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Survivor Man escapes Vietnam

Local restaurant owner tells tale of how he left his home country and spent days at sea

Le Nguyen's kids call him Survivor Man, and there's no title more apt for the Burnaby restaurateur.

Nguyen opened Osaka Island Japanese Restaurant in the Edmonds area two years ago, and while that dream is slowly but steadily growing, his journey from his Vietnamese homeland is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

It was late 1983, and the 19year-old Nguyen had no interest in joining the Vietnamese army.

His mother warned him that the government would not look kindly on his decision and perhaps it was time to look for a future outside of Vietnam.

Nguyen started talking to his friends and soon, a group of 50 of them decided that they would buy a boat and try to escape to Malaysia, a harrowing seven-day journey.

"We made a deal that whether we lived or died, we were in this together, to the end," said Nguyen.

Over the course of two months, the group of 50 started slowly buying and storing the supplies they would need for their run to freedom. The men, who ranged in age from 19 to 30, broke up into five groups of 10 and continued with the appearance of living normal lives.

"We'd go out for coffee every night, and everything looked normal," said Nguyen. "Meanwhile, we were buying diesel, we were stocking up food, we were putting money together to buy the boat."

Their nominal leader was a 30-year-old who could read maps and knew how to navigate to Malaysia.

"We called him the Old Man," said Nguyen. "He was the one who knew the way to Malaysia, so he was important, but all of us did our part."

Only immediate family members knew of the plan of the 50 men, and there were no leaks.

"If the government had found out, we'd all be put into jail," said Nguyen.

On the night of the escape, Nguyen and his team of 10 were to look for a light signal. Three red lights and the journey was put off for at least a day; three green lights meant it was all systems go.

"I still remember seeing the green lights," he said. "We all got on the boat and we were off."

Not surprisingly, the journey wasn't smooth.

"We ran out of food on the fifth day," said Nguyen. "We didn't know how close we were to Malaysia, but it was pretty scary."

By day seven, the Old Man was doing his job and steering the boat toward Malaysia and the lights of landfall were in sight.

"We all made it," said Nguyen. "All 50 of us were taken in by the Malaysians."

Nguyen would spend the next seven months in a settlement camp. Back in Vietnam, when word of the escape reached the government, Nguyen's mother, along with relatives of the other 49 escapees, were thrown into jail for six months.

"The police said they helped us escape, so they had to go to jail," said Nguyen, who added that he couldn't get word of his successful journey back to relatives for three months.

While in Malaysia, Nguyen had to decide whether he wanted to immigrate to Canada, the United States or Australia.

"I looked at a map and said, 'Canada, that looks like an interesting place,'" said Nguyen.

After passing all the necessary hurdles, Nguyen flew to Vancouver in early 1984, but it wasn't his final destination.

"Winnipeg was where I was going," he said. "I had no idea it would be that cold."

Nguyen started going to school and working as a courier for a company that made automotive alternators and starters.

Nguyen would spend 17 years in Winnipeg, and during this time, he met wife Phuong. The couple now have four children, daughters who are 15, nine and two-and-a-half, and a son, 12.

In 2001, Nguyen came to Vancouver to visit his uncle, Tony Vo, who worked at a Japanese restaurant.

Nguyen knew then he wanted to make a change and work in a restaurant.

"My uncle said he would support me and train me, but I had to be serious about it," said Nguyen. "This is what I wanted to do, so I learned everything I could from him."

Also during his time in Vancouver, Nguyen was able to sponsor his mother to come to Canada, and the joyful reunion occurred in 2002.

By 2010, Nguyen wanted to run his own restaurant, and after some scouting, he chose an Edmonds location to open Osaka Island.

"I opened on Dec. 2, 2010," he said. "I'm slowly building the business, and it's been very good. . I want to show my children how important it is to work hard. If you work hard, you can achieve anything."

When he told his children about his journey from Vietnam, they came up with a nickname for him.

"They call me Survivor Man," said Nguyen. "They're amazed at how I came to Canada."

As for the 49 other people who were on the boat with him, Nguyen said he stays in touch with some of them, and many of them have made their marks all over the world.

"We've got lawyers, we've got doctors, and we're in Canada, we're in the United States, we're in Australia, Denmark and all over the world," he said. "We made a deal that we were in it together, live or die and we all made it."