The year is 1975. The Vietnam war is in its final days. North Vietnamese soldiers have taken the South Vietnamese capital city of Saigon, and the South Vietnamese soldiers in the country have stopped fighting, and started running. 20-year-old soldier Phu Nguyen is among them. He had volunteered to join the military in 1972 when he was 17 years old and still in high school in order to fight for the freedom of his homeland. Now, about three years and three gunshot wounds later, he was one member of a frantic stampede of men, women, and children all scrambling towards the ocean, and the American ships that were docked there. At the coast, a small fishing boat captain ferries a few people that include Nguyen, his wife Thi, and her 5-year-old nephew across the angry waves, littered with debris and even bodies, that separated them from the towering U.S. ship that waited in the sea. Nguyen, the son of farmers from the small village of Quang Tri in Central Vietnam, can’t help but be awestruck by this floating fortress; this warship that is serving as a makeshift ark for around 1,000 Vietnamese refugees.
He climbed the ladder leading up the largest structure that he had ever seen with a pack of supplies around his back, a rifle and .45 on his side, and his wife’s young nephew hanging from his neck. From the deck someone shouts down to him that weapons aren’t allowed on board. Without hesitation, the young soldier tosses his rifle and .45 into the ocean where they join the other relics of a dying war scattered among the waves.
The ship that Phu Nguyen boards is bound for Guam, but for he and his wife Guam will only be one stop in their journey to the United States. The country where they would live most of their lives, raise a family, and where Phu would come to be identified by the titles “good husband”, “good father”, and “good neighbor”.
40-some odd years later, Phu Nguyen, now in his sixties rocks back and forth in the comfortable recliner that sits in the quiet living room of his home in Rainbow City, Alabama. Clutching a tissue in his right hand and staring with teared stained eyes out the window across from him he remembers that day in April 1975, alongside a flood of memories from the days that came before it, many of these memories had come back to him uninvited.
He explains that the moments he remembers from the war are as still clear to him as if they happened yesterday. He reflects on seeing his home village of Quang Tri desolated by bombs that fell in the area; looking out to describe the utter destruction that it seems only he can see on the other side of his window. “They…they…they just leveled her” he says. He also looks back on a photograph, usually tucked away in his desk, of he and the men who he fought with during the war. The picture, taken in 1973, depicts Phu Nguyen and three other boys; all around the age of 18 and all dressed in military fatigues. Nguyen begins to go through the picture, pointing to the each of the two boys standing to his left saying “he died” …” he died”, taking a somber, silent pause after each remark.
One of these young men that Nguyen points to is wearing a hat that is noticeably a couple of sizes too big for him. Nguyen points out with a chuckle that the hat actually belonged to him, and a close look at the photograph reveals Nguyen’s first name written in Vietnamese on the side of it. His chuckle soon fades, however, and the somber look falls back onto his face. “I lost a lot of good friend” he says after taking a moment to let out a sigh.
His breathing gets heavier and begins to sharpen as he continues to talk about the friend who wears his hat in the picture. “I remember one day we sit down and we talk”. Nguyen recalls. “He said ‘Hey Phu, we still young men, but with the war…I don’t know. You and me, maybe you or me, you never know. Maybe tomorrow we get killed. We don’t have a future for nothing.’
As he continues to talk his breaths grow increasingly shorter and faster, “One week later,
North Vietnamese artillery…BOOM!” The sound shatters the silence of Nguyen’s quiet living room. It is one that is very out of place here. “I still remember he was hit somewhere on the neck” he says while putting his hands around his own neck as if to cover a wound that isn’t there. “It went through here and blood got out, a medic come in, but blood come out real bad, real bad.” “I remember I hold his hand. They brought in helicopter. I tried to hop in the helicopter to go with him, but they wouldn’t let me. A week later they tell me that he already passed away, and they already buried him.”
Nguyen says that conversations like the one that he had with his friend before that artillery attack were common among he and his friends during the war. “We just talk a lot.” he says. “We would drink coffee and talk about war and that you never know what could happen tomorrow.”
For Phu Nguyen though, the tomorrows kept coming. Days that saw him eventually meet Thi, his wife, and led up their leaving their home country together on that chaotic April day. The war had taken the lives of two of Thi Nguyen’s brothers, and had left her and her mother to survive on their own. “I didn’t want to leave my mamma” she remembers. On the ship bound for Guam Thi already wanted to return to Vietnam. “[Phu] wouldn’t let me” she says. “he said I can’t live without you, so you have to stay, so I listened to my husband.”
