HAMPTON ROADS, Va. - The journey to America is different for everyone, but for many Vietnamese Americans, it is the same. This is a short story of some of those who made the journey by boat. To the world they're known as the boat people.
Tuan Anh Nguyen, a retired Navy Commander remembers when his parents crafted their plan to escape from communist Vietnam. Only Tuan, his oldest sister, and dad would make the journey first.
"If the whole family escape out and we got caught, we all would be in prison," said Tuan. "The water was very, very dark. It looked almost black, not blue. And on the fourth day, we were rescued by mercenary ships."
Johnny Vo, who helped start the Pho 79 restaurants in Hampton Roads, was a young teen when he made the trip with his family. He said he remembers everything.
"Everything, you can never forget how it is to ... to escape the country by refugee boat. Very dangerous," said Johnny.
He came close to death on the packed boat, "A very hard wind blow and I [was] about to fall off the boat and one of my uncles saw me, grab me by the head and pulled me into the boat. From then on...I remember I [would have been] long gone," said Johnny.
Almost a million people tried to escape. Their hope was to reach land and to not be turned away. Thousands made it to Malaysia, Hong Kong and Indonesia where refugee camps were set up.
Not all of them made it. Many drowned or were captured, killed and raped by Thai pirates.
"We lucky we make it. We're one of the ships that make it. A lot of people lost their lives on that. On the boat, on the refugee boat. You get lost you done. Run out of food you done. Just how it is," said Johnny.
Heather Pham doesn't remember the trip, because she, along with her twin sister were just toddlers. She said each time her parents tell that story, she learns more about what they overcame.
"They told us we were pirated by Thai pirates and two females were raped before the coast guard came to rescue us. My dad had a gold crown and they gave him pliers and they said 'do you want to take this out? Or we'll take it out for you.'"
But for Tuan, Johnny, and Heather, that experience pushed them to succeed.
"That's what makes me unique. I feel like it makes me a strong person overall and it makes me appreciate life and living in America," said Heather.
"I just thank goodness we make it here. God gave us second chance, so we try to be successful and do the best," said Johnny.
"I am the example of what the American dream is all about. Every day I'm grateful that my parents make that decision to give us that opportunity," said Tuan.