After fleeing Việt Nam as a child, Texas Instruments executive is devoted to improving education there

Lê Duy LoanThe streets of old Sài Gòn are filled with thousands of young men and women riding motor scooters.

The beep-beep of small horns goes on day and night, through dusty heat and splashing rain, in a display of ceaseless striving for a better life.

Lê Duy Loan,  a Texas Instruments executive based in Houston who left Việt Nam at a time of chaos 37 years ago, feels compelled to help them.

“I do everything I can to honor my father and my country. I’m very driven,” she said.

For many Vietnamese-Americans, whether to help their homeland is not an easy decision.

Those vanquished in the Việt Nam War lost their freedoms, as well as their hopes.

Many Vietnamese live in bitter exile in enclaves of Garland, Arlington, Houston and other U.S. cities.

Others, like Lê Duy Loan, have moved on, achieving remarkable success in America and finding ways to improve the lives of the Vietnamese.

Loan, 50, helps through the Sunflower Mission, a Houston foundation she started with other Vietnamese-Americans to strengthen Vietnamese education.

More than 700 friends and supporters gathered in Houston in September to celebrate the Sunflower Mission’s 10th birthday.

They congratulated each other for building 124 classrooms in impoverished areas of the country and for awarding more than 11,000 scholarships to Vietnamese students.

Introducing Loan as the keynote speaker for the evening, Texas Instruments senior vice president Greg Delagi said he was “blown away” by her life story.

“I’m just in awe of what she has been through.

She faced greater adversity before her 20th birthday than I have known in my entire life,” he told the Houston crowd.

“She has a deep sense of responsibility to give something back.”

Việt Nam is one of the few remaining communist nations.

When this ideology began to crumble in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Việt Nam’s rulers saw the need for a new direction.

They pulled their occupying troops out of Cambodia, and began to open the economy to market forces.

Life for ordinary people improved.

In 1986, the average Vietnamese lived on $100 a year.

By 2010, the World Bank calculates per capita annual income had risen to $1,130.

Unlike Cuba, Việt Nam has full diplomatic relations with the U.S.

Two-way trade will exceed $20 billion this year.

U.S. companies have invested billions in Việt Nam to make products ranging from running shoes to semiconductors.

The two countries are negotiating a free trade agreement.

Lingering wounds

Some Vietnamese living in the United States find this appalling.

In 1954, when France withdrew its colonial forces from Việt Nam, a communist regime took over in the North.

Refugees fled to the South, where the U.S. helped establish an anti-communist government.

When that government was toppled by communist forces in 1975, these families were uprooted again.

Some made their way to Texas.

Their Texas neighborhoods are decorated with the flag of South Việt Nam — a yellow banner split across the middle by three red stripes.

The flag hangs from shops in east Arlington and waves big and proud over a car dealership in southwest Houston.

It is illegal to display the yellow flag in Việt Nam.

Political dissent is not tolerated.

Two Internet bloggers were recently given long prison sentences for criticizing the government.

“Most of us had fathers, brothers or uncles in the army, men who died or were injured or who were imprisoned for 10 or even 30 years

. It is a hatred people cannot forget,” said Arlington physician Đặng Thiện Hùng, whose father was imprisoned for 13 years.

“Feelings are so strong.

People say if you want to help Việt Nam, you are a communist.”

Duke Văn Mai, the Dallas publisher of a weekly Vietnamese-language newspaper called Bút Việt News, says the Vietnamese government maintains a death sentence on him because of his anti-regime activities.

But when he urged a relief effort for Vietnamese flood victims, some of his older readers accused him of being “V.C.” — shorthand for Việt Cộng, the name of communist guerrillas during the war.

“The hatred won’t go away for at least the next 20 years,” he said.

“The first generation has to die away.”

More than 4 million refugees fled Việt Nam in the waning moments of the war or in the waves of repression that followed.

Today, about 1.7 million Americans trace their origins to Việt Nam.

Many congregated in Texas, where the weather is more like home.

The 2010 census counted more than 80,000 people of Vietnamese origin living in Harris County, 29,000 in Tarrant County and 26,000 in Dallas County.

