Family who fled Saigon reunites with man who welcomed them to U.S.

It was a reunion 40 years in the making. The Minnesota couple and the family from Vietnam had almost nothing in common the day they met in 1975. On a recent day in Mountlake Terrace, they had much in common — memories, laughter and an enduring friendship.

When they first met, the Vietnamese family had been through hell.

By the time Hoi Dinh, his wife, Hoc Pham, 10 of their children, and three other relatives arrived in Minnesota, they had fled Saigon fearing the worst. They had nearly starved on a harrowing voyage to the Philippines. With thousands of other Vietnamese refugees, they had spent months at an Army base in Arkansas.

It was September 1975 when the family stepped off a plane in Brainerd, Minnesota. The small city in the Upper Midwest was nothing like their Saigon home. Language, culture, religion, everything was foreign.

David and Judy Pearson will never forget that day. “They all came off a small plane from Minneapolis. I remember they were all dressed so nicely,” said Judy Pearson, 72.

It’s been 40 years, but the goodwill of that day came back easily as the Pearsons visited Dinh’s Mountlake Terrace home at the end of August. Dinh, 85, and his 87-year-old wife served jasmine tea and shared stories of another time.

David Pearson, a 79-year-old retired Lutheran minister, was pastor of the Brainerd church that sponsored Dinh’s family after the Vietnam War ended.

The Pearsons found a house big enough for 15 people, helped them get jobs, and welcomed them at the First Lutheran Church of Brainerd — although they were Buddhist.

David Pearson said his church was one of many nationwide welcoming Vietnamese refugees through the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. The agency didn’t give much notice.

In about 48 hours, “we scrambled to find a house for a family of this size,” Pearson said. “We assembled a crew of about 50 people who worked day and night to get it ready. Judy coordinated it. When they arrived, there were flowers on the table.”

At the time, Pearson said, there were very few Asians in Brainerd, a city of fewer than 15,000 people. He said his congregation was passionate about helping the newcomers. “It was obviously in the news. We were hearing about the need,” Pearson said.

Van Dinh-Kuno, the Mountlake Terrace couple’s daughter, was 19 when they arrived. She went on to graduate from the University of Minnesota and has spent her career helping others adjust to life in the United States. Dinh-Kuno is the longtime executive director of Refugee and Immigrant Services Northwest, based at Everett Community College.

She had been in touch with the Pearsons, but until this summer hadn’t seen the Minnesota couple for about 35 years. Dinh-Kuno, who lives in Mukilteo, said it was the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon that stirred the idea of a get-together.

“We had sent Christmas cards. He called after April 30 and said, ‘I’ve been thinking about you all day,’ ” she said.

Realizing that the pastor would soon turn 80, Dinh-Kuno said she and her husband, David Kuno, began arranging the visit.

Dinh-Kuno shared her family’s experience fleeing Saigon in a column April 29, the day before the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. It was April 30, 1975, when Communist North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces took over Saigon, and South Vietnam surrendered.

Dinh and his family faced chaos and danger on April 29, 1975. He had worked with American forces as an officer in the South Vietnamese Army. The family managed to flee that day through the harbor being guarded by the U.S. military. Their escape vessel, a Norwegian cargo ship, was packed with 1,000 refugees who weathered a storm and near starvation before reaching temporary shelter in the Philippines.

Before Brainerd, the family spent several months at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. The base housed more than 25,000 refugees in the months after the Vietnam War ended.

In the serenity of Dinh’s home, the hosts and visitors talked of past hardships, but also of their joyful reunion. Dinh-Kuno and her siblings hosted elaborate welcome dinners for their Minnesota friends — “Italian night, fish night, and barbecue night,” she said. There were stories of times together in Brainerd.

David Pearson, who now lives on Minnesota’s Lake Vermilion, said his state’s reputation for educational achievement was one reason Dinh wanted to settle there. “Hoi had been in the U.S., and knew we stressed education,” Pearson said. In Dinh’s home, framed diplomas and degrees of his children and grandchildren are proudly displayed.

In Brainerd, Pearson helped Dinh get a job as a carpenter. Dinh-Kuno, who worked in a Brainerd bakery, said her children hardly believe “we had to run for our lives.”

For Pearson, reaching out to others is ingrained as part of his faith and upbringing. He was raised in the Swedish branch of the Lutheran Church, once known as the Augustana Lutheran Synod.

“The church I was raised in has a strong social conscience. That was something we really lived out,” said Pearson, who in 1965 participated in a civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The year the Dinhs arrived, the Pearsons adopted two Korean children.

Pearson recalled the church hosting many potluck dinners, and how the Dinh family came to church many Sundays. “They came out of gratitude,” he said. All these years later, the family he once helped opened its doors.

“Our visit with the Dinhs could not have been more special,” Pearson said. “It was a wonderful, wonderful experience to be with them again.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460;

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