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How a Vietnamese 'war bride' found a new life in rural North Dakota

A Vietnam War veteran from North Dakota tells the story of his 'war bride' in her recent obituary.

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After moving from Vietnam to North Dakota, Anh Gietzen went into the Holstein heifer business.
Special to The Forum

GLEN ULLIN, N.D. — People are often drawn to read obituaries about others they don’t even know, and such is the case for the “war bride” who left her native Vietnam in 1971 to make a life on a North Dakota farm with a U.S. Army veteran.

Be Ba “Anh” Gietzen, 71, died after a long battle with dementia on Jan. 18 in her home in rural Glen Ullin, about halfway between Bismarck and Dickinson.

“It still kind of hasn't even hit me that she's gone yet. The house feels so dang quiet,” said her 73-year-old husband, Russell Gietzen.

Her extraordinary experiences are detailed in the obituary written by Russell , who, as a North Dakota farm boy serving in Vietnam, embraced the language and culture of Anh’s birthplace early on.

Anh’s life story includes a secret flight back to Vietnam to track down family members she’d been unable to contact for years after the war, preparing to defend herself against roadside bandits upon her return, hiding cash on her person to give to her destitute family, and back in North Dakota, building a successful and somewhat unlikely career in the cattle business.

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Anh Gietzen.
Special to The Forum

How the two met may be similar to other stories of “war brides” through the ages.

In his role with the Army, Russell was on a Vietnamese advisory team and tried to learn the language as quickly as he could using elementary school textbooks.

He even translated for several military operations.

“That was really scary because when you give grid coordinates for artillery, you have to be right or else … the wrong ones get hit,” he said.

Russell was so open to the language and culture, he was invited into many homes in Vietnam. “The more I learned, the more interesting it got,” he said.

Anh’s father was a Vietnamese officer and Russell became a friend of the family. Russell asked Anh’s father if there was a possibility of developing a romantic relationship with her.

He was told, “you’d be like a son to us,” but also, that it may not be a good idea to “transplant” someone into another country, Russell said.

After he returned to North Dakota, he wrote letters to Ahn. “It was an emotionally painful time because I couldn't move on,” he said.

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Then, a letter arrived, saying Anh’s parents had consented for her to come to the U.S.

Anh came over on a fiancée visa, and the two were married in a church near Glen Ullin on Dec. 6, 1971.

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Russell and Anh Gietzen.
Special to The Forum

After a few years, Anh became lonesome for her family and in 1975, took a flight back to Vietnam for a one month visit, where she learned Communist forces had cut her home province off from Saigon.

Her mother had a relative in charge of sewer and water works in Saigon, who, with a coded pass, was able to pick up Anh and get her through checkpoints to see her family.

The next 15 years were difficult for Anh, as she lost all contact with her family, Russell said.

After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, she was able to return to Vietnam the next year with 130 other war brides on a “secret” flight, meaning there was no official record of it existing, he said.

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Anh and Russell Gietzen.
Special to The Forum

On that flight, Anh befriended another war bride from Texas, who had a word of caution for her traveling companion.

She warned Anh about criminal activity involving roadside bandits and taxi drivers in Saigon who worked together to rob unsuspecting travelers.

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Upon arrival, the two women decided to share a taxi and hatched a plan to defend themselves in case they’d become targets. The Texas bride had a toolbox she was bringing back for her family, which included a ball-peen hammer.

She sat in the back seat, armed with the hammer, while Anh sat next to the driver. If anyone tried to hold them up along the route, the plan was for Anh to grab the steering wheel and step on the gas.

Fortunately, they didn’t have to resort to their plan.

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Russell and Anh Gietzen.
Special to The Forum

Arriving in her home province, Anh learned of her family’s possible whereabouts from a street vendor and boarded a riverboat for a daylong trip to the location.

It was the only option because all roads in the area were impassable because they’d been bombed out during the war, Gietzen said.

Before Anh had left the U.S., she and her husband sold two teams of horses, anticipating Anh would need cash for her family back home. She had stashed sixty $100 bills in a hidden liner in her blouse.

After several close calls along the river trip, she found her family “absolutely destitute,” Russell said.

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Russell Gietzen and his wife Anh Gietzen, of Glen Ullin, North Dakota, met while he was serving with the U.S. Army in Vietnam.
Special to The Forum

“They were just absolutely astounded to see her because they didn't know if she was alive and she didn't know if any of them were alive, because there were such terrible, terrible reprisals after the war,” he said.

In the dark that night, Anh’s mother buried the cash in fruit jars in their garden. The next day, Communist police threatened Anh and tore up the thatched house looking for money, but didn't find it.

The cash allowed Anh’s family to later build a nice home and regain their financial footing, Russell said.

Back in North Dakota, Anh became a shrewd businesswoman, Russell said, when she went into the Holstein heifer business.

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After moving from Vietnam to North Dakota, Anh Gietzen went into the Holstein heifer business.
Special to The Forum

After her children were mostly grown, she started cooking for the Red Trail Grill in Taylor, and in 2005, began working as a certified nursing assistant for the Marian Manor nursing home in Glen Ullin.

The couple paid off a 40 year farm loan in 37 years, becoming debt free in 2013. But a year later, her health began to fail and she had to retire, her obituary read.

Having worked part-time as a CNA himself, Russell was able to care for her in their home.

“I’m so grateful I was able to take care of her instead of having her in a nursing home,” he said.

Anh Gietzen is survived by seven children and 22 grandchildren, and numerous family members back in Vietnam.

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Anh and Russell Gietzen.
Special to The Forum

Huebner is a 35+ year veteran of broadcast and print journalism in Fargo-Moorhead.
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