“My passion is to help people,” says Long Doan, of Realty Group, “and real estate is my platform to do that. This is my 25th year in the business. My parents have a great deal to do with my success today, but there’s a long story behind that.”
VIETNAM APRIL 1975
Doan’s story begins in what was then Saigon, more than 40 years ago, when his young life was forever and irrevocably changed. The catalyst was the scrambled exodus of the last remaining American combat troops from the country. Crowds clamored to get inside Tan Son Nhut airport. More streamed toward the Saigon River looking to escape by sea. Horrific scenes flash across TV screens of frantic Vietnamese, identified as U.S. sympathizers and enemies of the state, clinging desperately to airborne helicopters or recklessly plunging into the water trying to reach an outgoing boat.
Days later, a small, terrified and confused 8-year-old Doan, watches in horror as his father and hero is ripped from the family and dragged away to a reeducation camp. The father’s only crime – being an educated and highly respected member of the community, who refused to publicly support the new communist regime.
“That was the day my childhood ended,” says Doan, “and our world crumbled. They told my mother, Thuc, they were taking dad to a reeducation camp, but we knew we might never see him again. It all played out in slow motion, as nightmares tend to do. Looking to my mother for answers or reassurance, I saw only the face of a strong, stoic and determined woman with one thought – to take care of what was left of her family.
“My father was just one of thousands of doctors, attorneys, writers, artists and other educated professionals to be taken away,” he continues. “As a professor and vice chancellor of one of the largest universities in Vietnam, my dad was apparently perceived as a threat to the communists.”
Despite the deceptive name, reeducation camps were nothing more than prison compounds where inmates endured torture, starvation and disease while performing forced labor. The only attempt at “reeducation” was communist indoctrination via torment. The countrywide sweep resulted in the capture and imprisonment of as many as 300,000 former military officers, government workers and supporters of the former government of South Vietnam.
“At the time of my father’s arrest, my brothers were only 4 and 2, so they didn’t really have many memories of him,” Doan says. “I had memories. But I wouldn’t see my father again until I was 32 years old.”
GROWING UP FAST
Still recovering from that harrowing experience, young Doan was suddenly thrust into the role of a father figure for the two younger boys, while struggling alongside his mother to ensure the family’s very survival.
“My mother was working two jobs,” he says. “So, every day after school, it was my job to stand in line for whatever rations were being handed out that day. The wait was typically three to four hours. On Mondays, I would line up for several hours to receive a small ration of rice; Tuesdays might be some vegetables, and so on. That’s what life was like under communist control.”
Doan’s mother and father were highly educated professionals with prestigious university positions when their world was ripped apart. “Both of my parents received full scholarships to Florida State University,” says Doan. “My father held a doctorate and my mother a master’s degree. Both were university professors. But that was before the fall of Saigon.
“My parents always assumed my brothers and I would have the opportunity to follow in their footsteps,” he continues, “But of course, when the communists moved in from the north, everything changed.”
Living conditions began to plummet, heralding the darkest days yet for the people of Vietnam. Stripped of the billions of dollars the United States had been pumping into the southern economy during the war, poverty spread as quickly as disease. With a monetary system in shambles, Vietnamese currency was virtually worthless, and the people, barely surviving, lived hand-to-mouth, feeling hopeless and forgotten.
Life was dark and dismal for most Vietnamese during this time, but Doan’s family suffered the additional onus of his father’s imprisonment and being blacklisted. With little hope, Doan’s mother made perhaps the most anguished and selfless decision of her life.
“When I was 13, my mother realized that our situation wasn’t going to improve,” Doan says. “That meant escaping and starting over. But, because of the high-risk and expense, only one of us could go. As the eldest, it was up to me.”
In fact, the small family had attempted escape together when Doan was just 12. At the last minute, his mother changed her mind, not wanting to put them all at risk. Later, Doan was in the company of his aunt and uncle trying to leave, when they were apprehended.
“Miraculously, my uncle managed to escape, but I was captured and held for several days before being released,” he recalls. “I remember the government officials made us all sit out in the hot, humid weather, the sun beating down on us. The whole time they jeered at us, tauntingly saying we should wait for the Americans to come save us.”
“I remember the government officials made us all sit out in the hot, humid weather, the sun beating down on us. The whole time they jeered at us, tauntingly saying we should wait for the Americans to come save us.”
More than 800,000 men, women and children came to the same conclusion. In the early 1980s, the media dubbed these daring souls, “The Boat People.” Facing incomprehensible danger and severe hardships, refugees paid dearly for the chance to board overcrowded vessels (typically small fishing boats), enduring storms, the threat of pirates, and subsisting on little or no food.
ESCAPE TO OPPORTUNITY
The barely seaworthy boat Doan boarded was packed with another 152 refugees. Already robbed of a childhood, Doan now carried the full weight of his family’s hopes and dreams on his small back. At an age when other boys might suffer pangs of homesickness during a brief summer camp sojourn, Doan was not only leaving behind his home and family, but embarking on a perilous journey with dismal odds of success.
“I guess I’m glad I wasn’t aware at the time,” he admits, “but later I found out that the odds of success were less than 50 percent. So much could go wrong. Of course, I knew some of the dangers. We knew that because our money was worthless, everyone leaving would be carrying whatever valuables they could. Unfortunately, pirates knew this too, and prowled the waters watching for these vulnerable boats. They would take whatever valuables, rape the women and sink the boats.”
Apparently, the third time was the charm because after making it past the initial dangers of capture and with just one day’s ration of food and water left, the small boat was spotted by crew members of a large ship. Doan and fellow passengers were picked up and delivered to the nearest refugee camp.
Doan recalls the pain, loneliness and fear he experienced that first night in the Malaysian refugee camp. “That’s the night I really grew up,” he says. “I was sitting on the beach staring up at the stars and it hit me, everyone I knew and loved was on the other side of that vast ocean.”
“It’s the first time I remember breaking down and sobbing,” he continues. “I was the first-born son and knew that men are not supposed to cry, but I couldn’t stop. I think I cried throughout that entire night. I remember wondering, am I lucky or unlucky? I realized how hard it must have been for my mother. And, as dawn began to break, I made a decision – no more feeling sorry for myself. I knew it was up to me to determine my own future. It’s all about the right mindset.”
Doan pauses, as though returning from that Malaysian beach. “I decided to put on my big boy pants,” he says with a smile. “I would do whatever necessary to take care of myself and my family. In that moment, I understood that it wasn’t about me, it’s about other people.”
“I decided to put on my big boy pants,” he says with a smile. “I would do whatever necessary to take care of myself and my family. In that moment, I understood that it wasn’t about me, it’s about other people.”
FROM SWAMPS TO SNOW
Unlike most his fellow refugees, Doan was fortunate to have an uncle in Minnesota to sponsor him, so his stay in the camp was only a year – a blink of an eye when compared to the average seven to 10 year duration.
Growing to adulthood under his uncle’s roof, Doan never forgot those he left behind. A couple of years after arriving, Doan’s younger brother, Hue, joined him. But Doan was focused on reuniting the whole family in his new home.
When he turned 18, Doan enrolled at the University of Minnesota, and he and his younger brother moved out on their own. He supported his brother for the next several years, until the young man also graduated from high school.
While a prisoner, Doan’s father, Doan Viet Hoat, wrote prolifically. His articles on human rights and democracy somehow managing to get smuggled out and printed around the world. It wasn’t just a matter of expressing himself, but also his only chance at survival. People knew his name and where he was, so the communists didn’t dare kill him.
When Doan was about 16, people in local government and members of various human rights groups discovered his connection to this prolific writer. “I became the poster child for political prisoners,” he says. “I was invited to speak at various places even in Washington D.C.”
Eventually, Doan realized the goal he’d set for himself as a child, and brought his mother and youngest brother to the States.
“Once my mother arrived she took over my dad’s cause,” he says. Finally, when Doan was 32, they negotiated the release of his father and the family reunited. Doan was free to begin his life in earnest.
“So, you see,” he says, “that’s why I feel so strongly about helping people. Real estate is a very noble profession, and an ideal way to serve others.”
FINDING HIS OWN PATH
After working on the mortgage side of the industry for 15 years, Doan was ready to make the move to sales and opened Realty Group in 2009. Within the first four years, he closed more than 1,000 transactions. Eight years later, Realty Group is one of the largest independent real estate firms in Minnesota, winning numerous awards and ranking No. 1 in the state for net growth.
“I surround myself with people who are more talented than I am,” he says modestly. “In fact, I credit one of my first hires, Amanda Marchand, for our success in the first few years. She put us on the map.
“About three years ago, I brought in a partner, Mike Bernier,” Doan continues, “and he and his wife, Jessica Bernier, have really helped build our brokerage and catapulted Realty Group to another stratosphere.
“You know, real estate is not just a job or a career but a lifestyle,” he adds. “I would like to thank my beautiful wife Michelle for being my partner and biggest supporter. I couldn’t have done any of this without her.
Those who know and work with him, claim that Doan’s secret to success is his sincere passion for people. His vision for this real estate company, was to create such a prosperous and positive environment for agents, that no one would ever want to leave, and everyone succeeds. It worked.
“We have what I refer to as an inverted business model,” he says. “We work for our agents, not the other way around. At Realty Group, each agent is treated as the CEO of his or her company, and we are here to provide support in everything they do.
“With advancements in technology, we’re able to provide the same level of training and cutting-edge tools as the big-name companies,” he adds. “Yet our agents are paid 100 percent commission. I’ve heard people say that this arrangement is too good to be true, but just ask any of our very successful agents.”
“I see life like a movie. We each are the writer, director and star of our own story.”
Despite all his success, Doan remains as humble as that young boy alone on the beach. “I see life like a movie,” he says. “We each are the writer, director and star of our own story. We decide the storyline and can change it if we don’t like it. Life is all about our journey because when we reach our destination, our life ends. It’s what we do during our journey on this earth that matters.”