April 26, 2010

Communists imprisoned him in Vietnam; now in York, his family flourishes

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Daily Record/Sunday News

Updated: 04/24/2010 10:55:21 PM EDT

When Saigon fell, Duong Huynh, standing at center, didn’t know if he’d see his family again. Now he’s surrounded by family in York, as during this dinner at his son’s restaurant. (DAILY RECORD/SUNDAY NEWS – KATE PENN)

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Duong Huynh, 70, of Springettsbury Township smiles as he looks at a flower decoration at the Vietnamese Alliance Church in North York. The banner above celebrates the Asian New Year. (DAILY RECORD/SUNDAY NEWS – PAUL KUEHNEL)

// 0){
document.getElementById(‘articleViewerGroup’).style.width = requestedWidth + “px”;
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// ]]>Saigon had fallen. The Americans had left. And in the summer of 1975, Duong Huynh received a letter.

It instructed him to report to a government office near his home in southcentral Vietnam.

It did not say why.

An employee of the fallen government, he feared defying the Communist regime. So he left his wife and seven children in their small farming village.

It would be eight years before he saw them again.

In prison, but alive

Many wives built altars to their husbands, mourning their deaths. Huynh’s wife, Thuoc, refused. She believed he was alive.

Supporters and workers of the defeated South Vietnamese government disappeared by the hundreds. Many were executed. The rest were sent to “re-education” camps.

Huynh worked in a tax office before the war. The communists imprisoned him for being a “high official.” When he and others arrived at the Xuan Loc camp, they first had to build the barracks that would be their prison.

About 60 people shared each enclosure, leaving enough room for every person to have a bunk the size of a coffin. After three years, the communists allowed him to write a letter to his wife. He could not say where he was or even give hints about the climate or surroundings. He wrote that he was alive. Everything was OK.

Thuoc screamed with joy when the letter arrived. She ran from house to house in their neighborhood yelling, “My husband is alive! My husband is alive!”

The years added up, and Huynh said he and the other prisoners stayed connected to the outside world via a tiny radio. They disassembled it during the day and hid the pieces from the guards and reassembled it at night. One man — usually with a good memory — would listen with the volume low and repeat what he heard to the others.

One day in 1979, they heard something that gave them hope — a BBC News update: Several nations planned to meet to discuss the plight Vietnamese political prisoners.

Ultimately, the prisoners were freed.


The south Vietnamese government sent Huynh to New Jersey for technical and language training in 1970. Huynh experienced America and learned to speak English. After the Vietnamese civil war, Huynh was charged as a “high government official” and imprisoned by the new communist government. (SUBMITTED)

of guilt

When Huynh returned home from prison in 1983, he felt he had let his family down, even though it was beyond his control.

Huynh knew prisoners whose wives remarried. Despite the hardship of not having a man of the house, his wife did not. Instead, she kept the family together, and they struggled to survive. His children worked from noon to sunset after attending school in the morning, barely making passing grades. They were emaciated.

The situation depressed and disgusted him, making him ornery and unapproachable.

“I treated my children very badly,” he said. “There was a lot of pressure on me. … I felt guilty. I couldn’t take care of them the way I wanted.”

Stern, distant fathers are the norm in Vietnam, a

Joseph Huynh, 9, chats with his grandfather Duong Huynh at a family outing in March. (DAILY RECORD/SUNDAY NEWS – KATE PENN)

profoundly paternalistic society, said Huynh’s son, Lee. He does not blame his father for his behavior after returning from prison. He knew of other ex-prisoners who were far worse, sliding into addiction or black market rackets.A new start

Huynh and his family came to America in 1992 after waiting several years for Vietnamese political prisoners to be granted refugee status by the United States.

They bounced from city to city for a couple of years, looking for work. Lee heard from a friend about work opportunities in York. Soon, Huynh was crammed into a West College Avenue row house with 12 other refugees and working at the nearby Dentsply factory.

Meeting in each other’s homes, Huynh and about a half dozen other families formed a Sunday prayer group. As more Vietnamese Christians moved into the area, the group blossomed into a congregation of more than 100 members. They purchased a building on North George Street in North York in 2006.

Huynh had converted shortly before he left Vietnam. After prison, he latched onto the Christian ideals of showing compassion for the less fortunate. Raised to worship his ancestors, he found caring for people beyond his immediate family a foreign, but refreshing, concept.

Becoming an American has changed his view of parenting. In Vietnam, children cannot speak to an elder man without permission. Since moving to America, he’s been around Vietnamese friends and family who have ordered their children away from him.


Duong Huynh and his wife Thuco have dinner with family at their son’s restaurant, Pho Bistro, in March. (DAILY RECORD/SUNDAY NEWS – KATE PENN)

say, ‘This is adult business. Not for you,'” Huynh said. “I say, ‘No, let the children speak.'”Staying connected

For most of his childhood, Huynh’s country was at war. As a 12-year-old, he ducked into a rice paddy to avoid bullets from an airplane flying overhead. At 13, he saw the scattered limbs of his neighbors after a bomb dropped on their house.

“When people died, you didn’t think much about it,” he said. “Life didn’t have worth. Even if you live, you don’t have enough to eat. Some people thought it didn’t matter if you died or lived.”

