Escape From Vietnam

March 1971 National Geographic Asia map supplement

On April 30, 1975, the Vietnam War officially ended with the fall of Saigon to Communist forces. Many Vietnamese fled their country, including one Special Forces officer who painstakingly planned his escape and paid $200 on the black market for a copy of a March 1971 National Geographic map to guide him.

Nguyen Van Canh spent three years amassing the vehicles, fuel, food, weapons and ammunition that he would need to get him and 49 others out of the country. He purchased two boats and stored fuel for them in drums submerged in the sea. They left the city in small groups disguised as merchants and took a train to Phan Thiet near the coast. Then they hid in the backs of trucks, hoping to make it through approximately 20 checkpoints undetected. After that, there was a nighttime hike of eight miles through forest to get to the boats.

The refugees’ troubles were far from over. Fifty-one others had learned of the plan and wanted to join them. Furthermore, one of the boat captains backed out, returning the gold Van Canh had paid for the vessel. There was no turning back so they boarded the remaining boat with only a compass and the National Geographic map to guide them. Battered by a three-day storm and with food running low, they signaled to other boats but no one came to their rescue. Finally spotting a flare from a Malaysian drilling operation, they headed for that beacon and were transported by Malaysian authorities to a refugee camp at Pulau Besar.

Van Canh eventually made his way to Washington, D.C., living in the home of relatives of a Geographic staffer and working for the International Rescue Committee to help refugees like himself. His story was related in a National Geographic staff newsletter in 1982.

Human Journey