Grace: Vietnam labor camp survivor finds strength in Buddha -
Published Monday, October 14, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 12:10 pm
Grace: Vietnam labor camp survivor finds strength in Buddha

They let the sick prisoners die and shot the ones who tried to escape.

They fed the rest hardly anything — half a potato for breakfast and tiny bowls of rice and potatoes for lunch and dinner.

They were harder on him because he was a colonel. Each day, he had to collect the buckets of human excrement from the latrines and turn it into fertilizer.

But the worst part of the eight years Phung Nguyen spent in a “re-education” camp in a jungle in central Vietnam was the uncertainty about whether he would be released and when.

After the Americans left Vietnam in 1975, the North Vietnamese rounded up Nguyen and many others who fought for South Vietnam. They killed them or put them into prisons and labor camps. They told Phung he would be detained for three years.

Three turned into eight.

It was a miracle, frankly, Phung made it given what happened to the others. Some got sick, some starved, some shouted defiantly, “Down with Ho Chi Minh!” and were promptly shot.

The days were hell.

Night brought some peace.

In the silence and dark, Phung, a colonel, a husband, a father of nine children, would pray.

He prayed silently. He prayed in secret. He prayed, thinking of the same entity that inspired generations of his family and most of his countrymen.

He thought of the Buddha and he prayed.

Let me live. Let me stay healthy. Let me be strong.


Phung Nguyen is smiling amid the chaos of a shipment that has arrived on a grassy two acres in north Omaha.

The 84-year-old is helping put the heavy, brightly painted cement statues into place.

This smiling woman is the Buddha's mother. Up there, on that hill, is the seated Buddha himself, giving his first sermon to five kneeling monks in what is called Deer Park.

The Buddha was a man named Siddhartha Gautama who was born five or six centuries before Jesus Christ in the foothills of the Himalayas in what is now Nepal or India. Siddhartha traded the cushy life of a royal son for the harder but ultimately, as Buddhists believe, better life of a holy man. He preached a “middle path” to enlightenment that involved neither extreme pleasure nor the extreme pain of asceticism. Instead, through knowledge, meditation and righteous living, one could master “noble truths” about human suffering and how to end that suffering to achieve nirvana. This is a state of mind free of ignorance and hatred.

Siddhartha was called “Buddha,” which means “awakened one.”

The Buddha's beliefs spread throughout Asia. Although the Socialist Republic of Vietnam is a communist country that reports a high percentage of nonbelievers, by other estimates, eight out of 10 Vietnamese identify with Buddhism.

One of them is Phung Nguyen, who on this sunny fall day is working alongside other Omahans from Vietnam and some Spanish-speaking meatpackers who were recruited by a Vietnamese coworker to help unload, lift and place the statues.

They work together outside a Buddhist temple at 3812 Fort St.

Phung helped build this temple, a sheet-metal building, about a decade ago. He's here almost daily to tend to the building and its 100-member Vietnamese congregation. He's hoping to raise some $600,000 for a better building, but fundraising is slow and the congregation small.

It took a lot for the custodians, the nail techs, the nurse's aides, meat packers and others to get these statues, which cost $12,000 from Vietnam.

Still, Phung is hopeful.

The statues are beautiful, inspirational.

They remind Phung of what got him through those awful years in that camp and in the prison-like life that followed upon his release.


They let him out of the camp in 1983.

Phung had served eight hard years, but enough international pressure plus Vietnam's terrible economy finally set him free.

He could go home.

But there was no home, really. There was no life, really.

The North Vietnamese had seized his home in Ban Me Thuot, a city in central Vietnam, after the fall of Saigon in 1975.

After his release, Phung had to report all his conversations, meetings and dealings with other people to the local bureaucrat each month. Because he was in the South Vietnam Army, Phung's children were forbidden to continue their education beyond high school. One son escaped, among the throngs of refugees called “boat people,” who fled the oppressive communist regime. Hundreds of thousands of boat people died, but Phung's son made it and landed, eventually, in Omaha.

In 1989, Phung got wind of a U.S.-sponsored program that resettled Vietnamese refugees in the United States, giving preference to those who had served with the South Vietnam forces or the U.S. government.

In 1992, Phung, his wife, Vi Tran, and their eight children in Vietnam came to America.

They landed in Omaha.


A man named Bao “Bill” Nguyen, no relation to Phung, was among the first to welcome Phung and his family.

Bill was among the boat people. What was supposed to be a four-day journey to Hong Kong took 30 days. A storm hit and blew Bill's boat off-course.

Like Phung, he prayed. Like Phung, he prayed for strength.

Bill made a promise. If he lived through this dramatic ride on the Pacific Ocean, he would do everything in his power to spread Buddhism and help the other Vietnamese people.

Bill came to the U.S. in 1982 and worked for a meatpacking company in Denver. Bill followed the company, now called Nebraska Beef, to Omaha three years later. It remains his employer today.

Bill is secretary for the nonprofit Vietnamese Buddhist Association of Omaha. He also served as a translator for my interview with Phung, who is the president.

Above Phung's head hangs an architect's rendering of what a new, permanent temple would look like. Phung hopes to see it built before he dies.

Bill helps in this venture. He is the charismatic bridge to the English (and Spanish) speaking world of Omaha.

But this is what I want to know the most: Why is Phung always smiling? How is it that he is not angry about those lost years, about the cruel treatment, about his family's suffering and the suffering of his countrymen?

Phung answers and Bill translates:

“He said anger will not bring happiness. He tries to forget. And forgive.”

This all sounds so familiar.

Contact the writer: Erin Grace    |   402-444-1136    |  

Erin is a columnist who tries to find interesting stories and get them into the paper. She's drawn to the idea that everyday life offers something extraordinary.

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