RIVERTON — As a veteran of the Vietnam War, scarred by the violence he'd witnessed, Dave Hansen didn't think he wanted to hear the word "Vietnam" ever again.
That changed in 1979 when he and his wife, Carol, were approached by a friend who asked them to temporarily host a family of Vietnamese refugees. The Hansens didn't have much — the guest family would need to sleep on the floor — but they accepted nonetheless.
When Chau Phung, her husband Ha, their 17-year-old niece Tyuet Tran, and their five-month-old daughter, Yen, arrived on the Hansens' doorstep in Salt Lake City, they didn't speak a word of English, and the Hansens did not speak Vietnamese. But their wordless friendship grew through acts of kindness: to repay the Hansens for their hospitality, Phung cooked meals and helped them care for their young sons, and the families grew close. The Hansens' 2-year-old son spent so much time with Phung that he started speaking Vietnamese himself.
The families lost touch in 1981 when the Hansens moved away from Salt Lake City. For years, they wondered what had happened to each other — until one recent day when Hansen got a call from Phung's daughter, Amy Tieu, who had used the internet to track him down.
And for the first time ever on Friday, reunited after nearly 40 years, Phung and the Hansens were able to tell each other with words what those kindnesses had meant to them.
"To me, it was like a bluebird coming out of the sky and landing in my yard," Dave Hansen told Phung, surrounded by smiling photos of the Tieu family in the living room of Phung's son, Kim. "It was like a blessing."
Phung, beaming with happiness, proudly told the Hansens about the life her family had made in the past 40 years. She'd learned English, earned a high school diploma, and raised four children with Ha, who passed away from cancer in 2006. She told them how thankful she was for their hospitality, and expressed gratitude toward the U.S. government for welcoming her family in their time of need.
"Without the government opening the door for us and without you opening your doors … the story might be different," Phung said, clasping Dave Hansen's hand. It didn't matter, she told the Hansens, that her family had to sleep on the floor. "Somebody opened the door," she said. "That's all that mattered."
Phung's four children, now all grown up — Yen, Amy, Kim, and Sally Tieu — watched their mother reconnect with her old friends as the laughter of her grandchildren echoed faintly from the backyard.
After years of hearing stories about the Hansens, Amy Tieu had tracked them down through the University of Utah alumni network. Tieu, an alumnus, knew from her mother that Dave Hansen graduated from the university's engineering school in either 1978 or 1979. So she compiled a list of all the Hansens and Hansons who fit the bill, and started making calls.
After "a lot of voicemails" and wrong numbers, she reached the right Dave Hansen — and learned that, for years, he'd been wondering about her family, too.
"It was this very serendipitous moment," Tieu said. The two arranged a reunion.
"You've been this mystery, yet such an important cornerstone in our lives," she told the Hansens on Friday, when she met them face-to-face for the first time.
The friendship had been an important cornerstone in Dave Hansen's life, too. He teared up as he told Phung and her family how their time together helped him begin to heal after the war.
"Combat is not a good thing. It's a bad thing," Hansen said. "It's nice to see some good coming out of that experience. This is a good thing coming out of something that was bad."
He'd always liked Vietnam as a country and the Vietnamese people, Hansen said, but after serving in the war, it was hard not to associate the country with the terrible things he'd seen there.
"This was actually a very positive stair step for me to reengage, because these were such wonderful people," Hansen said of Phung and her family.3 comments on this story
Phung's daughter, Yen Tieu, said she was struck by the "common ground" her parents were able to find with the Hansens in the 1970s, despite the significant language barrier at the time.
"There's a story in every situation that people can be able to sympathize and empathize with," Tieu said. "We all are just people, and we're all trying to take care of our families and do the best we can."
As Phung and the Hansens got reacquainted in the living room, the Tieu children got to work grilling hamburgers in the backyard. Soon, the two families would sit down to share a meal together for the first time in 40 years. They had a lot to catch up on.