Saturday, June 30, 2012

Journey from Vietnam to Northeast Texas

Statue of Ho Chi Minh in Can Tho

This is one in a series of occasional stories about people traveling TO Northeast Texas to live.  Their journeys are as varied as their states and countries.

If you want to learn Vietnamese in the United States, a place to practice is in the many nail salons owned by Vietnamese immigrants.  All of them have family stories of their journeys to the United States.  But few are as dramatic as that of Northeast Texas residents, T.C. Nguyen  and his wife, T.P. Nguyen (pseudonyms  by request), who have separate tales to tell of their passage to America.

A native of Saigon, T.C. Nguyen  joined the South Vietnamese Army at age 17 and spent time as a prisoner of war with the North Vietnamese.  After the fall of Saigon in 1975, Mr. Nguyen was sent to a re-education camp where he lost weight - down to 100 pounds.   In 1979, he made the hard decision to escape in order to get an education.  Leading 47 others,  Nguyen used a fishing boat to arrive in Malaysia, spending almost two years in a refugee camp.  The United States Catholic Relief service sponsored his move to the States in 1981 where he arrived on a cold evening in San Francisco dressed only in shorts and a shirt.

Serious about the opportunity to obtain education, Mr.  Nguyen earned his PhD in Applied Management and Decision Sciences from Walden University (Laureate International Universities) in 1996.   Despite offers to join the CIA and FBI, he worked in the corporate world, his last stint with a Fortune 500 company.  He married T.P. Nguyen 11 years ago, a second marriage for both.

Mrs.  Nguyen's family was wealthy.  Her father owned a big business in Saigon that was dismantled by the communists when the city fell in 1975.   Her family managed to escape by boat but she decided to stay even though only 16 years old.  She wanted to protect the family home and to believe in the world the Communists described.

The reform policies launched in Vietnam in 1986 known as Doi Moi, translated literally as “reform”, brought profound changes to the country — rescuing it from the failures of central planning and self-isolation adopted after unification of the country in 1975. In 1992, Mrs.  Nguyen invested almost $1million into building low income housing and schools.    But even under the reform movement, a 30% bribe was expected which she refused to pay,  making it hard to get reimbursed by the government for work completed.  Eventually, Mrs.  Nguyen lost the entire investment.

Mrs.  Nguyen didn’t talk to her family for 15 years because phone connections were not allowed by the United States into Vietnam.  After diplomatic relations opened up, her family could sponsor her.  She came twice to the U.S., the second time in 1998.

The discussion with Mr. and Mrs. Nguyen became more complicated when we talked politics. All in Vietnam fear China. The United States just announced a new Asian policy that concentrates on empowering the other countries of SE Asia to check China’s growing military power by becoming stronger economically and militarily.  T.C. Nguyen likens this to an old fairy tale in which a monkey is gradually taken down by the tightening noose around its neck.  He thinks the United States is focusing on the right place now and considers Secretary of State Clinton as one of the best Secretaries our country has ever had.

 Both want Vietnam to continue to improve but the elite of the Communist Party control the economy for 90 million people and make most of the money.  State Owned Enterprises (SOE) are still 40 % of GDP and with their inherent inefficiency, burn through billions of dollars.  T.C. Nguyen has written extensively on the need for reform, including several books published in Vietnam.  He bemoans the mismanagement of Vinashin, an SOE created to build ships, whose chairman just received a 20 year jail sentence for violating economic management regulations.

With his PHD in Economics and extensive writings on economics, finance, management and politics, Mr. Nguyen is in a unique position to give advice to reformers in Vietnam, including the Communist Party.  Some recommendations are obvious - the constitution must allow more than the one communist political party.  Open the internet to all.  State Owned Enterprises should be sold.  With 53% of the population still working in agriculture, T.C. Nguyen knows the economy must evolve much more towards technology to bring up the standard of living for all Vietnamese.

T.C. Nguyen's writings help free himself “from the haunted past” and use his “pain and tongue”to move Vietnam forward in peace.  Both Mr. Nguyen and his wife are passionate about their native country.   Their visits back to Vietnam and Cambodia help them access the situation and incorporate new ideas in Mr. Nguyen’s writings.  Meanwhile, the Nguyens enjoy the heat of Northeast Texas, Mrs. Nguyen offers spa services, and they dream of better times in their native land.

Saturday, June 9, 2012


View of Trasimeno Lake from Montegualandro Castle

Aerial View of Montegualandro Castle - photo from Castle's website

Castles come in all sizes.  The largest in the world is not the English Windsor (4th on the list) but Malbork Castle in Poland.  Thanks to many ad-ons for a growing list of Teutonic knights, it measures in at 143,591 square meters.  Compare that to the Montegualandro Castle in Italy with 3100 square meters of space and you’ve got yourself a cozy castle and a magical place to spend the night.

Entry Gate to Montegualandro Castle
Key to castle's gate
Spikes at bottom of castle's gate
Soon after crossing from Tuscany to Umbria, we drove up a hill, around the castle’s moat and stopped in front of a 15 foot tall metal gate with spikes below. It had no doorbells or knockers.  We tried pounding on the gate with no response.  After honking our car’s horn, a window opened 30 feet up the smooth, stone wall and a woman’s voice called out “I’ll be right down” - a scene right out of Rapunzel or the Wizard of Oz.   The diminutive Franca Marti soon opened the gate and we walked into the castle’s courtyard, our home for two nights.

Inside of 12th Century Chapel
Exterior of 12th Century Chapel
“We fell in love,” is how Franca described the couple’s quixotic quest to renovate this very old structure.  They had originally wanted a place in the country to build a boat but the castle cast its spell and became theirs in 1985.   After two years of planning and five of reconstruction, the couple moved in and opened four apartments for let.  Ours was in the former tower and, naturally, had rounded walls.  Another was built in the stables with wooden beams and tile floors.  A consecrated chapel from the 1200s was even available for meditation.

Perched on a hill supervising Trasimeno Lake in Umbria, the site for Montegualandro Castle dates back to the Etruscans. And Hannibal used the elevation to sequester troops before attacking the Romans in 217 BCE.  From our window in the tower, we could have watched as Hannibal surprised Roman Consul Flaminio and killed 15,000 Roman troops.

Thanks to the Martis’ efforts, the castle’s title history can be traced to Charlemagne around 800 CE when the land was given to one of his officers.    In the next 1200 years, it passed through several Counts and Dukes, became a (very) small independent state with its own dungeon,  was occupied by Ferdinando de Medici, and later sold to the Pope. One family owned the land for over four centuries.   Most recently in WWII, the Germans used it to keep an eye on troop movements in the valley below.

The next morning, Franca propped a long ladder on the inside castle wall and allowed us to climb to a wooden walk along the parapets and imagine life before canons and other powerful artillery.    Since castles were early home security systems, trees and bushes would have been cleared to prevent enemies from sneaking up the hill.   The old drawbridge,  now walled into a large reception room, kept strangers out as did the filled moat.  An inside well allowed  inhabitants to withstand a short siege.   And gun portals protected the soldiers as they fired.  In the beauty of the renovated castle, it was easy to forget that in reality, castles were often comfortless with dark, damp interiors and straw beds.

Today, the landscape is filled with olive orchards, decorative trees, and farms.  Mountains circle the panorama.  Boats crisscross Lake Trasimeno as tourists swim along the shores. A four-lane highway has replaced the dirt road from Perugia to Florence. The view is no longer tinged with anxiety and the castle walls aren’t for defense.   The Martis recognized the walled enclosure is now about culture.  Montegualandro has a long history of artists stopping nearby -   Galileo, Michelangelo, Goethe, Byron and Stendhal.    By restoring the castle according to strict Italian historical standards,  Montegualandro is again a wonderful venue for artists, concerts, weddings and visitors from small town Texas.

Web Site for Montequalandro Castle

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