Once a Vietnam Refugee, Now a World Renowned Artist

As he drew the sideways triangle on the white board, I began to take in the significance of it all. I started to understand the drawings, the symbols, everything he was trying to convey to us in my beginning drawing class.

“This symbolizes the mountain close to my village in Vietnam,” said Hoang Van-Bui, an adjunct art professor at UT, as he pointed to the triangle. “I use this symbol in almost all of my artwork.”

As a child Van-Bui would sit on the street leading up to the mountain in South Vietnam and wave to the U.S. soldiers driving by.

“I like to remember them going towards the mountain. They always looked happy. My art represents that. My art represents the beautiful memories of that time and of that war.”

I put down my pen and began to listen.

I tried to take in every word he was saying about the war, about his escape, and about his life now. I wanted to get this right.

Van-Bui recalls the day the Vietnam War bled into his village and into his life.

When the gun shots got too close, he, his aunt and his sister started running, following the crowd of people.

“We ran until we got to the bay. My leg was all cut up and thorns were everywhere, but I felt no pain. At the moment, no one felt pain. It was pure survival.”

Van-Bui and his family found a fisherman boat to climb into and sailed as far away from the fighting as possible.

After two days at sea, they ran into a large barge, which they climbed on top of.

His memory of the next three days they spent on the barge is something he cannot bring himself to express through his art.

“How can you make art out of images that are so yucky?” Van-Bui said.

He recalls cannibalism, rape, and starvation. He was only seven years old.

As he continued on with the story, a student entered the room, complaining about an assignment. The conversation lasted about two minutes, ending in Van-Bui saying, “Think outside of the box. Take advantage of this opportunity.”

I wondered how many times he had said that to his students, and how many times they had not listened.

Van-Bui went on to describe his time in a Guam refugee camp, where his most profound memory is of the abundance of jalapeno peppers.

“There wasn’t much to eat,” Van-Bui said. “But for some reason there were always those peppers.”

After six months of what he describes as a “prison lined with barbed wire,” Van-Bui and his family were finally flown to Tampa to live with a sponsor family. It was here he learned his greatest form of communication, art.

Instead of communicating through normal speech, Van-Bui chose to draw everything. This was how he related with his teachers and his peers until he was a teenager.

He would later major in Art at the University of Tampa and go on to graduate school at the University of Georgia, where he graduated top of his class.

He was already becoming a world renowned artist.

Art consumed his life, but not for long.

“I could not get Vietnam out of my head,” Van-Bui said. “I could not get those kids in the villages out of my head.”

So he left for Vietnam. He left his self-made home for something familiar, something that had been missing for a long time.

After a 20 year absence, Van-Bui noticed a distinct change in South Vietnam. Communism was present, but his feelings of hatred towards it were not.

“They are not enemies to me anymore,” Van-Bui said. “They are human beings trying to move on with their lives too.”

They did not look at him as a South Vietnamese rebel, but instead an esteemed artist.

From there he found his inspiration for art, healing. His purpose would no longer be to express or to make a statement, but to heal.

Van-Bui now says he spends his summers in the small villages of South Vietnam mentoring and providing for the children in various orphanages.

“I would do anything for these kids,” he said. “They know I’m always there for them.”

Van-Bui is currently an adjunct art professor for the University of Tampa, where his students have ranked him among the best according to this student evaluations.

“He really makes you understand art, even if you’re not that good at drawing,” said former student of his, Amy Rumore.

Despite his array of awards and invitation to display his artwork at the 1996 Olympic Games, Van-Bui still says art is a very minuscule part of his life.

“Success is not what matters,” Van-Bui said. “What matters the most is how you help out where you came from

Leave a Reply

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: