Outfitted in an Aeropostle sweatshirt and jeans, with a long mane of black hair and a ready smile, Thanh Nguyen appears much younger than the soon-to-be 30 years old she’ll become in June.
Her 12 years working in a nail salon seemed to have treated her well.
The money was fine. The job was easy. But having spoken fluent English, she intrinsically knew that she had options some of her co-workers didn’t in that line of work.
Nguyen had pangs of guilt, too, because of unfulfilled opportunities that were pushed down deep by a competing laziness to move to action. She’d convinced herself it was somehow enough having earned straight A’s before suddenly shifting directions and dropping out of high school, and that doing manicures and pedicures was OK. Yet the knowledge she could do much more than scrub feet and paint ornate patterns on nails always served as a mental fly, buzzing around her head, hard to ignore.
Then there were the voices: the ‘story’ that always added weight to her uneasy consciousness.
It was a tale repeated periodically by her mother over three decades, filled with additional detail as the years passed and Thanh could fully understand context. Her father, working odd jobs as a landscaper, airplane cleaner and window-factory worker in Denver, would chime in too, explaining that the struggles he and his wife endured in their past were for a reason not to be wasted – their only child.
It was that combination of guilt, drive and family history that finally drove Thanh to action.
She received her General Equivalency Diploma before simply walking into Community College of Aurora to enroll in the pursuit of something better, whatever that may turn out to be.
“I’m still shaking now,” said Thanh, who is leaning towards a degree in a health-care related field. “I mean, I still can’t believe I made all the steps. I got the GED, walked in here myself. I filled out the paperwork. I did everything it took to take classes and I still can’t believe, ‘Wow, I did it all.’”
It’s been a trip, but not the trip of her life.
The year 1975 saw the Vietnam War slogging to a messy conclusion. Members of the South Vietnamese, fighting in lockstep with the United States before the latter’s sudden departure, now were being targeted by the North for their perceived disloyalty and, upon capture, faced imprisonment or worse.
Hoanh Nguyen was one of the men trying to stay one step ahead of the pursuit, moving from jungle, into rice fields and caves, from village to village, carrying rice bags among other odd jobs for money then quickly disappearing from sight in an effort to remain free.
This flight for life went on for nearly a decade. It was no way to live, especially after Hoanh stepped on a landmine and severely injured his ears, which sapped his hearing. His ears bled constantly. There were outward signs of infection, as well. But getting treatment meant possibly getting caught, so he suffered in silence.
While hiding in CaMau, at the southern tip of Vietnam, Hoanh Nguyen met Huong Hong, who took pity on this injured fugitive and began tending to his injuries. She’d sneak him food in the jungle, where Hoanh used banana leaves to shield from the rain. Their relationship soon turned to love, with a baby on the way. Huong told her mother, Hai Hong, her secret.
“My dad couldn’t go to my mom’s house to live. He was too afraid,” Thanh said, recalling the details she’s heard so many times before from her parents. “So, he would live here or there in the rice fields, the forest or in a hut. She would come every day. My grandma knew about him, but he couldn’t go and live in the open like that.”
Huong’s growing belly, though, brought suspicion as a single, pregnant woman in Vietnam. She was left with two choices two choices: abandonment, where the pregnant mother could live single and likely in shame, due to cultural morays at the time; or, fleeing the country.
It was now 1984. and through his travels, Hoanh Nguyen had met plenty of people, like himself, who wanted better situations and were unhappy of living under a repressive government. They got a hold of a small boat that held15-20 people at full capacity. Plans began to emerge about sailing into the unknown as Vietnamese boat people.
Families sold small jewelry and clothing to buy the boat. Oil, food and water supplies were hidden in the sand near the departure site to be unearthed only at the exact moment of their clandestine mission.
No one knew where they were going, only that it would be off into the Pacific Ocean. But it was at that point that Huong Hong, while extremely pregnant, decided she was going along. Thousands had tried similar voyages before. Some were rescued. Many never returned. It was a one-time chance with either the ultimate payoff – survival – or a one-way ticket never to be seen again.
“My mom told my dad it as a life or death chance, 50-50,” Thanh related. “She was so afraid because if anything happened she knew she would go down first, because she was already very pregnant.”
Smooth sailing began the trek, lasting several weeks. Nights were so dark hands were barely visible directly in front of faces. Everyone was relatively calm, until a massive storm hit. Huge waves. Thunder. The boat rocking all over the place.
