June 15, 1987 12:00 PM

In July 1975, on the day his family moved into their first American home, a trailer in Fort Collins, Colo., 9-year-old Hoang Nhu Tran and his brother, Hai, ventured off to watch some kids playing across the street. “They looked at us like, ‘Where did you guys come from?’ ” Hoang recalls. “I was very scared at first, but within just a couple of hours we were friends. They would speak English, and since all we knew was yes and no, we’d just say yes to everything.”

Now, 12 years later, America has said yes to Hoang. Last month the young Vietnamese refugee graduated with top academic honors from the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. He was also named one of 32 U.S. winners of a Rhodes scholarship for two years of study at Oxford University. After that he plans to enter Harvard Medical School so he can serve the Air Force as a flight surgeon. “My parents always impressed upon me that when you receive a gift from the nation, as I have, you should always give something back,” says Hoang, now 21. “This is my chance to do that.” And the gift he has received has been a substantial one: “If I’d stayed in Vietnam, I’d probably be in the army right now fighting along the Cambodian border.”

Or he might be dead. The son of a major in the South Vietnamese Airborne Division, Hoang escaped Saigon just hours before it fell to the North Vietnamese and Vietcong in April 1975. Until then the war had been only a distant reality for Hoang and his brother, who had been kept constantly indoors and allowed to leave home only to attend school. Suddenly, Hoang recalls, “everyone was on the streets rushing. Throughout the whole day I could hear the machine guns and incoming artillery getting worse and worse.”

Arriving under rocket fire at the Tan Son Nhut air base, the Tran family learned that the C-130 transport planes that might have carried them to safety were unable to take off. They rushed to the harbor and luckily were able to squeeze onto a leaky landing craft with 250 other refugees. After two days adrift, they were rescued and shuttled through refugee camps in the Philippines and Guam. Transferred to Camp Pendleton in California for processing, the family learned that a Lutheran church in Fort Collins had agreed to sponsor them. All they knew of their new home, says Hoang, was that “snow fell there, but we weren’t sure what snow was either.”

Hoang had no trouble learning. His father, Tang, now 48 and a machinist at Hewlett-Packard in California, says that in Vietnam he had plied his precocious son with books because “it seemed like God gave him an early intelligence.” Hoang studied English in special classes and was soon reading Huckleberry Finn and The Hardy Boys. He excelled in math and sciences, earned top grades across the board and finished Rocky Mountain High School as class valedictorian. He also picked up a varsity letter in wrestling. “My parents always said if you don’t get straight A’s, you don’t wrestle,” Hoang says.

Not that the transition to American ways was always a smooth one. Hoang remembers trying to reconcile easygoing U.S. attitudes with his family’s emphasis on study and discipline.

“My brother and I wanted to be more American,” he explains. “We wanted to stay out late like our friends. We thought it was better somehow. Yet at home we were expected to act, talk and perform in an Eastern culture. There was always conflict. At first I was bitter.”

One cultural clash occurred when Hoang brought home his date, a non-Asian, to meet his parents before the junior prom. “It was a very intense, uncomfortable situation for them,” says Hoang with a chuckle. “It had nothing to do with her being Caucasian. They just didn’t know how to act, because in Vietnamese culture you don’t bring a girl home until you’re ready to marry her.”

Still, Hoang values his father’s opinion at least as much as the American honors he’s earned. “My dad lost everything he had built,” Hoang says, “but I think my success gives him back his pride and a belief that his dreams can still be fulfilled through me and my brother [now a senior at Colorado State University].” His father hopes that once U.S.-Vietnam relations improve and Hoang has “paid off” his debt to his adoptive country, his son will return to his birthplace to help the poor and the sick.

For the time being the Americanization of Air Force 2nd Lt. Hoang Nhu Tran continues apace. “John, talk to me, dude! What’s happening?” Hoang says, answering the phone at his home. He has come a long way from Saigon, and from the boy who could say only yes.

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