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:
The Marines were
enchanted by 'Charley.'
Binh, age 13, translates for the Marines:
One of the Marines gave me
a dictionaryit 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 bases 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 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 Binhs 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.
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
didnt want to go because I didnt
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 Attachés
office at the embassya prime seat for watching
the Viet Cong descend on Saigon and South Vietnams
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 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 wouldnt 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 Smiththe
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 homelandand the mother he had
supported the family selling betelnut in the
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. Im glad I did, because
a year later she was able to join me in the
On that first return trip to Vietnam in 1989,
Binh witnessed how his country was moving toward
a market economyand 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
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 Im
from. Whenever I go back there Im
very well received. They always ask me a
lot of questions: How is it in the
United States, what do you do there, hows
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
Thirteen generations of Binhs 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
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 trackinga 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 days 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
business in Vietnam.
Binh, Khoa and
their four children.
Im always leaving and
coming back, leaving and coming back. Its
nice to see my family and friends again, but
my family is in the United States. Im
like a man torn between two countries.