If you were to ask Kim Nguyen what the most popular trend is in her nail salon right now, that’s what she’d tell you. “Sparkling.”

Kim is the proprietor of Nail Lounge & Spa by Grand Central Mall in Vienna.

Another trend she has recognized is that people really enjoy having their nails done together. Whether mother and daughter, aunt and niece, girlfriend and boyfriend, cousins, sisters, bridesmaids or just about any pair you could think of, if there is a pair who connect, they will likely connect even better over a manicure or pedicure.

Kim is even considering rearranging her shop to accommodate pairs more efficiently. When her shop is full, which is often, clients sometimes have to turn their heads to chat face to face. While they certainly don’t seem to mind, Kim wants the most relaxing experience possible for her customers. In fact, when Kim first bought the salon a little over a year ago, she found the check-in process to be a bit jarring for her guests at times. So, she replaced bulky, handwritten ledgers with a simple electronic touchpad to quickly and quietly register new or, more likely, returning guests with minimal fuss. Her technicians even have a special, well-guarded massage technique that actually reduces stress.

Another way she strives to create a calming and comfortable environment for her guests is for her predominantly Vietnamese nail technicians to speak English, not only to their guests but to each other. A native of Vietnam herself, Kim is proudly, even unabashedly, American. But she wasn’t always.

Kim was a typical young Vietnamese girl until one evening when she went with her aunt to babysit for a fisherman and his family. Late that night, Kim and her aunt Tina were suddenly ordered to run to a docked fishing boat as quickly and quietly as their feet could carry them. Kim didn’t understand what was happening, but she complied with the orders given her and soon all became an adrenaline-infused blur. In a darkened rush, Kim lost her flip-flops in the sand and gashed her knee while jumping aboard the boat.

“Somewhere on that beach is still a pair of flip-flops,” Kim jokes.

As the decrepit vessel made its way to the South China Sea, Kim and Tina learned of the secret journey they had unwittingly just begun. They had not been sent off to babysit. They had been sent to flee a war-battered and hopeless communist Vietnam. 

Kim’s grandmother, Phuoc Le, who owned a small noodle shop, had been approached by one of her customers who owned a fishing boat. He had a startling proposition. He, along with his family, was going to escape Vietnam. To attempt such a brazen journey, he’d need money for fuel and supplies. If she’d be willing to help finance his daring venture, he’d make room for two people to join his family on their fishing boat. Phuoc Le knew immediately who those two people would be.

She knew the perils and dangers her daughter and granddaughter would face on such a crossing. But Phuoc Le also knew of the cruel toll that hopelessness can have on a young soul and vibrant spirit. She knew, too, that her granddaughter was exceptionally bright and eager to learn, but was forced to attend a school without adequate books or supplies.

The boat was packed with as many as 30 people. Along with Kim and her aunt, there were eight other “paying” passengers. Their meager provisions included a handful of rice apiece, a few morsels of salt, and rainwater to drink. As days turned into weeks, their supplies dwindled. Kim’s hunger and thirst were trying but paled in comparison to the large, painful open wound on her knee. Without soap or medicine to wash or treat it, it became infected and worsened quickly. She began considering the possibility that she could lose her leg.

Out of fuel and supplies and with the boat in disrepair, the exhausted and desperate group was finally discovered by a Chinese fishing boat. They were towed to the Hainan Island in the South China Sea and taken to a holding area with fresh water where they were able to drink, bathe and wash out their clothing. For the first time since sustaining the injury, Kim was finally able to rinse her infected wound with clean water.

Kim and her fellow refugees spent a few days on Hainan Island. Whatever small valuables the travelers might have carried with them to that point, perhaps a treasured wedding trinket or a small piece of jewelry with sentiments of a life left behind were given to the Chinese. In exchange for these, their boat was repaired and fueled, they were given a few minimal supplies, and pointed toward Hong Kong.

Exhaustion, thirst, hunger, and bewilderment steadily taking their toll, Kim lost any concept of time soon after they left Hainan. Slowly awakened from a very deep sleep by the excitement of others on the boat, Kim and Tina saw before them in the distance the first skyline they had ever seen. For a time, Kim thought she was in Heaven. Then she realized Hong Kong lay before her. “Sparkling. Glittering. A wall of lights,” she described it. This was the first time during her journey she considered the possibility that everything might be alright. She felt that, maybe, she wasn’t going to die of hunger or thirst. “That’s when I realized I might not lose my leg,” she said as she pointed to the scar on her knee.

Once docked off the coast of Hong Kong, the government brought them a meal of canned sardines, tomatoes, and sliced bread, which Kim thought indescribably delicious. They spent that night on the boat and were brought ashore to a processing center the next day where they were questioned exhaustively. “What had happened? Why were they here? How did they get here? Were they all together? Where did they think they were going?”

The group was taken to a crowded refugee camp. Not until Kim heard stories in the camp of others who did not survive similar journeys did she realize how fortunate she and Tina were. Stories of starvation, human trafficking, and slavery, even cannibalism, haunted them.

Although the Vietnam War was over, the camp was filled with thousands of North and South Vietnamese who were still very much in conflict. Feeling especially young and vulnerable as a young girl and a young woman, Kim and her aunt thought it best to remain as seldom seen or heard as possible. Wrapped in fabric, the bunkbeds afforded Kim and her aunt a modicum of privacy where they would spend the majority of time together for the next two long years. Kim was able to learn some English and typing during this time.

Eventually, Kim’s journey brought her from Hong Kong to San Francisco, then briefly to New Jersey, where she and her Aunt Tina parted ways. Finally, she arrived in Columbus, Ohio, where, sometime before while at the refugee camp, she’d learned of an uncle whom her grandmother, Phuoc Le, had helped flee Vietnam long before her own journey had even begun.

Kim’s uncle enrolled her in a Columbus high school which she started in the 10th grade. She recalls feeling bewildered on her first day of school. “The bell rang and all the other kids went to class. I didn’t know where to go.” A teacher found Kim wandering the halls and though neither could understand the other, the teacher read Kim’s schedule and escorted her to a classroom. Kim was soon enthralled to learn that not only did every student have their own books, but they had an entire stack of them they could even take home.

Embracing learning with a fervor she never could before, Kim made the Honor Roll in her very first quarter of official schooling. Studying became so much a part of her life, her uncle encouraged her to play more and study less. Kim dreaded holiday breaks when school was in recess. Within three years, she graduated near the top of a senior class of more than 400.

From high school, she went on to earn her Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering, then her Master of Science. She felt a deep obligation to serve her country and learned there was a need for her engineering prowess in the United States Air Force. She also deeply admired the confidence of the officers she’d see in television commercials promoting the Air Force. Plus, she felt being a military officer would make her father very proud. “He was just a crusty sergeant,” she joked.

There was one aspect of her five-and-a-half-year military service she still finds more humbling than any other experience of her life—training alongside members of US Air Force Special Operations. In the past, her academic success despite a significant language barrier assured her she was “good enough.” But after being in the company of these very elite people, she wasn’t quite so sure. “We are in very, very good hands,” she says admirably and perhaps a bit covetously of the men and women who pilot fighter jets to protect our country.

After the Air Force Kim enjoyed a long and rewarding career as a chemical engineer for Dow Chemical, GE, and Franklin International. She also takes great satisfaction in having sponsored much of her family in establishing their American citizenship. Although a very long process, eventually her father and mother, whom she hadn’t seen in 15 years, and 11 brothers, including three she’d never met, came to America to join her.

Faced with the proposition of retirement, she realized she was not ready to stop learning and conquering new challenges. She became a Black Belt-level Sigma Six data analysis expert, meaning, among other things, she is extensively trained to identify and differentiate essential and non-essential data and effectively leverage that data to solve real-world problems. At present, you could say that real-world “problem” is the Nail Lounge & Spa.

Kim’s motivation as the proprietor of her nail salon is perhaps different than most business owners. Far from being all about money, she wants to learn and apply her data analysis skills to target customers, truly understand their behavior, learn how to make assumptions, test them and refine them. She also wanted a service business through which she could build the trust of her clients. Specifically, she wanted a nail business because she sees it as a simple model where happy customers are repeat customers.

Today, and for the foreseeable future, The Nail Lounge and Spa is Kim’s greatest and most engrossing challenge. It isn’t exactly making a perilous voyage across an uncertain sea. Nor is it summoning the courage to climb up a rope or crawl through mud alongside elite Special Operations. But when Kim looks across her busy shop in Vienna, filled with relaxed, happy clients, many in chatty pairs, some having just chosen “sparkling” for their nail finish, she feels “good enough” indeed. 

The Nail Lounge & Spa is a full-service boutique nail salon at 804 Grand Central Mall in Vienna, WV. Hours are Monday through Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. Walk-ins are welcome and reservations can be made on the Nail Lounge and Spa Facebook page or at thenailloungevienna.com.