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Fleeing to Freedom: From Vietnam to Colorado

Quynh Nguyen Forss tells the story of how her family escaped from communist Vietnam in 1979 on a fishing boat when she was just 5-years-old.

BROOMFIELD, Colo. — In 1979, people fearing violence in communist Vietnam decided to flee. 

Those who escaped by sea became known as "boat people." At least one of those families ended up in Colorado. 

Quynh Nguyen Forss spread photos of her family across her kitchen table. They tell the incredible story of how far the love of two parents took their children. 

"Crazy to think we have these," she said, looking at the pictures. "I just can't believe this was us."

Credit: KUSA
Phu and Nga Nguyen, Quynh Nguyen Forss' parents.

Quynh Nguyen Forss recognizes familiar faces, now aged 43 years. She was just 5-years-old when they left Vietnam. 

"There's dad, there's me, there's Nhu," she said. “They gave up so much and they sacrificed so much.”

In the cover of darkness, her father led their family to a fishing boat in the hopes of sailing to freedom.

"Eighteen of us just squished on there," Forss said. "It wasn't built to go on the South China Sea."

Credit: KUSA

This was the beginning of their escape from Vietnam and their journey to freedom, but no great journey starts without some challenges along the way.

"A day into our trip the motor on our boat died," she said. "We're stranded at sea. My mom goes into labor."

Forss said her father and aunt delivered her new baby sister, Dai Duong, aboard the fishing boat. They cut her umbilical cord with small scissors and sewed it off with fishing line. Their plan had been to deliver the baby on land when they arrived in Hong Kong, which was only supposed to be a three day journey.

"You were born where? Did you say a boat? Was it like a cruise ship?" Dai Duong Wanner said. "It's surreal and at the same time I have a lot of pride."

Wanner was a miracle, the hope their family needed to keep going.

Credit: KUSA
Dai Duong is born aboard their fishing boat, while stranded at sea.

"They named her Dai Duong which means 'grand ocean,'" Forss said.

"That's always a conversation starter, my name and what it means," Wanner said.

Days later, after being stranded at sea, an oil rig stopped to help them. Weeks later, they make it to Hong Kong and spent months going from refugee camp to refugee camp. Eventually, they were approved to move to the U.S. where they found their way to Colorado. Much of their family remains here today.

Credit: KUSA

"Ba, smiling as tears came to his eyes, still couldn't believe they were standing on American soil," said Forss, reading from her book Fleeing to Freedom.

She preserves her family's legacy across 173 pages in her memoir detailing their escape from Vietnam 

"I wrote it for my parents," she said. "I want them to know that we're so grateful for everything they did and everything we have is because of them. I hope my kids understand that. I hope they understand their roots and that when we came here we didn’t have anything.”

Four generations of their family gathered in the kitchen on Friday. They said they never take the joy of being together for granted.

It's what their father would have wanted. 

"Being able to share this now with the world, I guess it means that much more now that my dad is passed," Forss said.

They lost their father two weeks ago.

Credit: KUSA
A memorial of their father, Phu Nguyen.

“Unfortunately he passed exactly a week after it became published but he was able to hold it in his hand and look through it and I think that he was very touched by it," Forss said. "His memory will live on. His legacy will live on."

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