A Survivor’s New Life
From fleeing violence in Vietnam to living and working around the world, Holden Beach resident Uyen Nguyen has lived a life that few Americans could imagine.
Uyen Nguyen (pronounced Win Win) had lived a comfortable life in Saigon, Vietnam, for her 23 years and earned a degree in chemical engineering from that city’s Polytechnic Institute. Her family was well known and well respected, but their status changed with the fall of Saigon in 1975. “My father was arrested in 1976 and was jailed,” Nguyen says. “I never saw him again.”
She explains that her family had no future in Vietnam and felt their only option was to escape. They paid a man to smuggle her brother to a refugee camp in Thailand, but circumstances changed, and he was unable to go, so Nguyen took his place. She shared a fishing boat with 72 other people, “packed like sardines,” she says. “It was awful. The boat was stinky because people had [no toilet facilities].”
The trip to Thailand took seven days before they arrived at the refugee camp of more than 7,000 people. “In the refugee camp you’re carefree,” she says. “The sad part was when you leave.”
She planned to apply for asylum in Canada since she is fluent in French, but she applied for asylum in Vermont because an American aid worker at the camp said her mother would sponsor Nguyen. Six months later her request was approved, and she spent the next six months on an island in Indonesia learning how to acclimate to the United States. “We learned how the U.S. lives, so we’re not foreign to it,” she says. Driving in the United States, dressing for the changing seasons and surviving in cold weather were among the lessons taught. “Vietnam is totally different,” she says. “It’s hot and hotter and wet and wetter.”
In February 1981 Nguyen arrived in Bethel, Vermont, ready for life in America. Three months later she moved to Burlington and began working for an environmental lab and took evening English language classes at St. Michael’s College in Colchester. A counselor recommended she pursue a teaching certificate in English as a Second Language (ESL). Nguyen not only earned her master’s degree in ESL, but also became a certified science teacher. In 1986 she was sworn in as a U.S. citizen. Her mother and six of her siblings have also become U.S. citizens.
Nguyen’s life changed again in 1994 when she met Bob Bannerman. Bob, a Wilmington, Delaware, native, earned his law degree at University of Minnesota and specialized in international trade law. He was studying Mandarin in Washington, D.C., in preparation for an assignment as U.S. Commercial Attaché in Beijing when he was invited to a children’s Vietnam Lunar New Year (Tet) program. It happened that Nguyen had accepted an ESL teaching position with Fairfax County Public Schools and was at the event. Bannerman, who did not understand the program since it was entirely in Vietnamese, was next to Nguyen, and she explained what was happening. The two began dating, and Nguyen invited Bannerman to a ceremony at a pagoda in Arlington, Virginia, for the anniversary of her father’s death. At the ceremony he asked Nguyen to marry him.
“I told him I had to ask my mother’s permission,” Nguyen says, adding that it’s the tradition in Vietnam to ask parents’ permission even though she was 36 years old. “I told him if my mother says ‘no,’ I can’t go against my mom.”
After Nguyen and her mother discussed that Bannerman was divorced and had two children, “She gave her blessing,” Nguyen says. “We had a Vietnamese wedding,” she adds with pride.
Bannerman then began his diplomatic career in the U.S. Foreign Commercial Service, and Nguyen began hers in the State Department. “In foreign service, there’s an effort to employ spouses,” Bannerman says. Besides Beijing, the couple have lived in Manila, the Philippines; Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Rome, Italy; and Dhabi, UAE. Bannerman helped U.S. companies export to new foreign markets, while Nguyen worked at embassies and consulates in a variety of roles. She issued student visas in China, was a community liaison officer in Vietnam and provided several duties for the Federal Aviation Administration in the Philippines.
Bannerman was disappointed that in Foreign Service an employee must retire at 65 and explains that employees receive one month leave each year, so the couple had been visiting various parts of the United States to determine where they would like to settle. “We wanted something not too cold, and I wanted a nice piece of land by water,” he says. In 2004 they bought their perfect lot in the Holden Beach area and built their dream home in 2014.
“It was a tough transition culturally coming back here,” Bannerman says of his return to live in the United States after 25 years in other countries. “We miss the vibrancy of living in a foreign culture.”
“We got spoiled because of our jobs,” Nguyen says. “We are drawn to traveling.”
The couple visited Vietnam in 2008, but Nguyen was disappointed. “The old Vietnam, our Vietnam is gone,” she says. “It’s communized. It’s political. The youth don’t know about the war and the culture.” She leans forward to emphasize her words. “We have 4,000 years of culture,” she says. “I’m afraid all that tradition is gone.”
Nguyen and Bannerman, however, bring Vietnamese culture to Brunswick County through the annual Intercultural Festival.
“We really enjoyed participating in it,” Bannerman says. “We had amazing interaction with the [Vietnam] veterans.”
“I can tell them about the places they were,” Nguyen says.
Although they enjoy traveling, they are now settled in Brunswick County and helping better it.
Photography by Brent Gallant