An Ha’s American story is the stuff of movies.
The youngest in a family of 10, he was 23 when he arrived in California with $60 in his pocket, a spotty command of English and his father’s missive: “Go to the U.S.; try to do something to make your life better in the future.”
Once in the United States, Ha enrolled in English-language classes while balancing three jobs. Nurturing his boyhood aspirations of becoming an architect, Ha decided to learn every aspect of the discipline from drawing and designing to model building and construction. He enrolled at Golden West College, pursuing his studies until he was accepted into Cal Poly Pomona’s College of Environmental Design in 2010. A year later his father, 79-year-old Ut Ha, died.
“I just want to say, thank you Mom,” Ha said. “Dad, I will not run away with our past. I will try my best to build our life over here better and better. America gave me a chance to change my lifestyle. It gave me a lot to study, so I can build a bigger dream.”
In life’s lottery, the odds delivered what seemed the impossible dream to the architecture major. Born and raised in the rural village of Tinh Bien in the southern Vietnam province of An Giang, Ha is the first and only resident to complete primary and secondary school, as well as gain admission to Ha Noi Architecture University in Ho Chi Minh City. This is a highly competitive process that sees only 60 to70 students accepted nationwide – effectively making him his hometown’s most highly educated son.
And the most travelled. Attending elementary, and junior- and high school required moving to the city of Chau Doc, which had educational institutions Tinh Bien lacked. That meant leaving behind his family, their fruit farm, and a rustic lifestyle in which chicken and pork were a luxury, and rats, frogs, fish and snake were the protein staple. Gone too were days swimming at the local river and evenings illuminated by oil lamp and moonlight.
His senior year at Ha Noi was punctuated by the news that his brother, Andrew, succeeded in obtaining sponsorship for Ha’s American visa, 16 years after filing the paperwork. This year, at age 36, Ha will accept his undergraduate degree in architecture.
“I did not know of his story until about the third week into senior project when we had everyone give introductions of themselves and he showed an image of the grass hut he grew up in with no plumbing or electricity, etc.,” said Michael Fox, architecture professor and Ha’s senior project advisor. “I thought he was joking.”
Ha’s come a long way from ESL classes and labor-intensive jobs. In 2004 he gained his first professional foothold doing scale models at Glenn Johnson Architecture, and three years later was hired at international design firm WATG in Irvine, drafting the artwork for the five-star high-rise hotel Atlantis Dubai. He also launched his own practice, ANHA Studio. Last year he opened – as well as designed and constructed – his own restaurant, An Pho in Anaheim. The eatery honors his best friend Pho; their combined names translate to “Safe Town.”
“He is an extraordinarily talented individual who also works extremely hard,” Fox said. “He has already done work for major offices that have been built and is beginning his own practice, which I am sure will be successful. He already understands quite well the business of architecture.”
Ha’s academic achievements, career trajectory and personal story make him an outlier in a college brimming with talented, passionate peers.
“An essential part of our mission is to offer opportunities to minorities and economically disadvantaged students who are poorly represented in architecture,” said Professor Sarah Lorenzen, chair of the architecture department. “At Cal Poly Pomona, we aim to graduate architects that can serve society’s needs. Society is complex and multivalent, and having a student body that reflects the demographics of our cities is a first step. I am extremely proud of everything that An Ha has accomplished, and see him as a shining example of what we do here.”
Ha also continues to help his family by sponsoring two more siblings, brother Thanh and sister Mai. Thanh, crippled by childhood polio, used to ride on Ha’s back to get around their village. After graduation, Ha plans to give his Garden Grove house to Thanh’s family and the An Pho restaurant to Mai’s family. If his mother Chau Quay passes her interview at the U.S. Embassy in Ho Chi Minh City in early June she will take her first airplane ride at age 80, bound for Southern California to watch her youngest child graduate.
“All I need for my next journey is my truck, pens, laptop, and construction tools,” Ha said. “The work is not done yet. I don’t know how far I’m going to go in the future, but I always feel some power is watching over me, never letting me get tired, never letting me fail. I think God gave me a lot. It’s time to give back.”