Love and laughter are hard to quantify, but one Monroe home was overflowing with both on Feb. 22. That’s when the Nguyen family gathered to celebrate the Vietnamese New Year.
It’s something they may not have been able to imagine 40 years ago as the North Vietnamese army advanced toward Saigon, putting their lives and futures at risk.
Their journey to Union County began when Van – one of the family’s eight sisters – got a job as a secretary in the U.S. Department of State in Saigon. There she met Union County native Harry B. Crow Jr., who was working as a legal adviser with the U.S. Agency for International Development.
The two fell in love and got married.
Van continued working at the State Department, and every two years, Harry was required to return to the United States for at least a month, she said.
He was in the United States in April 1975 when he arranged for her to escape Vietnam with their three children. At that time, Matthew was 4, Marcus was 21/2 and Catherine was 11/2.
Van said she was at work when she got a call telling her she had an hour to pick up their kids and escape in an FBI-occupied van. She and her children had to lie on the floor. With her hands covering the mouths of the younger children to keep them quiet, the family passed through various checkpoints before they got to a plane that took them to a U.S. air force base in Guam.
After 10 days in Guam, they were flown to the United States and reunited with Harry, who opened a law firm in Monroe.
Van talked briefly about that time during the recent New Year’s celebration at the home of her late brother, Khang Nguyen, and his wife, Hiep Le. A portion of one room had been set aside to remember and honor several generations of family members who have died.
Van was the second-oldest child after Khang. There were eight girls and three boys, she said. Her grandfather, who had escaped with his family from North Vietnam in 1954, had five wives and many children, she said.
She was the only one in her family who escaped before the fall of Saigon. Her brothers were sent to a labor camp, and it became her mission to help her siblings and parents get to the United States.
Family members started arriving in Union County in the mid-1980s.
Two brothers – Khang and Minh – had a particularly difficult time. They escaped in a small, overcrowded fishing boat. Minh said they had to pay bribes in gold to smugglers and the local government.
On the way to the Philippines, the motor on the boat failed. They were adrift at sea, without food or fresh water, for 42 days. Minh said 84 of the original 110 people on board survived.
They were rescued and taken to the Philippines. More than a year later, in December 1989, Lutheran Family Services helped them get to the United States.
To a visitor, hearing about the difficulties the family has faced made their laughter sound even more beautiful – and the abundant food smell even better – at the New Year’s celebration. The actual new year’s date was Feb. 19, but the family chose to celebrate Feb. 22.
Many members talked in Vietnamese, but they made a point to share welcoming smiles and greetings in English to those with limited language skills.
They also were generous, graciously filling plates for visitors to take with them, and giving away lottery tickets and $2 bills for good luck in the New Year.
Van learned English and French while attending Catholic school in Vietnam. Asked if her husband, Harry, speaks any Vietnamese, she said, “He knows, ‘I love you,’ in Vietnamese.”
Van said two of her siblings now live in South Carolina and one lives in Charlotte. She and the other seven surviving siblings live in Union County.
“All are U.S. citizens,” she said. “All make a good living.”
Jane Duckwall is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Jane? Email her at email@example.com.