Bach Lien Tong Duong fled communist Vietnam for her own safety — but not before she found a way to bring her sisters with her.
On April 29, 1975, she tearfully said goodbye to her sisters with intentions of leaving, but decided not to board her plane because she couldn’t leave them behind, Thuy Carroll, Duong’s 68-year-old sister, said at Duong’s funeral service April 14.
Instead, she figured out a way to escape by boat at night and take her sisters with her.
She found herself halfway across the world from her home country in Gainesville where she left a lasting impact on the UF and Gainesville community through her unending service of education and teaching.
Duong graduated from UF with a computer engineering degree in 1984, her 67-year-old sister Lan Barlow said. The university hired her in 1996, and her last position at UF was as a senior computer programmer and analyst for the infirmary, UF spokesperson Cynthia Roldan wrote in an email. She retired from UF in 2015.
Duong was also a member of a volunteer group that taught Vietnamese language courses at UF for about 10 years before UF created an official position, Roldan wrote. In the Gainesville community, Duong helped establish the Amitabha Buddhist Association, which is a Buddhist temple.
More than 50 people gathered at 9 a.m. April 14 to honor Duong at Forest Meadows Funeral Home.
Carroll, Duong’s sister, was among those who spoke at the service. Carroll said Duong was the oldest of her sisters and helped her father look after her siblings when their mother died.
“Lien took this role conscientiously until her last day with us here even though she was the one who needed care,” Carroll said during the service.
Duong was born in Long Xuyen, Vietnam, on May 1, 1948.
Long Duong, her 45-year-old son, said his mother was flagged as an anti-communist target in Vietnam because she worked at a travel agency that helped reunite U.S. soldiers with their families.
After escaping, Duong and her sisters ended up in Pensacola, and eventually came to Gainesville, Long said.
Duong always had a passion for cooking, and her son Long said his mother and her sisters started Gainesville’s first Vietnamese restaurant in the late 70s to help fund their schooling. The restaurant, the Inn of the White Lotus, was named after Duong whose first name Bạch Liên means ‘white lotus’ in Vietnamese.
“I'm biased, but she's the best Vietnamese cook I know,” Long said. “She loved to feed people, and she loved when people enjoyed her food.”
Long’s favorite meal his mother made for him is her Vietnamese chicken curry, which is a coconut-cream-based dish usually made with chicken thighs, white potatoes and lemongrass.
Every Sunday, Duong announced the kitchen was hers and hers only, and nobody was allowed in while she was cooking, Caroll said during the service.
“If you know Lien, feeding you to death is her way to show her love,” Carroll said.
Duong lobbied and advocated for the Vietnamese program at UFin 1994. She played a critical role as she also helped with the Vietnamese Student Organization’s annual Pho Fundraiser, which raises money for various charitable efforts in Vietnam through the sale of traditional foods, for more than 30 years.
Andrea Pham, a UF associate professor of Vietnamese language and linguistics, took over the official teaching position in 2002 and met Duong during her job interview in 2001, she said. Duong and Pham became close friends soon after. Duong drove Pham around Gainesville when she was new to the city. Pham even bought the house Duong recommended to her and described her as a very devoted and selfless person.
When students accidentally broke glass or other items while cooking at her house for fundraisers, Duong would just smile, Pham said.
“She said, ‘Well, just let them have fun,’” Pham said.
Duong had a tremendous impact on UF’s Vietnamese Student Organization and pioneered its Pho Fundraiser, co-President Gloria Nguyen said. Members called Duong “Co Lien.” The term “Co” is a word of endearment, meaning Duong was like an aunt to the students.
Duong would bring her family twice a year to VSO’s cultural shows, the 20-year-old UF applied physiology and kinesiology junior said. VSO stresses the importance of creating a home away from home among its members, and Duong was the embodiment of that, Nguyen said.
“It didn’t feel like there was any distance between us,” she said. “She just gave us a sense of security.”
Each year, it was tradition for VSO’s officers to spend three days at Duong’s house preparing food for their fundraiser, she said.
“She treated us like we were her children,” she said.
To Nguyen, Duong felt like a family member. She remembered preparing a dessert with Duong the night before last year’s Pho Fundraiser while everyone else slept. At 3 a.m., Duong told her stories about her upbringing in Vietnam and her life experiences.
Duong showed unending dedication to the community and VSO despite her health issues, Nguyen said. She admired Duong because she put on a strong face no matter what and continued to share her light with other people, she said.
In Duong’s honor, a GoFundMe page was organized. The funds collected will benefit nonprofits she favored and has raised over $5,000.
Long said his mother loved Gainesville, and the Gainesville community loved her, too.
Contact Juliana Ferrie and Michelle Holder at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow them on Twitter @juliana_f616 and @michellecholder.
Michelle Holder is a second-year journalism student at UF minoring in entrepreneurship and a Metro reporter at The Alligator. She is from Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. In her free time she enjoys going to coffee shops and reading.
Juliana Ferrie is a second-year UF journalism student. She is excited to be working for The Alligator as the Santa Fe Beat reporter. In her free time, you can find her reading or listening to music.