SAN JOSE -- It's a thought that has left the Nguyen family in agony: 30-year-old Vince Canh Xuan Nguyen, the sole brother in a clan of close sisters, dying alone in a tiny Ho Chi Minh City motel room after a night of drinking and socializing went terribly awry.

In the aftermath of his mysterious July 1 death, three family members caught the first flight to Vietnam only to find disinterested authorities who offered them little in the way of answers or closure, leaving the Nguyens frustrated and angry.

"The hospital, the government there, they are not being very cooperative," said Dee Nguyen, 25, one of five Nguyen sisters, whose eyes welled with tears as she spoke about the ordeal. "Somebody died. There's a life that's missing now. All we want to know is why."

Vince, an affable "jokester" who went to Independence High School and graduated from San Jose State, was in the midst of a major life change. A former furniture salesman who boasted he could seal a deal with even the most frugal customers, he had gone to Vietnam to teach English to 10-year-olds and volunteer at an orphanage. After visiting his parent's native country several times over the years to play soccer with a league team, he returned this time to make a difference, his sisters said.

"He was going through withdrawals," said Jennie-Diem Nguyen, 28. "He had helped out before and wanted to go back to give so much more."

That was last summer.


Advertisement

Since then, Vince had grown weary of what he called a corrupt and broken society and was to return to San Jose next month. He also had just dropped a bombshell -- he was planning to propose to another English instructor he met at the teaching firm ILA Vietnam, but was going to do it right by Vietnamese custom and ask her parents first.

"Everyone was so excited," said Sharon Nguyen, 37. "He was going to bring his girlfriend home, and they were in love. He'd never been so happy before."

Then came June 30.

Dinner and drinks

Vince went out to dinner with his friend Phuong Chan Nguyen, who the family has known for years. They were joined by a couple other individuals and ended up at the Banana Pub and Restaurant in the city's District 7 -- an affluent and modern area home to many expatriates.

According to Phuong Nguyen's account to the family, they drank rounds of whiskey -- something the sisters find odd because Vince was a "conspiracy theorist" who told them never to trust hard liquor in Vietnam because it's often cut with potentially toxic chemicals.

There was some kind of altercation, possibly between Vince and the bartender's American boyfriend. When the family saw his body, a spot on the left side of his head had been shaved, revealing a contusion, and his knuckles bore bruises.

Around midnight, they left and went back to Phuong Nguyen's home, where Vince's condition rapidly deteriorated. He was unable to hold his bowels or bladder. He began vomiting. His bodily fluids and excrement splattered the couch and walls. The next morning, Phuong and an associate escorted a wobbly Vince to the nearby motel.

About 6 p.m., three hours after Vince ordered several liters of bottled water delivered to the room, Phuong was told to come immediately -- motel staff had checked on Vince and found a cold and nonresponsive body.

Vince was pronounced dead after hospital staff tried to revive him for 40 minutes. Listed cause of death: Acute pulmonary edema, or water in the lungs. The family was also told by officials that he died from cardiac arrest caused by excessive water consumption.

Family members bristle that their brother wasn't immediately taken to a hospital just a block away from the motel at the onset of his symptoms, or even hours later when the alcohol should have worn off.

"It's common sense," said Sharon Nguyen. "A normal person would have said, 'You don't look good, there's no way you're going to sleep this off by yourself.'"

Phuong Nguyen, reached in Vietnam via email, said he is too distraught to talk about the matter, adding that some statements that Vince's family have made are "not solid." He declined to elaborate.

"Even if I talk people won't listen," he wrote.

Suspicious deaths

The dearth of information has the family not knowing what to think. They point to other suspicious deaths in Vietnam -- just a week before Vince died, the body of 33-year-old British filmmaker Joseph Lang, who worked for the same language program, was found dumped in front of a Ho Chi Minh City hospital. And last summer, Kari Bowerman, 27, and Cathy Hunyh, 26, died at a Nha Trang hospital after both became sick -- vomiting, having a hard time breathing and showing signs of dehydration.

Jessica Schmit, communications director of ILA Vietnam, called Lang's death a "tragic accident" but said his family did not give permission to discuss details of what happened.

"We helped his family as much as possible when they arrived in Vietnam to deal with the aftermath and to my knowledge they were as satisfied as you can be in this sort of situation with the handling of it and the answers they got," Schmit said.

The U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City could not provide information about the case when contacted this week. Sharon Nguyen said they've also been calling the embassy to get a full autopsy report but have not been successful.

The family is definitely not satisfied, and they have their own theories.

"With all these deaths, it does have to come down to poisoning of alcohol," said Sharon Nguyen. "There aren't any regulations on things that are consumed. Tourists don't know what they are eating or drinking."

Jennie Nguyen said perhaps others didn't get sick because her 6-foot-1, 210-pound brother was targeted and poisoned.

"He stands out as a foreigner," she said. "People notice him. Maybe his friend got the good stuff, and he didn't."

She believes Vietnamese officials are either covering up what happened -- foreigners dying from foul play or toxic cocktails is bad publicity -- or simply don't care.

At her parents' Evergreen neighborhood home this week, matriarch Linda-Hoa Duong sat on a staircase and cried as her daughters spoke to reporters a few steps away. She wants her son's story told, and every once in a while she relayed something in Vietnamese between sobs -- condemnations of a government she once fled that she believes has no value for life.

"He was her only son," said Sharon Nguyen. "That's a big deal in Asian cultures."

Duong's daughters, too, broke down talking about their beloved sibling, who they buried on Thursday.

"People would see us and ask, 'Do you have any brothers?' And we'd say 'Just the one.'" recalled Jennie Nguyen with a tearful laugh. "But how do you go about answering that question now?"

Contact Eric Kurhi at 408-920-5852. Follow him at Twitter.com/erickurhi.