When the 29-year-old steps into the ring to battle Puja “The Cyclone” Tomar in a women’s atomweight Muay Thai match next Friday, 6 September, she will fulfill one of her biggest goals and perform in the land of her birth for the first time.
It is sure to be an emotional occasion for the Heritage Muay Thai representative in Ho Chi Minh City as she returns to Vietnam and strengthens her connection to the family that she holds so dear.
Nguyen was born in central Vietnam and lived there until she was 6 years old when she relocated to the United States with her parents and six siblings.
Despite her young age, “Killer Bee” has vivid memories of growing up in the farming communities in her home country, which was a far cry from her city life in America.
“I actually have really clear memories. They’re here and there, but the best memories I have are from when we lived in rural Vietnam,” Nguyen says.
“I remember we had chickens in the back, and I’d always come into the house all bloodied because I was so reckless. I would go out there, and take the eggs from the chickens. I would just run away with them and the chickens would come and peck at my arms.
“My mom would get so mad. I was a crazy jungle kid. I would climb and fall, and just always get into trouble.”
Once she moved to the United States, Nguyen was forced to live between two worlds as she was raised by her Vietnamese parents while she attended school with American children.
She admits taking for granted the lessons she learned about her homeland and culture, but as she grew up, she began to embrace the core values that define her people.
“Now that I’m older, the best things that I’ve learned about our culture is the core of how we function – the hard work and the camaraderie,” Nguyen explains.
“In Vietnamese culture, it’s hard work and tough love. Nobody wants tough love, so when I was younger, I didn’t appreciate that, but now I understand being resilient and getting tough love.
“If you know Vietnamese people around you, you know that they stay tight-knit. They’re close together. Family takes care of family. Those are the two things about Vietnamese culture that really helped me and resonated with me – the sense of community and the hard work.”
Because she was so far away from home, Nguyen knew it would not be easy to stay connected to her Vietnamese heritage, but she made sure she never forgot where she came from.
The thing that meant the most to her was the language – she talked to her family in their native tongue, which always kept them close to the home they had to leave behind.
“I speak Vietnamese and I read some Vietnamese because I always wanted to stay connected to it. I would practice at the nail shop, at the restaurant – whenever I would see Vietnamese people in the States,” she says.
“It also shows respect to the elders to speak Vietnamese if you know it. I take pride in the fact that I can speak Vietnamese to my mom. I want to keep that language for my kids, so when I have kids, they had better speak Vietnamese because I do, and I worked so hard to keep my Vietnamese.”
As she stands just days away from performing in the first-ever ONE Championship card in Vietnam, Nguyen is understandably overwrought with emotions.
Beyond the excitement for this opportunity, she is also dealing with thoughts of the one person who would have loved to be by her side as she experiences the defining moment of her career so far.
“My dad was a big fan of fighting, and he was at a couple of my fights,” Nguyen says.
“I didn’t always have a good relationship with my dad, but fighting was something we connected with. I feel like he would have been so proud.”
Nguyen was estranged from her family when she was 15, but she reconnected with them in recent years to reform a strong bond.
Sadly, her father died last year, but now she plans to honor his memory by representing Vietnam in the world’s largest martial arts organization.
“My dad would have been running around the stands on 6 September telling everyone I was his daughter,” Nguyen says.
“I would have put him in my corner, and he would love to give me water. This is more than just Vietnamese pride for me. It’s a way for me to connect to my dad and fulfill a dream of mine.”