February 2014, Ngoc Nguyen boarded Thomas Maersk as captain for the first time. 34 years earlier he and his family were rescued in the South Chinese Sea by a Maersk Line vessel.
“I want to be a leader that is participative, courageous, open-minded and forward-looking, and I want to beknown for being kind, calm, fair and cheerful.”
Last February, Ngoc Nguyen boarded Thomas Maersk as captain for the first time.
It was the culmination of a 34-year-old dream born in the oddest of ways: in the middle of the South China Sea struggling to survive with 65 other refugees.
In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, around two million refugees fled from Vietnam in small boats that were often overcrowded and unsafe. Nguyen remembers his family’s escape in 1981 as if it were yesterday:
“Two days had passed since the patrol boat had chased us away from the shores of Vietnam. With only a compass, a dwindling supply of gas and no food or water , our chances of reaching land safely were looking bleak.”
Huddled together in a modest boat were Ngoc Nguyen’s younger brother, two younger sisters and his mother who had organised the escape. They were joined by fellow refugees, many of whom were relatives.
As the adults discussed the futility of their situation, a shadow appeared in the distance. It wasn’t until they realised that it was too big to be a patrol boat that they began to be hopeful.
Indeed, it was not a patrol boat, but a Maersk Line vessel. Stepping onto Arnold Maersk’s lowered gangway, the 13-year-old Nguyen caught a glimpse of Captain Jørgen Orla Hansen. It was then that he decided:
“One day I will become a captain on a ship like this so that I can do what the captain on board did.” To this day, Nguyen refers to that moment as the “happiest moment of my life.”
After spending six months in a former army camp in Hong Kong, the Danish government granted them asylum since it was a Danish vessel that had rescued them.
Arriving in Denmark on a cold September day, the government ensured they had clothes and food and were taught to speak Danish.
“We were so lucky to have the opportunity to stay in Denmark. The people were very kind and helpful. We got an education, we got jobs, then we got married and had children,” Ngoc said.
As time passed, Nguyen stayed true to the vision he had of himself as a boy. In 1989, he joined Maersk Line as a cadet.
He left for two years to serve as a lieutenant in the Royal Danish Navy, but returned in 1997 and worked his way up to become chief officer in 2001.
Now 47 and a captain, Nguyen believes that he has had the best of both worlds by being able to draw on the best that each culture has to offer.
On the subject of parents and upbringing, he says, “In Asia, we listen to what our parents say even if it’s unreasonable, but in Europe, they have a different way of communicating. If something is wrong, they say it right away. They are very independent.”
Having lived such an unusual and rich life, Nguyen offers this advice:
“Never give up. We have to fight for the things we want, and, in the end, maybe we will have a little bit of luck. In my case, my luck began on the day I met Arnold Maersk and went on to begin a new life.”