PEABODY — The restaurant business is tough, with long hours and hard work. But tell that to Kevin and John Nguyen, and they smile.
Kevin escaped from communist Vietnam in 1984. He knew war as a child in Hue.
"I am little, holding my mom's hand," he remembers. "We're seeing bombs explode. We're running. I look up in the sky and see the airplanes. I see dead bodies."
Kevin's father, Ban, served in the South Vietnamese army. It did not matter to the victorious communist government that he had been a conscript. He had fought alongside the Americans and was liable for a term of "re-education" or worse.
Fleeing Hue, the family began living on a boat in the Mekong River. They fished for nearly a decade until one day his father built a larger boat, no more than 5 feet wide and 28 feet long.
It was intended to ferry 28 people out of Vietnam.
Reaching freedom involved eluding government officials, sailing the Gulf of Thailand in a vessel only half a foot above the waves, passing notorious Thai fishermen known to plunder and slaughter entire boatloads of refugees.
"We were very nervous," Kevin says.
They took precautions. A sister shaved her head, hoping pirates would take her for a nun and leave her alone. They brought what weapons they could find. Kevin remembers his resolve.
"We're not going to give up if pirates come. I was ready to go to battle," he says.
Because stops were required at government coastal stations, the quantity of fuel they carried had be hidden. An older brother was offloaded at sea with the gas and a flashlight. He was to tread water and keep the gas afloat until the boat returned.
"You do it or you die," Kevin explains.
After two days and nights at sea, "we saw a lot of lights." They'd stumbled onto a forest of American-run oil rigs.
The Nguyens were taken on board by friendly Americans.
"I thought we'd landed in America," Kevin says, smiling.
His father obtained an English/Vietnamese dictionary, and they began to study.
In 1987, after months in camps in Thailand and the Philippines, his father's wartime service got the Nguyens sent, at last, to San Diego.
"I remember the whole family celebrating," Kevin says.
Life in America was not without obstacles, the biggest being the language.
"And we don't have the money that the normal American has," Kevin says. "The first five years were the toughest."
A relative already settled helped them out, as did newfound American friends.
School can be a challenge for Asians, who are vulnerable to bullies. Kevin was quick to defend himself. In high school, he joined the football team as a defensive lineman and, while knowing little of the rules, set a school record for sacks.
John was born in the United States.
"Eight kids in the family," he said with a laugh, "and they still wanted more."
Eventually, their parents moved to Louisiana, where they returned to fishing, running a shrimp boat.
"I was a deckhand," John said, recalling grueling, 12-hour days. "It was a lot like going to the gym."
With Hurricane Katrina bearing down, the parents set out to sea, moving toward Texas in an effort to outrace the storm. Days later, they headed back to New Orleans, harried by a second storm farther west. They found their home blown away, along with everything they owned, save a small propeller.
In their 60s, the older Nguyens started over. They continue shrimping today.
For a time, the hurricane devastated the fishing industry.
"Even when you caught shrimp, there was nowhere to sell it," John says. He moved to Florida.
Kevin had been drawn to the Northeast. He professes to love snow. He opened a nail salon in Portsmouth, N.H., with his wife and the first of two children. For pleasure, he boxed, winning a regional championship in 2003. He was good enough to toy with the idea of turning pro before allergies mandated against the idea.
Eventually, Kevin visited his kid brother in Florida and was shocked by what he found.
"John was working in a sushi restaurant. It was one of the biggest restaurants in Orlando. John was the head chef. ... Wow. I have to believe in his talent and skill."
With John married (he's currently expecting his first child), the brothers decided they could do better working for themselves. The result was the Maki Sushi Bar and Grille, opened nearly two years ago in downtown Peabody and featuring 50 varieties of sushi. They were confident enough of success that they opened prior to landing a liquor license.
It's been so successful that the brothers are in the process of opening Nguyen's Vietnamese Cuisine and Sushi Bar on Humphrey Street in Swampscott. Once the proper permits are granted, it will become a family operation like Maki Sushi, where Kevin's 16-year-old daughter, Tram, works behind the counter.
With the brothers split between two establishments, Kevin is looking forward to showing some of his cooking chops.
"I have adopted our mom's cooking," he says, advertising himself as the best Vietnamese chef in the family.
Neither is daunted by the challenge. John points out that he was working on the shrimp boat from the time he was in elementary school.
If John had any doubts about his parents' decision to leave Vietnam, those were dispelled by a visit to that country some years ago.
"It's a totally different environment," he says.
The brothers make no secret of their feelings for America.
"At the end of it, we love this country," Kevin says. "We say nothing bad about this country."