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Epilogue | Buu Ngoc Tran

Escaping Saigon, Buu Tran built on his talents

CLEARWATER — In April 1975, in the last days of Saigon, residents crowded the streets looking for any way to evacuate. A communist takeover seemed imminent, and yesterday's apprehension had escalated into desperation.

Some found waiting helicopters on the roof of the U.S. Embassy and a few other escape routes.

Buu Tran, then a 30-year-old architect, was among the lucky ones. He had waited as long as he could. He did not want to leave his parents behind. His mother urged him to go to the United States, where he could make the most of his talents.

Somehow, he escaped to the United States. He married and started a family.

As an architect, Mr. Tran designed houses that defied cookie-cutter expectations, and many large commercial projects. He stayed in touch with family members in the Unites States and Vietnam.

Mr. Tran died July 19 of numerous causes stemming from hepatitis. He was 65.

He grew up in Saigon, the eldest son, or ahn hai, of his family — a role that conferred special responsibilities. The eldest son looks after the others. It's a role he couldn't forget, reinforced in a relative's casual greeting: "Chao, anh hai."

He studied under French architects at the University of Saigon, graduating at the top of his class.

Though skeptical of the war, he fought for the South Vietnamese Army, which worked in concert with American forces.

He evacuated Vietnam and settled in Boston. Now he could resume the life he had planned, and be able to care for his family.

Though Mr. Tran did not have an architectural license, his work stood out. A prestigious firm, Belluschi/Daskalakis, hired him. His designs helped shape the Amelia Earhart Terminal at Logan International Airport and an addition to Boston's Franklin Park Zoo. He worked quickly, jumping between projects on several drawing boards.

He sent flowers to people he met on the job and had worked with. It was a nice way to say thanks or cement relationships. In the case of Jeanne-marie Yess, whom he met while designing a bank, the flowers may have taken on an additional significance.

They married in 1978 and had a son, Peter.

Mr. Tran never forgot his extended family, many of whom were still getting settled. He bought a five-unit apartment complex in Boston and redesigned it. He invited brothers, cousins and in-laws — 15 people in all.

They moved to Clearwater in 1988. Mr. Tran, a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright, looked for ways to turn ordinary houses into something rare and exclusive.

"He would take houses that were not ultra high-end, and put a stucco wall around the house and a huge gate as if it were some enormous mansion," said Peter Tran, 25.

The couple divorced but remained friends. Mr. Tran embraced American culture. He was fascinated by fashion, Italian food, cars and the lotto. He put 250,000 miles on a 1984 Mercedes.

"You could hear it a mile away," his son said. "He would come pick me up from middle school and before he turned the corner, my friends would say, 'Peter, your dad's here.' "

About two years ago, worsening hepatitis forced Mr. Tran off the job as director of architecture at Touloumis, Touloumis and Associates. Peter Tran left Boston to care for his father.

As Mr. Tran's health declined, father and son occasionally clashed.

"We argued a lot," his son said. "I had to come back and take care of him, so I felt like I was losing control of my life. There was a lot of him that felt like he was losing control of his life."

No matter what, they ended each day with a mutual, spoken "Love you."

Peter Tran, the reigning anh hai, is weighing his options, picking up the pieces. There are several cousins and brothers his father wanted him to look after.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or


Buu Ngoc Tran

Born: April 24, 1944.

Died: July 19, 2009.

Survivors: son, Peter; mother, Phan Thi Ty; sister, Nu; brothers, Binh, Hong, Vu and Tan; and numerous nieces, nephews and cousins.

Escaping Saigon, Buu Tran built on his talents 07/25/09 [Last modified: Saturday, July 25, 2009 9:09pm]
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