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Binh's father died when he was just nine years old and he quickly went to work to supplement the meager income his mother made selling betelnut (the Vietnamese equivalent of chewing tobacco) in their town of Chu Lai. The village was just outside the largest U.S. Marine base in central Vietnam and Binh started hanging around with the troops. They gave him a nickname: Charley.

The Marines were enchanted by 'Charley.'
The Marines were enchanted by 'Charley.'

Binh, age 13, translates for the Marines:

One of the Marines gave me a dictionary—it was a very thick dictionary and had a lot of words in it. I used the dictionary to learn English. Word by word, I learned the language. I also picked up English by speaking with the Americans. I worked as an interpreter for the Marines and I used to make more money in a day than my mother and sister made combined in a month.

Binh worked hard for his wages, traveling with Marine units into village clinics and translating at the base’s hospital, where he saw the carnage of the war first-hand (read more on the continuing problems with landmines in Vietnam.) His diligence and street smarts eventually brought him to attention of an American colonel named John Zorack, who became a surrogate father figure to the teenager.

Binh and Col. Zorack circa 1967.
Binh and Col. Zorack circa 1967.

Binh meets a man who will change his life:

I met Colonel Zorack when he came to the house to ask me to translate for him. After a few months, he recognized that I needed a bike, so he gave me a bicycle. Later on he helped my family, helped my mother to build a house. He was very, very kind to us.

Meeting John Zorack would turn out to be one of the turning points in Binh’s life. When the Marine colonel returned to his home in Virginia, he found it hard to forget the scrappy, resourceful teenager who had helped him navigate the language and customs of Vietnam. He invited Binh to come and live with his family in the United States and attend the local high school in 1969.

Binh left his village to study in the U.S. in 1969.
Binh left his village to study in the U.S. in 1969.

On his first trip to the U.S.:

When I was 15 years old, Col. Zorack asked me if I wanted to go to the U.S. to study as an exchange student. My grades were very good at the high school and the principal recommended that I should go. But being the only son in my family, I was reluctant. I really didn’t want to go because I didn’t want to leave my mother. But she said, “I want you to go. I want you to get an education.” And so I went.

In suburban Virginia, Binh spent two years studying and playing American sports; he even joined the local Boy Scout troop. When he returned to Vietnam in 1971, he found a job with the Americans in Saigon and married his high school sweetheart, Khoa. Binh worked in the U.S. Defense Attaché’s office at the embassy—a prime seat for watching the Viet Cong descend on Saigon and South Vietnam’s subsequent descent into chaos. He spent the spring of 1975 helping co-ordinate the evacuation of Vietnamese dependents and employees from the south.

Binh struggled with what to do – leave the country he loved or face possible retribution from the advancing Viet Cong. Binh also knew that while his U.S. government connections would help him escape the country, that there would be no such opportunity for his mother. On April 21st, with Northern troops closing in on the city, Binh had to decide fast.

binh wedding
Binh married Khoa in 1973. Two years later they became refugees.

1975, Binh and his wife flee Vietnam:

My boss said, “Binh, if you want to go you have to get out now.” So I got on the bus and laid down on the floor. They put luggage on top of me so the military police wouldn’t see me. After three weeks of traveling, we landed at Camp Pendleton in California, the first refugee camp set up by the Marines. My wife was very pregnant, and about two weeks later she gave birth to our first son, John. We named him after Col. John Zorack, and he was the first Vietnamese baby born in the States.

When the Nguyen family arrived in the U.S., the Zoracks stepped in once again. Binh and his wife moved to Virginia, where John Zorack recommended him to a fellow Vietnam veteran, Fred Smith—the head of a fast-growing company called Federal Express. Binh worked his way up the corporate ladder, and by the 1980s was part of management. Binh had a great job and his wife and four children felt happy and at home in the U.S., but Binh still missed his homeland—and the mother he had left behind.

Binh's mother supported the family selling betelnut in the market.
Binh's mother supported the family selling betelnut in the market.

1989, Binh returns to Vietnam:

My mother had a very hard life. Between 1975 and 1991 my mother tried to leave Vietnam by boat over 20 times. She was captured, and even spent time in prison because she tried to escape. I petitioned for her to join us in the States, but it took so long. Finally I decided to take a risk and come back to Vietnam in 1989 and petition on her behalf. I’m glad I did, because a year later she was able to join me in the United States.

On that first return trip to Vietnam in 1989, Binh witnessed how his country was moving toward a market economy—and saw an opportunity for Federal Express. Though business with Vietnam was still forbidden by the U.S. trade embargo, Binh saw changes on the horizon and started work on a plan to bring FedEx to Vietnam.

Binh visits the village

Binh visits the village
he grew up in

The market where Binh's mother once sold betelnut has changed little.

I find it very easy to fit right in in the village where I’m from. Whenever I go back there I’m very well received. They always ask me a lot of questions: ‘How is it in the United States, what do you do there, how’s your family?’

One of the hardest things about his return to Vietnam has been the fact that he only sees his family a few times a year. His three sons and one daughter are Americans, and while they have all come to Vietnam to visit, they consider the United States home.

Thirteen generations of Binh’s family have lived in Chu Lai. With his success –and despite his age--Binh is looked upon as a senior elder in the Nguyen family hierarchy.

1994, the end of the U. S. trade embargo:

As soon as the US embargo was lifted, I was informed about it. It was lifted on February 3rd, 1994 at 17:05pm. And on April 1st we opened our FedEx office in Vietnam. Uniformed employees, FedEx logos, computer tracking—a complete system, just as if the office was in New York City.

Today Binh spends most of his time in Ho Chi Minh City, where Federal Express is one of the few American firms to ever turn a profit in Vietnam. His old village of Chu Lai, one of the poorest communities in Vietnam, where 13 generations of his family have lived, is now just a day’s drive away. When FedEx indicated that they wanted to build a school, Binh suggested his old village, and in 1999, the school opened its doors to the children of Chu Lai.

NOTE: Find out more about doing business in Vietnam.

Binh, Khoa and their four children.
Binh, Khoa and their four children.

Divided loyalties:

I’m always leaving and coming back, leaving and coming back. It’s nice to see my family and friends again, but my family is in the United States. I’m like a man torn between two countries.

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