Published: May 27, 2008 3:00 a.m.

Vietnamese boat refugee now thrives as mechanic in San Juan

After many trials, Thong Nguyen says life is now ‘incredible.’

By PETER SCHELDEN / The Orange County Register

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO Thong Nguyen escaped from communist Vietnam in the 1980s. The son of a South Vietnam soldier, Nguyen was discriminated against by the controlling North Vietnamese. While trying to escape, he spent 11 days on a 25-foot boat with 26 others. After running out of food and water, Nguyen was discovered by a Japanese ship. After many years of travel and education he bought his own auto mechanics business in San Juan Capistrano.

A BETTER LIFE: Thong Nguyen nearly died trying to get to America, but now he owns his own business.
Article Tab: A BETTER LIFE: Thong Nguyen nearly died trying to get to America, but now he owns his own business.


West Coast Tire & Services

Owner: Thong Nguyen

Address: 33171 Camino Capistrano

Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Friday

Phone: 949-493-7733

How long in business: Owner Since 2006

Q. What was the situation like in Vietnam before you escaped?

A. My dad was a soldier fighting with the U.S. against North Vietnam. He was held as a prisoner of war. When your dad is a South Vietnamese veteran, they give you no freedom. If you want higher education, they won’t let you. For me to get a better life, I had to leave the country. They helped us leave the country by escaping on a boat. When I escaped on the boat, I ended up nowhere. I was dying. There were 26 people with no food, no drink no nothing. Fortunately, a Japanese ship rescued our boat. I lived in a camp in Japan for two years. I then got priority to get into the United States because my dad was a Vietnamese veteran.

Q. How long were you on that boat?

A. Ten to 11 days without food, drink or gasoline. I was 11 years old. On the 11th day, I was cold and I was thinking in my mind “I would rather die warm.” I cut two pieces out of a plastic gasoline barrel, laid them from head to toe, and I said, “If I die, I will die warm.” At 12, 1 o’clock in the morning, when I suffered most, the ship rescued us.

Q. What was life like when you came to America?

The U.S. government sponsored me over here. I lived with my uncle for a year in Lake Forest in 1988, and then I moved out and lived with my cousins. I raised myself and went to high school and college at UC Riverside. I majored in physics, but because of financial problems, I had to go out and work. By the time you go out and work, you can’t go back to school. I thought to myself, “Well, either you’ll have yourself a career or be a bum.” I went to Cypress College to get my degree as a mechanic, and then I worked for a mechanic in Seal Beach for 11 years after I graduated. Then I had ambitions. I said, “If I can take care of customers in Seal Beach, why can’t I get a shop and take care of my own customers?” Basically, we’re here to take care of customers. They’re the priority for us. Whatever it is, we have to take care of it to make the customers happy.

Q. What got you interested in auto mechanics?

A. You have to know everything about the cars, from tires to diagnostics to wires, A to Z on the car. This is a full-service shop, so you learn as you work on the car, and basically Goodyear sends me to a training program to learn all types of tire systems, how they work, and what the safety is on them, what the warranty is on them. You have to support the customer through your knowledge.

Q. Did you have to leave anyone in Vietnam?

A. Yes, I left my dad, my mom, two sisters and brothers. I left my grandparents and most of my relatives there, too. I felt really lonely. You miss home, you miss parents. Sometimes at night you want to cry. Sometimes you question yourself. What are you trading for freedom when you sacrifice your parents? You leave your soul to God – either protect me and give me what I want, or take my soul away.

Q. Did you ever see your family again?

A. Yes. In 1995, the government sponsored my dad to come over to the United States. We had a family reunion together. Now my parents are living with me. The government really took care of them.

Q. Do you think about how your life would be if you were still in Vietnam?

A. If I was still there, I probably couldn’t go anywhere. I couldn’t do what my dream is to do. If you have a dream there, you cannot do it. America is a dream country. If I wanted to open a shop there, like Goodyear, I could not do that in Vietnam. The government controls you, instead of you doing what you want to. I would probably farm rice or fish.

Q. How would you describe your life right now?

A. Incredible. I thank God. He gave me my dream. You do what you want and when God gives you a dream you’ve got to understand that sometimes other people are in your same situation. Don’t judge people by how they look but by their insides.

Q. Do you have any children?

A. I have one son. He’s 4 years old. He is a miracle kid. He was born 1 pound, 10 ounces. He stayed in the hospital for five months before he was four pounds. I have to thank God. Without my mom to take care of him, he would not have survived. Thanks to my mom and my dad. They sacrificed and stayed home with my kid.

How’s business?

A. It’s been pretty successful. My business has increased by 50 percent over last year. My business thrives off of word-of-mouth.

Contact the writer: pschelden@gmail.com or 949-454-7329