He would be justified to run from such a place, where human life was discarded so frivolously, and never look back.

“But when you eat a piece of fruit, you have to remember where the tree was planted,” Huynh said.

He and others in York’s Vietnamese community find ways to feel that connection. They eat traditional foods together in the church social hall and worship in their native language.

But the older generation knows that won’t last. Already the children and young adults have a separate morning worship — in English.

“In 20 years, no one here will speak Vietnamese,” said Yen Vu, pastor at the Vietnamese Alliance Church. “We’ll be dead, and everyone here will speak English.”

In October, Huynh organized a fundraiser at the church to benefit typhoon victims in Vietnam. He and his wife spent a day preparing the food. They sold pork egg rolls with fish sauce and tofu and pork steamed inside banana leaves.

But the teenagers in the congregation tended to buy from a plate of egg rolls Huynh and his wife made just for them. They were stuffed with Steak-umms and Cheese Whiz.

“That’s what the kids like,” Huynh said, shrugging.

A cultural celebration

It was last Feb. 14, New Year’s Day.

It is the year of the Tiger, a good time to give birth to a boy who will grow strong. They say a girl born this year will struggle to find a husband.

As Christians, members of the Vietnamese Alliance Church put no spiritual stock in mysticism of the Asian lunar calendar. And yet they’ve retained the custom as a celebration of their culture.

That day mimicked the look and festive feel of Easter Sunday. The women and young girls wore traditional dresses and posed for pictures. Bright flowers decorated the altar. Banners hung in the sanctuary, bearing the Vietnamese words for Happy New Year.

Huynh sat through the service and ate the customary New Year’s feast with the rest of the congregation afterward. His New Year’s Day would not be complete until later, though.

In Vietnam, children always visit their parents on the first day of the New Year. In America, the first day of the New Year fell on Valentine’s Day, a busy day for Lee, the owner of Pho Bistro, a restaurant on East Market Street in York.

“He knew I would be late, and he understood,” Lee said. “But I knew I had to go there no matter how late it was.”

At around 11 p.m., he started closing down the restaurant, hoping to arrive at his father’s home before midnight. He gathered his two children into the car and got there with a half hour to spare.

The children ran to their grandfather. They wished him good health and a long life for the New Year, bowing their heads. Then, they all sat in the living room to watch a satellite TV broadcast of a New Year celebration in the Little Saigon neighborhood of San Jose, Calif.

Huynh sat in his chair. Lee sat on the couch opposite him between his two children. They playfully tousled Lee’s hair and hung their arms around his neck.

Huynh watched the affection between his son and grandchildren, pleased with his New Year.

At peace

Huynh’s story might earn admiration in most communities, and yet he doesn’t often tell it, except to say his hardships led him to Christianity.

In York County’s tiny but growing Vietnamese community, people hold Huynh in high esteem. He helps with immigration forms if a family can’t afford a lawyer. He prepares taxes if they need help reading English.

“He is the man you see if you have questions,” said Bao Nguyen, a friend and parishioner at Huynh’s church.

Now retired, Huynh lives in a split-level home in Springettsbury Township. Three of his sons and his two daughters run businesses. And one son holds a master’s degree in engineering.

“My life has been a chain of ups and downs,” he said. “I’m happy now.”

About this story

This story was based on interviews with Duong Huynh, his wife, Thuoc, and son Lee. Interviews with those three and several others — including Bao Nguyen and Yen Vu — provided perspective about the local Vietnamese population and historical context about life in Vietnam during the civil war and after the fall of Saigon.

Growing Vietnamese population

Here are estimates of the number of people speaking Vietnamese as their primary language at home in York County throughout the decade.

2003: 385

2006: 902

2008: 938

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Fall of Saigon

This year will be the 35th anniversary of the fall of the Republic of South Vietnam, a free democracy.

In the dawn of April 30, 1975, communist forces reached the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon, meeting minimal resistance.

Months earlier, the communists conquered the provincial capital of Phuoc Binh.

Previous U.S. presidents promised aid if that happened, but the United States did nothing. President Nixon had resigned from office and successor Gerald Ford could not convince Congress to rescue Saigon from the communists.

This emboldened the North Vietnamese, who launched a new campaign in March 1975. The South Vietnamese forces fell back in disarray. The North Vietnamese attacked south along the coast toward Saigon, defeating the South Vietnamese forces at each encounter.

The South Vietnamese 18th Division had fought a valiant battle at Xuan Loc, just to the east of Saigon, destroying three North Vietnamese divisions in the process. However, it proved to be the last battle in the defense of the Republic of South Vietnam.

In Saigon, South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu resigned and transferred authority to Vice President Tran Van Huong before fleeing the city on April 25. By April 27, the North Vietnamese had completely encircled Saigon and began to maneuver for a complete takeover.

North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace, and the war came to an end.

Source: This Day in History at

About Duong Huynh (pronounced Yung Winn)

Age: 70

Lives in: Springettsbury Township

Family: wife Thuoc (pronounced Thuc), seven children, 19 grandchildren

Huynh glances at a bulletin board in a hallway at his church. The sign makes an appeal to help children in Cambodia. Huynh and other church members often raise money for people in southeast Asia. (DAILY RECORD/SUNDAY NEWS – PAUL KUEHNEL)

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