An immigrant success story

Meet Professor Dzũng “Johnny Depp” Diệp

Djung Diep

Photo courtesy of Dzũng Diệp
The Diệp family poses together on a trip to Bergen.

John Erik Stacy
The Norwegian American

At the University of Oslo in the 1980s, I met a young man who introduced himself as Jon. He is now my friend on Facebook and spells his name Dzũng Diệp. When I interviewed him for this story, he said I could call him Johnny Depp. Kjære barn har mange navn: A dear child has many names.

Although I know Jon (Dzũng) quite well, I had never asked him how he came to be in Norway. I suspected he was a “boat person,” who had fled the country after the fall of South Vietnam. In all, about 6,500 refugees from South Vietnam came to Norway when Norwegian ships rescued them from vessels in peril on the high seas. 

Jon confirmed that he, indeed, was one of these people, when after more than a week at sea in a crowded boat, crewmembers of the Norwegian tanker Torvanger pulled him to safety. This was in December of 1978. Here are some of the things he told me about his experience:

Torvanger


Photo courtesy of Dzũng Diệp
At age 14, Dzũng Diệp was rescued from a crowded boat filled with South Vietnamese refugees by the crew of the Norwegian tanker Torvanger.

John Erik Stacy: When did you come to Norway? 

Dzũng Diệp: In 1979 after the fall of South Vietnam. The war in Vietnam ended in 1975. There was anti-South Vietnamese sentiment then. My father was a soldier and a capitalist. That was not a good combination. We are half Chinese as well. So everything was wrong. Even though I am 100% Vietnamese, I have some Chinese genes in me. My father’s father and my mother’s father were from Hainan.

JES: What was it like on the boat? 

DD: Before the Norwegian tanker picked us up, it was not fun at all: a lot of kids and a lot of people with a shortage of food and drinks. We were at sea seven days before we were rescued. Women and children were below deck, and men and youths were outside. I was 14 years old. I went below when the waves got bad.

JES: How did you get to Norway? 

DD: We were brought to Bangkok in Thailand. From there, we flew to Norway.

JES: What was it like when you came to Norway? 

DD: Winter and cold. It was a shock. We were not mentally prepared for the winter in Norway. Our first year was in Hamar. I stayed there until I was 16 or 17 years old and then moved to Moss, where I did my last year of high school.

Torvanger

Photo courtesy of Dzũng Diệp
Once aboard the Torvanger, young Diệp’s Norwegian journey had just begun.

JES: Was it hard to learn Norwegian? 

DD: We are a big family, and we communicated in Vietnamese at home and in Norwegian at school. It was tough at first. It took some time to break the code. And then when I came to the university, I had to read and speak in English, too. I did well in math, because I didn’t need Norwegian for that. In the beginning, I also studied chemistry. Somehow, I ended up writing my thesis in microbiology.

JES: Are you a professor now? 

DD: Yes, at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU) in Ås. I lead a group that studies bacteriocins [antibiotic proteins produced in bacteria]. 

JES: Are you married? 

DD: Yes, I met my wife in Ho Chi Min City about 17 years ago. We have two daughters, who will be 11 and 13 this year.

JES: Do you live in Oslo? 

DD: Yes, at Hauketo.

JES: What do you miss most about Vietnam? 

DD: I miss the food and people, but not the political system.

JES: What do you like most about Norway? 

DD: I like the freedom of Norway. If you want to do something, you have a chance. Anyone can make it here if they work hard. And I like women’s rights. There are good women scientists. They are half the population—and most of the people in government in Norway are women.

See Prof. Dzũng Diệp’s profile at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences website: www.nmbu.no/ans/dzung.diep.

John Erik Stacy grew up in Wayzata, Minn., and has now returned there after over 30 years divided between Oslo and Seattle. He studied biology at the University of Oslo and worked there several years leading the DNA laboratory for Systematics and Ecology. He also worked as a senior scientist and team leader for a biotech start up at the Oslo Research Park, where he developed automated systems in antibody discovery. He continues to hold investments and consult for companies at the Research Park and travels frequently to Oslo.

This article originally appeared in the October 18, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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