In late June, Michael Phuong Minh Nguyen left his wife and four children in the city of Orange for his yearly visit to Vietnam, where he planned to pay respects to old friends and aging relatives.
He intended to tour Central Vietnam, stopping in Hue and Da Nang — and to send photos with loved ones to his family in the United States. Then on July 6, he just disappeared.
No one could reach him. Not his wife and children. Not his aunts and uncles in Saigon.
With no other clues, they worry that he’s been arrested and detained by the Vietnamese government. They have no proof but rushed to report his case to authorities in both countries — pointing to unrest in Vietnam in recent months over land leases to China and a new cybersecurity law giving officials wide latitude to censor online critics.
“We have no idea why he’s been out of touch,” said Mark Roberts, his brother-in-law. “Everyone is fearful because they have not spoken to Michael in more than three weeks — and every day, the gravity of the situation gets a little heavier.”
On Tuesday, a court in Vietnam issued prison sentences to 15 protesters arrested at mass demonstrations sparked by concerns that investors from China would seize the land for development. Meanwhile, with police increasingly cracking down on bloggers since 2016, Vietnam’s National Assembly passed legislation to force companies such as Facebook and Google to store all data of Vietnam-based users in the country and open local offices.
That law unleashed protests in early June, with thousands of opponents warning that it would limit free speech. Under the requirement, taking effect Jan. 1, officials would have discretion in deciding when expression can be considered “illegal” — making it easier for the government to identify and prosecute users for online activities.
Against this “explosive environment,” Nguyen’s family members said they are “desperate and determined to find him,” said Roberts, who added that his brother-in-law is not involved in politics.
Nguyen, 54, is a U.S. citizen and owns a printing business. His wife, Helen, is a nurse who’s been making numerous calls to the U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City after he did not return on a scheduled flight home on July 16.
A mutual agreement between the two countries requires that the Vietnamese government notify the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam within 96 hours if an American citizen has been arrested and jailed. And though officials at the U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City have contacted government representatives to get answers on Nguyen, family members say they have yet to receive “any information.”
Nguyen’s four daughters, “even the youngest, understand he should have been back much earlier,” Roberts said. “They are confused, so scared because he is the one who takes them back and forth everywhere. He was a very steady presence.”
In Orange County, supporters have contacted their local representative, Congresswoman Mimi Walters of Irvine, to ask that the case be treated with urgency.
Walters “is deeply concerned about Mr. Michael Nguyen’s whereabouts,” said T.W. Arrighi, her communications director. “The congresswoman and her staff remain in close contact with the Nguyen family while working to provide answers and bring Mr. Nguyen home safely.”
Nguyen’s family is also trying to reach the family of Will Nguyen, a Vietnamese American from Houston who was arrested and beaten after he participated in a pro-democracy protest while on vacation in Vietnam in June. He has since been released after being in custody for 40 days.
“The difference is that Will, bloodied and beaten up, was videotaped so you knew the government had arrested him — while with Michael there is no videotape,” Roberts said. “We are at a loss. When you are traveling in a place where normal, everyday freedoms do not exist, you don’t know what choices you have to stay safe.”