Fleeing to Thailand.: Becoming Minnesotan

Bo Thao and Mai Vang Thao, 2000.
  • Name - Mai Vang Thao
  • Age at interview - 48
  • Gender - Female
  • Generation - First Generation American / Refugee
  • Date of Interview - 11.01.1999
  • U.S. rice drops to a refugee camp, Thailand, mid-1970s.
    Hmong women sewing at Ban Vinai camp in Thailand, c.1980.

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    Essential Question

    Coming to America: What did coming to America symbolize for this person?

    Push & Pull Factors: Why did this person come to the U.S.?

    Words to look for


    Background Information

    During the Vietnam War, the Hmong under General Vang Pao agreed to fight with the Americans.  The Hmong soldiers played an important role in holding off the Communists who were moving from Vietnam farther into Laos.  When the Americans pulled out of Southeast Asia, the Hmong were afraid to stay in Laos because they knew that the Vietnamese and Communist Pathet Lao would retaliate against them for helping the Americans.  Many people fled to Thailand where refugee camps had been established.  The camps in Thailand were crowded and the Thai people were not always very friendly towards all of these newcomers because this large group of people competed with local Thai people for the few jobs and resources.    

    To learn more about Hmong history and culture, visit our Hmong Community page.

    • Chapter 1
    • Chapter 2
    • Chapter 3

    Download Mai Vang Thao 3
    1:41 Minutes | 1.62Mb


    Note: Original interview was conducted in Hmong.  Excerpt is read in English by MayKao Hang.

    Narrator: Mai Vang Thao (MV)

    Interviewer: Bo Thao (BT)

    BT:  At the time that you fled for Thailand, what was the situation like and how did you and your husband make the decision to leave for Thailand?

    MV:  At that time we would not have left Laos if the situation with the Communists and the cob fab did not get so bad. There were people who had fled to Thailand and then returned to fight the Communist soldiers, so we could no longer hide in the jungles. It became so unsafe we could not stay anymore. Some of the men who had returned were my uncles, and they said that if we wanted to go with them to Thailand they would help us out, so that is why we decided to leave for Thailand.

    BT:  Before you left, did you and your husband strategize about how you were going to make the trip to Thailand?

    MV:  We did not talk about it at all. My husband was hardly with us. He went off with the men and left us hiding in the jungles. In fact he had prepared that in the event that we could no longer stay, he would leave to Thailand, and the children and I, if captured by the Communists, would stay behind since the Communist soldiers would not kill us because we are only women and children.

    BT:  Can you tell me more about your journey to Thailand? What was it like?

    MV:  During the journey there was lots of rain. It rained day and night. Those that knew the way led us, and we struggled slowly following behind them day and night.

    BT:  You had four small children, how did you manage to carry them all?

    MV:  At the time one adult carried the rice and a child, then the other adult carried the blankets, while two children walked. We hired another person to help carry one of our children. We each carried a child and all the necessities. We would also stop along the way to buy more food if necessary.

    BT:  How long was the journey to Thailand?

    MV:  It took about one month.

    Continues in Chapter 2

    Download Mai Vang Thao 4
    1:10 Minutes | 1.11Mb


    Note: Original interview was conducted in Hmong.  Excerpt is read in English by MayKao Hang.

    Narrator: Mai Vang Thao (MV)

    Interviewer: Bo Thao (BT)

    BT:  When you reached the big river, how did you cross it?

    MV:  Those that knew how to swim helped others to cross the river, and then some times the men had to cut trees to make a raft so that everyone could cross to the other side.

    BT:  I've heard that during the journey to Thailand when people were afraid they would separate and run all over, but somehow they managed to find each other again. Can you tell me more about this?

    MV:  There were two or three occasions like that. There were people who had joined the Communists and chased us. There were lots of people who went ahead of us, and some of those people got sick and could not walk fast enough. Those people that the Communist soldiers caught up with were killed. During the fighting everyone knew to run forward but became separated. Fortunately we found each other again.

