Former Vietnamese prisoner Michael Nguyen speaks of experience, thanks his “angels”

Imprisoned in a cramped and hot Vietnamese cell, Michael PhuongMinh Nguyen was trapped — except at night.

In his sleep, he traveled.

He visited with his wife and four daughters. He saw friends. He went back to familiar places and even explored new ones he wished he could visit.

The “travels” weren’t just happenstance. He planned them earlier each day.

“During the day, you’re a prisoner. But when you go to sleep, you start getting free in your mind,” Nguyen, an Orange County resident, said. “You have to plan that. Where do you go tonight?”

“And every night, I traveled everywhere.”

It’s part of what kept Nguyen sane for 27 months following his arrest in 2018 while visiting his homeland. During a four-hour trial in 2019, Nguyen was convicted of attempting to overthrow the Vietnamese government and sentenced to 12 years in prison. On Oct. 21, 2020, he was unexpectedly released.

Now, nearly two years later, Nguyen is hosting a banquet on Sunday, Oct. 9 in Anaheim to thank current and former Congress members who worked to get him back home.

Helen Nguyen, center, and her four daughters are shown with a family photo in Orange on February 27, 2019. Their father and husband, Michael Nguyen, returned home on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020. He had been imprisoned in Vietnam since the summer of 2018. Pictured, clockwise from left, are Emily, 11, Elaine, 14, Helen, Eileen, 16, and Evelynn, 8. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

This picture from the Vietnam News Agency taken and released on June 24, 2019 shows US citizen Michael Nguyen (L) standing on trial in Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam released Nguyen, who returned to his home in Orange County on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020. (Photo by Vietnam News Agency/AFP/Getty Images)

Michael Nguyen, at his home in Orange on Sunday, October 2, 2022 was visiting Vietnam in 2018 when he was arrested. In 2019 he was sentenced to 12 years in a Vietnamese prison. The Vietnam government released Nguyen in 2020. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

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In a wide-ranging interview with the Southern California News Group, his first since he’s been back, Nguyen described details about his trip, his life in a “horrible” prison — “each day in there was like a death sentence” — and what it’s been like since his return.

Nguyen displayed and spoke about a sense of optimism and positivity that his family credits for his ability to return to normal life.

Every day, he said, marked one day closer to fulfilling his sentence: “I didn’t think, ‘survive another day.’ I think, ‘I move on to another day, get closer to the day I meet my family after 12 years.’”

That meant enduring many hardships: beatings and harassment from another prisoner when he first arrived; miserable food that consisted mostly of rice and vegetables; waking each morning at 5 a.m. to get a bucket of water for bathing, lest he forgo that luxury; and sleeping on a hard floor in a cell with two dozen men.

No family member was allowed to see him. Letters from home could only be read to him — until much later, when guards allowed him to reread the missives, but not keep them.

Mark Roberts, his brother-in-law, injected “code” in his letters — “trying to communicate as much as possible (that) we are fighting like hell.”

Did he understand the codes? Some were references to poker, even doing laundry, but “refusing to fold.”

Yes, he nodded, smiling. He understood.

Homeland

Nguyen has called the U.S. home since 1975.

Like many other Vietnamese refugees, he was among the “boat people” who fled following the communist takeover of South Vietnam. He arrived in Texas with his father, stepmother, and siblings as a 10-year-old boy. He later graduated from a high school in San Antonio and the University of Houston, where he studied economics.

His father, Van Nam Nguyen, now 90, is a former Vietnamese colonel who became a shrimp boat captain in Galveston Bay, Texas. At the time, he and fellow Vietnamese fishermen were not welcomed by white fishermen, and animosity grew, drawing in the Ku Klux Klan. Van Nam Nguyen, then the president of the Vietnamese Fisherman’s Association, filed a lawsuit in 1981 through the Southern Poverty Law Center. They won an injunction against the Klan, and the elder Nguyen eventually came to an agreement with a KKK leader, according to news accounts.

Michael Nguyen remembers those years, learning from his father: “We had to stand up (to do) the right thing.”

