When we could no longer survive safely we followed General Vang Pao 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
  • Hmong man and four boys, Laos, 1970s (?).  Photo courtesy MayKao Hang.
    Mekong River, Laos.  Photo courtesy MayKao Hang.

    Escape, Freedom, Hmong, Politics, War

    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 military leader General Vang Pao formed an alliance with the Americans.  He recruited Hmong soldiers in Laos to fight off the Communists to keep them from moving from Vietnam farther into Laos.  During the war no one was safe, and so entire families had to hide in the jungles for several weeks at a time.  When the Americans pulled out of Southeast Asia, General Vang Pao and other military leaders were airlifted out of the country but civilians were left to fend for themselves.  Many Hmong people fled by foot to Thailand where they could find refugee camps.

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

    • Chapter 1
    • Chapter 2

    Download Mai Vang Thao 1
    1:13 Minutes | 1.17Mb


    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:  Can you tell me more about the time after the war and when the Hmong were fleeing Laos? What was the situation like?

    MV:  At that time people were moving all over the place because of the war. Those that were soldiers for General Vang Pao fled with him to Thailand. When others heard about that, they started to flee to Thailand too, and only four or five families remained in each village.

    BT:  I see. Can you tell me what that time was like for your family?

    MV:  We did not flee because we were undecided. We thought if we had some time to see the outcome, we could decide whether we should follow General Vang Pao or return to our homes and become Communists. The situation was so unsettled, and we just did not know what was best, and needed time to find out what we really wanted to do.

    We stayed as long as we could, but when we could no longer survive safely we followed General Vang Pao to Thailand. I had four children at that time and they were a year apart from each other. I think the oldest was four. After the war there were only five or six families left in the whole village. Ever since the Hmong started to flee the villages, if the Communists found people in the villages they would kill them, so we hid in the jungles most of the time.

    Continues in Chapter 2

    Download Mai Vang Thao 2
    2:44 Minutes | 2.63Mb


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

    Narrator: Mai Vang Thao (MV)

    Interviewer: Bo Thao (BT)

    MV:  The men took their wives and children to hide in a safe place before they went to the battlefield, and we stayed there for two or three days until we heard from the men. If they decided to move to a new and safer location, then they will come back to their family and move them to the new location before going to fight again.

    When men were not around, our responsibility was the safety of our children. We were like animals that hid from their predators. We took our children and hid deep in the forest or deep in the valley where no one would ever think to look for us.

    Even though we were afraid, we knew it would be fate if we were found by the Communist soldiers or were lucky enough to live. We kept moving from place to place, and if we did not get caught then we could live on. This is our only thinking, because nothing else made sense. We had no idea of what the future was going to be.

    In the beginning, usually two or three families would go hide together, but when it became too dangerous to hide many people together, families separated and hid in different mountains. We went our own separate way. My children and I were alone deep in the jungles for one or two months.

    BT:  You were alone with four small children, how did you find food?

    MV:  Well, you have to prepare. You have to remember that in Laos we were farmers. We have rice and corn in our farms, so if I needed to I could sneak back and carry them from the farms. When desperate enough, we could also steal from other farms. When everyone was fleeing their homes, we knew we had to prepare for the worst. I pound rice all the time, and thought ahead about where we would likely run to hide. I began taking one or two sacks or rice to hide them at those locations in the jungle, so that when it was time we would go and hide close to those locations.

    BT:  So, you hid the food first? What about your children, you were alone with four very young children, were you afraid?

    MV:  I did not have time to be afraid. Of course, I was scared that the Communists might find us, but I thought to myself that it did not really matter if I was afraid or not. I left it up to fate what was to become of us. There was no one to help us, and no safe place we could run to where we knew there would be help if we arrived, so we just kept running and hiding, all the while trying to decide if we should flee to Thailand.

    BT:  I see. What about your children, they were very young. Did they cry? Were you afraid of what the Communist soldiers might do if you were found?

    MV:  During those times everyone was afraid, and we taught the children very young to be afraid, so at the age of one or two, they already learned to be afraid and did not cry either.

    Related Glossary Terms


    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.


    Noun:  The cause, force, principle, or divine will that predetermines events.


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

    General Vang Pao

    A former Major General in the Royal Lao Army. He is an ethnic Hmong and a leader of the Hmong American community in the United States


    Noun:  Result.


    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: 472