Hoanh Ly says he’s been living through hell on earth.
Hoanh, a soft-spoken, gentle-faced Vietnamese immigrant, is leaning against his family’s 34th-and-Walnut fruit cart, gazing out at the street as University City begins to wake up on a Monday morning.
An ambulance zooms by, the first of many to come that day. Five months ago, Hoanh thinks, it could have been his father in that ambulance.
A double-decker tour bus slows down about 20 feet away from Hoanh, its driver pausing briefly to point out Penn’s fine arts library. “That’s where Denzel Washington and Tom Hanks filmed part of ‘Philadelphia,’” the driver, speaking in an unmistakably Philadelphian accent, says. He’s addressing a group of foreigners; judging by the fervor with which they’re snapping photographs, they’re probably taking in the country for the first time. Years ago, it could have been Hoanh’s father on that bus.
Now the oldest male in his family, Hoanh, 38, knows that he’s been handed a heavy burden. Like his father used to, he has to wake up at 4 a.m. every day to begin loading the fruit onto his family’s cart. He works four jobs; the idea of a vacation, he says, is as foreign to him as this country once was.
Hoanh’s new responsibility, he says, is simple: to be there for his mother, his brother and his sisters.
“It was never supposed to be like this,” he says, his voice trailing off as another ambulance screeches by, an uninvited interruption to an otherwise-quiet Monday morning. “He wasn’t supposed to leave us this way.”
It has been nearly five months since Don Ly, the popular food cart owner whose fruit was a staple of Penn’s campus for 18 years, was murdered early one morning outside of his South Philadelphia home.
Around 5 a.m. on April 18, police say, Don was loading up his truck when a man, emerging suddenly from the darkness of the family’s quiet block on Vollmer Street, stabbed him with a knife repeatedly. Don, 68 when he died, stumbled over to his son’s ground-floor window, unable to muster the strength to let out a scream.
All Hoanh remembers hearing from his father that morning is one faint tap on the window. He stood up to head outside, thinking that his father had locked himself out of the house. But when Hoanh stepped onto the front stoop, his father fell into his arms, his clothes bloodied and his breathing fading fast.
His father tried to let out a whisper, to say one final goodbye. He couldn’t.
He died minutes later, in an ambulance on its way to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.
Through their grief, Hoanh and his family have been searching for answers since that morning in April. But so far, they’ve found nothing.
Investigators say they have made some headway in their push to find Don’s killer, but with no apparent motive, progress has been slow. Police in May released a surveillance video of the suspected murderer walking around Don’s neighborhood on April 18, but leads in the investigation have otherwise been scarce.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” Hoanh says. Even through his broken English, which he first learned as a teenager at a refugee camp in Thailand, his anger over the stalled movement in capturing his father’s murderer is clear. It has been months, he says, since his family has spoken to detectives. “As time goes by, we’re afraid that people might start to forget. We don’t want them to forget.”
Nary Ly, Don’s oldest daughter, still expects to see her father sitting in the corner of the family’s white, L-shaped couch. Her dad would often spend his Saturdays watching television on that couch, she says, one of his favorite spots in their three-story, brick townhouse. The rest of the week was all about work for Don, but Saturdays were always his.
And the dictionary. Don, says Leeto Ly, his youngest son, loved to read the dictionary. His enthusiasm about education, Hoanh says, is why he felt so comfortable at Penn for so many years. “He really admired the people who went here,” Hoanh says. “He was part of the Penn community.”
Don’s death is another violent and seemingly senseless Philadelphia killing, but the murder has an added sense of tragedy to it. Before coming to the United States, Don had spent his entire life in a small South Vietnam town — the sort of place, his children say, where kids could run around carefree in the forests and rivers, never having to worry about anybody bothering them.
That was until April 1975, when the city of Saigon fell to the Viet Cong, marking the end of the Vietnam War. After that, Don’s life was forever changed. Some day, he knew, he would take his wife and four children out of the country, in hopes of better opportunities.
“He found a life here in America,” Hoanh says, “but that life didn’t last long.”
It was three weeks before the fall of Saigon, and Don was working at a police outpost in a nearby town. He had been educated as a Buddhist monk at a local temple for years, and in his mid-20s he decided to use his education to join the police force as a communication liaison.
Suddenly, he heard an explosion. Somebody had thrown a grenade through his outpost’s window, landing several feet away from him. He tried to run, but it was too late; the shrapnel from the grenade hit his left foot. He lost two of his toes, spending the rest of his life walking with a slightly unbalanced gait. But he was lucky, his family says. They’d heard of far worse happening to their friends and neighbors.
Don, Leeto says, was never one to talk about how the war had affected him. He was a quiet man who kept his feelings inside, not unlike his children today. “There just wasn’t a conversation about any of that,” Leeto, 34, says. “We didn’t ask, and he didn’t tell us.”
Even at the height of the fighting in the 1960s and 70s, Leeto says, the war never really touched his family’s village, called Xung Thum. They sometimes listened to a radio, but otherwise lived largely in isolation. “Whatever happened outside our village I didn’t know about,” Leeto says. “It was the most peaceful place ever.”
After the fall of Saigon, Don and Saruong, his wife of more than 40 years, knew they had to act fast. One day, they burned almost all of the official documents showing that Don had once worked for the South Vietnam police. If the Viet Cong had ever found one of those documents, Hoanh says, they likely would have killed his father.
