Childhood friends in Vietnam, they were separated by war and time. One ended up in Poland, the other in America, and each was left to wonder about the other's fate.
More than a decade later, the two young men were reunited after one stumbled across a virtual community in cyberspace devoted to all things Vietnamese--and found the artwork of his friend's mother featured there.
Logging 10,000 hits a day, the Vietspace World Wide Web site (http://www.kicon.com) has become one of the premier meeting places--a 21st-century town square--for a worldwide community of refugees spread across thousands of miles.
Created two years ago by Kicon, a Garden Grove multimedia software company, the Web site has amassed a band of faithful followers from around the United States and the world who log on daily to check Vietnamese newspapers, read wire reports from Vietnam, listen to radio broadcasts from Westminster's Little Saigon and chat with other Vietnamese throughout the world.
"We felt there was a real need because the Vietnamese community is scattered all around the world," said company President Min Meng. "It's a way to stay connected with each other and informed about what's going on."
There are dozens of Web sites devoted to the Vietnamese community, but Kicon's commitment to immediacy--the site gets new postings daily--has attracted major fans. Audio and video hookups, downloaded from the free site, allow users access to live radio and archived TV shows.
A visitor can sample music videos of up-and-coming artists, view film clips from Vietnamese filmmakers or listen to songs by musician Pham Duy. Featuring a virtual art gallery with works by prominent Vietnamese painters, new literature in contemporary magazines and a children's corner with illustrated stories, the site aims to be something of a cyber crossroads for the community, said Kicon engineer Thanh Le.
And it evolves to cater to its audience. That reunion between the two friends, who wrote to thank the Web site creators, led Kicon to set up a missing-persons page on the site for the parents, children, friends and colleagues who were separated after the fall of Saigon.
"We think there are a lot of people who lost friends and family members in the chaos after 1975," said Meng. "This was one way we could put people in touch again."
Two dozen people have put up postings, including an adopted Vietnamese woman searching for the mother who gave her up to a U.S. soldier to save her life, and a Eurasian woman searching for her Italian-Australian father.
"A lot of people have called me trying to help after they saw it on the Internet," said Michelle Nguyen Brusasco of Riverside, who has been searching years for her father, who left Vietnam in 1971. Brusasco posted photos of her father, along with herself and her mother, on the Web site.
"One guy who worked with my father in Vietnam called me and gave me information that he was still alive three years ago but had a heart attack," she said. "He lost track of him after that. Even if he's dead, I want to know what happened."
For those who live in isolated areas away from other Vietnamese, the Web site serves as a lifeline of information and a connection to a community they have no other way of reaching.
Every day until his death a few weeks ago, Bao Van Bui of Toronto made a ritual of visiting his son's home every morning, waiting for him to log on to his computer, and then listening with delight to a live webcast of a radio program from Little Saigon, his son Son Bao Bui said.
"He only spoke Vietnamese and wanted a radio program in Vietnamese," said Bui. "We don't have Vietnamese radio or newspapers here in Toronto so when I found out about Kicon, I was very happy. He loved it."
Bui confesses that he became addicted to the site as well, logging in every day for the latest information.
Then there are the devotees who head straight to the chat room, where international visitors mix and mingle 24 hours a day.
"There's a lot of regulars who get hooked," Meng said. "One man in Philadelphia goes to the chat room every day, so sometimes we ask him how busy it's been. We have other people from Texas who are very lonely, who have made friends through VietTalk."
The guest book lists visitors from Australia, Canada, Japan, Vietnam and Russia. But the vast majority--about 80%--are from the United States.
Engineering student Hieu Ninh follows the news about Little Saigon and the rest of Orange County's Vietnamese community without ever setting foot in Southern California.
Ninh, from Lincoln, Neb., gets his weekly scoops via computer.
"I feel like I know everything that's going on. I feel in touch with the Vietnamese community there," he said.
For the April 30 anniversary of the fall of Saigon, Kicon posted a special project complete with radio interviews with former South Vietnam President Nguyen Van Thieu, historical pictures of refugees at Camp Pendleton and video coverage of the commemoration ceremony in Little Saigon.
"People who live here are bombarded with information from the TV, radio or newspapers," said Trang Nguyen, president of Little Saigon Television. "But many who live outside California don't have access to the news."
The broadcasting company has collaborated with Kicon in archiving important TV programs, such as a recent interview with former South Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky, which users can access at the site.
Over the last two years, the Web site's reputation has grown primarily by word of mouth. At the start, Meng recalls she had a tough selling job when she tried to get local media and other businesses interested in getting online at the site. But times have changed for the better.
"In the beginning, they were very skeptical," she said. "We had to explain what the Internet was and what our Web site was about. These days, we just mention the Internet and they automatically want to be associated with it."
The enthusiastic, and often grateful, feedback in letters, e-mail and phone calls has been encouraging to the staff.
"I think the site gives [users] a sense of belonging, a sense of being part of the community even though they don't live here," said Kicon engineer Le. "That's what we wanted to do from the beginning."