BR mechanic’s family took long, difficult road to United States
Since 1991, Chat Nguyen’s business has been repairing the cars that let people negotiate increasingly crowded streets. But none of his customers’ journeys is as perilous as the one that allowed him to reach Baton Rouge.
In 1984, Nguyen joined 41 other people on a 30-foot boat to escape from Communist-run Vietnam. More than a million people are estimated to have fled after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. An estimated 50,000 to 200,000 died trying.
Nguyen considers himself fortunate. He got all five of his children out. Many did not.
“I give you an example. Three boats escape, maybe one boat successful,” he said. “Maybe four or five boats, one boat successful and four they catch or die on the sea.”
Several factors led to this flight. Many in what had been South Vietnam feared reprisals from the victors of the decade-long war. Vietnam got into shooting wars in the late 1970s with Cambodia and China, producing more refugees.
Nguyen had been a South Vietnamese Army captain. After the war, he was required to report to a “re-education” camp. He was told to bring one month’s supply of food.
“But they lie to us,” Nguyen said. “They don’t keep one month. They keep as long as they want. Some stay there 15 years, 16 years.”
Those in the camps were subject to forced labor and indoctrination, and thousands died from overwork and malnutrition. His own tragedy may have spared Nguyen such a fate.
In 1979, Nguyen’s wife, Ai-cham, died while he was in the camp, leaving five children ranging from ages 5 to 10. She had written in letters that she was not well, but he did not learn of her death until his family was allowed one of its two visits a year.
“They see me and run to me,” Nguyen said. “I ask them, ‘Where is your mother?’ They say, ‘Mother die, pass away already.’ They had black clothing to signal their mother pass away.”
Nguyen said he was allowed to leave the re-education camp to care for his family, but had to check in weekly with the police and provide written reports of his activities. His citizenship had been taken away, and his 10-year-old son had to sign papers granting Nguyen permission to live in his home in Saigon.
He remarried, but decided the family’s future needed to be elsewhere. Using an uncle’s name to avoid attention from authorities, he began working on fishing boats that plied their trade in the South China Sea. The fishermen also helped people escape the country.
Nguyen said they started with 15 boats and paid off policemen to ignore the numbers of people aboard. When the fleet was out of sight of land, those designated to escape were transferred to a single boat that would take off for a nearby country. The fishermen would later report that the boat had mechanical problems and had been taken somewhere for repairs. Time would pass, and they’d try again.
Nguyen put his oldest two sons on the first of those boats bound for freedom. It would be some time before he made the same attempt himself with his remaining three children. His wife, Van-nu, stayed behind because if they all left and were caught, the authorities would have taken their house, leaving them no place to live.
Nguyen and his three remaining sons set out for Indonesia, but their timing was not good. Bringing enough supplies for what they thought was a four-day journey, they encountered a tropical storm. They stayed afloat, but lost all bearings.
Fortunately, they spotted a cargo vessel and were able to signal it. The ship pulled alongside them and provided food, water, diesel fuel, a map and pointed them toward Indonesia. They arrived on an Indonesian island on the seventh day of their journey. Everyone on board survived.
Nguyen’s two sisters had escaped earlier and lived in Minnesota and Ohio, but a friend of his father had settled in Baton Rouge and told him the weather here was more like that in Vietnam. He came to Baton Rouge with his five sons in 1985. His wife, Van-nu, was allowed to rejoin him in 1991.
He started working at a local grocery store, then took vocational courses to become an auto mechanic. He opened his Jefferson Highway garage in 1991 and didn’t take a day off for months. All five of his sons graduated from LSU.
“I’m trying to slow down,” Nguyen said. “I’m 73 years old.”