Leafing through almost a decade's worth of Our People files we lost count of the number of nationalities we've featured.

That retrospective look at our roll call of countries highlighted a glaring (and shameful) omission, it was Vietnam with which New Zealand has such close links.

A chat with San Nguyen has remedied that.

She's from the "new generation" of Vietnamese, those born after the almost two-decades-long conflict between the Communist-dominated north and its push south, in which our armed forces became controversially embroiled.

Advertisement

The politics of that is for the history books, San's memory of the combat is nil, but as we'll learn later tackling the on-going effects of the war's deadly defoliant Agent Orange concerns her deeply.

There's a lot to record about San before we get there.

She's been 'at one' with Rotorua since the fifth day of the fifth month of 2005, a date she sees as auspicious as Chinese view dates in which the numeral eight runs sequentially.

Now here's a deviation from the usual immigration trail a couple travel together to settle in one or other's homeland. When San arrived it was without her Rotorua-raised husband, by then they'd separated and he'd remained in Vietnam.

Several visits here with him convinced her it was by far the better place to bring up their son James, then 6.

Her own early years had been spent in the Mekong Delta's Tra Vinh province, several hours' travel "depending on the congestion" south of one of the world's most ancient capitals, Hanoi. San's was a childhood she wanted to spare James.

"I come from a very poor family in the countryside, my parents worked in the rice fields, we had homegrown chicken and pigs to eat with the herbs and vegetables they grew, no convenience foods."

The day San left school she started work in a local coffee shop.

"Coffee was all it sold 24 hours a day, I often worked from 4am to midnight, there was only one half-hour break during the day."

A few years on she moved to a fibreglass factory where, among other products, she made skins for boats. Her husband-to-be, Andrew Davenport, was an on-site engineer.

"I was just an ordinary factory worker way down the line from him."

Two years into their friendship they married "not in a Buddhist temple but at our big boss' home, we were coming backwards and forwards between Vietnam and New Zealand, I always wanted to stay."

When she chose Rotorua to settle it was not only for family connections and James' future but because its natural beauty stunned her.

"And the people were so supportive, they draw strangers in."

Within a week San had a job.

"I walked and walked around the town asking people for work, it was hard with little English, Kiwis speak so fast."

The late Ruth Heaven, who owned the Arts Café opposite the police station, wasn't deterred by language barriers, she snapped San up.

"She became like a sister to me, taught me how to cook the New Zealand way and to give good service which was really helpful for learning proper English."

Within three months Ruth went on holiday - leaving San in sole charge. "I couldn't believe she trusted me like that."

When her mentor sold the business and settled in Australia San moved to another café, followed by a Western Heights bakery.

She dwells at length on her first real Kiwi friend's death from cancer.

"When her body came home I sat with her in the funeral home, the casket was closed, I couldn't see her lovely face, I kept tearing up, she was the one who gave me my chance to make a decent life in a new country."

With her early Rotorua years centred around a different culture's 'kai' we teased out her views on it.

"Kiwi food is very different from ours, it's simple, neutral, I love lots of flavour but I can join in with it now, no problem."

Along the way she met her second husband Cambodian-born Syna Sang, like her he grew up in South Vietnam.

Their initial meeting wasn't exactly in a romantic setting.

"We started talking to each other outside The Warehouse. We realised we probably came from the same country, it turned out we had friends in common."

They joined them for a night out.

"The funny thing is we went to a strip bar because my friend and I said we'd never been to one, they don't have them where I come from. Oh my goodness, when they [strippers] came out I got such a shock but I did enjoy their dancing."

Despite the off-beat setting for the start of their relationship San and Syna "fell in love, we truly did".

They married in May 2013. Eleven months later their daughter Luckyna was born.

"I said when we met I didn't want more kids but he [Syna] showed such love from my son I knew it would be okay. She makes us so happy, she's our little princess."

Five years ago San returned to the occupation she'd trained for during her first marriage, that of a manicurist and nail technician.

On September 1 she opened her own salon, Elegance, working with Syan who, along with her "big boy", designed and outfitted the Pukuatua St premises.

"I am very proud, we went through some tough times then the bank had enough confidence in us to give us a loan, that could never have happened in Vietnam, New Zealand is full of opportunities for everyone, you just have to prove you are prepared to work hard."

Opening her own business has fulfilled one of San's life's ambitions, another's owning her own home. The third's where Agent Orange enters the equation.

"When I'm rich, win Lotto, I want to support its victims. My nephew was badly affected by it before he was even born, he died at 12. There's no support for people like him in our country, it's still climbing up [after the war].

"Here people with no jobs, children, older people are so lucky to get support from the government. People have so much encouragement, in Vietnam, I'd never have been able to open my own business.

"It's true, New Zealand is a beautiful paradise full of opportunities, when I go home now a real culture shock hits me."

SAN NGUYEN
Born: South Vietnam, 1976
Education: Local village school (no high school)
Family: Husband Syna Sang, son, James Davenport, 18, (studying computer engineering), daughter Luckyna, almost 5.
Interests: "My kids. For them I'll work every day and night but not Sunday that's our special family time."
On Rotorua: "There's so much beautiful open space, so many lakes, so many things to do, it's our home."
On her life: "There've been some bad things in the past, now I'm climbing upward."
Personal philosophy: "Look forward not back."