Following the Dream

Khuu Van Hai makes his way from Vietnam to Tucson.

As 12-year-old Khuu Van Hai watched from his house, North Vietnamese forces marched into the South Vietnamese city of Vung Tau.

The date was April 30, 1975. A day earlier, as Saigon fell, Khuu's family had hastily gotten rid of the television, the car and anything connected to the Americans.

His mother had been employed by the U.S. Marine cafeteria as a cashier. His aunt had married a Marine and left Vietnam with him. Now Khuu, with his mother, stepfather, brothers and sisters, could see the dead soldiers of the South Vietnamese army lying in the street as gunshots rang out.

The first couple of months after the communists marched in, they didn't do much of anything to the people of Vung Tau, Khuu said. "Then they call people to come in and sign up."

If you had been a South Vietnamese lieutenant or captain, you were sent to a "re-education" camp in North Vietnam. "My uncle was a captain and he was sent to North Vietnam for six or seven years. When he came back, he was so sick that he died."

"If you had worked for the Americans, you were last in line for assistance from the government," Khuu said. His family's prosperity plummeted. Khuu attended school for half the day and helped his mother sell fruit in the market the other half.

Twenty-seven years later in Tucson, Khuu runs the Tokyo Rice Bowl on Oracle just north of Prince Road, where a gallery of regulars arrive each night for sesame chicken or spicy shrimp with rice and vegetables. He's 39 years old with a smile and good nature for his customers.

The journey from Vung Tau to Tucson was not an easy one. The philosophy of Buddhism, his family's religion, helped him to survive the communist takeover, his ordeal as a refugee and prejudice in the United States. He's not bitter about anything.

"This is the way my family believes. Be good to people. No lie. No smoke. No drink. No killing," Khuu said.

Khuu's father was killed while serving in the South Vietnamese army as a boat mechanic. Khuu was two years old at the time. Later his mother, Mui Khuu, married Sgt. Biet Nguyen,who had been wounded in the Achilles tendon by a grenade and was working as a recruiting officer in Vung Tau.

Khuu attended high school until age 17, when he was required to join the army. "They don't give a uniform. They only give shoes and a hat. I still wore a U.S. Marine shirt."

He rose each morning at 5 and practiced with an AK-47 assault rifle. "It was noisy and scary."

After six months, the young South Vietnamese recruits were send to Cambodia, where they were engaged in a war with the Khmer Rouge, the genocidal regime headed by Pol Pot. While some regarded the Vietnamese army as liberators in the struggle against Pol Pot's forces, Khuu was more interested in not being killed.

There was a deliberate effort by the Vietnamese to send young boys from South Vietnam to do most of the dying. "They don't sent the North Vietnamese group. They send the South Vietnamese group to fight. Mostly you hear they die. The family don't even get the body."

Khuu escaped, going AWOL to stay with his uncle in his birthplace city of Long Thanh. The Army, looking for Khuu, visited his mother's house in Vung Tau. "I thought he was with you," she would always say.

His uncle employed him at a film developing business, keeping him hidden from view in the darkroom. He lived on the roof of his uncle's house at night. Some days he would hide at a Buddhist monastery in the mountains. "I help the monks chop wood and they help me. In the morning I disappear."

Finally, in October of 1981, Khuu joined a group of 67 people on a 30-foot wooden Vietnamese fishing boat for a perilous night journey to escape. Just before the packed boat packed shoved off shortly after dusk, local police intercepted the men carrying supplies for the boat. The boat left anyway, fully loaded with diesel fuel for the engine, but with no food and no water.

The refugees were frightened and apprehensive as the small boat motored into South China Sea. After five days at sea, following storm clouds in the hopes of getting some rain to drink, they spotted an oil rig. Fortunately, the men on the rig admitted the 67 people just on the eve of a typhoon. When the storm had passed, the refugees saw that pieces of wood were all that was left of the boat that had carried them.

Khuu and the 66 others stayed two weeks on the American oil rig. An Indonesian government transport ship arrived at the platform and carried the refugees to a center where they were interviewed, processed and transferred to Garland Island Refugee Camp.

The next three years were horrible for Khuu. The Indonesian camp guards were not overly friendly. The more aggressive of the refugees were beaten to death. There was a graveyard on the premises. Khuu played by the rules, meeting with refugee workers for interviews, getting paperwork ready and applying for admission into the United States.

After two and a half years in Camp One, rising to the position of barracks leader, Khuu got a break and was transferred to Camp Two, where other fortunate Vietnamese made final preparations for acceptance into other countries. Khuu's aunt in Minnesota sponsored him--the same one who had married the U.S. Marine at Vung Tau.

Khuu, landed in Washington D.C., on August 4, 1984. "It was a dream come true." He was 21.

He traveled to Park Rapids, Minn., and moved into the basement of his aunt and uncle's house. His older brother Chau, meanwhile, was in a Malaysian refugee camp. Chau arrived at the same aunt's house in 1985, a year after Khuu.

When Khuu first arrived, he received food stamps and welfare assistance. Within weeks, he got a summer job cleaning schools for the state of Minnesota. Next, he enrolled in a technical school, learned welding and got a job at a welding company for $7.50 per hour. He took English classes.

He also took a night job sweeping floors at the Chef Ready French Fries Co. and rose to the position of line foreman, thanks to the help of another Vietnamese man at the plant. In 1985, Khuu bought a copper-colored 1981 Pontiac Firebird. He got his own apartment.

His brother Chau came to Tucson for work in 1986, sending for Khuu, who drove from Minnesota to Tucson in a 1992 Camaro, which ran out of gas in front of Bookman's at Campbell and Grant. Khuu used the pay phone and his last 25 cents to phone Chau. He was delighted to hear that Chau lived right across the street. All they had to do was push the car across. That was July 29, 1987.

Two days later, Khuu had a job as a dishwasher at Furr's Cafeteria, working the swing shift. During the day, he wired computers for Thor Electric. At Furr's he rose to fry cook, but quit when Thor sent him to Nogales to train Mexican workers in the assembly of computers. In April, 1989, Khuu was laid off from Thor and returned to work at Furr's as a dishwasher.

His fry cook job had been taken by Margie Contreras, a Tucson girl who would become his wife. "You took my job," he told her. "You left," she said.

After several requests, Contreras finally accepted a date with Khuu and the two have been together ever since. He is devoted to her. Recently, Khuu got a "Margie" heart tattoo on his upper arm.

Hai Khuu and Margaret Contreras were married on St. Valentine's Day, 1991, in Oceanside, Calif. where Khuu had transferred for work with Furr's. He later worked for Furr's at Yuma, leaving in 1995 to become a manager at Hometown Buffet Restaurant, which transferred him to Tucson a year later.

A year ago, Khuu leased the Tokyo Rice Bowl on Oracle from his brother and has been running the place ever since. He hopes to buy the business from Chau in two years.

Khuu admits to a craving for the taste of traditional Vietnamese fish sauce called nuoc mam. He produced a bottle which had been carefully wrapped in plastic by his mother during her visit from Vietnam last month. She helped out in the restaurant while she was here. His in-laws were skeptical about nuoc mam, but Khuu slipped some in his cooking for them.

"You make the food and don't tell them about the fish sauce. They love it," he said.

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