October 9, 2012

Steve Solloway: Vietnamese sisters, and how they love golf

LOVELL - Van L. Nguyen was too polite to say she was cold. Instead she sat in her chair late Tuesday afternoon and rubbed warmth back into bare legs with her hands.

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Van L. Nguyen, left, and her younger sister, Van B. Nguyen, will represent Fryeburg Academy at the state golf tournament.

Courtesy Fryeburg Academy

"In Vietnam it's always so hot when I play golf. I like this weather."

She was too accomodating to say she'd rather be working on her golf swing and her putting than talk about herself. On a heavily overcast day at Kezar Lake Golf Club she was losing what little daylight there was with each answer to questions.

The state golf tournaments for qualified individual Maine high school boys and girls tee off Saturday at Natanis Golf Course in Vassalboro. Last year Nguyen finished sixth, six strokes behind the two-time defending champion, Ali Prescott of Fort Kent.

"This is my last year," said Nguyen, a senior at nearby Fryeburg Academy. "I'd like to finish top-5, at least top-10. I want to make my coach happy."

She reached over and lightly tapped Chris Dutton on his knee. Her smile brought its own sunlight.

"When I first came here I was so lonely. I was so far from home. Then I play golf and I got to know more people. I play golf and a lot of teachers know me."

She and her younger sister, Van B. Nguyen, live in Ho Chi Minh City, a noisy, crowded city of 9 million people. Many Americans knew it as Saigon before the North Vietnamese drove their tanks down its boulevards nearly 40 years ago. Their father, Nguyen Tu Nguyen, was barely a teenager. Now he's a 52-year-old architect, educated at a Vietnamese university. I didn't talk politics with his daughters.

He and his wife, Kim Chi Thi Tran, sent their daughters to be taught by mostly British teachers at an international school in Ho Chi Minh City. Then it was decided the girls would attend high school in the United States. A search began.

"I loved the name Fryeburg," said Van, the elder. "We looked at the pictures in a brochure. We talked to people who came here."

Their father, said younger sister Van, wanted them to become even more fluent in English. He also introduced them to golf, a game he discovered and has tried to master.

"He thought it was a better sport for girls," said Van the younger. "He forced it on us."

If Van the elder has the killer smile, her sister has the droll sense of humor. "It shouldn't be that hard, hitting a ball that doesn't move. But it is," said Van the younger. I was hitting it 50 yards and I was happy with that. I started hitting it 150 yards and I was (happier.)"

Van the younger shot a 104 last year, well off the winning score of 87. She's undaunted after only two years of playing competively. Her overall game has improved. She's in better control of her emotions. "My goal (at the state meet) is to finish top-3. I would have to play really well."

Classmates call them Little Van -- the elder isn't much taller than 5 feet -- and Big Van. "That gets confusing," said Van the younger. Big sisters are older sisters.

Ask them for their golf heroes. Phil Mickelson, says Van the younger. Partly because Mickelson is their dad's favorite golfer and partly because of his understated personality. And partly because he's "not involved in any scandals."

Van the elder gives a different answer: her father. He drives them two hours from the city to one of the relatively few golf courses in Vietnam. The greens there play much slower than the greens here. Their father also provides for a caddie for each daughter. Here, they're happy to carry their own bags.

(Continued on page 2)

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