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A photo of me with some of the products my company sells.

A photo of me with some of the products my company sells.

Never Enough Food

As Told By: Diem Nguyen

From Vietnam to the Central Valley: Diem Nguyen


  • My Name is Diem Nguyen
  • I am based in Sacramento, CA, USA
  • This story is about me
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  • Childhood Address: Thuận An, Binh Duong, Vietnam
  • Departure Location: Thuận An, Binh Duong, Vietnam
  • Departure Year: 1983
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    Text 2

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  • Resettlement Location: Sacramento, CA, USA
  • Resettlement Year: 1986
  • My Story

    00:00 / 01:04

    Diem Nguyen was born in Hai Duong, Vietnam where she lived until she was ten years old. She describes growing up very poor and never having enough food to eat or clothes to wear. Her father escaped Vietnam about five years before she and the rest of her family did, so he was able to send the rest of the family money to escape. So, Nguyen, her mother, and her two younger sisters jumped on a canoe and sailed out to the ocean to board a larger boat. 

    This story was collected by Alexa Tran in 2022 as a part of her Girl Scout Gold Award Project. 

    Alexa [00:00:00] Hi, everyone. My name is Alexa and I'm a high school student from the Central Valley of California. I'm currently pursuing my Girl Scout Gold Award, the highest honor a Girl Scout can earn, and for this project, I'm collecting and sharing the stories of Vietnamese boat people from all over the Central Valley. So today I have Ms. Diem Nguyen with me, and just to do a quick introduction can you talk a little bit about who you are and what you do? 

    Diem Nguyen [00:00:25] I'm an entrepreneur right now, meaning I have my own company. I'm a, I own a food distribution company, and I import specialty food items from different parts of the country like Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, French, Paris, and I sell to the U.S. market, including supermarkets and restaurants. I have my own brand of products, including Malaysia Durian, I mean these are product under my own private label. Like, banh trang, you know, that where people use for spring rolls and my, my brand, my logo brand is Golden Heart. I have my own brand of rice, jasmine rice from Thailand. I have my own brand of drinks from Malaysia. I have my own brand of quail eggs from Vietnam, rice paper from Vietnam, many products from Vietnam under my brand such as coconut juice, instant rice paper, a lot of the produce like cassava, grated cassava, coconut, many, many commodities that are currently selling at the U.S. markets, particularly in California are my brand. 

    Alexa [00:02:07] Awesome. Thank you. So just to go back in your life, where were you born and where did you grow up in Vietnam? 

    Diem Nguyen [00:02:15] I born, let's just say I come from the ghetto, you can say it's a little small town in Vietnam it's called Hai Duong. Hai Duong is a poverty town where I grew up. I left Vietnam when I was ten years old because my dad escaped from Vietnam to the boat and he sent money to my mom and my mom planned an escape. So my mom paid with the money that my dad sent home, my mom paid other boat people to plan an escape, to plan put together an escape plan. And when we escape from Vietnam, we rode out to the boat. The boat usually is parked out in the far distant of the sea. So my mom and my two younger sister, my mom at that time, my my younger sister at that time was five years old and one was eight and me ten. So my mom grabbed three of us and, you know, and then we es- we jump on a canoe and then we sailed from the canoe out to this out across the sea and hop on to the big boat. And during our, our time in the big boat we encounter, encounter a lot of thunderstorm, wind, heavy thunderstorm, I mean, a lot of people die. Luckily, our boat did not flip, and we got rescued by the Hong Kong people. You know, luckily we got rescued because if we didn't, if they delayed and did not rescue us in time, we would all been dead. Why? Because there is no food supply in the boat. Nobody had anything, hardly anything left to eat. You know, close to when we're about to land in Hong Kong. Even before the rescue, right? Everybody had a little bit of like a, a small portion of cooked rice. My mom saw that I was so hungry and thirsty, she sacrificed her portion of rice and give it to me because, you know, I'm sitting in the boat days without food, and there are still a lot of people on the boat had to drink saltwater from the sea because there's, there's hardly any water left. And then some people even had to have, there was some sugar left, you know, like rock sugar. People eat rock sugar for survival. Many men drink sea water from the sea for survival. And then after the thunderstorm, when the thunderstorm calmed down, the Hong Kong people rescue us. And then we stay in the refugee camp in Hong Kong for I think I believe for like three months. And then, and then we stayed in a, and then in order to get to America, we had to stay in Philippines for six months. And we stay in the concentration camp in the Philippines for six months and, you know, everybody had a little one room condo, mini apartment, each family. And on it, we get food allowances. Every Saturday where my mom and I, we go and get food, they pass out food for a week. And then we stayed for six months. They provide schooling and all that too over there too, you know. They provide you food once in a week. And during those time, they, they teach you English. Something like that. It was just like a regular school program in America only except inside the concentration camp area in Philippines. And then after that, we went to my dad to sponsor us to come to Alabama. I was in Alabama for about maybe less than a year. And we rode a bus. After that, we rode a bus to California as a family. It takes seven days to get to California because we flew, we left Alabama to California because at that time, the welfare system in California was good. You know, they the government, they give you support. That's the reason why we escaped Florida, Alabama, to go to California because of the welfare system. And then from there, my dad you know all of us we study hard. We work hard because, let's say my dad, my dad at that time did landscaping to help us and, you know, like money on the side as a landscaper, along with welfare money to help us survive. And I think that because of our background, from poverty is, is what motivate us to work really hard. And I'm proud to say that because of our background, many of my siblings, we are motivated to do really well in school. So I'm proud to say that my sister, like today, she is a lawyer, she graduates from Berkeley, went to UCLA law school. One of my other younger sister, she's a nephrologist, you know, a kidney specialist. She went to UC Berkeley, went and then after that, went to medical school and graduated as a nephrologist. My other younger sister, my other sister, I'm the oldest in a family of six, by the way, all three of us who left, escaped from Vietnam when we came over here in the U.S., all three of us, uh, did really well for ourselves. We, because of our background, we're very motivated to work hard and to, to survive and to become very competitive, to make it, you know, in America. So we consider, like, you know how they say that America is a melting pot, it is so true. And I think that we are one of the you can say that we believe in America melting pot because it motivates us to be where we are today. Um, I mean, back to my other sister. She's a stockbroker at New York, in New York. I think she works for like a financial company called Goldman Sachs. She's a credit analyst, vice president, or something like that. I think it involves in the financial in the financial industry. I don't know. I'm going on and on. 

