Soles of a Survivor by Nhi Aronheim

Nhi Aronheim’s Soles of a Survivor: A Memoir (Skyhorse, 288 pp. $24.99, hardcover; $16.99, Kindle) is a worthy autobiography. In it, Aronheim tells the story of her escape from post-war Vietnam and resettlement and eventual success in the United States. Aronheim, who fled her native country in 1987 when she was 12 years old, shows herself to be a motivated, highly driven individual.

She was born into a large, prominent family near Da Nang. Her father was a respected physician who also treated injured American troops during the war.

When communist forces took control of the entire country in the spring of 1975, her father was taken to a re-education camp and soldiers marched through the family’s well-appointed home taking anything of value. They said that under Communism everyone was equal and no one should have too much wealth. Eventually, the father left the family and Aronheim, her mother, and her siblings were forced to leave their home.

As the family was about to be sent to a re-education camp, her mother bribed a bus driver to take them to Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City. Arriving with only the clothes on their backs, they lived illegally in one room. Aronheim earned money for the family by selling counterfeit cigarettes.

Her mother longed for the opportunity for the family to escape, but knew it would be too difficult to attempt it as a group. So, in total secrecy, she helped her twelve-year-old daughter cross the border into Cambodia with the hope of getting to America. At this point in the memoir, we have reached the end of the first chapter, with nineteen more to go.

The book’s title is how Aronheim’s husband refers to her feet as a result of all the walking she did during her escape. It was a harrowing experience, during which, she says, she found herself “staring down death time after time,” and that each time was “as terrifying as it was the first time.” She spent time in a refugee camp in Thailand, and remembers watching showings of “ET” and “The Sound of Music” without her or anyone around her understanding what was going on.

Nhi Aronheim

Against heavy odds, this young woman managed to make it out of the refugee camp and fly to the U.S. where she thrived academically and went on to good jobs in telecommunications and the mortgage industry, and then became a wife and mother. This book celebrates a life of achievement that started in most unlikely fashion.

More and more stories are now being told by Vietnamese refugees who have made the best they could of their lives while also helping make America a better place to live. Nhi Aronheim says she hopes her book will encourage readers “to never give up, never give in, and always stay positive.”

Examples of how she lived that philosophy can be found on nearly every page of this inspiring book.

The author’s website is nhiaronheim.com

–Bill McCloud

A Dangerous Journey from Vietnam to America for Freedom by Tham Huy Vu            

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The end of the Vietnam War in 1975 marked the beginning of the worst years of the life of Tham Huy Vu, who served as a captain in the South Vietnamese Army. Within nine days, the victorious communists marched him into the first of six re-education camps where he would spend five years. Seven years later—on his sixth try—he escaped and found freedom for his family in the United States. Those trials highlight A Dangerous Journey from Vietnam to America for Freedom, 1935-1987 (Xay Dung, 270 pp.; $20, paper).

Born in northern Vietnam in 1935, Vu also provides a history of his country because political  changes strongly affected his family. In his childhood, although his family was “one of the most prosperous in the village,” he says, they suffered under “the harsh rule of the French colonialists.” During World War II, Japanese soldiers destroyed his family’s crops after defeating the French. After the war, France regained control of the nation until the Vietminh of Ho Chi Minh’s communist party prevailed in the French Indochina War in 1954.

Vu’s childhood experiences foreshadowed events for the remainder of his life in Vietnam: He labored in rice fields, was exposed to gunfire when the French made his Vietminh-controlled home area a free-fire zone, witnessed the execution of a landowner by the Vietminh, and attended communist education classes. Facing the threat of the father’s death because he was a landowner, Vu’s family left everything behind in 1955 and fled to Saigon.

Drafted into the ARVN, Vu worked on rural pacification and development. He admits to being “an ordinary military officer” who was “unable to do much to improve things.” He also married and had three children.

As a prisoner of war, he defines “re-education” as revenge for having opposed communism. He shows that the re-education camps consisted of slave labor; starvation; living amid filth; inadequate medical treatment; and repetitive brainwashing classes, essay-writing, and group discussions.

Released from the camps and treated as an outcast, he determined that escape from Vietnam was his only course for a viable life. This led to intrigue and drama that Vu shared with many others desperate to escape from communism.

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Tây Ninh re-education camp, 1976 – Photo by Marc Riboud

Vu expresses eternal love for America for providing a refuge for his family. He wraps up his memoir with a cogent explanation of why the South Vietnamese people lost their freedom. His strongest argument is that American leaders “knew themselves, but knew not enough about their enemies,” combined with his belief that “most South Vietnamese did not know the truth about Ho Chi Minh and his communist comrades.”

He also points out that America “did not have an appropriate strategy”; acted in its own interests; and experienced “a spasm of congressional irresponsibility” following President Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

Vu’s “I-was-there” background and rational approach to an age-old problem refreshed my interest in the unsolvable.

—Henry Zeybel

Standing Up After Saigon by Thuhang Tran with Sharon Orlopp

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In practice, communism betrays itself when, under the guise of “reeducation of the masses,” party leaders treat their own citizens as slaves. The communist theory of equality among people vanishes amid the chaos of culling the “un-trainables,” a situation that prevailed devastatingly when communists took control of Russia, China, Cambodia—and Vietnam.

In Standing Up After Saigon: The Triumphant Story of Hope, Determination, and Reinvention  (Brown Books, 190 pp.; $17.21 Hard), Thuhang Tran, with the help of Sharon Orlopp, describes what happened in Vietnam after the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong communists took control of the nation in 1975.

A dual memoir, the book studies the resilience of one family fractured by the ending of the Vietnam War. The family’s youngest child, Thuhang, and her father, Chinh, take turns in narrating life in Vietnam under communist rule for the family members who could not leave in 1975. They also describe Chinh’s determination to make a new life in America for his family. Their recollections are inspirational.

A polio victim reduced to crawling and squatting, Thuhang—along with her mother, brother, and sister—survived fifteen years of fragile existence in Vietnam until they were reunited with her father, a South Vietnamese Air Force air traffic controller who fled as the North Vietnamese Army entered Saigon. Chinh ended up in the United States. For five years, the family believed he had been killed in a helicopter crash. Eventually, he found them. It took ten more years for him to fulfill the requirements of America’s Orderly Departure Program and get his family out of Vietnam.

Although Thuhang is the principal subject of the book, the actions of Chinh and his wife Lieu read like a manual for protecting children. Lieu guided the children through war, forced farm labor, homelessness, famine, and stark poverty. She used bribes and other ruses to keep her son out of the army, including during the 1979-89 war with Cambodia. From America, Chinh provided a flow of money and other help.

Initially, Thuhang’s life in the United States consisted mainly of surgery and lengthy physical rehabilitation that enabled her to stand and walk. She then attained American citizenship and earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at San Antonio. She has spent many years as a software engineer in Texas and Arkansas.

Thuhang also has organized and worked with groups that aid needy Vietnamese children. Chinh has helped Vietnamese refugees ease the transition after moving from an Eastern to a Western culture.

Thuhang’s brother and sister started businesses and raised families in America. They also they have endured their share of hardship.

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Thuhang Tran as a child in Vietnam

Standing Up After Saigon provides a great amount of information about the assimilation of Vietnamese into America. It also addresses the plight of refugees and the increasingly controversial acceptance of immigrants into the United States.

Co-author Sharon Orlopp is an editor and author who retired as Walmart’s Global Chief Diversity Officer and Senior Vice President of Human Resources. Part of her job was teaching the world about different cultures.

The authors’ website is standingupaftersaigon.com

—Henry Zeybel