22 Aug 2014
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From a Thai Refugee Camp to Mill Valley

For Mary Nguyen of Teresa’s, nail care is a family business, and Mill Valley is paradise compared to the religious persecution in her native Vietnam when she fled more than 30 years ago.

From a Thai Refugee Camp to Mill Valley From a Thai Refugee Camp to Mill Valley From a Thai Refugee Camp to Mill Valley From a Thai Refugee Camp to Mill Valley

For Mary Nguyen, owner of , the six-day-a-week commute from Pinole is nothing compared to the journey she made to get to the United States. Originally from Vietnam, Mary and her husband Michael Dinh escaped to Thailand by boat in 1980, where their daughter Annie Dinh was born in a refugee camp. Thirty-two years later, Mary and Michael say they are blessed with their four children, four grandchildren and happy California life.

Mill Valley Patch: So who is Teresa?
Mary Nguyen: Teresa is my sister. She was living in San Rafael and worked here when it was Tammy’s Nails. She took over from Tammy in 1992. When I came to the U.S. in 1993, I started working here for her. In 2001, she moved to San Jose and I took over.

MVP: Do you like working in Mill Valley? That’s a long drive from Pinole.
MN: I like working here. It’s 45 minutes from my house. Annie lives with us and we drive over together. Annie has been working here since she finished college in 1998.

MVP: And your husband works here too. He gives great manicures.
MN: Yes, this is a family business.

MVP: Do you ever think about moving to Mill Valley?
MN: We like Mill Valley so much. We like the people and the town is very quiet and very safe and peaceful. We want to move here but it’s too expensive. That’s our dream to move here.

MVP: Was there a lot of training involved to learn to give manicures and pedicures?
Annie Dinh: We had to go to school to get our license. It was hard because it was a lot of biology and learning about the chemicals. We also do waxing and lash and brow tinting. It was hard for my mother because she didn’t speak English.

MVP: Now your English is so good.
MN: Absolutely. At first I just knew how to say “hi” and “by.” My customers teach me! I love my customers. When I say something wrong they say, “No, you need to say that.” They like me because they say I am always smiling and I’m always polite.

MVP: That’s true. You are always smiling and gregarious. It’s nice to see men in here, and children too.
MN: Yes, 20 percent of our customers are men. They are the husbands and boyfriends of our regular customers. And some of my customers bring their children. We like the kids. They are our future customers!

MVP: Do you see some pretty gross feet?
MN: Yes, we see gross feet but we treat all of our customers the same. If something is really bad, if it looks like a fungus or disease, then we’ll send them to a doctor.

MVP: Annie, where did you go to college?
AD: I went to SF State. I am still going there. I am just taking some business and English classes to improve.

MVP: You’re already running a business.
AD: I used to not know anything about business. I used to not even know how to balance my checkbook. My major was biology. My parents said, 'You have to learn! One day you have to take care of yourself.'

MVP: And you’re good cooks too. You’ve given me some great recipes. Your shaking beef recipe is still one of our favorites.
AD: Oh yes, we share recipes with our clients and they share with us.

MVP: Have you ever had a nightmare customer?
AD: Yes. Not that often, but once in a while.

MVP: Do you ask them to leave, or do you just have to deal with it?
AD: We just deal with it. We do our best to make them happy. 
MN: Once I did a full set of gels for a customer. I worked for about an hour. She was talking and laughing and she moved her hand too fast and it got a tiny cut with the machine. I cleaned it up and put the wound care glue on, but she was so mad. She left without paying and then went home and put it on Yelp. I called her and invited her to come in and let me finish for free. I asked her to please take off the story but she never called me back and it’s been up for three years.

MVP: I am surprised that the Yelp comments would make a difference. You have so many loyal, local customers.
AD: Yes, but people who have come from out of town look on Yelp. It makes a big difference. That kind of thing doesn’t happen often, most of our customers are very nice and happy with us.
MN: After she walked out of the shop all of my customers said, 'Mary, you don’t need customers like that. Just let her go.' That made me feel better. I am doing the best I can. I don’t want to lose business. I want to stay here and keep the shop for generations. We need this job and want our customers to be happy with us.

MVP: It’s such a welcoming environment and it’s so nice to just come in and relax with your feet up. It’s more than just manicures and pedicures, it’s a little friendly community in here. I am sure it’s like therapy for many of your customers. They can relax and talk. Do they tell you a lot of their secrets?
MN: Oh yes.

MVP: And you probably have seen people go through a lot of changes.
MN: I see a lot of kids grow up, they come when they’re just born and now they’re in high school. Then they have babies - future customers for my daughter!

MVP: Do you miss Vietnam?
MN: Yes, very much. My parents and my sister and her family are there. I send money back for them. I am homesick, but I cannot go home.

MVP: I had heard that Vietnam now is pretty open and actually a very nice country with a strong economy.
AD: It’s nice for tourists and business, but they still treat the people inside the country very badly. There is no freedom of religion. You cannot practice your religion. We are Catholic. Just 10 percent of Vietnamese are Catholic. 60 percent are Buddhists.

MVP: That’s right, I saw the picture of the Pope in here. Who is that with the Pope?
MN: That was my father. He went to Rome to meet the Pope in 1995.

MVP: Annie, have you ever been to Vietnam?
AD: No. My parents say we won’t go back until the communists are out of the country. I was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. My parents were boat people. They escaped. My mom escaped three times in her life. She was born in North Vietnam, and then communists took over in 1954.
MN: I was just two years old!
AD: Her parents brought her to Cambodia to escape the communists. She lived there for 10 years and then the Khmer Rouge took over and she escaped again and went to South Vietnam. Then when the communists took over South Vietnam, she escaped again.

MVP: And that was on a boat?
MN: Yes, we escaped. Me and my sister, Teresa, and my husband and my sister’s husband escaped in 1980. I was 25.
AD: They left by boat from Vietnam to Thailand.

MVP: And you just left everything behind?
MN:  Yes. We were happy to escape. We don’t like the communists.

MVP: How did you get here?
MN: My sister’s husband had family here so they sponsored them to come, and then Teresa sponsored me.

MVP: It must have been hard to leave your parents.
MN: It was very hard, but they didn’t want to go. They were old and had a house. They didn’t want to have to learn everything new. It would have been too hard for them to start over.

MVP: I remember you were telling me about a movie that was just like your life.
AD: Yes, Journey from the Fall. It was directed and made by a first generation Vietnamese, like me, whose parents escaped and came here. He made a movie about their life. After America left Vietnam, from 1975 to 1986 there were about 3 million Vietnamese who escaped, but just 1.5 million made it to free countries like the U.S., France, Germany and Australia. Half of them were either captured by the Thai pirates or they died in the ocean. These were tiny, tiny fishing boats and there were storms. My mom’s cousin and some of my dad’s cousins died in the ocean.
MN: Yes, it was very dangerous to escape. You never know. You’re lucky if you get to another country, or you die in the water.

MVP: How scary.
AD: Yes, but people were willing to go for freedom. If you stay in the country you have no freedom at all. No freedom of religion, speech, no possessions. After the U.S. left Vietnam they put many of the teachers and lawyers and soldiers who worked with Americans before the war, they put them in prisons and called them “re-education camps.” A lot of them were killed in the jail.

MVP: What a contrast to our little Mill Valley.
AD: We call this paradise! That’s why my mom is always smiling because she found peace here. No matter how hard she works she is happy.

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