot.

Maybe Consolacion has many more pics than I have posted.



flickr photos sets of Pulau Bidong

netsnapshot underwater of Pulau Bidong

Bidong flickr group

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Pulau Bidong Research

October 5, 2006

Pulau Bidong is an small islands in Terengganu, Malaysia.

Learning the correct spelling of Pulau Bidong has helped in researching on Google. What I read has help me remember more of the island. Although I’m overhelmed by the information. I’ll have to digest it slowly.

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