Meanwhile, Michael Nguyen’s mother, Julie Dam, now 90, was living in Riverside. He arrived in California to live with her in 1990. And more than a decade later, he married his long-time sweetheart, Hieu Helen Nguyen.

Michael Nguyen, at his home in Orange on Sunday, October 2, 2022 was visiting Vietnam in 2018 when he was arrested. In 2019 he was sentenced to 12 years in a Vietnamese prison. The Vietnam government released Nguyen in 2020. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Today, Michael and Helen Nguyen live with their four daughters, ages 12 to 19, along with Helen Nguyen’s parents and sister in a large bustling home in Orange that serves as a frequent gathering point for numerous cousins and other extended family members.

After Michael Nguyen was arrested, those cheerful get-togethers became somber daily meetings to go over the latest news and share research on his case.

The family’s odyssey began when Helen Nguyen realized her husband went missing after landing in Vietnam on June 29.

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She and her brother-in-law, Roberts, quickly mounted a campaign that drew a bipartisan coalition of legislators to demand his release. Helen Nguyen, a surgical nurse at UCI Medical Center and a Kaiser Permanente hospital, also testified before Congress. And Rep. Katie Porter, D-Irvine, invited her to be a guest at then-President Donald Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address.

The trip

Meanwhile, back in Vietnam, her husband’s trip had ended dramatically different from every other he had taken since 2004 when he began traveling about twice a year to his homeland.

Michael Nguyen arrived at the Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Hanoi on June 29, 2018. The next day, he embarked with a small group of students on a trip through various cities: Vung Tau, Nha Trang, and finally, Da Nang. On their way back to Saigon, on July 7, they were pulled off of a bus and arrested.

While he was in prison, his supporters consistently maintained that Michael Nguyen was not involved in any political activity and was in Vietnam to visit older relatives.

In interviews over the past two weeks, Michael Nguyen said he traveled to visit relatives and meet with friends to talk about human rights. In recent years, he said, his trips often included speaking with individuals about finding ways to encourage people to “just raise their voice” in the communist country.

“I need to do something for the people in Vietnam,” he said.  But that involved discussions, he continued, not engaging in violent measures against the state, as he was accused.

Vietnamese officials said Michael Nguyen helped organize mass protests in June 2018 that led to numerous clashes with police. Michael Nguyen said he was not involved in organizing those protests.

RELATED: Two Americans sentenced to prison in Vietnam. One got out; the other can’t

The Vietnamese government, he said, overreached in its accusations.

“How can one person or individual plan to overthrow the government?” he said.

His trial came with little notice. His government-appointed attorney showed up the day before the trial and told him to plead guilty. The attorney, Michael Nguyen said, also told him that after a guilty verdict, the U.S. and Vietnamese governments would then arrange for him to be transported to a U.S. prison. Michael Nguyen knew that would not happen.

But pleading guilty could mean a more lenient sentence; he said he felt he had no choice. The trial lasted about four hours. His sentence:12 years.

State Department officials told the family that Vietnam would likely release Michael Nguyen after approximately two years, but there would be little notice, and “it’s going to come out of the blue,” Roberts said.

And that’s what happened.

“We had less than 12 hours to make all the plans,” said Roberts, who bought two tickets for Michael Nguyen, a few hours apart, because he didn’t know when he would get to the airport.

Meanwhile, guards brought Michael Nguyen clean clothes and told him to change from his black and white striped prison garb. They gave him a COVID-19 test for the flight. And, without saying anything, they removed him from his cell.

Other prisoners didn’t know what to think. Usually, when it’s the end of someone’s sentence, they celebrate, Michael Nguyen said. But this was unexpected. And he had developed bonds with many of the prisoners, sharing food from care packages sent by his family, teaching foreigners some Vietnamese and the Vietnamese prisoners some English.

Some prisoners cried as he was taken away, he said.

“I was very patient and humble. I tried not to say anything or ask for anything,” he said, treating the ride the way he had handled himself throughout his 27 months and 15 days as a prisoner.

But when he saw the airport, he said: “I feel a little better.”

Someone lent him a phone, and he called his wife, who had already heard from state officials that he would be released. Then another phone call, this one from then-U.S. Ambassador Daniel Kritenbrink: “Congratulations. You’ll be free. You’re going home to reunite with your family.” A Consulate official accompanied him back home during a 30-hour flight with multiple stops.

