Crossing the River: From the war-torn jungles of Vietnam to the tranquil lakes of Minnesota

Moua, third from left in the top row, with his wife Mai Yia, second from right in the top row, and their extended family. (submitted photos)

“Crossing the River” by T. Cher Moua was published in January.

T. Cher Moua, a Maplewood resident, wrote of his personal journey from the war-torn jungles of Vietnam to Minnesota. In addition to his work at the Cross Cultural Evangelical Free Church, Moua serves as director of Asian ministries and donor relations officer at the Union Gospel Mission. (Linda Baumeister/Review)

T. Cher Moua’s recently published book, “Crossing the River (One Man’s Journey from Darkness to Light)” is more than just an incredible story of escaping a war - it’s a personal journey from which everyone can glean valuable insights.

Moua, a Maplewood resident, is originally from Ban Phou Houard, a small village in east central Laos. He experienced firsthand the destruction of the Vietnam War in his home country. Now, he works as the associate pastor at the CrossCultural Evangelical Free Church in St. Paul.

Moua says his principal motivation in publishing his personal faith journey stemmed from the desire to pass his culture along to his five children and seven grandchildren.

“I had been thinking about this for the last 30 years, and I wanted to put something together for my children and grandchildren and future generations. I wanted them to know who their ancestors are and how they got here,” Moua said.

“I had a coworker who wrote a memoir to give to his kids,” Moua added. “And he kept asking me when I was going to write mine.”

“The “Secret War”

During the Vietnam War, the CIA began training a group of Laotian Hmong people to help American military forces in their fight against the North Vietnamese Army.

This group, led by General Vang Pao, became known as the Special Guerilla Unit. About 60 percent of the Hmong men in Laos participated in what has been called the “Secret War.”

Moua was too young to serve in the military during the war, but his two oldest brothers became involved in the fighting. His oldest brother, Chang, who joined the Americans, was killed by enemy fire in August 1969, and his stepbrother, Lee, who fought with the Viet Cong, was killed in 1965. Moua says his brothers were both about 20 years old when they were killed.

Unfortunately, Moua’s brothers were among many fallen soldiers on both sides. In fact, about 30,000 Hmong lives were lost during the war.

After his family was displaced from their village, Moua remembers living in the jungles of Laos, sometimes for several years at a time.

“My family roamed the jungles from 1969-1975. We had a reprieve from the war for a year from 1975 to 1976,” Moua recalls.

“My brothers and uncles took up the leftover arms of the CIA, retreated to the jungles and resisted the Communist regime from 1976-1978,” Moua added.

After the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam in 1975, the Hmong people became subject to persecution, many choosing to take refuge in Thailand, as Moua’s family would eventually do.

Carol Pettitt, editor of “Crossing the River (One Man’s Journey from Darkness to Light),” says, “Back in the ‘70s, I had read newspaper articles about the Hmong people, their helping the U.S. with the Vietnam War, their escape from Thailand and eventually coming to the U.S.

“But this information was just information, and it was easily forgotten,” Pettitt says.

“Reading Cher’s book gave me a whole new appreciation for the plight of the Hmong people in particular, but also for any and all refugees who come to the U.S. even today seeking to start new lives.”

Attempt to cross the river

In the summer of 1978, after living in the jungles for eight years, Moua’s family made the perilous trek across the Lao/Thai border, which is divided by the Mekong River. The summer months in Southeast Asia are monsoon season, making the river rise and the current stronger, Moua explains.

Moua’s family attempted to cross the river on Sept. 22, 1978, when Moua was just 15.

“I remember the date very clearly. My niece and I were tied together with a rope so we wouldn’t lose each other,” Moua says. “About 15 minutes after I started swimming, I began to feel a pain in my chest, and I realized I couldn’t swim anymore.”

Moua and his niece, See, were swept downriver to an area where two opposite currents collided, creating a whirlpool effect.

“We floated in the whirlpool for six or seven hours,” Moua recounts. “We called heaven, earth or whoever could hear us.”

Thankfully, their prayers were answered.

A lucky encounter

Around 4 or 5 a.m., a boat carrying Thai soldiers found the pair, plucking them out of the water.

“The first thing the crew asked us was ‘Where is your money?’” Moua says. “At this point, our bodies were totally bare, and we didn’t have any money. But instead of throwing us back in the river, they made a bonfire, gave us clothes and made breakfast.”

Following orders from the ship’s captain, the Thai soldiers then dropped Moua and his niece at a bus stop, giving them money to pay the fare. They were reunited with their family and lived as refugees in Thailand until 1979, when they immigrated to the U.S.

“I went to high school in Pittsburgh, where I also got married and found Christ,” Moua said. He moved to Maplewood in 2005, and in addition to his work at the CrossCultural Evangelical Free Church, Moua serves as the director of Asian ministries and donor relations officer at Union Gospel Mission in St. Paul.

Pettitt adds, “(Crossing the River) would be an interesting read for anyone. If you have a negative or even neutral opinion of refugees, the book will challenge you to re-think your position.

“If you have a positive opinion about refugees, the book will affirm your beliefs and make you thankful that you have helped them.”

You can learn much more about T. Cher Moua’s journey to the U.S. by reading his book, “Crossing the River (One Man’s Journey from Darkness to Light).” It’s is available for purchase at or by calling T. Cher Moua at 651-503-0239.

Johanna Holub can be reached at or 651-748-7814.

Book launch

Those interested in learning more about T. Cher Moua’s experience in Laos during the Vietnam War and his harrowing escape from his war torn homeland can attend the book launch on Saturday, April 13, from 3 to 7 p.m. at the Hmong Village Market Complex at 1001 Johnson Parkway in St. Paul. Moua will give a talk and sign copies of his new autobiography, “Crossing the River (One Man’s Journey from Darkness to Light).” Refreshments will be served.

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