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JOURNEY TO VIETNAM: Going home again
Joe Tu came to the United States during the Vietnam war. Now, 32 years later, he reconnects
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DA NANG, VIETNAM -- The last time they saw each other, he was a 12-year-old boy and she was 32 years younger.

Tears filled the eyes of Da Thi Tu when she saw her nephew, Joe Tu, at their reunion at a restaurant in Da Nang.

"Is this you? Is this the real Joe?" she said in Vietnamese as she clung tightly to his arm.

Now 92 and in frail health, Da Thi has lived in Vietnam all of her life. Her nephew, Joe, came to the U.S. as a refugee after the Vietnam War. He is now pastor of the Vietnamese congregation of First Baptist Church on Green Street.

"I didn't expect to see my aunt," Joe said. "I remember when I was little, she would take me to her house, feed me and look after me."

He was also reunited at the celebration with a cousin, Thinh Duc Nguyen, who was a boyhood friend to Joe. The group included other family members including Thinh's daughter, Tranh Thi Nguyen, whom he met for the first time.

On Nov. 16, Tu and a group from First Baptist arrived in Saigon.

The last time Joe set foot on Vietnamese soil was May 29, 1975. The war was escalating and the North Vietnamese were about to take over the South. After moving to avoid the battles, Joe, his three brothers and three sisters, along with his father, Dien, and mother, Sot, joined about 350 people on a charter boat to set sail for an island off the coast of Vietnam.

As they entered international waters, they encountered a flotilla of U.S. ships, mostly Navy vessels. They boarded a cargo ship which soon became packed with 9,000 Vietnamese refugees.

The ship carried them first to the Philippines, where they transferred to another ship bound for Guam. There they were processed and sent to Eglin Air Force Base on the Florida panhandle.

Through a cousin, the family found a sponsor in Southern California, where Dien, a building contractor, found work as a laborer. Joe, whose family spoke no English, was sent to public schools in San Diego.

"The first three years I was crying all the time," Joe said. "My mom and dad didn't know, but every night I missed my friends. I missed home. When I first got here, I didn't have any friends."

He found just one classmate, a girl, who had come from Vietnam.

The school offered no classes for those who didn't speak English.

"I was struggling," Joe said. "They just threw me in the class. By high school, I was doing pretty good."

Tu said his parents, who are now in their 90s, never thought they would spend the rest of their lives in the U.S.

"Now, they see their children are all successful and are happy about that," he said. One sister and her husband live in Atlanta. His other siblings live in California.

"This is a land of opportunity," Joe said. "There are plenty of opportunities here."

After 32 years, he feels very much a part of the United States.

"I feel like more of an American," he said. "We speak English at home and we've very comfortable among Anglo people."

But he enjoys helping new Vietnamese arrivals adjust to life here.

"I've lived there and I know what it's like. It's about culture and tradition," Joe said.

His family stood out in Vietnam, where a large number practice Buddhism.

In 1911, his paternal grandfather was converted by Christian missionaries. As a third generation Christian, Joe said his family's beliefs often led to some ostracism from his relatives that weren't Christian.

As a boy of 6, he said he felt the call to Christian ministry.

Joe went to college at the University of California at Irvine and, after trying his hand at a music degree, got a degree in construction technology. He worked for 10 years in construction. While at Irvine, he met his future wife, Cindy, who now works for the Hall County Board of Education.

But the call to ministry was always there.

He came to Georgia at the age of 29 and started a mission in the Grant Park area of Atlanta. In 1993, he came to Gainesville as pastor of the Vietnamese congregation.

He preaches each Sunday in a mixed style, speaking in both English and Vietnamese, while the congregation sings in Vietnamese. He realizes his audience is not always made up of believers.

"My philosophy of ministry is not to convert anybody," he said. "But rather to let them experience the love that Jesus has for them."

In addition to his pastorate, Joe and his brother own a farm in Banks County that yields eggs that eventually produce broilers. He plans to invest the profits from the farm in further work in Vietnam.

Dr. William L. Coates Jr., senior pastor of First Baptist, said it was Joe Tu's desire to return to his homeland that inspired the trip."The reason we were so interested in going to Vietnam was Joe Tu," Coates said. "I promised him three years ago we would go."

Coates said he watched closely as Joe arrived in Vietnam for the first time in 32 years.

"He was looking around and just taking it in," Coates said. "Even in Saigon, where we landed, he said, ‘Hardly anything has changed. There are a few new buildings and better roads, but nothing else has changed.' What he was really saying, is that under communist rule, there is very little impetus for change."

Note: Times staff photographer Robin Michener Nathan accompanied the group from Gainesville on their mission trip to Vietnam, where she captured the entire trip in photographs. Community editor Harris Blackwood conducted interviews in Gainesville and reported from interviews and notes taken in Vietnam.

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