Fleeing Việt Nam

A week before Sài Gòn fell, Lê Duy Loan’s family was ripped apart.

She and her mother and two sisters managed to get seats on a plane leaving South Việt Nam on April 22, 1975.

Her father and brother stayed behind, hoping to collect the family’s savings.

They did not see each other again for four years.

Duy-Loan (pronounced Zee-Lon) was 12 when she got to Houston.

She spoke no English.

She learned the language in late-night studies and in baseball games with the boys in the neighborhood.

At age 16, she graduated from Alief Hastings High School as valedictorian of her class.

Her father had wanted her to become an engineer since she was little.

She majored in electrical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.

She took her degree, bought a car, bought a house, got married and started work with Texas Instruments — all when she was just 19.

Texas Instruments splits its executives into separate tracks for technology and business management.

Loan moved up the technology track and in 2002 was elected the first woman in the company’s history to achieve the rank of senior fellow.

Today, she is responsible for technology readiness and operational execution for Texas Instruments’ multibillion-dollar embedded processing business.

Along the way, she picked up a master’s degree at the University of Houston, 24 patents and a black belt in taekwondo.

She also had two sons.

Loan found time for all these achievements by stretching her circadian rhythms.

She says she averaged three to four hours of sleep a night for decades, until her doctor insisted she start taking better care of herself.

Honoring heritage

All of this was not enough.

Loan says her father raised her to honor her heritage, and to give back to others with her gifts.

“I do everything I can to give back to this land,” she said.

“I do love my country dearly — both countries.”

She refuses to talk about the politics of Việt Nam and chose a way to help that stays clear of it.

“The Sunflower Mission is about education, education, education,” she said. “These kids did not commit any crime.

They were unlucky to be born under a suppressive government.”

The median age of the 91 million Vietnamese is 28.2, which means most of the country was born after the war ended.

More than 94 percent of Vietnamese can read and write, although most have not completed high school.

Public education is compulsory through the ninth grade, but it is not free.

Poor families must do without a student’s ability to work as well as pay the cost of tuition and books.

The Sunflower Mission’s scholarships extend down to primary school students’ families to overcome these hardships.

The Sunflower Mission’s school projects stretch across the country in rural areas where the need is judged greatest.

The finishing work is often left to groups of young Americans — many with Việt Nam-born parents or grandparents — who spend a couple of weeks painting and cleaning up the new schools while learning about the country.

Loan’s two sons have been on these trips, as has her husband, Đào Tuấn, a petrochemical consultant who is chairman of the Sunflower Mission.

Việt Nam’s graduates struggle to gain accreditation for their university degrees at international schools.

Laboratory facilities are crowded and lack enough computers and other learning tools.

Four or more engineering students at Đà Nẵng’s University of Technology gather around each workstation.

Teachers complain that they handle twice the number of students they should.

Executives at technology companies investing in Việt Nam say the biggest obstacle they face is finding enough graduates qualified to do the work.

‘Better life’

In November, Loan traveled to Hồ Chí Minh City to award Sunflower Mission scholarships to 23 college students who excelled at integrated circuit design.

“I wish for you pride.


To bring honor to Việt Nam.

Honor to our ancestors,” she told them.

One of the winners was Trần Văn Nghĩa, 22, a senior at Hồ Chí Minh City University of Technology.

“When people around the world think of Việt Nam, I hope they think of friendly people, and a beautiful country,” he said.

“Maybe we are still poor, but that will change.

We will do our best to make our country become a strong place where everyone will want to live.”

Another winner, Đào Vĩnh Lộc, 22, said he appreciated the generosity of Vietnamese-Americans and hoped to repay it someday.

“I hope the Vietnamese people who came to other countries, not only America but other countries, have a better life,” he said.

“I intend to help our country become more competitive, and to make a new image of Việt Nam.

Every country has good and bad.

In Việt Nam, the bad is just a small part.

“The war has been over more than 35 years,” he said.

“We are now living in a globalized world where I hope Việt Nam and America will both be better.”




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