    Alexa [00:09:13] Awesome. Thank you. So I have, I want to go back a little bit and ask, what do you remember the most about living in Vietnam? Like what are some maybe positive memories or what were some challenges? 

    Diem Nguyen [00:09:27] Um, I think I see more challenges than I see positive things as a child growing up, you know, I don't have enough to eat. And my mom told me that I don't have milk after three months of giving birth to me and I eat, barley with rice. I don't have meat to eat. Um, there's I went at a young age, I had to go and pick some may cai rau they call it, um, those herbs and those, I think, morning glory, rau muong is considered morning glory in Vietnam. We go and then we pick cactus and we use morning glory to make soup, and we use that as a source of food. So the most, uh, I think the thing that I see neg- , I'm not sure I should say negative, I see like that the, um, the hardship, I would say the hardship that I experienced growing up in Vietnam is not having enough to eat and not having enough to wear. I mean, as a child, ten year old, when my dad left to go to escape to Vietnam, he left me a short. And I'm ten years old and I'm wearing a short without a shirt. You know, I don't have enough clothes to wear. I don't, I don't have enough to eat. I wanted to go to school, but I didn't have the opportunity to go to school. I have to stay home and take care of my brother, my sister, my two younger sister so that my mom can go and to buy fish from the fishermen and resell it to make to earn a living. 

    Alexa [00:11:08] Uh-huh. 

    Diem Nguyen [00:11:08] Yeah. So. 

    Alexa [00:11:10] So you were ten years old when you left correct? 

    Diem Nguyen [00:11:14] Uh-huh. 

    Alexa [00:11:14] What year was this? 

    Diem Nguyen [00:11:16] I think, uh, you can say 1983. 

    Alexa [00:11:19] Okay. And what was the biggest motivation for leaving? Like, what was the hope? 

    Diem Nguyen [00:11:26] Uh, freedom from the Communists because of poverty. A better chance, a better life, meaning, so I can have the opportunity to go to school, so that I have more to eat, so I can have to, I have something to wear. For freedom. And just, just you know, like just for a better standard of living. 

    Alexa [00:11:53] Yeah. 

    Diem Nguyen [00:11:54] I didn't have enough to eat. I didn't have enough to wear. I have, I wanted to go to school, but I couldn't go to school because you had to have money to go to school. I don't have that. My parents couldn't. We, she had to go and buy fish from the fishermen to resell so that she can have make money to buy food for us. That was her source of income at that time. 

    Alexa [00:12:21] And so you mentioned your dad had already left by the time you left. 

