The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

September 15, 2013

From ‘boat people’ to business owners: Vietnamese family strives for new life

By Karen Middleton

— Dao Hoang was just 9 when she and her family boarded a boat and tried to leave Vietnam the first time in 1991. Chien Thanh Vo was a 20-year-old in 1988 when after many tries he found his way to the West.

Today, they are married and the parents of three daughters and together own Modern Nails in Town Center. Having lived under the deprivations of communist rule after the fall of South Vietnam, both are working hard to earn their piece of the American dream.

Dao said it is widely believed in her Hue neighborhood that everyone in the United States is rich.

She said that she and others tried to leave Vietnam in a boat carrying 15 people in 1991.

“There were too many people in the boat,” she said. “My father had to take another boat.”

And so, they launched into the South China Sea. She said it would be another seven months before the family was reunited with her father.

Dao has been in the U.S. a little more than 10 years and is insecure about her language skills; however, she is able to describe the perils of that first journey.

“We would be on the water during the day and go into shore at night to sleep and find food,” she said.

Dao said they experienced both good and bad people when they pulled into Chinese villages on their way north to Hong Kong. One time the boat party had to leave quickly from a port because the male villagers were becoming too amorous in their attentions to two unaccompanied teenage girls in their group.

Another time someone tried to purchase her little brother.

“My brother was cute, strong, healthy,” she said. “Somebody asked my mother if he could buy him. He took a big ring off his finger and wanted to give it to my mother for my brother. She said, ‘No! No!’”

The group left quickly from that locale also.

Hunger was rampant among the boat party. For their first four days aboard the boat, Dao refused to eat and her mother was afraid she was starving to death as she grew weaker.

“We went to one house and knocked on the door and asked for food,” she said. “The person told us to go away. Next, we knocked on a door and the people were dressed in white coats like doctors and they gave me a sweet potato.”

She said she, by that time, she was delirious from hunger. “I was acting very crazy.”

Once the party reached Hong Kong, they learned that each member of a family could receive the equivalent of $800 to go back where they came from. They took the money and returned to Hue.

Her father, Hue Nguyen, and mother, Nhan Hoang, eventually had six children. Dao said they all worked to keep the family fed. She was introduced to Chien when he came back from the U.S. for a visit to his old neighborhood. They married three days after they were introduced.

“I had not planned to marry so early, but my parents had six children and they were very poor and I did not want to be a burden to them,” she said. “But we’ve been married now for 14 years and have three children and here we are.”

However, it took four years and three months of paperwork until Dao could join Chien in the U.S.

Chien’s journey

After several attempts at leaving Vietnam, Chien finally embarked with three others in a four-person boat. With no navigation tools, the only advice he was given was to “follow the sun and go straight.”

This turned out to be faulty advice when the small boat was tossed about by hurricane-like winds and the Chinese people of Hainan Island that lay in their path, would not let them dock there to get out of the elements.

“We had to go around,” he said. “We got very near Hong Kong and the boat was blown around by the wind.”

A larger boat picked up him and his boat mates. He says he doesn’t know what became of his small craft. Once docked in Hong Kong he knew he’d have to earn money to be able to continue his journey.

Chien got a job in a garment factory cutting out T-shirts. He was to work 12 hours a day, six days a week for the next two years in Hong Kong before he could go to the Philippines to begin the paperwork to go to the U.S. He spent another eight months in the Philippines.

Denver was the Chien’s first stop in the U.S. He got a job in a hotel near the airport and bought a $1,000 Chevy. In time, the Chevy needed a new $1,000 flywheel.

“I just left it,” he said.

He eventually wound up in Decatur and Dao joined him in 2002. The couple owned and operated a nail salon in Decatur, but sold it and bought the salon in Athens.

“It got to be too much driving from Decatur every day,” said Dao. “So we moved to Athens two years ago.”

Their three daughters, Danica, 9,  and Kelli, 7, attend Athens Elementary School. Youngest daughter, Anna, 4, is still at home. Once Dao earned her citizenship, she was able to secure visas for her parents to come live with them.

Dao’s mother, Nhan, helps care for the children and has also learned to do pedicures at Modern Nails. Her father, Hue, works in Birmingham at a tire and lube shop and lives with friends during the week.

“People in Vietnam say we are rich,” said Dao. “They will ask me to send them $500. I tell them I can’t. I have three children. My husband also has two children and he must pay child support.

“I tell them I cannot afford to send money. They tell me to get a loan. I tell them I cannot do that. I must care for my family first. If they were hungry then I could get a loan, but I can’t get it to send   money.”