Occasionally, Viet Cong officers would come to the family’s longan plantation, where Don also grew mango, watermelon and banana, to collect money. Several times, Hoanh says, the officers took Don away with them for days at a time. Even when he came to the United States, Don never shared with his family what the officers did to him; Hoanh’s best guess, he says, is that they put him through forced labor, trying to determine whether he would remain loyal to the country’s new government.
Nary, 40, whose eyes tear up as she talks about her father, says there was so much she had planned to ask him later in life. “I could have asked him more,” she says. “I’ll never get that chance.”
Early one morning in January 1989, Don told his family that they would be leaving the country. It was the first his children had heard of their father’s plan; Don hadn’t even told his parents, who also lived nearby. The family left Xung Thum before dawn, starting off by river boat to the Cambodian border. For weeks, they traveled only under the shield of darkness. To them, there was no such thing as the afternoon — it was too dangerous.
Don’s instructions to his wife and children, Nary says, were short and clear.
“Just follow me.”
It’s a quiet weekend afternoon on Vollmer Street in South Philadelphia, where Don and his family settled soon after arriving in the country in 1990. Two blocks away, there’s a small Cambodian neighborhood. As Hoanh walks in that direction, the smell of Asian cooking wafts onto the streets from open kitchen windows. In the cultural melting pot that is South Philadelphia, it’s a small reminder of home.
Soon, Hoanh arrives at his family’s front door, pausing to take in a sign of his father. Sitting in front of the family’s yard, in which the overgrown grass is decaying and the shed is sporting a reddish-brown rust, is Don’s original fruit cart. The cart hasn’t been used in months, and although the red lettering on its sign is faded, it is still visible: “fresh fruit salad.” Just weeks before he was killed, Don designed a new cart, sketching out on paper its dimensions and features. He sent his sketches away, but the cart arrived a few weeks after his death, too late for him to see it.
“I sometimes think that he spent more time with his fruit than with his own children,” Hoanh says, a statement that is part joke and part reflection of his father’s work ethic.
Don bought his food cart in May 1995, and he soon after found a spot on 34th and Walnut streets to sell his fruit, feet away from the entrance to Fisher-Bennett Hall. Every morning for 18 years, he would wake up around 4 a.m. to purchase fruit at a local South Philadelphia distributor. He was meticulous about what he bought; if it wasn’t fresh, Hoanh says, his father wasn’t selling it.
When he came home each night, generally around 6 p.m., he spent a few hours getting things ready for the next day. Boxes of plastic forks, which Don assembled every night, are still scattered throughout his second-floor kitchen at home — a room that, despite its clutter, hasn’t been touched since April.
Don worked for 18 years on campus with his wife, Saruong. He’d often spend part of his days walking around outside the cart, watching students and professors as they passed by, while Saruong did most of the selling. “He was just a really good, friendly guy,” says Tony Fisher, a parking and transportation employee at Penn, who has bought fruit from the cart for years. “If you were short on money, he’d always see that you had your fruit anyway. Just a good, honest person.”
On a recent Monday afternoon, Don’s cart — which Saruong now runs with her youngest daughter, Nato — was once again nestled under a tree steps away from the main entry point onto Locust Walk. From inside, the sweet smells of freshly cut kiwi, melon and pineapple overpowered the whiffs of fried food emanating from the other carts nearby.
The family stopped selling fruit for about a month after Don’s death, but they’re now back to their regular, daily routine. The decision to return to campus, Hoanh says, was partly about the money, but mostly about getting his mother out of the house. “I always used to see my mom and dad together, happy,” Nary says. “Now I don’t know how I’ll ever make my mom happy again.”
Of everyone who knew Don, Hoanh says, his mother has taken his death the hardest. She’s stopped eating for stretches over the past five months, and while she’s been able to keep her grief inside during the day at Penn, it’s been a different matter at home. Sitting down in her living room on a recent Saturday afternoon in September, Saruong, 60, can’t manage more than a word or two about Don before she has to excuse herself from the room, the pain too much to bear.
The two were married in South Vietnam in 1971.
In the span of a few minutes early one April morning, he was taken away from her.
Once Don and his family passed through the Cambodian border in 1989, it was on to a series of refugee camps in Thailand. The camps, located near the border, were vulnerable; the children would often sleep with their bundle of belongings as pillows, so they could take off quickly if there was ever an attack.
Then, in mid-1990, they were given the news they’d waited a year and a half to hear: they were going to America. “It was a whole new world of opportunity,” Hoanh says.
When they arrived in the country, spending their first few months in Manchester, N.H., things didn’t make much sense. Why were the roads paved? Why did everybody around them seem to have a different color to their face? Why were there all these types of food?
Today, much still doesn’t make sense.
“My father never bothered anyone, and he never did anything to deserve this,” Leeto says. “We can’t understand it.”
Every day, Don’s family lights a candle in front of their home, a constant reminder of the father and husband they lost. While catching his killer won’t bring Don back to life, it would at least offer some semblance of closure, the family says.
At times, it’s easy to lose hope, but the support they’ve received — many Penn students and staff, they say, still come up to the fruit cart to offer their condolences and best wishes — keeps them going.
In the face of uncertainty, it’s a small something to hold on to.
“Right now,” Hoanh says, “it’s all we have.”
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