Immigrant Voices: Ly Dinh

Ly Dinh (Home country: Vietnam)
John F. Russell

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Ly Dinh grew up in Vietnam and always had a penchant for travel, visiting the Philippines and Thailand before deciding she wanted to study in the U.S. When she was 17, she got an international student visa and moved to Seattle, Washington, to attend community college.

By that time, most of Ly’s extended family, including aunts, uncles and her grandmother, were living in Steamboat Springs and working together at a popular nail salon the family owned. After a few semesters of school in Seattle, Ly transferred to Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs, so she could be closer to her family.

Ly’s mother, as well as her two younger sisters and one younger brother, followed her to Steamboat a few years later.

Ly graduated from CMC in 2017 with an associate of arts degree, and she worked for a number of years in the family business. Now, she and her sister have branched out on their own, opening a new mobile nail service called Uri Nails, which means “our” in Korean, a language Ly speaks in addition to Vietnamese and English.

The new business allows Ly flexibility so she can spend more time with her brother, who is in seventh grade at Steamboat Springs Middle School. Ly’s mother splits her time between Vietnam and the U.S., so Ly and her sisters are second mothers to their younger brother.

Independence is what Ly was seeking when she moved to the U.S. seven years ago.

“I feel like I’ve grown from the years I’ve been here more than the years I lived in Vietnam,” Ly said. “For 17 years in Vietnam, the only thing I did was study and go home and study and go home. But when I moved here, I feel like I need to take more responsibility. So, I tried to have more experiences and do more stuff than I did before.”

If Ly were still living in Vietnam, people would expect her to get married and start a family.

“Instead, here I am, single and trying to raise a business on my own,” Ly explained.

Ly said she has always felt welcome in Steamboat, but she thinks that is because she moved here as a young adult, and she had family here. Her younger brother didn’t have the same experience.

“When my brother moved from Vietnam, he was 7 years old, and he only spoke Vietnamese,” Ly said. “He’s good now and making friends, but he had a lot of trouble from not knowing how to have a cultural exchange.”

She said one day he came home and asked if he could dye his hair blond to be like the other kids in school.

“He thought if he changed his hair, he would be more welcome,” Ly said.

The biggest barrier Ly faced when she moved to Steamboat was language, and she said it took her a couple of years to feel comfortable speaking English. Some of her friends who live in town and who are Thai or Vietnamese don’t go out because they are afraid to speak English.

“You feel very nervous — what happens if what I say is wrong? Or what if people don’t understand me? And the scariest thing is when they say, ‘Can you say it, again?’” Ly said. “But that’s how you overcome it. The more you speak, the better you become. When you actually aren’t scared anymore to speak, that’s when you get better.”

Ly doesn’t plan to live in Steamboat forever because she wants to travel more. But for the time being, she is helping raise her brother, working on becoming a more accomplished artist with plans to one day sell her artwork and growing her new business.

When asked what Steamboat residents could do to make the community more welcoming to immigrants, Ly said she thinks it is a two-way street.

“If you want people to accept you, you have to accept them first. If you don’t want to open your mind when someone wants to help you, you will never get better,” Ly said. “And for people who live in Steamboat, be more open-minded. If you see someone who doesn’t look like you, and they don’t know what they are doing, if you help them out, then maybe you will connect.”

To reach Lisa Schlichtman, call 970-871-4221, email or follow her on Twitter @lschlichtman.

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