Escaping from Vietnam to Blue Earth in 1975
It’s the end of an era in Blue Earth, says Marty Sawyer.
Sawyer refers to the fact that it was 45 years ago when the first Vietnamese refugee family came to Blue Earth with the help of the Blue Earth Ministerial Association and some members of local churches, including Sawyer and her late husband John.
That first family was Andy and Carolyn Huynh and their three children, Sarah, Steve and James.
Other Vietnamese refugee families came here as well, but they all relocated elsewhere after first getting established in Blue Earth.
But, not Andy and Carolyn. They never left.
“My parents loved the people here,” their daughter Sarah Dobberstein says. “They never moved anywhere else and they never wanted to. There are really special people here.”
But now, Andy passed away last week on July 9, and Carolyn is going to go live with daughter Sarah in Missouri.
That makes it the end of an era.
Andy was a hard-working man who had a wide variety of interests all of his life.
When he first arrived in Blue Earth, his first job was at St. Luke’s Lutheran Care Center. But he next worked construction jobs around the state, and went to Jackson Vocational College and got a degree in auto mechanics.
Carolyn worked at Telex until she retired from there. Sarah says the kids had jobs as well, including picking corn.
Andy also worked for JM Manufacturing in Winnebago, as well as ending his working career being employed for 19 years at JSO Farms, and became a master at growing wildflowers for that company.
But Andy might be best remembered for his and Carolyn’s downtown Main Street Blue Earth restaurant, Andy’s Oriental Cafe.
They started the restaurant in the fall of 1983, and ran it until Carolyn’s health made it impossible to keep going. On May 1, 2016, Andy and Carolyn gave their cafe building to the city in exchange for the empty lot next door to their home on Seventh Street.
However, there is a lot more to the story of Andy and Carolyn Huynh than their 45 years in Blue Earth. There are those 42 years they lived in Vietnam before coming here.
“My family was very wealthy in Vietnam,” Sarah says. “My parents owned three homes. There was the main one we lived in and two others. After a while they rented out the other two to the U.S. Army.”
She says the family went on lots of vacation trips, and their favorite place was Paris.
“My father was in the army (Vietnamese National Army) and he loved being in the army,” Sarah says. “He made the rank of lieutenant colonel.”
Her mother, Carolyn, owned a night club in Saigon. Her father, Andy, owned a rubber tree farm and a fishing company, among other things.
“He also owned a Honda motorcycle store,” Sarah says. “He loved being in business.”
The family was living a very good life, with the children going to private school and they even had a nanny.
And, then, the war came calling at their doorstep.
“You know, communication was poor,” Sarah says. “So we didn’t really know what was happening up north, until the bombs started falling outside Saigon.”
Andy decided the family should flee the country as he feared they could be captured, tortured and killed. They all had the proper passports and paperwork to go to Paris where they had some family members. He hired a private plane to take them and his brother’s family to Paris.
It was April 26, 1975.
The fall of Saigon, then the capital of South Vietnam, was captured by the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong four days later, on April 30.
“My father was in the South Vietnam army, so he could not get to the airport right away,” Sarah says. “And the private plane flown by a friend of his was not allowed to land at the airport.”
Her mother led the children along with the crowd of people trying to leave Saigon and the family wound up on a plane without Andy.
“My mother sent my father a telegram,” Sarah says. “But then we just followed everyone else, like a herd of cattle, and left Saigon.”
By the time Andy’s return telegram arrived, telling the family to stay put at the airport, it was too late.
“We ended up in Guam and we were signed up there as a refugee family,” Sarah says. “And we could not stay there and we had to go somewhere that would accept us as refugees, so we had to have a sponsor. And we wanted to stay together and not have to split up. So we needed a sponsor where we could all go together.”
That included Andy’s sisters and Carolyn’s mother who were also leaving with the family.
They also had brought their nanny with them and they had to separate from her because they were “not allowed to own a person,” Sarah recalls.
Her uncle and aunt and family ended up going to Michigan, and she and her mother and brothers, and her aunts and grandmother all came to Blue Earth.
Andy showed up later in Blue Earth. He first went to Paris, as he had the paperwork to do that.
Then Father Brown, the Catholic priest in Blue Earth, helped get Andy from Paris to Blue Earth to be with the rest of the family, Sarah says.
Andy was able to bring his mother to the U.S. in 1979. His two brothers stayed in Vietnam and live there still. Andy and some of the family went back to Vietnam only one time, in 1995.
“It was dangerous for my father to go back,” Sarah says. “Because of his work in the army. He was always worried about it, being safe, even here in the U.S., in Blue Earth.”
It was a proud moment for the family back on Nov. 26, 1981. That is when they all became U.S. citizens in a ceremony at the courthouse in Windom.
“It was me, my parents, brothers and aunts,” Sarah says. “There was a big picture of all of us on the front page of the Blue Earth newspaper.”
They also all had taken American names. Andy, for instance, originally had the Vietnamese name of Huynh Kim An.
Sarah remembers her father as being a very caring person, always ready to help someone who needed it.
Especially with food.
“He loved to cook,” she says. “He and mom made weekly trips to the Twin Cities to go to the Farmers’ Market and the Oriental market.”
Andy also loved cars and owned several nice ones in Vietnam. He took the auto mechanics class in Jackson just so he could fix his own cars.
“And he loved to tell stories, lots and lots of stories,” Sarah says. “He would cook in the restaurant and then come out and visit with people and tell stories.”
He was also very proud of his children and his grandchildren and now his great-grandchildren.
“He was firm in wanting us to do our best,” Sarah says. “He would always tell us what we should do. And it was pretty much his way was the right way. I think it was all that military training he had.”
Last fall, in October, Andy got a bad cold. After the cold, he developed a raspy voice and was not well.
Eventually, he went to the doctor at UHD. Dr. Bobby Karp sent him to an ENT, who sent him to the Mayo Clinic.
“He had Stage 2 cancer, very aggressive, and it was on his vocal cords,” Sarah says. “He refused to accept it but eventually he started some treatments for it.”
The treatments did not work, and he eventually went into Hospice care in Blue Earth.
“His mind was sharp to the very end,” Sarah says. “He was still telling everyone what to do, but he had to do it by writing. His vocal cords had been removed on June 17.”
She says this story is Andy’s last story. The story of his life, and the end of an era in Blue Earth.
“I think there are a lot of people in Blue Earth who have a favorite story about my dad,” Sarah says. “I?hope they share them.”