Thi ended up sending her nephew back to be with her mother instead, so she and Phu headed to Guam, then to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, and finally to Rainbow City. Where they tried to settle in a country that was foreign to them. Here in their new home they were equipped with very little knowledge of the English language, only what they could carry with them, and absolutely no means of contacting their family.
It would be Christmas eve 1992, 20 years from the time that Phu had left his family, when he would finally get a letter in the mail from Vietnam. He remembers his daughter, Hester, bringing the letter to him, excitedly telling him where it was from. “I look and it was my brother that had sent me the letter.” He recalls “I kept reading it, back and forth, and back and forth to make sure it was his handwriting. To make sure that it was him writing.”
Mrs. Nguyen, Hester, and Nguyen’s son Vien all left that Christmas Eve night to go have dinner, but Phu Nguyen stayed behind. He just sat at home and poured over the same letter over and over again. “I wanted to make sure that whole family was still there.” From the time he enlisted in 1972 to that night Phu hadn’t heard a word from them. “People had told my family that they saw me killed on a beach nearby” he says, but from their arrival in the country to the arrival of that letter the only family Thi and Phu Nguyen had was each other, and the “Land of the Free” had brought with it its own set of hardships for the couple to endure.
Nguyen still vividly remembers people’s first reactions to him being Vietnamese when he and his wife came to the United States in the 70’s. “Some people they thought I was bad guy too” he says with hints of confusion and frustration flickering in his voice. “They didn’t understand the war! They saw Vietnamese and I looked like the bad guy, but they didn’t know what I went through.”
To Thi, who was pregnant during the couple’s first year in the country, the biggest struggle was getting food. She was pregnant with her daughter Hester, who remembers hearing about her mother’s cravings for things that she couldn’t get. “My mother was craving things like boiled rice, and they didn’t have that. It was a difficult time” she says. “They had to learn everything”. She remembers coming home from school and helping her parent’s to learn English by just talking to them in the language.
“They have always worked hard” Hester argues. “They taught themselves how to live in America.” Phu Nguyen learned to work on and repair small engines and Thi worked in a factory,
and after a few years their hard work eventually led the Nguyen family to purchase the home that they live in now. The place where Phu can work on broken lawnmower engines in the back yard, and Thi can cultivate the plants that line the walls in front of their home.
It is this house that Phu and Thi Nguyen’s son, Vien, remembers as the place where he spent his childhood. “I lived in the same house from day one.” He says. “Overall it was a great experience.” Vien was born in 1981, and by that time his mother and father had already been in the country for a few years. The hardest times for the family were beginning to fall behind them.
Vien Nguyen is quick to point out that even though his parents had in many ways achieved the American dream through their hard work alone; that their character had not been diminished. “One thing I admire about my parents is how loving, caring, generous, and humble that they are.”
Speaking about that generosity, both Vien and Hester recall their father’s first trip back to Vietnam after he and his wife had left in 1975. Nguyen went back to his home country a little after Christmas one year carrying with him many of his nice clothes. “I remember picking him up from the airport when he got back” Hester recalls. When she saw her father she noticed that he was wearing clothes that were not his and shoes that were far too small. “He had given away everything” she says “even his watch and wedding band.”
The Nguyen’s next door neighbor, Anita Cooper, has seen evidence of that generosity firsthand. “They were the first people to greet us when we moved to the neighborhood” she recalls. “They would do anything for anyone. They are just selfless and considerate people.”
She says that Phu Nguyen would mow her grass to test the lawnmower engines he was working on, and that he and his wife would even host a dinner for the entire neighborhood on the 4th of July. “[The neighborhood] would be very different if they weren’t here” she says. “Even people who have moved away still keep in touch with Thi and Phu.”
“I’m real happy” says Nguyen as he leans back in his recliner, continuing to softly rock back and forth. “When you come to another country it’s not easy, but we are doing good.” “We have good friends and good neighbors.”
Always hard workers and selfless neighbors, Phu Nguyen, and his wife Thi have earned every piece of the happiness that they now enjoy. They live unremarkably now, in a sense, relaxing and in the quiet home they bought many years ago, in the quiet neighborhood where they are known for their generosity, but the one thing that Phu Nguyen is most grateful for is his freedom. He began the fight for it when he left high school all those years ago in Vietnam, and now as he sits back in his recliner, or plays with his granddaughter on the front porch it’s clear that in so many ways he finally won it.