Tri Tran was always looking for something better to eat than government gruel. He grew up in the desperately lean decade after the end of the Vietnam War, in the small city of Ba Ria, about 50 miles southeast of Ho Chi Minh City. Because his parents were public school teachers, they received discounts on rations of rice, root vegetables, and sorghum, which his mother cooked together. The paste was barely enough to subsist on and gave Tran terrible digestive problems. So he, his older brother, Trac, and their father occasionally sneaked into the desiccated rice fields to gather wild vegetable and, if they were lucky, paddy crabs.
Trans’s parents knew their sons faced limited prospects. Tran was only 11 years old in 1986, but he remembers failed escape attempts, brokered by shady operators who skirted the communist government’s prohibition on leaving the country. Once, the family stowed away in a canoe and paddled into the middle of Ganh Rai Bay to meet a larger boat that never arrived. Later, walking back from the bay after another attempt, they were caught by police and thrown in jail for 24 hours.
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