Many Las Vegans will celebrate this holiday season with family, huddled around a fire, watching their favorite Hallmark movie.
But one local family traveled to the other side of the world to make their Hallmark story a reality.
More than 40 years after being removed from a war-torn village in Vietnam, longtime valley resident Kim Morrison returned to her home country on a mission-oriented vacation last month.
With her husband, Jon, she knocked on dozens of doors in Ho Chi Minh City to overcome seemingly impossible odds and reunite with her ailing mother and two sisters.
The couple’s journey was sparked by the Oct. 1 mass shooting, in which 58 people were killed and more than 500 hospitalized. Their 22-year-old daughter, Nicole, considered attending the Route 91 Harvest Festival before deciding to go home after a Vegas Golden Knights preseason game on the Strip.
“It reminded us how precious life is, and we realized this was a calling to see if we could find Kim’s family,” Jon Morrison said. “If not now, then when?”
Kim’s guardians — an unnamed American serviceman and Vietnamese woman, Dzu Hoang — brought Kim to the United States in 1974 when she was 14 years old.
Kim had worked for the family in Vietnam during the war, she said, spending her days housekeeping to support her mother, Huong Thi Dao, who lived in a dirt-floor grass shack in a remote jungle outside the former city of Saigon.
But after coming to the U.S., Kim’s relationship with her guardians soured.
She also said her guardians pretended not to know what had become of Kim’s mother, who was among the lowest class of citizens in her home country’s social hierarchy.
“I was just really scared,” Kim said. “I wanted to know what happened and where they were.”
Her adopted guardian did not respond to multiple requests for an interview with The Sunday.
Kim’s younger sisters Thanh and Lap also worked for relatives of Hoang in Saigon, but letters from them and Dao never made it to her.
Hoang kicked Kim out of her Las Vegas residence when she was 18, with only $3 to her name. Her Caesars coworkers became her only family. Briefly homeless and unable to speak English, she married a colleague to help meet her basic necessities. The couple divorced a year later, and she married another man, with whom she had her first son, Frank. It wasn’t until 1985 that she and Caesars cash carrier Jon Morrison connected eyes in an employee dining area.
“I couldn’t stay away from her,” Jon Morrison said, grinning as he recounted their first meeting. “She was very attractive.”
They built a life together, with two children, several business ventures and a 4,500-square-foot home in Henderson. Kim retired last year.
But despite the Morrisons’ success and happy family life, something was missing. Left without closure about her biological family’s whereabouts or health, Kim longed to reconnect. Her desire was amplified when a long-lost sister of Jon’s reached out by phone last year and when the Oct. 1 shooting took place.
Jon stepped up, scouring public records and private sites to find the former guardian’s whereabouts. He reached several wrong numbers, left dozens of voicemails, and received many calls back from well-wishers. But after weeks of trying, Morrison finally connected with Hoang and her son, Tuan Benson.
Benson provided documents: Kim’s Vietnamese ID; former address; and a photo of her sister, Thanh, near a landmark lighthouse in the city of Vung Tau.
“It was our first lead, and something we could finally put out there,” Jon said. “That was important in helping us get started.”
Jon connected with YouTube documentarian Kyle Le after discovering a video in which Le filmed himself helping another Vietnamese family reunite. Le offered his services to Morrison if the family could meet him in Ho Chi Minh City.
“He asked at the end of October if we could meet him there the second week of November, and I said ‘Done,’ ” Jon said.
Within hours of arriving at their hotel on Nov. 18, Jon, Kim and Le were knocking on doors, including the same home where Kim worked for Hoang 43 years ago. While the current owner of the home said he had no idea who they were, some neighbors down the street remembered Hoang’s extended family, including those who had used Thanh in a similar housekeeping role.
The Morrisons and Le sat in the neighbors’ home for three hours. And after a few phone calls from that home, the Morrisons had a lead to Thanh, who they were told worked as a nurse in Long Hai, about 65 miles southeast.
The next morning, the trio made the two-hour drive to the jungle town.
They didn’t immediately find Thanh — the clinic where she was said to work had been closed for more than 20 years — but after a brief excursion across the city, an elderly woman led Kim to her sister.
“As soon as Thanh realized it was me, we instantly broke down in tears and hugged,” Kim recalled. “She just wanted to confirm it was me.”
The timing: 43 hours after the Morrisons arrived in Vietnam, sisters who hadn’t seen each other in 43 years were reunited.
“Everything had to happen perfectly for that to happen the way it did,” Jon said.
Thanh directed Kim to the whereabouts of their mother, who was bedridden after a stroke. She also reunited with Lap, who made a career in Ho Chi Minh City as a makeup artist.
Despite being reunited with her family, Kim admitted even her sisters and mother aren’t free from the rifts many families experience on a regular basis. While Dao is taken care of by Kim’s two younger half-sisters, Thanh and Lap continue to work and live separately near Ho Chi Minh City.
Kim now keeps in touch via Skype and Facebook messenger, relishing an improbable holiday accomplishment.
“It’s special and something I never expected,” Kim said. “It’s a dream come true.”