It was not until Nga Thi Nguyen's brothers flew over her house in a helicopter yelling for her to leave the city that she and her husband, Thong Hanh Nguyen, decided they would have to get out of Saigon. They left behind their prospering middle-class existence: home, clothes, furniture, bank account and co x16 stores that employed 48 people. When they jumped into their jeep to drive to the port, they only took some rice, 200 books in Vietnamese and their 12 children, then aged 22 to 4.
It was April 29, 1975, and the beginning of the Nguyen family odyssey that took them through a frightening evacuation, a refugee camp in Arkansas, an Oklahoma village, a failed shrimp boat business in Texas, a misbegotten movie theater venture in Silver Spring and, finally, to prosperity in their new life in Washington.
"I've been here eight years and I never went to the White House or to the monuments," says Thao Nguyen, the oldest son. "We don't have time. The time we spend going there could be spent in business. We have nothing but our strength and our time, so our time is our money . . .
"We came with nothing, and we have already lost a lot of money--on the boat, on the movie theater. But we never stop, we keep working."
The Nguyens' journey began in Saigon harbor, where the family was split up. Nga Thi, 52, and six of her children boarded the ship first. Her husband, also 52, and six others boarded later. It took them two days to find each other.
The Nguyens planned to place their children in the United States and return to Saigon to take care of their business. Only after three months in a refugee camp at Fort Chaffee, Ark., did Nga Thi realize she would never go home.
The Nguyens stayed at Fort Chaffee longer than most families. "Nobody wanted to sponsor 14 people," says Nga Thi. But the family refused to split up. Finally, a school principal from Mountain Park, Okla. (pop. 500) sponsored the family. He made Nga Thi a teacher's aide. Her husband got a job working in a nursing home, and the family rented a house for $180 a month. They bought a station wagon with a leaky gas tank for $100. The children, eight boys and four girls, started school.
"My family was the only Oriental family in Mountain Park," says Thao. "It was very strange, so people came to talk to us. They are country-born people . . . They gave us a lot of beans. But Vietnamese people don't eat beans, so we gave them to the poor people."
And then there was the language problem. "When I came to this country I knew nothing about English," says Thong Hanh. "I could understand myself, but nobody could understand me." Language is the reason he chose books, of all his possessions, to take on his escape. "If you cannot understand the Vietnamese language," he says, "you cannot undersand Vietnamese customs, and that is more expensive than anything else."
The Nguyens were not satisfied with the schools in Mountain Park, so in 1976 they moved to Silver Spring, furnishing their four-bedroom apartment through charity. The station wagon, which broke down seven times on the way from Oklahoma, was retired. Nga Thi worked as a waitress in the Japanese Steak House in Bethesda and her husband worked as a messenger in a bank. When they were not at school, the older boys worked in restaurants as busboys and dishwashers and the girls got part-time jobs at Gino's. Every penny went to their parents.
Nga Thi, however, did not like waitressing. "Even though I made a lot of money, I felt very sad," she says. "I had everything in my country. I was afraid somebody would see me."
In 1978 she quit, and with $2,000 down she and her husband bought a van and took a trip across the country. Port Arthur, Tex., and the lure of a shrimp boat, held them.
"My mother saw (that) Vietnamese as fishermen made lots of money," Thao says. "She planned to buy a fishing boat even though she didn't know how to fish." And that is what the family did, purchasing a 47-foot, diesel-powered vessel with a cracked hull. For $3,000 down and $7,000 still owed, they had to make it float. Thao joined his parents in Port Arthur, where they lived with friends. After three months of work on the hull, they launched the boat. The next hurdle was figuring out how to operate it. "We didn't know how to back up the boat," laughs Thao. "We hit another boat."
Finally, only one obstacle remained: Learning how to fish. "I had to go to the Port Arthur library to borrow five books to teach us how to fish," recalls Thao. ". . . My father had to wait for me to read the books; it took about two months."
At last, they went fishing-- leaving about 2:30 a.m. and returning about 8 p.m. That day it took the Nguyens three times longer than the other fishermen to sort the shrimp from their nets.
There also was more to learn in Port Arthur than shrimp fishing. Thong, for instance, met a group of local men who claimed they were members of the Ku Klux Klan. And when he went to shore one day with a broken part from his boat, it was one of them he met. "When I reached shore, one of the KKK was there," Thong recalls. "He came up to me and said, 'Hey boy, what can I do for you?'
"I was very cool," says Thong, who is just over five feet tall. "I smiled, first of all. Then I explained that my crankshaft is broken, and if I don't fix it my boat will sink and my wife on the boat will die.
"He helped me. He drove me to the workshop. It was 14 miles one way."
Making friends with the local Klan, however, had its perils. Later, the same man invited Thong, who as a Buddhist neither smokes nor drinks, for a beer. "He bought me a beer," Thong says. "That was a problem for me. If I didn't drink it, I knew he would be angry. So I drank it. But I got all red."
After two years in Port Arthur the Nguyens were only breaking even. They decided to return to Washington, but, by now, fish was in their future.
They loaded their van with coolers full of shrimp, which they sold to Vietnamese restaurants and fishmarkets around Washington. For more than a year, either Nga Thi or her husband made the 36-hour drive to Louisiana for shrimp, which they sold here. "It was better than fishing," Nga Thi says.
Meanwhile, they went into the movie business, the whole family pitching in to run the Saigon Capri, a Bethesda movie house. "That was even worse than the boat," says Thao. After several months and several thousand dollars, they gave it up.
In the end, it was fish that brought them luck. In 1981 they bought a truck and sold fish on Washington streets to determine the best neighborhood to open a fish market. Sales were best on New Hampshire Avenue, and on Christmas Day, 1982, the Nguyens opened the Saigon Atlantic Seafood Fish Market at 6327 New Hampshire Ave. It is thriving. The front counter, manned by the Nguyen children, displays about 20 varieties of fresh fish. In the next few months, they plan to expand the shop to twice its size.
Two of the older children have married and moved away, but the Nguyens and 10 of their children today are living in a rented 20-room house in Silver Spring. The Nguyen family also has been doing more than earning a living. The walls of their home are covered with 52 trophies the Nguyen children have won in Kung Fu tournaments, including a dozen garnered at a competition in Madison Square Garden. For the Nguyens, this ancient Chinese martial art builds spiritual as well as physical strength, and the Nguyens have insisted their children continue the custom.
"My customs are different," says Nga Thi. "All my friends who come here are changing their way of life and their customs, but not my family." Only one of Nga Thi's younger sons hopes someday to be a movie idol.
Each morning, the children get up at 5:30 a.m. to practice Kung Fu. Then they go to school or, in the summertime, to work inShe planned to the fish market. Evenings, after homework, they again practice Kung Fu and then either read or go to bed. Television is not allowed.
The financial success of the family is due to discipline and sacrifice most American families would find alien. In the beginning, they bought all their clothes secondhand and never went out to eat in a restaurant. "My family in Saigon was rich, and we want to get to that situation again so we must work hard and save money," Thao says. "We had to sacrifice for a few years and after we have a stable business, we can enjoy."
So far, six of the Nguyen children have graduated or are attending the University of Maryland. Two have attended Montgomery College, and the rest have graduated from high school or are still attending. "I hope all my kids will go to school and get degrees," says Nga Thi, "and then have their own businesses . . . .
"In America, if you work, you make money. But if you're lazy, you don't make money."