Hope, Alive and Well: an Interview with Ha Tran
By Lee Lewis
Ha Tran is a Vietnamese refugee, mother of four, and owner of a business called “Hope- Empowered,” through which she offers motivational philosophy and empowerment strategies, as well as business and leadership coaching. She has just published her first book, Empowered by Hope. We’ve arranged to meet for an interview at a restaurant in North Beverly, Massachusetts.
A short, dark-haired woman with a gentle smile and determined air walks up to my table, shakes my hand, and sits down.
Lee: Tell me about your book. Why did you write it?
Ha: I wrote it to honor my father. Through all the difficulties and obstacles I had to face, his wisdom was always there to guide me. He stayed in Viet Nam when my family and I escaped in 1978, after Saigon fell and the U.S. pulled out of Viet Nam. He died just this year, at the age of 99. I was able to go home and visit him before he died and then to bury him. My father was a wonderful man, and he always had words of wisdom and encouragement for me. During all my struggles after I left, his philosophy helped guide and sustain me, first when I was a “boat person” escaping to a refugee camp, and then in my new country, the United States. I wanted to give other people the gift that he gave me.
Lee: What was your life in Vietnam like before you left?
Ha: I had a life of privilege. My father was a wealthy rice merchant. We lived on a beautiful piece of land with many servants – a chauffeur, cook, housemaid, and I even had my own handmaid, a girl my age. I had delicious food to eat, beautiful hand-made clothes to wear – everything was the best. I was an only child. My mother died when I was very young, so my father was everything to me. I was very devoted to him and he was absolutely devoted to me.
Lee: What happened when Saigon fell, and the Communists took over?
Ha: On April 30, 1975, when the Communists took over the country, everything changed. Being a merchant, my father was seen as a capitalist and therefore an enemy of the state. There was an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust and we were watched by the Communists. We had to be very careful what we said or did. There were spies everywhere, even neighbors and friends couldn’t be trusted, and we could be detained and tortured at any time. Eventually we did get put in a concentration camp for “re-education.” When we got out, we knew we had to find a way to leave.
Lee: How did you manage to get out? Wasn’t it dangerous?
Ha: Oh, yes! It was very difficult. My father made the decision that he could not go; his disappearance could endanger many people left behind. So he arranged for me to marry a man he knew was a good person, who promised to love, protect, and take care of me. I was only 20 years old then, and my husband was 10 years older, a complete stranger.
Lee: Were arranged marriages the custom then?
Ha: No, not in our society. But my father knew a husband would be committed to me. So he secretly arranged for us to get away, but it took some time to put in place. By then I had two children, a 2-year-old son and a 28-day-old baby. And I had a broken ankle. On the way to the hospital to have my baby, the pedicab had an accident and I broke my ankle. There were no doctors to fix it—they had all been put in concentration camps.
Lee: So you left the country with two children and a broken ankle?
Ha: I went home with the baby and a few weeks later someone came in the night—our guide—and said we must leave immediately. We couldn’t take anything with us, just what was on our backs and the children. It was dark and we couldn’t make any noise. I prayed the children wouldn’t cry and luckily they didn’t. I had to drag my hurt foot, through the black night in the rice stubble, with strange hissing noises all around us—carrying my newborn son—I was very frightened. We were taken to a canoe in the Mekong River, and then to an old fishing boat on the coast.
Lee: How many people were on the boat?
Ha: The boat owner was greedy: he put 400 people on a boat that should only hold 100. We didn’t even have room to lie down; we had to sit up straight, back to back, side by side. It was hard to breathe. I got very seasick. We didn’t have food or water and I became extremely dehydrated. I was nursing the baby and my milk dried up. Then the captain announced the boat’s engine had died, and we were adrift for one and a half days in the ocean. Finally we were rescued and taken to a refugee camp in Malaysia, but I had nearly died and needed a long time to recover.
Lee: What was life in the refugee camp like?
