How I Escaped Communist Vietnam
and Built a Successful Life in America
What would you do if a regime change in government forces you to abandon the goals you’ve achieved, hide who you are to survive, and do your best to find sanctuary elsewhere? That is the story of Tim Tran, born Tran Manh Khiem in Thai Binh in Northern Vietnam, and American Dreamer is his inspiring, tell-all hero’s journey.
The first-hand account begins with Tran’s early life. His narrative brings readers to the farm where he was raised and teaches about his culture of origin. His journey as a refugee began at the early age of four when he and his family traveled south on a US Navy landing craft and settled first in Nha Trang, then Tay Ninh, and finally Saigon, South Vietnam. The Vietnam War loomed large over Tran during his adolescence, especially during the 1968 Tet Offensive, when Communist forces attacked Saigon. Dedicating himself to his studies, in 1970 he was awarded a scholarship by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to attend college in the states. As one of the requirements of receiving the scholarship, he had to return to South Vietnam after graduation, which he did in September 1974. Six months later, on April 30, 1975, Communist North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces captured the South Vietnamese capital, forcing South Vietnam to surrender and bringing about an end to the Vietnam War. Suspected of American sympathies, Tran’s life became more difficult and dangerous under the new communist regime.
As a Vietnamese intellectual and having studied in the US, Tran knew there was a better way of life beyond his confining borders. Yet, the authoritarian Communist government did not make it easy for citizens to escape. Tran endured one struggle after another in his quest to flee Saigon and return to America. His multiple attempts to escape read like a Tom Clancy suspense thriller, with deceit, betrayal, and even murder. Finally, in 1979, Tran, his wife Cathy, and two of Tran’s brothers and a sister escaped in a rickety, overcrowded boat with 350 other refugees to Malaysia. The three-day trip took seven days, and during their journey through the Gulf of Thailand, pirates attacked the boat seven times. By the time the seventh pirate group attacked the boat, there wasn’t much left to steal, so one of the pirates demanded that Tran give up his prescription glasses and the Levi jeans he was wearing.
When they finally spotted the Malaysian shore, Tran persuaded the other refugees to wait until nightfall to approach, and then they slammed the boat into the rocks, destroying it before authorities could tow them back to sea. After a brief stay in a makeshift confinement on the beach, Tran ended up in the Pulau Bidong refugee camp off the coast where he volunteered as Press Secretary briefing visiting politicians, dignitaries and the international press. He also served as an interpreter for English-speaking delegations interviewing refugees for re-settlement.
His fluent English, adaptability, and ability to connect with all types of people expanded his knowledge of the world, and through sheer will and ingenuity, Tran truly became a global citizen. In his book,the author highlights the hope America represented for him throughout his life, from gaining an education to ultimately achieving democratic freedom. His continued determination, optimism, and strength of character demonstrate what it really means to be American, and American Dreamer is the product of his hard-earned wisdom. It’s also a riveting and timely memoir that provides a compassionate lens through which to view the current refugee crisis.
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Tim Tran (Tran Manh Khiem)
Photographer: Robbie Bourland
Photographer: Robbie Bourland
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Tim Tran is the epitome of an all-American success story.
At the tender age of four, Tim (born Tran Manh Khiem) became a refugee when he escaped Communist North Vietnam by traveling with his parents on a US Navy Landing Craft going to South Vietnam.
In 1970, through the Agency for International Development (USAID), he received a scholarship to go to college in the United States. After two years attending Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon, Tim transferred to the University of California at Berkeley where he graduated with a degree in business administration.
As a condition of his scholarship, he returned to Vietnam in 1974 (a decision he regrets) and landed a job in Saigon as an internal auditor for Shell Vietnam. When the Communists took over Saigon in 1975, Tim’s job changed from auditing to low-level clerical work, always under suspicion as a CIA agent for having studying in the U.S. In 1979, he escaped from Vietnam on a harrowing journey by boat to Malaysia and landed in Pilau Bidong Refugee Camp where he was the camp’s Press Secretary for visiting politicians, dignitaries, and the international press. He also volunteered as an interpreter for English-speaking delegations interviewing refugees for re-settlement.
In late 1979, Tim and his family arrived in Portland, Oregon, carrying all their belongings in a small plastic sack. Through a local newspaper, Tim landed a low-level accounting job with Portland’s Johnstone Supply, a wholesale/distributor providing a large selection of Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration (HVACR) parts, supplies and equipment to contractors. Through his vision, ability and hard work, Tim rose to the position of Chief Financial Officer at Johnstone.
After retiring from Johnstone in 2003, Tim taught business courses at the college level for twelve years and was honored as 2004 Faculty of the Year by students at the University of Phoenix. Many articles have been written about Tim, including a feature in CFO Magazine.
Today, he is a business consultant and a trustee of Pacific University. Libraries have always had a special significance in Tim’s life. They were a safe haven as a student in Vietnam, during his college years at Pacific University, Cal Berkeley, and beyond. As a way of giving back to his adopted country, Tim and his wife Cathy established an endowment to fund operations for the Pacific University Library, and the library, built in 2005, was renamed the Tim and Cathy Tran Library in their honor.
Tim lives with his wife Cathy near Vancouver, Washington. When not involved in his consulting and philanthropic ventures, they like to read and travel, especially to our nation’s national parks and Presidential Libraries. American Dreamer is a remarkable debut.