Danville Express

Cover Story - March 30, 2007

Leap of faith

One woman's journey from Vietnam to personal freedom

by Christina Straw

The little Vietnamese girl's heart pounded as she leapt from the boat sinking in the South China Sea.

"I remember a man catching me when I jumped off the boat. Forever I will associate that with my life being saved," says Phoenix Nguyen.

Phoenix sits on a stool in her floral shop in downtown Danville and tells the story of her family's personal and difficult decision to leave Vietnam in the mid-1970s.

Speaking in a steady soft tone, Phoenix talks of how she went from being a young peasant girl working on her family's farm to leaving everything behind for a chance at freedom, both political and religious because her family is Catholic.

"Most of my memories of Vietnam center around wartime because my father was a village chief. We were always concerned for his safety," Phoenix says. "That preoccupied a lot of our thoughts and how to protect the family. We had the Viet Cong come to the house often looking for him. One of my earliest memories is learning how to say, 'I don't know where my dad is,' when they'd come."

She and her parents, grandparents and five siblings packed up and left the highlands of Da Lat and slowly made their way down to a fishing village where her uncles lived.

"We left the day the announcement was made that the communists were coming to Saigon," Phoenix says.

It was 1975 and Phoenix was 9 years old.

Terror on the high seas

In Vung Tao, crowds and chaos split up the family as they made their way to the waterfront and onto small boats in hopes of getting picked up by an American ship. Before their treacherous journey began, the Nguyens made a pledge to stick together, but this proved difficult when trying to make their way through masses of people following the same path.

"By that time, my family was all divided up," Phoenix says. "I was on a tiny boat with my grandmother, baby sister and uncle-in-law."

In order to get on board the large vessel, the refugees would crowd their tiny boats around the ship anchored in the harbor. One by one, each boat would be deliberately sunk to make way for the other boats and people to get aboard.

"For whatever reason, my uncle said, 'I'm not leaving,' and they had already put a hole in the boat," recalls Phoenix. "So we're sinking and I'm thinking, 'I'm going to die,' because I didn't know how to swim and was just terrified of water."

"That's probably my strongest memory," she adds. "There were so many other scary times but that by far was the scariest because my family had been divided up and I didn't know I was ever going to see them again."

Navigating a new life in a new land

Amazingly, Phoenix and her entire family made it onto the same American ship - one of the few families who made it out intact. The ship took the Nguyen family to Guam where they stayed for two weeks before departing on a plane to Ft. Chaffee, Ark.

"My parents didn't know anyone in the United States," Phoenix says. "They came here mainly for their religion and freedom and everything else was on faith."

Their prayers were answered when the Daughters of Charity from St. Louis agreed to sponsor them, and her parents worked at their convent.

"This was great for us because my family is Catholic," Phoenix says with a smile. "My parents felt that being in the hands of the nuns was a blessing."

And what was this new land like for a 9-year-old refugee from Vietnam?

"I thought it was very surreal, magical," Phoenix says. "Being on an airplane was so strange. Before, I didn't have the concept that what's up there is this huge thing. It looked small because it's not in your existence. You hear about it but you can't imagine it."

"Back in Vietnam, we had radios but we didn't listen to them," she also notes. "We didn't have TV. We rarely had newspapers. It was typical third-country peasant life."

Not only did Phoenix's family members have to face learning a language and how to navigate the busy city life of St. Louis, they had to face everyday challenges like how to work appliances and help their daughter get over her fears and misunderstandings.

"I was very embarrassed about my appearance mainly because we were the only Asian family in the entire school," Phoenix says. "Everyone was interested and they would gather around and I had absolutely no idea what anyone was saying."

It was the strength of her family that kept her grounded and moving forward.

"We're here because of our family and our faith and Ö what we might have faced if we stayed behind," Phoenix says, her dark eyes getting misty. "When you're dealing with your own reality, you're not worried about what you might be missing. You're too focused on learning how to read and learning how to make your way through everything."

This determination and focus helped Phoenix succeed throughout school. She studied business and psychology at Washington University in St. Louis and, although talented in drawing and painting, decided to pursue law at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

"I didn't want to disappoint my parents and mainly I was looking for something respectable," Phoenix says with a chuckle. "I started reading about civil rights cases and that interested me and challenged me intellectually. In hindsight, my strength is geared toward the creative side but it's hard to leave something you do well."

A beautiful baby girl changes everything

While Phoenix's parents wanted her to return to their protective world in St. Louis, the self-proclaimed "black sheep" of the family had other ideas. Such as San Francisco.

"I wanted something new, and I wanted to step out a little further than my parents were comfortable with," Phoenix says matter-of-factly about her move to the Bay Area in 1990. "I read about San Francisco and the history of Asians in San Francisco during the Gold Rush and that interested me. Something about the landscape was beautiful and interesting."

While studying for the bar exam at UC Berkeley, Phoenix's world would again be turned upside-down.

It was there she met Martin, a gentle and reserved young man getting his doctorate at Cal, who was introduced to Phoenix through a mutual friend. After dating for a few years and as Phoenix practiced law in San Francisco and then Palo Alto, the couple married and later welcomed daughter Camille.

The three moved to Danville a few years ago.

"My daughter is God's gift to me," Phoenix says, smiling with pride.

Her eyes brim with tears she won't let fall.

"She's wonderful. A true delight."

Phoenix was very driven and would not allow herself to be anything less than exceptional, but the arrival of Camille led her to rethink her career path.

"I just didn't feel like the law was my true calling. There was always this yearning to do something on the creative side. I won art contests and scholarships but abandoned it," Phoenix recalls.

After a lot of soul searching and debating different ideas, one day a then 10-year-old Camille suggested the flower business, something personal and dear to Phoenix's heart.

"I've always loved flowers," says Phoenix. "When you're Vietnamese, you romanticize flowers. It's a part of our culture. I really enjoy them."

For the second time in her life, Phoenix would be taking a personal leap of faith.

Starting out of her house, she did her first flower arrangement for a fundraiser at her daughter's school. People raved and a client called for an arrangement for her home.

Before long, Phoenix branched out and did a few weddings. The feedback was really encouraging and people were thrilled.

"I wanted something more," Phoenix says, her eyes lighting up. "The store was a scary jump. I said I wanted to make this a new career. I wanted to bring in other elements like glass art, jewelry; special things that make your home and yourself beautiful."

While brainstorming ideas for the name of the boutique with family, Phoenix knew she wanted "All Things Beautiful" included in the name. Martin had taken a business trip to Italy and heard a song on the radio called Mi Piaci, which translated to "it delights me/I love that." It worked perfectly. The store opened in Prospector Square in November, just in time for the Christmas rush.

Following your heart

Her store, Mi Piaci - All Things Beautiful, is a peaceful refuge filled with delicate flowers and unique gifts. Today, Phoenix is finishing up an arrangement for a client. The flowers are white phalaenopsis orchids and crĖme tulips artfully and lovingly placed in a glass vase.

Phoenix wants every arrangement that goes out the door to be the most beautiful, and something that makes a person feel special.

"To be excellent in what you do, you have to have that creative part. You can learn from someone but you need to be able to take that next step," Phoenix says.

"Phoenix" in Greek mythology was a beautiful, immortal bird. After living for several centuries in the Arabian desert, it was consumed by fire and rose again from its own ashes.

Phoenix Nguyen herself has faced many challenges on her personal journey but has proved, like that beautiful bird, that with hope and faith, it is possible to soar.


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