Cover story

A refugee's journey

After fleeing Vietnam, Thuy Nguyen makes home in Beaufort

January 4, 2011 

When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese fled their country to avoid torture, execution or "re-education." Many South Vietnamese feared retribution for having fought against the North in the war, and North Vietnamese availed themselves of opportunities to escape, as well.

Thuy Nguyen, 43, was one of those refugees, or "boat people," who fled Vietnam in the 1970s and 80s. Thuy eventually made her way to Beaufort. She is a local businesswoman, the owner of Perfect Nails salon, with her husband, Jimmy.

During the war, Nguyen's father was in the military. "So after 1975, it was hard to live there when North Vietnam took over," she recalled.

Flying out of Vietnam was virtually impossible, and escape on foot nearly as difficult. So most fled by water, facing extreme danger on the high seas -- storms, drowning, lack of food and water, poor navigation, and pirates who pillaged supplies and killed raped or kidnapped the passengers.

Estimates vary, but it is generally believed nearly one quarter of the boat people died before reaching safety.

LONG JOURNEY

Commonly, families had to split to escape, with only a few at a time leaving, as the family saved money to send others later. Some boats were crammed with hundreds of people, but Nguyen's father built a small boat, just for her and one of her brothers.

Over time, her three sisters and two other brothers all were able to escape Vietnam, as were her parents. All travelled by boat except her mother, who was able to fly out of the country.

Boat people would try to head for international shipping lanes in the hope of being rescued by American, French or Australian freighters, or they would make their way to United Nations refugee camps in Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines or Hong Kong.

Asked if the journey was as frightening as one would imagine, Nguyen admitted that her youth worked in her favor.

"I didn't know. It's scary (now), but I didn't think about it at the time," she said. "If you told me to go again, I would say no! But at the time, I was okay. Just too young to think about that."

Nguyen said she and her brother "were very lucky" and were only at sea for four days and five nights before they arrived in Indonesia. "A lot of people were out there a long, long time."

Like her big brother, whose boat carried him and about 100 other people.

It was thrown off course by a storm, and the refugees spent a month at sea before they were rescued by a freighter. Though they only had supplies for a two week journey, all survived.

"I think that comes from God," Nguyen said softly.

When they arrived in the U.S., Nguyen and her brother were sponsored by family friends in Los Angeles. Soon afterward, she, her brother and their sponsors moved to Orange County, where Nguyen lived for nine years, working a variety of jobs and studying computer science at Cal State-Fullerton.

Though she didn't complete her degree because she "needed to make money," one of her first jobs was as a waitress in a Vietnamese restaurant where she met her husband, Jimmy Tram, in 1989.

The couple moved to Colorado and lived there for seven years but found the weather to be too cold, so they moved back to California for awhile before deciding to come live near Tram's family in Beaufort.

BUILDING A LIFE

The decision to open Perfect Nails in April 2007 was somewhat spontaneous, Nguyen said.

"One day, we saw the 'for rent' sign, and we called the landlord and came in. We didn't plan anything."

She had licenses as a nail tech and to do waxing,. She also had done nails in Colorado and in her husband's family's Beaufort salon for two years.

Nguyen and Tram were the store's only employees at first. They advertised the salon once in a newspaper supplement and then built the business strictly through the referrals of others, she said, adding nail techs as the clientele grew.

Their schedule is hectic, and the couple has only Sundays for quality time with sons Eric, 16, and Thomas, 7.

"We never go anywhere without them, since we only have one day with them," Nguyen said. "Even if I go shopping somewhere, I take them."

The family sometimes hangs out at the beach -- she said her sons love the water -- and the area's natural beauty is one of the many things she loves about Beaufort.

She also enjoys how quiet and friendly the town is, especially compared to the larger cities she's lived in.

The Vietnamese community here is very small, she said, and not particularly tight-knit. They all know each other, she thinks, but they don't socialize.

She said she and Tram have considered opening a Vietnamese restaurant in Beaufort but won't do so any time soon.

"It's a lot of work," she said. "More than nails. You have to work harder. But maybe someday."

Though she has only been back to Vietnam twice in the past 20 years, to visit a high school friend and an aunt who still live there, Nguyen said the political situation has improved since she left. But the poverty is still great.

"It's a lot better there now, more open. You can go back and visit," she said. "We are U.S. citizens now, so when we go back, it's a lot better."

Though she enjoys visiting, she would never want to live there again.

"Life is really hard there," Nguyen said.

Besides, she added, "This is home for us now. We love Beaufort, and we're not going anywhere."

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