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There are many success stories among Utah's 5,000-plus Southeast Asian refugees. But a dragon has also followed them to their new home, pacing in the background as the Indochinese community struggles to become a unified cultural bloc.

For Minh Ngoc Ha and his sister Hong Thu Ha, the dragon was their Amerasian heritage - a Vietnamese mother and an American GI father. But their heritage was also the golden nugget that got them out of Vietnam.Tam Huynh, who publishes the Utah Idaho Viet News newspaper from his Park City office, sees many dragons trying to divide Indochinese who have resettled here. His crusade to help other Vietnamese has also drawn him into controversy.

And for Hai Dang and her husband and three children, the dragon was the bureaucracy that kept their family from being together for nine years.

Part of the success for Dang and her family is that they are finally all together. She runs the Phuong Hoa video and music store in the heart of an Asian business district in West Valley City known as "Little Saigon."

Her son, Cuong Huynh, works at the store while pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Utah. A daughter also works at the store,another daughter owns a Salt Lake electronics repair business with her husband, and Dang's husband works with a company that makes silk flower arrangements.

Cuong Huynh said the video store, on 3500 South just west of Redwood Road, caters to Vietnamese customers. It offers movies made mostly in Hong Kong and Taiwan that were translated into Vietnamese in California. He labels the business as being somewhat successful.

Cuong Huynh said his oldest brother escaped by boat and spent time in refugee camps in Malaysia and the Philippines before arriving in Salt Lake City in 1980. Cuong Huynh and his parents won permission to emigrate in 1987 from their home in Bien Hoa 30 miles from Ho Chi Minh City (which they still call Saigon). But another two years passed before his sisters could leave Vietnam and travel to be with the rest of the family.

Minh Ha was born in 1964, and Hong Ha was born in 1967. Their American father was long gone and their mother had married a South Vietnamese marine officer by the time the communists overran South Vietnam in 1975. Their mother, fearing retribution from the invading North Vietnamese, destroyed all photographs and other remembrances of their father.

Even the stepfather destroyed all tokens of his military service with the South, but that did not spare him from being sent to a political "re-education camp" for five years. He was never the same physically after he returned; he later died.

Neither Minh Ha or Hong Ha was allowed to go to school because of their mixed heritage. And when the Hanoi government began drafting teenagers in 1978 and 1979 for its Cambodian invasion, Amerasians were among the first to go. "They wanted to send us to Cambodia to die," Minh Ha said.

So Minh Ha fled the family's small village for Saigon, where it was easier to elude induction into the army.

Hong Ha's husband of two years, Ngoc Van Lee, escaped Vietnam by crossing the border into Laos and then floating down the Mekong River and into the open sea to Bangkok. He said three of his traveling companions were shot and killed and a fourth was wounded by communist forces while they were on the river.

But Minh Ha and Hong Ha's exit was more orderly. They qualified for a U.S. government-sponsored Orderly Departure Program but had to leave the country without their mother, half-brother and four half-sisters. They are still trying to bring the rest of the family to the United States, with the battle now being more financial than political.

Mixed heritage hangs like a millstone around many Amerasians' necks in Vietnam and creates problems that follow many of them here, said Tien Van Pham, a Vietnamese outreach worker with the Asian Association of Utah.

Amerasian children were badly treated at best in Vietnam and were frequently abandoned, left to fend for themselves on the streets.

Ironically, their "value" later increased as some became a ticket to leave the country when the Vietnamese government started allowing Amerasians to emigrate to the United States. Vietnamese either bought Amerasian children or reacquainted themselves with their own children and used them to get exit visas.

A number of the children were re-abandoned once they reached the United States. "So they took their street smarts and went back to the streets," joining youth gangs in California, Pham said.

"Salt Lake City, in my estimation, is one of the few places that has had quite a bit of success with Amerasians," said Betty T. North, one of the founders of the New Hope Refugee Center.

"They were called the dust of the earth over there and were treated very poorly. I was pleased when our government decided to bring them here," North said. "In working together with Catholic Community Services and Tolstoy Association (which has acted as a sponsoring agency for many Asian refugees), we were able to give them support that would help them become productive."

Cultural crime

Tam Huynh confirms what police detectives have found time and time again when investigating personal crimes against Asians: Asian gang members victimize other Asians.

Vietnam, like other developing Asian countries, does not have a dependable banking system. So Vietnamese business owners, following patterns they brought from Vietnam, often keep money from their businesses at their houses instead of in a bank. Asian gang members know that and will break into a dwelling and hold family members hostage while ransacking the house in search of their business's cash box.

A number of Vietnamese people whose success since coming to Utah has been exceptional have vigorously shunned requests for an interview with the Deseret News. "There are very bad people out there," said a West Valley woman, pointing her finger in the air as if holding a gun. She and her family had agreed to tell the harrowing story of their journey to the United States but changed their minds later out of fear of reprisals.

Coincidentally, an Asian man was shot nearby later that night in an incident police described as a gang fight.

Cultural wedges

Tam Huynh started a Vietnamese newspaper in Salt Lake City that carries local and international news translated into Vietnamese. Tam Huynh also prints pamphlets designed to help immigrants learn the culture and legal system so they can stay out of trouble.

There is no such thing as a fishing license in Vietnam, for example, so one of his brochures explains fishing regulations.

"People stay away from each other more than joining together" because of politics, he said.

The community would be better unified if it had a better voice. The situation exists in countries around the world with Vietnamese populations - not just in the United States.

Tam Huynh believes reports that some Vietnamese refugees being relocated in the United States and elsewhere are spies working for the Hanoi government. Their job is to drive wedges in the community to keep it from becoming unified. Unified communities of Vietnamese could band together politically and raise money to promote changes in Vietnam, he says.

Pham doesn't put much stock in that theory. "America gave them all that they've got and they still cannot win. Why would people think they can do it with their own money?"

Vietnamese from northern Vietnam have cautioned the Deseret News against giving people from the south too much credibility, and vice versa. Social stigmas separate early refugees, many of whom were educated and who had worked with Americans in South Vietnam, from later "boat people," who, overall, had less education and who had sacrificed all they had to relocate from Vietnam.

Cultural roadblocks

Cultural differences are often the cause of run-ins between Vietnamese people and the law. In Vietnam, for example, a motorist whistled down by a police officer is expected to approach the officer, who stays put. In the United States, on the other hand, it's the motorist who stays put and the officer approaches them.

There have been cases where Vietnamese paid bail thinking they had paid a fine. Then they got in trouble when they did not return to court.

Tam Huynh's decision to use his newspaper as a watchdog for the Vietnamese community has also drawn him into the controversy. He attacked the Asian Association of Utah, pointing to tax returns and saying the organization uses too much taxpayer money to cover salaries and other overhead.

Salt Lake attorney Thuan Van Tran, chairman of the association's executive board, said Tam Huynh's inquiry into the association is legitimate but calls the allegations groundless. Tran said he has invited Tam Huynh to discuss the organization's overhead.

Some of the political conflicts inside the Vietnamese community may be diverted as diplomacy between Vietnam and the United States takes a new course.

Cuong Huynh said he believes President Clinton's decision to lift the 19-year trade embargo on Vietnam will also help Vietnamese immigrants get along better because it will help break down the political barriers found within the the Vietnamese community that have been reinforced by U.S. foreign policy.

Things are getting better, Tran said. "There are some frictions, but we're at the point that they are just minor frictions."



Vietnam War: Important Dates



North Vietnam launches major invasion of South Vietnam, prompting President RIchard M. Nixon to renew bombing of the North.

April 16

U.S. bombs North Vietnamese port city of Haiphong during Operation Linebacker I - a series of raids carried out in retaliation for North Vietnam's 1972 Easter offensive.

Oct. 27

Members of the South Vietnamese government march to the presidential palace to demonstrate their support for President Nguyen Van Thieu and opposition to a coalition government.

Nov. 7

President Nixon wins a second term by a landslide.


Jan. 27

The Paris Peace Agreement, aimed to end the war and restore peace in Vietnam is signed by representatives of the United States, North Vietnam, South Vietnam and the Viet Cong. Shortly thereafter, North Vietnamese rockets strike the war-torn town of An Loc in South Vietnam's Binh Lon Province.

Feb. 12

The first group of U.S. pilots freed from North Vietnamese prisons is greeted by U.S. Air Force officers at Hanoi's Gia Lam Airport.

March 29

The last U.S. ground troops leave Vietnam.

Oct. 18

Henry Kissinger travels to Saigon for consultations with President Thieu.

Oct. 21

U.S. bombing of North Vietnam ceases.


Southeast Asians in Utah


Box Elder Cache Davis Millard Salt Lake Sanpete Utah Weber

VIETNAMESE 24 77 138 27 2,060 6 124 254

CAMBODIAN 3 257 - 35 716 - 58 -

LAOTIAN 15 7 138 13 1,171 - 111 119