It was a long voyage that took Vince Tran from Vietnam to his own 7-Eleven in Arlington


Vince Tran, owner of a 7-11 near the East Falls Church Metro station. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist September 10, 2013

Vince Tran owns the 7-Eleven at Washington Boulevard and Lee Highway in Arlington. To many of us, convenience stores seem like symbols of our disconnected society: faceless, corporate, antiseptic. . . .

But that’s not true at Vince’s store.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

“I try to get to know most of my customers here,” he said. “We grow to be friends, not just vendor and customer. That’s the kind of relationship we built here.”

And that’s why, when Vince learned about an incident near his store involving a small black dog, he knew who might want to hear about it. Dave Seldomridge stops at the 7-Eleven most mornings to grab a coffee on his way to work at the Stray Cat Cafe. The owners of the Stray Cat and its sister establishment, the Lost Dog Cafe, spend most of their spare time finding homes for unwanted pets.

“I was telling Dave the story,” Vince said. “It’s just that I wondered if there’s an owner looking for the animal.”

I wondered about Vince and his story, about the stories of the people we see behind a counter or on a street corner, people who maybe don’t quite register as we go about our busy lives. And this is what Vince told me as we stood near the coffee station at his 7-Eleven:

The year was 1980. Vince was 12. His father was dead, and his mother saw no prospects for the family in communist Vietnam, where they lived. They fled on a fishing boat, two of more than 600 people crammed onto a ramshackle vessel. “We were packed like sardines,” Vince said.

They’d been at sea only a few days when pirates struck for the first time. They were Thai fisherman who, suspecting the boat people would be carrying valuables, moonlighted as brigands. In the nearly two weeks the refugees were at sea, pirates came 19 times, sweeping in like wolves among sheep.

“Every time we were robbed, we hid it deeper,” Vince said of the gold, jewelry and money the refugees had. Sometimes the pirates would take women back to their boats, rape them, then return them.

When the last pirate crew had finished, it disabled the ship’s engine. The boat drifted for a few days in the Gulf of Thailand, the refugees mad with hunger and thirst, when a Malaysian navy ship appeared on the horizon.

“We felt like God had come,” Vince said. “They towed us to a dock, gave us food and water.”

Passengers in need of medical attention were taken to the hospital, treated, then returned to the vessel, which was attached via a sturdy line to the Malaysian navy ship and towed away from the dock. And then. . . .

“I can still remember,” Vince said. “I was in the front of the boat, looking at the tail of the navy ship.”

The taut towrope suddenly went slack, then sank into the water. Vince wasn’t sure what had happened, then his mother shouted, “Oh my God, they cut the rope!”

The boat had been towed to international waters, where it was no longer Malaysia’s problem.

Still engineless, the fishing boat drifted for two or three more days before someone spotted land. When they got close to shore, refugees started jumping off and swimming to the beach. A French journalist just happened to be there. He notified the Red Cross.

They were back in Malaysia. Fearful that they would be towed out to sea again, the refugees burned the boat. Vince and his mother spent a year in a Malaysian refugee camp before immigrating to the United States, first to Florida, then to Virginia.

As a teenager, Vince worked three jobs: He delivered The Washington Post, wrapping his shoes in trash bags so they wouldn’t get wet in the snow. He washed dishes at a restaurant in Herndon called Mark’s and was the salad boy at the Ice House Cafe. He graduated from Herndon High, then went to George Mason. His mother — like Asian mothers everywhere, Vince laughed — hoped he would become an engineer.

He didn’t. Vince realized he didn’t love engineering the way he loved marketing, retail and interacting with people. He left Mason, worked at a Gulf station on Sunrise Valley Drive in Reston, then worked his way up the ladder, rising in responsibility at different stations before he was able to buy the 7-Eleven and Exxon franchise 21 / 2 years ago.

He and his wife, Stacee, have two children: Sean, 14 (a new student at magnet Thomas Jefferson), and Shannon, 12. Vince said the distinctively Irish names were suggestions from a customer, an Irish American woman named Ginger who is a regular at his store.

Vince never wants his kids to go through what he did, but he wants them to know that life isn’t always easy.

But about the dog: When Laurie Nakamoto, owner of the missing miniature schnauzer named Ms. Winter, talked to Dave Seldomridge, he told her to talk to Vince at the 7-Eleven. When Laurie went to Vince, he gave her the final link in the chain. “Talk to the panhandler,” Vince said.

Thursday: The panhandler.

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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