The Vietnam War

From Vietnam War Refugee To Renowned Oregon Dancer

By Jessica Martin (OPB)
July 20, 2017 11:14 p.m.
Producer: Jessica Martin   Videographer/Editor: Tom Shrider   Audio: Thom Dentler

As a child in Vietnam, Minh Tran knew he wanted to be a dancer. But the war in his homeland and a daring escape to the United States at the age of 13 put those dreams on hold.

“It completely changed me," Tran said. "We stayed in a refugee camp for six months and then we got a sponsor who happened to live in Portland.”

Once in Oregon, Tran found the path back to his dream, almost by accident, by taking a dance class as an elective at Portland State University.

“And Nancy Martino … she was the head of the dance department. She said, 'That’s the boy! Give him!' She literally dragged me from one class to the other. … It was amazing that she saw what I had before I saw what I had,” Tran said.


Marrying modern choreography with traditional Southeast Asian dance, he formed Minh Tran & Company, becoming a prolific choreographer and sought-after educator. His tireless dedication to dance touched organizations as diverse as White Bird Dance to Alaska Dance Theater, Northwest Dance Project to New York's Dance Theater Workshop's Suitcase Fund, Mekong Project.

Today, Minh Tran’s work is performed throughout the western United States and internationally, including in Vietnam.

Minh Tran is currently a visiting associate professor at Reed College, where he teaches intermediate and advanced technique and choreography, dance traditions of Southeast Asian civilization, and more.

Minh Tran at the Independence Palace, Ho Chi Minh City, 2017.

Minh Tran at the Independence Palace, Ho Chi Minh City, 2017.

Minh Tran

During the summer of 2017, Tran returned to Vietnam to do research and noticed a rapidly changing country.

“Prosperity is in the air,” Tran said, “Everyone is selling something.”

But in places like Ho Chi Minh City, along with modern prosperity comes that most modern of problems – traffic. “Twelve million people live in it. Seven million mopeds!” Tran quipped.

The skyline of the city of his youth has changed, too, with restaurants and jewelry stores dotting the streets. Even in his old neighborhood, he found the site of his childhood home being replaced by a diamond store.

This fall, Tran is getting back to work with his dance company, Minh Tran & Company, creating brand new artistic work for 2018.