    Diem Nguyen [00:12:25] My dad is a fisherman. And he, he when he went out to fish, you know, when he went out there to do as a fisherman, there was a couple of men that were, you know, escaping to Vietnam. And he hopped on their boat out there. He saw those men that were going to America. So, he, he hop on the boat and leave with them. And so when he arrived in America, he had he found a job in, in Alabama, making three bucks an hour, working in the woods company like, I think, a timber a timber company. And he has a money to send over to my mom. And then from there, from there, my mom had that source of money to give it to other fishermen in the town to plan the escape. 

    Alexa [00:13:16] So, did you know your dad was leaving when he did? 

    Diem Nguyen [00:13:20] No, no. It was a surprise. When he's out there, when he's out there and doing fishing and doing as a fisherman, you know, catching his fish, he saw those people leaving for America. So, he just, he hop on and left. Because it was an opportunity because, you know, he wanted to escape to America. He has a plan. There's no way he can plan on that without the money. But he saw them and he asked those people to hop on, if he could hop on, and he did. 

    Alexa [00:13:52] So how long was it until you saw him again? 

    Diem Nguyen [00:13:55] And so I would say like four year, three years, three to four years later on is when I saw him again, yeah. No, I say no I'd say five, you know, four to five years later. 

    Alexa [00:14:09] And who did you leave Vietnam with? Did you leave anybody behind? 

    Diem Nguyen [00:14:13] No, my grandpa, my auntie, you know. 

    Alexa [00:14:19] And then you just went with the rest of your family, right. 

    Diem Nguyen [00:14:23] Mhm. My mom, my mom was a single mom at that time and she, she, she planned the escape with some fisher local fishermen in our town and that includes, for us lead to escape, that includes three of us. So, three my two younger sister, me and my mom. The fee that she paid those fishermens was for three people, four people, four of us to escape. So that's me, my two younger sister and my mom, four of us. 

    Alexa [00:14:55] What was the most difficult part about leaving for you? 

    Diem Nguyen [00:14:59] You know, it's scary being on the boat. You know, you know, it's a small boat with a bunch of people, no food, hardly any food to eat. Or when a thunderstorm hits, we could die. And we heard many horrible story that people who escaped to America would encounter a storm and they drowned in the ocean. A lot of people die, a lot of people in our town escape before us die. 

    Alexa [00:15:35] Yeah. 

    Diem Nguyen [00:15:35] If, did the boat flip. And I don't, we, we were just so lucky, you know, a small boat and then the boat, the thunderstorm was so heavy and rain without food, but we just got lucky. A few days later after the thunderstorm when it calmed down, we saw the, all these sails, sails. We saw these Hong Kong people they're in a boat too. They came out and rescue us and bring in. So they took, they had came out with a big boat and they transfer all of us in from a small boat into their big boat they rescue us and bring us to into their concentration camp and let us stay there. I mean, you know, it sounds like a concentration camp is such a bad thing. But in Hong Kong, their concentration camp was, was meant to for refugee, you know, Vietnamese boat refugee, to stay there, they house us there, they provide food, they provide clothing, everything. 

    Alexa [00:16:35] How relieved did you feel when you were rescued? 

    Diem Nguyen [00:16:38] Oh, I was so happy because when we came, yeah, when we say in Hong Kong, they give us clothing to wear. Every, every day they give us breakfast. You know, you just have to have certain hours. You know, they, you know like how at school, they provide free meals. You know, they give you cookies to eat. They give breakfast and if you want more, you eat lunch. And then, my mom also has some cousins that were in Hong Kong that, that left Vietnam before us. They were in the city, so they knew where we were staying in the concentration camp and they they visit us. They give us food and clothing, you know, like a lot of specialty food to eat, things like that. 

    Alexa [00:17:28] And so when you came to the U.S., you went to Alabama and then you went to California. 

    Diem Nguyen [00:17:35] Because my dad, my dad stay in Alabama when he come to America, he stay in Alabama because he was sponsored by the Christian church. And then later on, my dad sponsored us over to Alabama because he got sponsor himself by the Christian church in Alabama, yeah. 

    Alexa [00:17:52] So what part of California did you move to? 

    Diem Nguyen [00:17:55] Uh, Sacramento. And I stayed here all my life since then. 

    Alexa [00:18:01] Wow. So what was life like for you in Sacramento, adjusting to, like, this new country or even in Alabama? 

