Adult siblings make emotional journey back to island where they lived as refugees

The Tran siblings have never tasted apples as sweet as the ones they had after spending six unsettling days at sea without food.

It was 1979. They were fleeing their home country of Vietnam in a boat filled with more than double the amount of people it was designed to hold.

Victoria Tran said they were scared for their lives and had no choice but to leave. 

"My father wanted a good life for us, so that's why we had to go," Victoria said, sitting between her siblings Bruce and Wendy as she spoke to CBC via Skype during a visit to Vietnam.

Their dad registered 11 of the Tran siblings and his wife as Chinese immigrants in the hopes of avoiding jail or a death sentence from the Vietnamese government. Victoria, Bruce and Wendy were 13, 10 and 14 at the time.

For six seemingly endless days they floated toward what they hoped was freedom. None of them knew how to swim.

They were only stopped once while on the water. The siblings say they were lucky they were only robbed rather than killed, raped or jailed. 

Dolphins and whales appeared to guide their boat to an oil rig amid high winds and heavy rains, they said. 

"It was like a miracle," Victoria said.

The people on the rig said they wouldn't help because the boat was not sinking. The siblings said the people on the boat begged. Some tried to make holes in the boat while others threw themselves overboard.

Finally they were allowed onto the rig and given the unforgettable apples. They were then taken to a refugee camp on the Malaysian Island Pulau Tengah.

Life on the island

Victoria, Bruce and Wendy returned to the island for the first time in Feburary.

"This trip is really emotional … to go back for the first time," Bruce said. "It's really beautiful there right now. It's like a paradise."

The island was beautiful back then, too. They remember safe, clear nights under the full moon mesmerized by what seemed to be a glowing ocean. People rushed to swim in the waters before quickly backtracking with stinging skin. It was actually jellyfish causing the mystical glow.

"We learned our lessons," Victoria said.

The island was also haunting, with a burial ground for the people lost at sea and harrowing stories shared amongst survivors.

Some of the stories seemed unbelievable: people eating flesh to survive, whole boats capsized with no survivors. 

"There's a lot of us stories that will break your heart," Victoria said. "A lot of horror stories." 

Thousands of people died trying to flee Vietnam. The Tran siblings say some survivors still struggle with mental health because of what they experienced, like witnessing the rape of their spouse or seeing children thrown overboard. 

"We prayed for those lost souls and we just buried them."

The island is different now, Bruce said. There are high end resorts. Cabins are being built on the path they used to walk looking for firewood to cook over.

They found happiness in having their family together on the island. They laughed as they remembered making the best out of what they had, including cakes made out of sardines and maize. 

Their recent trip to the island was made with mixed emotions because some of their family — like their parents and two brothers — have died and other siblings could not be there. 

Chosen by Canada

The Trans say they spent 13 long months on the island. 

"Everyday we're sitting there we wait wondering, waiting, wondering what's happening tomorrow? " Victoria said.

Finally they were chosen by Canada, which they said was "the best thing ever happened to our lives." 

They spent their first two years in Yorkton before relocating to Regina in 1982.

"It's just like a second life Canada gave to us," Wendy said.

Most of the family remains in Regina, although Victoria relocated to Vancouver with her husband.

"[Regina is] our home, because once you're coming in and your heart is there, you grow your roots there," she said.

Two of their brothers were initially sponsored by France, but the Trans later sponsored them to come to Canada.

Their eldest sisters Net and Dung were sponsored to come to Canada later. Net came from a refugee camp in Thailand and Dung was sponsored over from Vietnam. 

The family has grown businesses in Regina.

The Tran's operate Regina restaurants Viet Thai, Saigon by Night and Mekong. Their father started up Lang's Cafe, which was then managed by their brother Minh Van Tran, who died last April. 

The siblings said you can have anything you want in life if you work hard enough for it. They try to pay it forward to vulnerable people in the community.

They credit their dad for being their mentor and offering sound advice: don't beg for money, work with your hands and brain, don't spend beyond your means. They credit their mom, too, for teaching them to live a humble life. 

"We now pass it on to our great-grandchildren as well," Victoria said. "We are just showing them what we've been taught."