Vietnamese-American Von Nguyen has experienced extraordinary, even unimaginable, events in his life. He told me about three of them in his bodega in Lynn, MA.
First, he is one of the post-war boat-people. At the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, he, his brother, and his father were sent to a reeducation camp. This happened to many soldiers of the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese Army (SVA) that didn’t make it aboard helicopters or U.S. ships during the pullout. Five years later, the three escaped and made their way down to Cao Mau. There they got on a small boat with 16 others and made it to Thailand. “We were so lucky,” Von kept saying. That alone would be fodder for grandchildren stories.
But there’s more.
Eventually they made it to Massachusetts. Von acclimated himself to American ways so well that he impressed John McNeil into hiring him as a painter. That’s where he learned English, not in school. Eventually, McNeil trusted Von and his brother enough to hire them as managers of two bodegas in Salem.
It doesn’t stop there.
He saved up and purchased D&T Convenience Store in Lynn, which he named after his two daughters, Dung and Tran. How did he survive the tough streets of West Lynn, where Cambodian gangs roam unchallenged? Sheer pluck, it seems. “I been through worse. They didn’t push me around.” He told them to stop hanging around his store, intimidating customers. Disarmed by his gall, they left. Years later a thief robbed him and he stayed calm. “My kids were there, so I did what he asked.” If they hadn’t been there, he claims he would have disarmed the thief when the man was distracted, and I believe he would have.
I interviewed Von with my friend Margaret Press. Here are her memories of the event: “I remember when a customer came in and took a bottle of soda, but couldn’t pay for it at the moment. Von waved him out. You asked if the customer would actually ever repay him. Von seemed confident he would. He had lots of customers like that.”
When I returned a few weeks later, I met his wife and handed her two photographs, one of the store, the other of Von. She smiled at the night-lit building and chuckled when she saw Von’s portrait.
If you watch the video that Margaret and I shot the summer of 2011, you’ll see he’s remarkably casual relating his stories, as if they were nothing special. They are just stuff that happened to him. And he dealt.