Bui, 49, the owner of Nate’s Barber Shop in Villages of Urbana (VOU), describes his desire to flee a Communist regime in 1982, when he jumped onto a boat filled with 260 occupants, leaving his family behind and taking no personal belongings with him, only the clothes on his back.
The boat later encountered a storm, lost its captain and broke apart. Bui and 12 others, now shipwrecked, frightened and hungry, washed up on an empty island.
Many of the 13 escapees perished due to the harsh conditions on the island.
That’s when Bui says he made a pact to keep at it, setting out on a path to survival. He joined with the remaining others, climbing to the top of the steep island in search of shelter and food. What they ended up finding were the human remains of less fortunate escapees, which Bui and his fellow countrymen decided to bury.
The group of survivors also found birds and the eggs that they laid. “There were thousands of them,” Bui said. “We dug a deep hole and put the egg in, and the sun dried the egg, and we were able to eat them and the birds.”
For 23 days, Bui remained stranded on the island. While he slept in the grass, he was constantly awakened by snakes that crawled over his body.
Just one day did it rain. “We were able to catch the water in a pot and drink it,” he said.
On the 24th day, a Communist boat came Bui’s way, and leaders snatched him and his countrymen from the island. “We had no choice but to go with them. If we [stayed] on the island, it is very dangerous. We would have died.”
Bui was then imprisoned by his captors for three years. While in jail, he dreamt merely of food and water.
“They only [gave] us rice to eat for three years, and you could count the number of rice in the bowl,” he said. “We [lost] a lot of weight. I was very skinny.”
Once he was freed, he returned home, only to say goodbye to Vietnam once again a year later, continuing on his quest for democracy.
This time, Bui made it all the way to Malaysia and freedom, outlasting the oppressive regime.
“I sometimes tell my story to customers when they come into my shop,” he said.
When he finally embarked on his new life in the United States, Bui went to school for his trade, later opening a shop in Kentlands.
He then worked for a few years in Florida before moving back to the East Coast, settling with his family here in Urbana.