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Escape from Vietnam

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“My oldest sister, who was seven at the time, was pretty much dying. They were all so dehydrated and starving. My uncle just picked her up and her arms and legs fell like a dead body. He stood at the front of the boat like that, holding her, so the fishermen could see there were children on board. The boat did stop and come over.”


Myly and Khiem are the perfect couple: together, they manage two businesses, Pearl T. Nails and Red Persimmon Nail and Spa, they have four children - one boy and three girls - and they’re due to celebrate their 40th anniversary in three years. They both possess artistic talents beyond ordinary, and they have the deepest love for their family.

Myly is a petite woman, but she is nothing short of a chatterbox. She is outgoing and makes friends instantaneously. She has voluptuous, midnight black hair and big, dark eyes. Her hands are scuffed and tattered from years of toil and work.

Khiem’s glasses appear large on his small frame. He is a quiet man, and he does a lot of his work in silence. But he does the job well.

Both are not fluent English speakers, but they get along just fine. Now, after being in the nail industry for about three decades, Myly and Khiem are looking to retire within the next few years.

But, life wasn’t always as easy.

Myly and Khiem grew up in Central Vietnam. Neither had a career per se, but Khiem made money by selling wood carvings and Myly worked by communicating with a U.S. toy manufacturer. She ran her own business through selling toys to mainly G.I.’s.

The couple married in 1975 and their first daughter, Baochau, was born in 1977.

“It was soon after my sister was born that they decided to leave to provide a better life for us,” remarked Cattien, Myly and Khiem’s youngest daughter. “They knew they were going to have kids and they didn’t want their kids to be raised in that type of society.”

From 1977 to 1983, the couple attempted to flee from Vietnam, which was infested with Communism and the remains of a bitter war. It did not matter where they went. They just knew they had to get out.

Every attempt at escape took years of extensive planning. In total, the couple ventured out to sea three times in a period of six years. During their first attempt, they were joined by Myly’s sisters and brothers, Khiem’s brothers, and the couple’s two daughters. There was no wind for their sailboat and they were forced to return to land.

On their second attempt, the boat motor died.

Every time they were forced to turn back. “They had to scatter because if the Communists found them, they would be shot dead. It would take months for them to regroup and find each other because they didn’t have phones or pagers or any way of contacting each other.”

On their final attempt, Myly’s sisters could not afford to leave again because of the chaos. The rest of the family, including the couple’s daughters, now aged six and seven, rammed themselves on a miniature canoe.

The group set out to find the canisters of food and water that Khiem had hidden in the ocean. The items were attached to small floating devices, so on the day of their escape, they could find the canisters easily and salvage their food.

After finding them, they made their way through the ocean to a larger ship out at sea, which was designed to help the Vietnamese people escape.

This was the ship that would take them to a better place.

“It cost a certain amount per head to go on the ship, and they would pay in gold. My mom can’t really translate how much that is in dollars, but it was probably equivalent to about a couple thousand dollars per head.”

It was just a few days at sea before the family completely ran out of food and water. A storm blanketed the ship in icy saltwater, sloshing up waves over all of the escapees. All they could do was try to throw the water back into the sea.

The ship engine eventually died. In the middle of nowhere, Myly, who was six months pregnant, and Khiem, desperately tried to keep their daughters alive. Starvation began to take its toll.

Boats would pass by, but their crews would not help the group because they feared they would be punished.

Then, out of nowhere, there was a glimmer of hope.

“My dad described them as little pink boxes just floating along the sea. And my uncle had jumped down and went to go get these boxes and opened them up. Most of them don’t understand any English but I had one uncle which was my dad’s older brother…he understood English. He was able to interpret the little message that was on the box. It said that ‘This is a sponge cake,’ or something of the sort, and ‘It’s from the U.K.’ It said, ‘Just eat this, it’s safe, eat it so you don’t starve and that help will arrive soon.’ Coming across those boxes was like finding gold.”

After a few days, the group came across a Filipino fishing boat. The group yelled and cried for help, but the boat did not move.

“My oldest sister, who was seven at the time, was pretty much dying. They were all so dehydrated and starving. My uncle just picked her up and her arms and legs fell like a dead body. He stood at the front of the boat like that, holding her, so the fishermen could see there were children on board. The boat did stop and come over.”

The fishermen contacted their authorities, who forbade them from giving help to the escapees. The captain did not listen and helped the Vietnamese escapees anyway.

The family was on the fishing boat for about five days until they reached the Philippines.

For six months, they stayed at a refugee camp. Myly and Khiem picked up a bit of English and returned their health back to normal. There, Cattien was born.

At the time, Myly’s brother lived in San Jose, Calif. She contacted him and he sent sponsorship papers to bring the family to the United States.

After six months, they received notification of their date to arrive in Northern California.

As soon as they touched base at the U.S. airport, Cattien’s older sister asked her mother for an ice cream cone. Myly handed over the only money she had—a $20 bill. She received $7 in change.

“My mom had three kids at the time. She did not speak English and she had $7 in her pocket. My mom’s cousin, who had been there for about 10 years, told us to come to southern California and they would help us get started in the nail industry. It’s a business where you don’t really need to know English.”

Myly and Khiem took turns going to school for a nail technician license, which they passed in six to eight months. Meanwhile, they helped out at Myly’s cousin’s nail salon.

To make extra money, the couple participated regularly at the craft fair at a nearby park. There, Khiem brought his wood carving talents to the U.S. He would etch tourists’ names in different fonts and cursives in the wood. For a $30 booth, the couple sometimes wound up making $300 a day.

After four years of living in the states, they applied for permanent residency, and eventually, the whole family was granted citizenship.

Soon after, the couple opened their own store in Upland, Calif.

“They still didn’t really know any English, just enough to get by. There were grateful and patient clients in the area. There were a lot of retired people and they would come and teach my parents English.”

After building a strong business for 17 years, the couple decided it was time for a change. The family moved to Tucson, Ariz.

They began a nail salon on Irvington Road and Campbell Avenue. It was very successful, but the couple knew they could grow their business even further.

“We were actually supposed to open up a business at a Walmart on the south side, but for whatever reason, we went ahead and dove for the Tucson Mall and crossed our fingers. It costs about three to four more times to open up in the mall than at a strip mall. And in the nail industry, opening a store in the mall is like getting to the very top of the industry.”

At the time, the Tucson Mall did not supply any type of nail services to shoppers. The family opened Pearl T. Nails, and one year later, mall management asked the family to create a second business. They agreed, and Red Persimmon Nail and Spa opened its doors.

“For my parents, this was such a success and accomplishment.”

 And for Myly and Khiem, their story has a happy ending.

Written by Lauren Inouye

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