A peaceful retirement especially meaningful

Working for county, couple rebuilt life after fleeing Vietnam

June 08, 1999|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

It's time for another change in the lives of Hai Dang and Thanh Nguyen, but this time, things will be different.

No frenzied flight from Saigon, leading a clan of 37 relatives to a perilous escape by ship, as that infamous last American helicopter left the roof of the U.S. Embassy.

No weeks of uncertainty, first at sea in a rusty oil tanker, sleeping atop a refrigerator, then at a refugee camp at Indiantown Gap, Pa.

This time, the high school sweethearts from Haiphong, Hanoi and later Saigon will celebrate the conclusion of careers as Howard County employees at a retirement dinner June 17 in their honor.

Hai Nguyen, 70, has worked the past 24 years as a county budget analyst, while Thanh Nguyen, 67, spent 20 years in the county's housing office. Hai Nguyen turned down a job offer from the World Bank that would have taken him to Africa, he said, to ensure his children a more stable life.

"That's what we want in life. We want a peaceful life," he said.

Retirement, Thanh Nguyen said, "will be wonderful. We'll have more free time. We have gone through too much."

Raymond S. Wacks, Howard's budget director, said Hai Nguyen has been a "very steadying influence."

"When we get involved in some crisis, I've appreciated his viewpoint that no matter how bad problems are here, they're nothing like what he's gone through."

In addition to gaining an appreciation for Vietnamese spring rolls, "the joys of chili oil" and Hai Nguyen's famous ginseng tea, Wacks said he is always impressed with the couple's international connections and prominence in the Roman Catholic community.

Now, as his career winds down, the war in Kosovo draws Hai Nguyen's thoughts back to those turbulent last days in South Vietnam.

The NATO-sponsored war against Serbia stirs old frustrations, he said, by reminding him of what can happen when a limited military intervention goes sour and there is no orderly, negotiated settlement to end the fighting.

He acknowledges that he was naive in April 1975, blindly believing until the final rockets came crashing into Saigon that the powerful United States would never just bail out, leaving loyal supporters like him to fend for themselves.

The enduring lesson, he says, is clear. In these conflicts, "You've got to come out as a winner. If not, then don't get in."

If the air war in Kosovo fails and the West withdraws, the hundreds of thousands of homeless refugees will be left holding the bag, Hai Nguyen believes.

"I say every day: poor, poor Kosovo," Hai Nguyen said.

Still, after 24 years in the United States, he also understands that American parents don't want to see their children die in a war in a faraway place. He understands that U.S. policy is an expression of its own interests, not South Vietnam's, nor Kosovo's.

Turbulent lives

The Nguyens' flight from Saigon was the last of their traumas. As children, they endured the brutal Japanese occupation during World War II, a brief independence, the return of French colonialism and finally the long, bloody struggle with the Communist North.

"I saw many dead bodies on the roads every day," Hai Nguyen said, recalling his childhood during the Japanese occupation.

Later, fleeing the French return to power, he taught school in the Vietminh-controlled countryside, until he learned that Ho Chi Minh was a Communist using the name Nguyen Ai Quoc, among other aliases, and that dissent would not be tolerated by Ho's cadre. He fled again, first back to French-controlled territory and then south after the French left.

"I didn't like the French. I wanted independence," he said, but he couldn't stomach the total control of communism, either. He finished high school, was drafted into officer candidate school and sent to France to learn law and finance, advancing through the South Vietnamese bureaucracy to a high level at the time of the final collapse.

Though they arrived in Columbia nearly penniless with six children ranging in age from 1 to 17, they eventually prospered. The children are grown and college graduates. The Nguyens live in an 11-year-old house where packets of cookies, cakes and candies are waiting in the family room for the seven grandchildren -- including one born May 28 -- who visit.

The Nguyens worked at preserving their culture in America, starting with the artworks they smuggled out that now adorn their home, and by insisting that the children speak Vietnamese at home, even as they struggled to learn English.

"Our sponsor [in Columbia] wanted the kids to speak English," Hai Nguyen said, but he and his wife insisted on their native tongue at home. The elder Nguyens are fluent in English, Vietnamese and French, and Hai Nguyen knows German and Latin.

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