Humble Beginnings

Local Vietnamese princess unveils colorful past

Emmie Poth-Nebel

 

Nathalie (left) and Thaivi after Nathalie's graduation from Louisiana State University Vet School in Bali, Indonesia. "My mom motivated me to do well in school, and I love her for that. She's pretty awesome," Nathalie said.
Nathalie (left) and Thaivi after Nathalie’s graduation from Louisiana State University Vet School in Bali, Indonesia. “My mom motivated me to do well in school, and I love her for that. She’s pretty awesome,” Nathalie said.

Though princess by blood, Thaivi Ton Nu’s parents raised her to be humble and smart since her bloodline “comes from a humble man.” She is one of the last descendants of Vietnam’s Nguyen dynasty.

Vietnamese dynasties date back to 4000 B.C.E. (Before Common Era), but the country’s dynastic reign came to a close after French colonizers took control in 1858. The Nguyen family was the last ruling family in Vietnam.

“The Nguyens came to power after a man, a commoner, helped lead [Vietnam] from invaders in the 1500s,” Ton Nu said. “He was appointed Prime Minister and later one of his descendents, Gia Long, became king.”

At the end of the 19th century, one of the kings shortened the last name of the royal family from Nguyen Phuoc Ton That to “distinguish the family from everyone else” who also shared the last name.

Now, men of the royal family have the last name of Ton That and the women, Ton Nu.

Ton Nu was born in Huế, Vietnam, in 1952. She grew up with seven siblings and a nanny for each until they started grade school.

Although Ton Nu grew up wealthy, each year, her mother gave Ton Nu and her siblings money to buy three uniforms for the whole school year.

“We would complain,” she said, “but [my mother] would say, ‘in my day, I only had two sets, one set for school and an old set for after school.”

Still, Ton Nu remembers living a sheltered life.

“My dad worked for the government, so a group of 12 soldiers guarded our house, and I didn’t date until I was seventeen or eighteen,” she said. “My dad would make [boys who came over] ‘visit’ in the living room, and he would ask, ‘Who are your parents? What do they do for a living?’”

Though protected by service detail day and night, Ton Nu was allowed to hang out with friends and go to movie theater. She also took advantage of the constant monitoring.

Her children, Mikhail and Nathalie Petersen, remember hearing the story of how she learned to drive.

“Even though she wasn’t allowed to, she convinced her chauffeur to let her drive,” Nathalie said. “She was 16 at the time.”

According to Ton Nu, she and her siblings received protection because their father’s position in the government was considered top secret.

Before working with the Vietnamese government, Ton Nu’s father was affiliated with the Viet Minh, a Vietnamese nationalist group with a goal to rid Vietnam of French rule. He banded with the Viet Minh in 1945 as a judge.

“[My father] had to try and sentence his friends who worked with the French, but he acquitted most of them because he couldn’t get any charges to stick,” Ton Nu said. “The Viet Minh would say, ‘okay, fine. They can go free,’ but later he would find his friends dead.”

Ton Nu’s father’s moral and religious beliefs did not line up with those of the Viet Minh any longer, which caused “personal conflict.”

“After a while, he got to know the Viet Minh’s ideology. He was told he was joining a nationalist group, but it was really the beginning of communism.”

Her father left in 1948 and ended up on the “blacklist to be eliminated,” or killed, by the communists.

After leaving the Viet Minh, Ton Nu’s father moved on to teach math at a local college, where he befriended the family of Ngo Dinh Diem, Vietnam’s first president. He was later appointed chief advisor to President Diem during the partition of North and South Vietnam in 1954.

While her father worked, Ton Nu’s mother owned and ran a pharmacy in Vietnam to keep her children in school.

Ton Nu's mother (bottom row, second from left) and aunts gather on Ton Nu's mother's wedding day.
Ton Nu’s mother (bottom row, second from left) and aunts gather on Ton Nu’s mother’s wedding day.

 “[My mother] was in the position to provide more for [my siblings and I] than my father who was busy working for the government,” she said.

His presence in her life was limited due to his job, Ton Nu holds her father “in the highest respects.”

“He was humble and smart,” she said. “I remember him telling me, ‘you always have to air on the side of kindness,’ and that stuck with me.”

When her father retired in 1968, Ton Nu’s sisters, ages 11 and 15, and parents fled Vietnam after it fell under communist rule in 1975.

“My father did not dare to stay in Vietnam after leaving the Viet Minh,” Ton Nu said.

Her family lived with Ton Nu’s brother in Montpellier, France.

“My parents lived with my brother for a year,” Ton Nu said, “but they wanted to move out, so all of the children pitched in to buy an apartment.”

To pay for the mortgage, her mother made egg rolls and sprouted mung beans, which her father delivered to various shops in France.

Not everyone was pleased to live in a house full of egg rolls.

“My sisters were traumatized,” Ton Nu said. “They lived with my parents until they were out of college and every day, my mother would cook and fry egg rolls. To this day, they can’t eat egg rolls because of the smell.”

Ton Nu, however, never had to live surrounded by mung beans and egg rolls. She left Vietnam on a one way flight to Orange, Calif., in 1971.

“I was not a boat person, so I was lucky that I did not have to escape,” she said.

In California, she attended Chapman College and later taught social studies to Vietnamese refugees with her college roommate.

While teaching in America, she found that the education differed from her Vietnamese schooling.

“I realized that most of my time was taken up disciplining students rather than teaching, and teenagers were not interested in learning,” she said.

Ton Nu stopped teaching in 1980 to raise her son, Mikhail, attend medical school in 1983 and complete a four-year medical residency at Emory University in 1987. She’s lived in Atlanta since.

While Ton Nu carries herself as a strong, humble woman, few Atlantans would expect her roots to date back to 18th century Vietnam.

Nathalie, born in 1983, looks up to her mother and all of her achievements.

Thaivi, Mikhail and Nathalie go on a winter break ski trip in Vail, Co., 1998.
Thaivi, Mikhail and Nathalie go on a winter break ski trip in Vail, Co., 1998.

“[My mother] is a very strong-willed and independent woman. She was definitely adventurous growing up, especially for being a girl at the time,” she said. “I don’t think a whole lot scared her.”

Ton Nu placed a large emphasis on schooling for her children, according to Nathalie.

“She was stricter than most of my friends’ parents, but she pushed me to work hard. It’s a good thing that I liked school, unlike Mikhail,” Nathalie said.

Despite his distaste for school, Mikhail credits Ton Nu’s story as his inspiration to pursue his dreams as a musician.

“She always told [Nathalie and I] that we could do anything if we put our mind to it,” he said, “and that’s what I’m doing now.”