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Restaurant owner BT Nguyen, who fled Vietnam as a child reconnects with family

BT Nguyen, 50, left, got a surprise visit recently from her sister Sinh Le, 55, from Vietnam. They had only talked once in the past four decades.

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BT Nguyen, 50, left, got a surprise visit recently from her sister Sinh Le, 55, from Vietnam. They had only talked once in the past four decades.

SOUTH TAMPA

She was 13 when she boarded a cargo ship in a Vietnamese port in 1975.

From the ship's deck, BT Nguyen watched churches burn in Saigon as it fell to communism.

She boarded with her oldest sister, leaving behind their parents and six other siblings. She spoke no English.

They settled in Boston where Nguyen lived with her sister, her sister's husband and their small son. Then, at age 15, she moved out on her own.

Now, the 50-year-old is a chef and the owner of an acclaimed restaurant bearing her name. Yet she recently went through a bankruptcy, unable to keep up with the rent at her Restaurant BT in Hyde Park.

She thought she knew about life's struggles.

At 9 years old, her mother had sent her to another city to live with the sister.

"She shoved me away," Nguyen said. "I didn't feel that she cared for me."

But a surprise visitor recently opened her mind and her heart to the family in Vietnam that she barely knew.

It began with an e-mail last month: Another sister — whom Nguyen had briefly talked with just once in the past four decades — was en route from Vietnam to see her.

Nguyen picked up Sinh Le downtown this month at the Greyhound station. Le, 55, speaks only Vietnamese and traveled 30 hours without a cell phone to arrive in the United States. For two weeks, Le told Nguyen stories that kept her up at night.

"I thought I had a tough time on my own, building my own life," Nguyen said. "But nothing, nothing, compared to what my sister went through."

The family had lived in central Vietnam when Nguyen was born and had moved as communists pushed them south, eventually settling in Saigon.

A few days before Saigon fell to communism in April of 1975, her sister bought passage for them on a ship. With two changes of clothes, they boarded the cargo ship and sat in the harbor for three days, watching as bombs fell and churches burned.

Nguyen and her sister had no way to contact the family, and their mother thought they had died. For days, their mother cried and fainted. At some point, the family was forced from their home, their belongings taken. They were driven into the forest where they had to build huts from trees and eke an existence from what they could find and grow. Nguyen's siblings quit school and worked daily on a rubber plantation.

Le told her these stories as they visited in Nguyen's Palma Ceia home. Nguyen, who has had virtually no contact with relatives still in Vietnam, had no idea.

Over the years, she had avoided revisiting her painful parting from Vietnam.

After leaving the port of Saigon, Nguyen and her sister had traveled on the ocean for 30 days, eating rice cooked in seawater some days and nothing other days. Nguyen slept on the floor with a sheet. She remembers being scared, sick and pleading to go back to Vietnam. There were hundreds of people on the boat with her. Many died of hunger before reaching safety, she said.

During her recent visit, Le told Nguyen about their older brother who was sent to Cambodia as a South Vietnamese soldier. His platoon was attacked and everyone else was killed. He hid under their bodies for 10 hours before fleeing. He walked from Cambodia to Thailand to Vietnam, where he bought a new identity.

Nguyen pieced together the time periods and realized that, as her brother fought in war, she was a young woman in America focused on building her own life. She moved out on her own while still in high school, put herself through design school and earned a bachelor's degree in business. She left Boston for a job in Miami, but she didn't like it and quit. She came to Tampa to visit a friend and stayed.

Back in Vietnam, her mother picked a husband for her sister Le in the forest village. He was cruel to her, Le said, and beat her. She had five children by the time she was 29 and fled with them from her husband. She struggled to survive on city streets.

Since Le's visit, Nguyen said the stories have resurfaced as nightmares.

She had repressed childhood feelings of rejection from her mother. Sometimes those feelings came out in an ugly way.

"I don't want to be that person," she said. "Resentful. Angry."

When a younger sister came to Boston to find her, Nguyen's response was curt.

Seven years ago, her mother summoned her. She had cancer and was dying. Nguyen responded out of duty. She took a four-day trip to Vietnam, briefly meeting with the family in a whirlwind that left her mostly numb. She hadn't felt much, she said, even when her mother later died.

But her sister's visit has pulled her out of her rock.

"Part of me got softer," she said. "I realize she's a bridge to reconnect me to my family."

Nguyen says she's more at peace with herself and grateful to have reached 50, which, she says "feels like the best age overall as a person."

She and her newfound sister hope to nurture a relationship.

She plans to take her children, Trina, 16, and James, 9, back to Vietnam to introduce them to their family — and their history.

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at eparker@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3431.

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About this series

Finding Tomorrow is an occasional series about people in the Tampa area who persevere to find contentment, despite life's struggles. If you know of someone who should be featured, call us at (813) 226-3394.

Restaurant owner BT Nguyen, who fled Vietnam as a child reconnects with family 10/27/11 [Last modified: Thursday, October 27, 2011 4:30am]

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