Beloved custodian comes to U.S. in 1987, after an escape from Vietnam


Fara Wiles

Ocean Lakes custodian, Chi Ha, smiles as he moves to clean the music hallway on Jan. 27, 2023.

Ari O'Brien , Staff Writer

Chi Ha, long-time custodian for over a decade, has a story on how he escaped Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

Ha was born in Vietnam in 1963, but he grew up in a Chinese family. 

“I grew up in a Chinese family, so Chinese is my native language and my second language is Vietnamese. My parents sent me to a Taiwanese elementary school to learn Mandarin And Cantonese. They owned a Chinese restaurant at the time, and life was good,” said Chi. 

In 1975, the Communist Party had taken over Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, the Vietnam government forced all teenagers to join the army. The government took all the people’s property, and most businesses were run by the government. 

Many people tried to escape, and they had to have money because it was expensive to flee the country at the time. People would risk their lives and leave on wooden boats that were not very safe. 

“I came from a poor family, but when I was 19, my parents borrowed some money to let me flee the country. I fled out of the country five times and failed, and the last time I was caught, I was imprisoned for almost two years,” said Ha. 

When he was in prison, 40 people were jammed into a small room, about the size of a classroom, and they didn’t have enough food or medicine. For breakfast, they would get hot water to mix cereal, and for lunch and dinner, they would get a bowl of rice and salty soup. 

“To take a shower, each person got three gallons of water. To mix cement to make the oven, two policemen and 10 prisoners would dive down to the bottom of the river and get three tons of mud,” said Ha. 

He was able to flee after 1987, when he was asked to go on board a wooden boat, where it transferred him to an island that was nearby. 

Ha spoke in 2020 at Founders Week about his journey to America. Chi’s story inspires students and teachers, including security guard David Brechtel, who also grew up, fearing he would be drafted into the Vietnam War. 

“Meeting Chi just made it more interesting, having that connection to someone who actually lived through something that I was scared to death of as a kid,” said Brechtel. 

Many appreciate this custodian for his hard work and kind demeanor and have little idea what he endured before he came to America.

“Chi is an excellent employee and a wonderful individual. He is genuine and kind and when the rest of the world walks out, Chi will walk in,” said vice principal James Imbriale.