    My children were very small. When we would rest to cook, the children went off and played, while others rested not knowing that the Communist soldiers were nearby. Then we heard the gun shots, and everyone fled! People were running everywhere! Somehow we would manage to find one person, then another and another until we were all together again. This was how it happened.

    Continues in Chapter 3

    Download Mai Vang Thao 5
    2:3 Minutes | 1.97Mb


    Note: Original interview was conducted in Hmong.  Excerpt is read in English by MayKao Hang.

    Narrator: Mai Vang Thao (MV)

    Interviewer: Bo Thao (BT)

    BT:  When you arrived in Thailand, which refugee camp did you live in?

    MV:  When we got to Thailand we lived in Nan Yao camp.

    I still remember lots of things about living in camp, such as the sicknesses, not enough water to drink, the very hot weather, and not enough food. We got enough rice, but never enough vegetables and meat. The Thai did sell vegetables and meats, but only those that had enough money could afford it, because the Thai people made those items too expensive.

    BT:  So it wasn’t like Laos where you grew your own food?

    MV:  In the camp they divided a small portion of the land for each family so they could grow food, but as I mentioned there was not enough water to water the plants.

    BT:  How many years did your family live in Nan Yao camp?

    MV:  We lived there for a little over two years then we came to this country.

    There was not a good thing to remember about the camp at all. It was very, very hot all day and night. People were dying every day, so all you heard was crying and people mourning. There was nothing good about living in the camp.

    Everything about it was bad. We were living on the Thai people’s land, so they treated us any way they wanted. When the Hmong went to the flea market, they were beaten, or when the Hmong went to carry water, they were beaten. Some Thai people used to stand outside of the camp and fire gunshots into the camp. There was never safety, I was always cautious if I went anywhere.

    In the camps there was nothing to do. We could not do anything useful, and food rations were distributed, but we could not go outside of the camp. Our lives were closed inside that camp. We built small houses, like the shacks we made at our farms. We had no other choices.

    BT:  Okay. What did women do to help support their families?

    MV:  Then, all I could do was sew paj ntaub. I put all my effort into making the paj ntaub.

    They told me that the Thai were buying the handiwork, and everyone was sewing it, so I just followed those people too. That was the way for us to buy food to eat. 

    Related Glossary Terms


    Adjective:  Careful; using or exercising caution; tentative.

    cob fab

    Noun:  Hmong word meaning guerrilla soldier, a soldier in a small independent group, fighting against the government or regular forces by surprise raids.

    Listen to this word: 


    Noun: A member of a Communist political party or movement, or a supporter of the political philosophy of communism; they usually advocate for a classless society with communal ownership of property, and often set up one-party totalitaran type governments.


    Verb:  To divide into portions and hand out.  (distributes, distributing, distributed)


    VerbTo run away; to escape.  (flees, fleeing, fled)


    Verb:  To express sadness or sorrow over someone's death.  (mourns, mourning, mourned)


    Noun:  The quality or state of being necessary or unavoidable; that which is necessary; something indispensable.


    Noun:  1. Special event or function.  2. A particular happening; an instance or time when something occurred.

    paj ntaub

    Noun:  Hmong word literally meaning "flower cloths," or woven pieces of fabric that use patterns from nature that are symbolic of Hmong culture.

    Listen to this word: 


    Noun:  A portion designated to a person or group, often of food.

    refugee camp

    Noun:  A temporary settlement where those fleeing political persecution, war, or natural disaster can live before returning home or permanently resettling elsewhere.


    Verb:  To form or create a plan of action with a set goal to accomplish.  (strategizes, strategizing, strategized)


    Adjective:  Of or having to do with Thailand, its people or language.

    Noun:  1. A person from Thailand, or of Thai background.  2. The langauge spoken in Thailand.


    Minnesota Historical Society. Becoming Minnesotan: Stories of Recent Immigrants and Refugees. September 2010. Institute of Museum and Library Services. [Date of access]. http://www.mnhs.org/immigration
    nid: 475