“They were waiting to die,” Thanh related.
“My dad was holding onto my mom like, ‘OK, it’s time. Anytime now.’ I think my dad felt bad for dragging my mom along because she could have survived just fine in Vietnam as a single mom. He would have left anyway if my mom didn’t come along, but since my mom came along, my dad just held onto her.”
It was then that panic appeared to set in onboard. A woman with two teenage children began to get extremely anxious about the dire circumstances the group was facing. The woman, according to Thanh’s mother, at that point fell to her knees and prayed as hard as possible, saying aloud that if she gave her life at that moment, she was asking God or whoever was guiding this voyage, to stop the storm.
Shock immediately hit the boat when the woman followed through with her promise, jumping overboard. No one had believed she would follow through, but in only a matter of seconds, the woman was washed away, despite the best efforts of male crew members to link themselves together in a rescue attempt.
It was over.
The woman’s children were left screaming. The rest of the boat was crying. Then, suddenly, the rain stopped. Everything calmed.
“My parents would like to believe it was an act of God. There didn’t seem to be any other way to explain it.”
Groaning sounds followed shortly thereafter, of which there was no mistaking. Huong Hong’s water had broken and she had begun to go into labor on the open sea.
The women on the boat held up blankets to form a curtain for privacy, but the boat was cramped and certainly no place for a proper delivery. As Huong began to push, she looked upward at what she swears to this day was a green sky as a backdrop. And whether that could be chalked up to the pain she was no doubt experiencing or happenstance, it’s now true belief that was the vision that welcomed her infant daughter into a messy world.
Everyone on board was amazed, Thanh related, as this little life entered the world to such beautiful scenery. Hope suddenly permeated the vessel, combined with a mixture of awe, shock and relief.
“The people said, ‘So, what are you going to name this child? What is her name?’ My mom had thought about it and had no idea what she should name me. So she asked one of the girls whose mother had leapt overboard what her mother’s name was.
“The little girl said, ‘Thanh.’
Translated, Thanh means green in Vietnamese.
Mother and father held the baby lovingly as the boat now rocked slowly on calmer waters. And as they soon gazed at the seemingly endless ocean, land appeared in the distance.
The ordeal was seemingly over.
Today, fraying and fading documents now chronicle the arrival of the Nguyen family to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Infant Thanh in these official papers is wearing a white dress and bonnet in front of a sign assigning her a record number. The date is stamped June 3, 1984 – exactly one day after Thanh’s birth at sea. Mother and father’s ID photos do not hint at the harrowing escape and miraculous circumstances they had just experienced.
Malaysian authorities immediately provided medical care for Huong at a local hospital. Hoanh’s injured ears finally were addressed. A weathered document held together by tape serves as a handwritten record of Thanh’s birth certificate from that Malaysian medical care facility.
The Nguyen family spent about a year in Kuala Lumpur before a Colorado family sponsored them as refugees, opening up a whole new journey into the unexpected.
“When I first heard the story, I was younger, and I thought it was amazing and awesome,” Thanh says today of her perilous birth at sea. “But then I thought they just wanted me to do well and do something great in life because they didn’t come here for no reason. Now, I truly believe it. Maybe it’s because part of me wants to believe in a greater power rather than science.”
Thanh Nguyen hadn’t told many people the story, until she was asked to write about herself in an essay in Angele Davenport’s English 121 class.
Yet it’s all part of Thanh discovering new paths in life, if less dangerous ones.
“I have this drive all of a sudden out of nowhere,” she explained. “I don’t know where it came from: to study, to make it to class, simple things like that. Doing the work. Doing my best. Those are things I wouldn’t have done a few years ago.”
Part of the drive she admitted does come from her own story, and the knowledge that once her parents die, she wants more for herself to honor the sacrifices they made in life.
“Tbey all could have been dead. So why not do something great?” Thanh said.
Thanh’s only been on a boat one other time that she can recall since her maiden voyage. She said she sometimes thinks of the woman who gave her life in the belief that she’d save others on that fateful day nearly three decades earlier.
And, if truth is to be completely told, she’s never seen a green sky to this day. Thanh kids her mom that she was hallucinating way back when. Mom Huong swears it’s true, still describing it in vivid detail, with the sun emerging from the Pacific at sunrise as a backdrop.
“I hope I do see one. That would be amazing,” Thanh said with a smile. “And if I did, I’d definitely, 110 percent believe the story then.”