Kiet, whose brother escaped the country in 1987
Chevrolet Spark. 58 minutes. 8.5 km.

Kiet (not his real name) is a 48 years old driver who has driven a taxi for twenty four years. We were stuck in horrendous traffic going from the airport back to my flat, and he told me his life story, from his attempt to escape the country in the years that my family did, to his time in the army. He is easily excitable, emphatic with his gestures, a rapid conversationalist. I honestly couldn’t follow all that he said.

Below is a bit of Kiet’s story that I’ve composed as well as I can from memory:


o you, little brother, left the country in 86? Me too, I tried to leave multiple times.  My little brother and I tried to escape together, then I kept trying on my own after he made it.

Back in those days everyone was trying to escape. It was fun almost. If a kid was missing a week from school you’d know right away he was trying to escape. Everyone knew it. There were fifty of us in my class and when the year was over there weren’t more than twenty kids left at graduation. Kids would leave and you wouldn’t know what happened to them, alive or dead, in jail or abroad, you just wouldn’t know.

My little brother and I went together at night, crossing the river. We were working our way down the river banks to find our way to the ocean, then get on board boats to get to the islands. My best friend had left years earlier.

There were only three results we could get from trying to escape: getting drowned, pirates or the authorities catch you, or you make it to an island. You always hope for the island of course, hahaha. So many of my classmates tried and we had no idea where they went.

Somewhere along the way, I don’t remember which river it was now. Somewhere we were discovered and the police started shooting at us. So my brother and I scrambled and started to run. When it’s dark and you’re getting shot at you it doesn’t matter if you’re family, brothers, or best friends, you take care of your own life first. That’s just how it is. So I ran my way, and he ran another, and we got separated.

I got caught and went to jail, and he made it out. I was there for a while, and they’re probably tougher on me than you because you were an infant then when they caught you, but I was 17.

My brother made it though. He went to the refugee camps, then he made it to America, just like you. I tried to escape again in 88, and then again in 89, both times I also didn’t make it, but I wasn’t captured, just for other reasons couldn’t finish it. Truly, truly unfortunate. Life is just like that I guess.

I dropped out of school to try to escape, so I couldn’t come back to graduate. I floated around for a while. A few years on, I joined the army. Friends told me it’d make me less sad, it’d keep me grounded. No, no, by then it was 1991, so our forces were out or were pulling out of Cambodia already. I never went there. Three or four years after I joined, I got out and learned to drive, and started driving for a living. I drove wealthy guests for a while, and now I joined uber after twenty years of driving taxis and chauffeuring. It’s good enough work and it pays the bills, but of course I wonder what life would have been like.

My little brother hasn’t come back to visit us in 14 years. He’s come back a few times, after he became a US citizen, but he told me when he came, that life is really sad in America. He had a good, well paying job in construction, in Texas, but he was lonely. He took to gambling, and that was that. That was the end. I told him what’s the point of getting all the way there and getting a good job to lose it all on gambling, but he got addicted. He came back to visit and we had an argument about it, and he’s not been back in 14 years. We still keep in touch though.

And he always sends us money, I can’t fault him for that. I wonder sometimes what would have happened if I had made it with him and escaped, but it’s no point thinking of what could have happened. Life is what it is.

Now I tell my kids, studying in America is the way forward. You need a phone design, you have to get it in America. America controls so much trade and so much of the market. Opportunities and options are there. If I can get my kids educated abroad in an American school, even if it takes all my money, I’d send them, but I don’t have enough. I keep trying. My kid’s in high school now and will graduate soon. I wish he could go experience life outside the country. We’ll see.

You’ll see too. Visiting here and living here is very different.

We spent some of our time talking about the traffic, and here’s what he said:

What they need to do is send traffic cops to patrol these areas from the airport. You see that light? It’s just a flashing yellow light, so two main arteries discharge into one and it clogs up. You need two cops here letting the main avenue run longer, the less crowded one gets less time. You can’t just follow protocol; you have to sense what the traffic needs and you react to it. It’s simple. I’ve driven here twenty some years and it gets worse all the time, but it doesn’t have to.

Two years ago they cut off one of the lanes of this highway to make a divider, you see that over there? Yeah, they built it to help the businesses on the street get customers, to make a nice block of the traffic. You see the trees and plot of grass that breaks it up? Well, I knew when they built it that it was going to be disastrous. Sure it looks pretty, but who enjoys it? Six months after it was constructed this road is in constant traffic. If it rains, like now, cars won’t move. It cuts out one added lane for no reason. No reason. Truly stupid planning.