Ha: It was crowded and there wasn’t enough food or good medical care. We were waiting for a sponsor to help us emigrate to the United States or another country – the U.S. was our choice. We had to wait almost two years before we heard that a women’s Bible study group in Illinois would be our sponsor. We arrived at O’Hare Airport in Chicago, with $20 between us. We couldn’t speak English, and we had no idea who to look for at the airport.
Lee: How did life go during your first years in the U.S.? How did you get back on your feet?
Ha: Our sponsor helped us a lot. They found us an apartment, and they found my husband a job doing maintenance in a hospital while I went to school. During this time, my father’s words and his vision would come to me; I relied on his philosophy to get me through. It was as if he had planted the seeds and they were there for nourishment when I needed it. One thing he said was, “Never give up – live your life to your very last breath.” Another was, “Keep your vision always in front of you, and know where you are going.” I believed that education was the key for us, so I focused on that.
Lee: How did you learn to speak English?
Ha: I realized that we would need to learn the English language and understand the American culture, which was very different from ours, to succeed, and I made that my goal. While my husband worked, I went to school for English as a Second Language, then to college, where I studied economics. It took me ten years to get my bachelor’s degree. I had to study very hard—six hours at home for every one hour in class.
Lee: Why did you move to Beverly, Massachusetts?
Ha: By then, we had four children. The women in Illinois had tried to talk to us about birth control, but in our culture we don’t discuss such things. We were embarrassed and didn’t understand them very well. So, four children. I wanted them to have good lives, to become professionals, and I knew they would need good educations. I had heard Massachusetts had a college on every corner, so we moved here in 1989 to make to easier for them to go to college. And they did. They are successful professionals now, with families of their own. I have five grandchildren, with another one on the way. And I became a successful businesswoman, first working in the insurance business and then as a consultant and coach.
Lee: What became of your father?
Ha: For many years, I thought we had lost him. We couldn’t find him in Vietnam. Finally, after 10 years here, I was able to get in touch with him and found that he had survived! He was very loved and respected by his friends, associates, and former employees. I’ve been back to visit him a number of times, and my children have been to meet him. He passed away this year at the age of 99. Now I want to share his philosophy, which is not new, but is a powerful, sturdy base on which to build a life. The house I grew up in was decorated with his ideas, written on paper or embroidered in needlework and framed throughout his library – they called it the “Fortune Cookie House” because of that. His wisdom saved me and my family and I believe it can help other people, too. There is no doubt in my mind that he became a saint after he died.
Lee: What is your husband doing now?
Ha: He is not well. He worked so hard for so many years, holding a full-time job and also helping to cook and take care of the children while I studied and worked. It’s taken a toll on him. A wonderful part of our story is that 20 years after our arranged marriage I fell in love with him. I had taken him for granted, but I saw how devotedly he took care of me. Now I take care of him, and I’m happy to do it, because I love him.
Lee: Why did you start your own business?
Ha: I wanted to have more time to give to my husband, and to be able to work from home. It is the best way I can think of to make people aware of my father’s philosophy, all those words and ideas that helped me so much. I know they are valuable for other people as well. It’s doing awesomely—people appreciate it. I have a blog, and a website, a biweekly internet radio show, 2500 Facebook friends, and 20,000 Twitter followers. I’ve written a book, I give talks and do radio interviews, and now I’ve written a book as well. Keeping my father’s philosophy alive is a way of keeping him alive.
Ha and I talk some about other things—her family, my life. Her story has given me lots to think about. In college I was among those who protested the Viet Nam war; I didn’t think we needed to be there. Now I see the other side of the story, the devastating effect that a totalitarian regime can have on a family, the reason we fight for the freedoms our country guarantees us. And I am personally deeply affected by her message – “Don’t ever give up,” she says, and “Live your life with no regrets.” I think about what that means. I tell her it makes me wonder about the things I’ve left undone. “You must do what you dream of doing,” she says. “If you want to sing – SING!” She smiles, and I feel like singing, even though that’s not exactly my dream!
You can reach Ha at:
Lee Lewis is a free-lance writer from the North Shore of Massachusetts.