    Diem Nguyen [00:18:10] I don't think, I don't think it was anything hard. I think I like it. I mean, I like it because, you know, as a young kid, I get to go to school. I have to have good, I have food to eat. I can have three meals a day. When Vietnam and and during the time I'm on the boat, I was poverty. I didn't have anything to eat. Yeah. And when I come to California, I have school system. There's free lunch, there's a bus that takes me to school in the morning. I think that's the best thing I ever had as a kid. I think. I mean, my life continue to get better. 

    Alexa [00:18:54] Yeah. 

    Diem Nguyen [00:18:55] I get to go to school, I get to ride in a bus, I get free lunch. I enjoy that. 

    Alexa [00:19:03] So were there any language barriers going to school? 

    Diem Nguyen [00:19:07] Yeah, when I first came to Alabama, you know, they put me in third grade, right. I didn't speak English, but luckily in my classroom, there's a girl who's Vietnamese and she speaks Vietnamese and speak English, of course. And she was my interpreter. Yeah, so she helped me. But, you know, at that time in Alabama, they have a, they have a system where I thought that was so weird. They spank you. 

    Alexa [00:19:38] What? 

    Diem Nguyen [00:19:38] If you misbehave, yeah. 

    Alexa [00:19:42] Really? 

    Diem Nguyen [00:19:42] And I saw the principal is spanking the kids in front of me. Yeah. At that time. I don't know this thing called, but they, if you, they discipline you by spank, spanking you during that time period. 

    Alexa [00:19:52] Wow. 

    Diem Nguyen [00:19:53] Yeah. That's what I remember. I was like, man, they spank you. The principal spank this little kid right, the boy right in front of me. 

    Alexa [00:20:01] Oh, wow. 

    Diem Nguyen [00:20:03] At that time. I, I think they probably ban that system now, but at that time, there were. 

    Alexa [00:20:10] So, in Sacramento since you spent a lot of your life there, did you feel like you had or do you feel like you have a strong sense of like Vietnamese community around you? Like, are there a lot of Vietnamese people in Sacramento? 

    Diem Nguyen [00:20:24] Uh huh, yeah. When we came over we stay in these apartment. There are a lot of Vietnamese newcomer, they all stay there. You know, the rent was cheap. You know, we they house you. You get to rent one apartment this and then you stay like there's ten people in that one, two room apartments. So my family, we, we had that one apartment. One room in that one apartment. 

    Alexa [00:20:49] Mm hmm. 

    Diem Nguyen [00:20:52] Mm hmm. 

    Alexa [00:20:53] And with your family today, do you still carry on any Vietnamese traditions or celebrations? 

    Diem Nguyen [00:20:59] Uh huh. We still celebrate Vietnamese New Year. We still pray for our ancestors as a memorial for their deads. You know, like our grandparents. Tet, you know. We, during Tet we get together as a family and give out red envelopes. We eat, and we celebrate birthdays. Back in Vietnam, there's no such thing as birthday, you know? 

    Alexa [00:21:25] Really? 

    Diem Nguyen [00:21:27] Yeah, we don't that, we don't have nothing to eat. How can you celebrate somebody's birthday? Birthday doesn't exist in Vietnam where I grew, I was growing up. Yeah. 

    Alexa [00:21:36] So was that, like, kind of a shock when you came here and people did that? 

    Diem Nguyen [00:21:41] Oh, yeah. Yeah, it's um, it become I adapt to the culture. 

    Alexa [00:21:46] Uh huh. 

    Diem Nguyen [00:21:48] Hmm. Yeah. 

    Alexa [00:21:50] Um that's about all the questions I have for you, but is there anything else you want to share? Like any final message? 

    Diem Nguyen [00:21:58] Uh, I think that I'm very proud of my roots, even though because all the obstacles that I go through, I appreciate what I have today because of where I came from. And when people ask me, when people are always asking where I was, where part of Vietnam that I live in, I, I say I say that thing like I come from the ghetto. I live in a country. I have nothing to. I live in a place in Vietnam where I had nothing to eat and nothing to wear. And I'm proud to say the word. I came from the ghetto. 

    Alexa [00:22:35] Mm hmm. 

    Diem Nguyen [00:22:37] And I. Yeah. 

    Alexa [00:22:40] Yeah. It's very inspiring. 

    Diem Nguyen [00:22:44] So I'm motivated to work hard, I think, because of my background it help me work harder in life. Mm hmm. And I'm motivated to work hard. And motivated to succeed and. Yeah. 

    Alexa [00:23:01] All right. Thank you so much for your time.

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