Born in Nghe An, he quit school after the 9th grade to start working full time at 15-years-old. He got a job in Saigon, then Phu Quoc Island, the southernmost part of Vietnam. He visited Hanoi and remote Dien Bien Phu, right on the Laotian border.
At 18, he agreed to pay $15,000 to be smuggled into the European Union. The first installment was only $500, however, for which he was flown to Moscow, where he stayed in a house for a month, seeing nothing of Russia, until he and other illegal immigrants were driven to Lithuania, with the intention of entering Poland.
Driving down the road quite openly, they were pulled over by cops, thus he ended up spending a month in a Lithuanian prison, then deported to Vietnam.
The smugglers refunded his $500, so it was like a vacation of sort, a three-country adventure, counting Belarus, "If they had taken our money without bringing us to Europe, who would use their service again?"
Next, he bought someone's identity for $20,000. Using this man's scholastic credentials, he enrolled in a Spanish university then flew to Barcelona with the man's doctored passport. There, he stayed but a week, seeing nada, before flying to Paris.
Central Vietnam is known for its poor soil and people, but Dien Chau, with its dusty, potholed streets and spartan stores, is particularly dismal. In Paris, he lives in the 13th Arrondissement, among many Vietnamese, Chinese, Cambodians, Laotians and Thais. I remember some hideous high-rises there, but also one of my best Vietnamese meals ever. Ah, the caramelized pork and eggs!
Each Sunday, a hundred Vietnamese, easy, hang out in a 13th arrondissement park, where they drink beer, sing karaoke and buy food from ambulant peddlers, all illegal, of course, though reasonably discreet. There are similar food purveyors in ethnic neighborhoods across the USA.
"Everyone has a good time. Even some Frenchmen join us. Many of the Vietnamese also speak French. Sometimes, we get carried away and sing too late into the evening, so somebody will have to call the police. That rarely happens, though."
Working his tail off, he paid off his smuggling fee four months ago, and even bought a 790 Euro cellphone. He wears Adidas, sports a quiff haircut. Life's good, "The best thing about living here is that you don't have to worry about anyone harassing you. In Vietnam, when you see a cop, you get very nervous, but the French police are here to protect you. All you have to do is work hard. No one will bother you."
He has never encountered any prejudice, "Everyone is very nice. Two doors from us, there's a Muslim family who often bring us food. If they make something nice, they'll share it with us, and we also bring them food. If we go to the beach, we'll buy some shrimps or lobsters for them."
When he gets a chance, he roams around by train or bus. His housemates are not so adventurous. "They just stay around Paris. They think I'm wasting my money, running around, but why not see everything? I have even gone to Berlin, where I have a cousin. I stayed there a week."
With the global economy still levitating preternaturally and visa-free crossing of many borders, particularly in Europe, we're living through peak travel. The globe will never be so accessible again.