by Kristi Hawthorne, Oceanside Living Magazine
Born in 1967 in Vietnam Nhung “Mary” Nguyen was the 7th of 11 children born to her parents. Her father was a professional musician who worked for the United States government. Her mother made chow mein from home and sold it throughout the town of Bien Hoa Dong Nai. Although crowded, their life was an overall happy one, but in 1975 when the communist party took over, life as they knew it changed forever.
Mary’s father was imprisoned for three years because of his association with the US. The children were not allowed to continue their schooling and Mary’s formal education stopped at the sixth grade level.
With their father in jail, their mother saw there was no future for her children and she began to use what little resources she had to send her children one by one out of the country.
In 1979, her mother saved and borrowed nearly $10,000 to send Mary’s oldest sister to freedom, and in 1986 at the age of 17, Mary escaped Vietnam along with a 7 year old nephew. Her harrowing journey began on the back of a motorcycle, with her young nephew clinging to her. They left with nothing because if they had packed any kind of bag they would have been stopped and questioned. Mary remembers the sadness of leaving her mother and father and wondering if she would see them again.
They left Vietnam for Malaysia on an open fishing boat, no more than 8 feet wide and 15 feet long. Sixty five people crawled and then crouched against each other as they began their journey to freedom. The fear of being caught was palpable and she saw it in every face of each passenger. The boat was chased by thieves from Thailand who would hunt down refugee boats to steal supplies and rape the women. They managed to evade the marauders, but two days into the journey the boat’s pump broke and filled with water. Male passengers worked around the clock bailing water out of the boat to keep it afloat. Then the engine failed and the boat was adrift on the open sea. There was only enough water for 3 days; what little fruit they had was rotted, and the boat was now at the mercy of the currents. Everyone prayed. Out of food and desperate, a storm approached and they did everything they could to collect the precious rain water. No one knew how long they would be at sea.
On the 7th day they saw birds and knew they must be close to land. As the dawn began to break, they spotted the coastline of Malaysia. When they landed in Malaysia they were taken to a refugee camp. Mary was sent to attend ESL class to learn English. She was in Malaysia for nearly a year, awaiting a sponsor in order to get to the U.S. Two sisters and two brothers had escaped and were living in San Jose and with help from a local priest, Mary was able to make her way to the land of freedom.
After arriving in San Jose, Mary knew that it was important to start work right away. She had agreed to pay for her expenses to America, and she and each of her siblings would eventually pay their mother back the tens of thousands of dollars she spent or borrowed to send her children here.
Her limited English hindered her in many ways, but she worked at a series of fast food restaurants, worked two jobs and as many hours as she could, along with going to school to make up for her lack of education.
She got a job with IBM working on an assembly line. She challenged the foreman to take a chance on her and he did and she consistently out-performed others and asked for more work.
In 1990, she married her husband Phong Hoang in San Jose. When asked how they met, she casually answered and said he was in the same boat with her when she fled Vietnam and had helped to save the sinking boat.
Mary worked multiple jobs while her husband Phong attended college. In 1992 they were able to purchase their first home. She went to beauty school to become a nail technician and eventually was able to rent a booth at what she calls an “American salon.” Mary credits her clients with helping her to learn English and even understand phrases and slang.
Mary became an American citizen in 1992. One of the things that impressed her when she came to this country was something we take for granted: parking spaces for the handicapped. She said that in her country handicapped people are treated like garbage and thrown away, and in contrast, she views America as such a gracious country that we afford our handicapped special parking and access.
In 1998, Mary returned to Vietnam to see her parents for the first time since she had escaped. It was a happy reunion but one filled with mixed emotions. Her parents refuse to leave Vietnam now and they are living comfortably, and Mary along with her siblings continues to support them.
After their fourth child was born, Mary said that sending their children to Catholic School was no longer a financial possibility so they looked for a community that had good public schools. In 2001, they traveled to San Diego and purchased a home the following year.
Her husband was able to land a well-paying job but Mary continued to work as a nail tech. She decided that she wanted to do more than work in a salon; she wanted to own one. They sold their home in San Jose, which had continued to earn the family income as a rental, and Mary used the proceeds of that sale to purchase a storefront in downtown Oceanside in 2004.
Looking for just the right location, Mary saw that Oceanside was affordable and development seemed to be favorable. She described the building she bought on Mission Avenue as an empty shell and she and her husband worked together to redesign and transform the building into “Ocean Shine.” Mary saw the potential in Oceanside before many of the now trendy restaurants and microbreweries.
Opened in 2005 and located at 613 Mission Avenue in downtown Oceanside, the salon offers a variety of services including spa pedicures, hair braiding, facials and massages. Mary still does nails, but now she has four employees and rents out 9 booth spaces. Along with being a business owner, wife and mother, she most recently has returned to beauty college for two years to become a skin esthetician.
Mary and Phong now have a total of 5 children, their eldest just graduated from college this year. Mary won’t rest until each of them receives a higher education. She views her achievements as the means for her children’s successful future and the fulfillment of her mother’s dream for her life.