Back home

His family, elated to have him home, was preparing for a changed Michael Nguyen.

“But much to all of our happiness, Michael looked like he had just come home from a vacation,” Roberts said. “That doesn’t speak to his treatment but to his mental ability to make the best of the situation.”

During his prison time, jailed in a section reserved for foreigners, Michael Nguyen said he maintained a positive attitude, even when a prisoner harassed and beat him at what Michael Nguyen said was the Vietnamese government’s behest in exchange for offering that person a shorter sentence.

Sent to a labor camp, he built outdoor woven vinyl chairs destined for foreign export. He exercised by pacing back and forth in his cell. He read every day.  And he developed a plan for what he wanted to learn every year, thinking he might have to serve all 12 years of his sentence.

His family was always at the forefront.

“Every day, I get up thinking of my Helen’s face or my daughters’ faces. I try to remember all my close friends. I try to remember my friends from school. I remember all my relatives. Everybody I’ve met all my life,” Michael Nguyen said.

“I believe in positive more than negative … or when negative things come, I can convert that negative thing into becoming positive,” added Michael Nguyen, who speaks English fluently, with a Vietnamese accent.

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State Department officials had warned the family that Michael Nguyen would likely have post-traumatic stress disorder and could be triggered by certain lights, noises, or smells. He may need help crossing the street and would likely have forgotten how to drive, Roberts said they told him.

But the very next day he was home, Michael Nguyen was driving his children to school, as he regularly did before his imprisonment.

Sitting around their family room, near the altar where they gather to pray every night after dinner, Michael Nguyen’s wife and daughters chatted about the normalcy that has returned to their lives in the past two years since his return.

“It’s been stress-free, not having to search for my dad or call upon authorities to help with my dad. It was a big sigh of relief for us when he returned,” said Eileen Nguyen, 19, a Cal State Long Beach student and the oldest of the daughters. Her sisters, Elaine, 18; Emily, 15; and Evelynn, 12, agreed.

In their various appeals, their father was often referred to as “Mr. Mom,” the parent who took the kids to school and activities and helped with their homework. That hasn’t changed. Michael Nguyen said he still gets up early, makes the girls breakfast, and resumed his former role while also rebuilding a printing service company in Garden Grove that closed in his absence.

Michael Nguyen is the same as before, family members said. The only sign of the trauma he endured sometimes comes through late at night, his wife shared.

“When he sleeps, he will punch and kick and talk in his sleep, but you can’t understand what he’s saying,” Helen Nguyen said. “I wake him up and say, ‘What kind of dream are you having?’”

But he doesn’t remember the dream or realize he was talking or fighting, she said.

Otherwise, the past couple of years have been back to normal, Helen Nguyen said. She’s blocked those 27 months he was in prison. Like her daughters, she speaks about gratitude for her husband’s return and leaving behind the excruciating stress she and her family lived.

Michael Nguyen said he’s looking forward to sharing more of his story. An avid reader of history and motivational books, he’s planning to write his own book. In prison, he wrote regularly in a journal, but the guards did not allow him to take that with him.

He’s also more involved in supporting political prisoners in Vietnam and is monitoring the fate of two young men who were arrested alongside him and are still in prison (sentenced to eight and 10-year terms) and a third prisoner who has gone missing since his arrest. Money raised from tickets at Sunday’s banquet, after costs are covered, will go toward families assisted by the nonprofit Prisoners of Conscience in London.

The banquet, at Golden Sea Seafood Restaurant in Anaheim, is Michael Nguyen’s way of thanking his guests of honor: the current and former Congress members who helped secure his release, including Porter; Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach; Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks; Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana; and former Republican Reps. Mimi Walters and Ed Royce.

“They are my angels,” Michael Nguyen said Thursday. “I want to thank everyone involved in my case.”

Michael Nguyen said he’s been sharing his story one-on-one with Vietnamese American leaders in various cities over the last two years and may be doing more public speaking.

“I want to let them know: You cannot change anything that already exists or is in the past. But you can change yourself and your future.”

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