Different Vu of the world: Visiting Vietnam after years away


Huu Vu, second from left, visits his old home in Saigon during a recent trip to Vietnam with his wife. It was his first time visiting the country of his birth since his family immigrated to the U.S. in 1975 as refugees.
Courtesy photo

“Go travel — you’ll learn a lot,” says Huu Vu, an assistant volleyball coach at Rio Rancho High School, who recently returned from a cruise with his wife, Nancy.

Vu, 57, knows more than a little about travel, and it goes beyond his 23-day adventure to Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong and Macau.

He grew up in Vietnam — while a war was going on — until his single mother lugged him, then 12 years of age, and three of his four brothers to the “Land of Opportunity,” the USA, in 1975. The second-oldest of the five brothers, serving in the South Vietnamese Army, volunteered to stay behind and care for his grandmother and great-grandmother.

“From Saigon we went to an island, Phu Quoc,” Vu recalled. “From there we escaped in a wooden boat with over 20 families to an island, Pulau Bidong, in Malaysia.”

There, they filed as refugees with the American Red Cross and were sent to several places, landing in Pennsylvania, near Harrisburg for a time.

“The communities around (Harrisburg) were nice; they donated clothing, they taught us English, so we loved it. … I still remember vividly — the lady was teaching us the English word ‘butterfly’; she’d draw a stick of butter with two wings,” he said, the memory evoking laughter. “I’ll remember that for the rest of my life.”

“There were many refugees who died when their boats got capsized by stormy seas,” he added. “We were the lucky ones that found land and help to get to the U.S. We got sponsored by a group at a Lutheran church in San Francisco — that is where my family still lives. The whole trip took us a little more than eight months.”

The memories of growing up in Saigon are still keen: “We were poor, but we were comfortable.”

He remembers playing soccer on the streets, hearing late-night gunfire, late-night curfew and — on one of two TV channels available in the early 1970s — watching American shows, like “Gunsmoke,” “Bewitched,” “Green Acres,” and “Hee Haw.”

“I loved Westerns and I loved war movies,” he said, preferring “Wild Wild West” and “Combat.”

Not long after they left, the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, marked the end of the Vietnam War.

Understanding immigration

In light of what’s been going on near the U.S. southern border, Vu has “been there, done that,” and figures those who have left their native lands have several questions: What will happen to me and my family? Where is my next meal? How are we going to support ourselves?

“The people who are coming up to our country from the South America and Central America brought back lots of memories for me,” Vu said. “Their treks are similar to ours: Their journey is on land and ours was on water.”

Vu’s American journey didn’t end when the family found shelter in a two-bedroom apartment in the North Beach area of San Francisco.

There was still the matter of learning English — “the hardest part” — going to school, fitting into a new environment and more. He graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School in 1981.

“I still speak Vietnamese fluently; I dabbled in Chinese Cantonese; I learned Spanish in high school,” he said. “When I worked for Intel, I practiced a lot of Spanish because of my Costa Rican counterpart.

“When we moved to San Francisco, you don’t feel discrimination because there’s so many Asians there,” he said. “I didn’t feel it until I went to college. When I went to college, I was one of a few Asians in the school.”

Knowing at an early age what he wanted to do for a living — a petroleum engineer — he headed east, to Socorro, to attend New Mexico Tech.

“That’s where I met Toby,” he said, which led to his position with Manzanares’ volleyball team.

He became a U.S. citizen in Socorro in 1983 and graduated with a bachelor’s of science in petroleum engineering in 1986. He found that he would have to go to the Middle East for a petroleum engineering job at the time, so he earned a degree in computer engineering, which is how he makes his living now.

His first stint at Intel — after “floating around” — began in 1991. He took early retirement in 2016.

That gave him time to enjoy “cruising” with his wife, whom he wed in 1989, after meeting her while both were playing soccer. He was the only male on a girls team and she was the lone female on a guys team.

Back to the fatherland

The trip to Vietnam, with three days in Saigon, was an eye-opener: “I did not recognize my country, but I’m happy for them,” he said. “Vietnam is a Communist country, but they opened up for private ownership, so their economy looked good.

“Seven-11s everywhere. We went back to my neighborhood — I stood in front of my house, and my house now is a company,” he said. “The skylines I saw at night were not there when I was growing up. … The guy was telling me (the population) was more than 8 million.

“I resisted going back to Vietnam; there’s a couple reasons,” he said. “My family all went back, except me. I’m the last one who made this trip.

“In the back of my mind, I ran away from the country as a refugee, so when I come back there, what happens if they hold me there?” he said. “Why not? In a way, I was born there. The No. 2 reason was I heard a lot of stories about if my countrymen know you came back from America, they think you have a lot of money, so they’ll try to swindle you out of money or tear at your heartstrings. So I didn’t want to bring my wife back to that environment.”

He’s glad he changed his mind.

Now it’s back to work. On April 15, Vu began his second stint at Intel, this time as a “technician for change management.”

“This is a great country and I am glad that our family is a part of it,” he said.