Ledyard man takes car repair skills from Austria to the U.S., now Japan

New London — An Austrian citizen of Vietnamese descent who was born in Malaysia, Tuan Thanh Vu soon will be representing the United States in a car technician competition in Japan.

It's been quite a journey for Vu, 38, to where he is now: working as a technician at Whaling City Mazda while living in Gales Ferry with wife and daughter.

Last year, more than 3,000 Mazda technicians across the country were eligible to participate in the biannual MazTech National Competition, and about 150 opted to take the online qualifying test last summer. Nobody at Whaling City Mazda had taken the test before, but Vu discovered it through the company's online employee portal and took an interest.

He was in the top six scorers for the Northeast region, landing him a spot at the regional competition in New Jersey.

That involved giving competitors two hours to diagnose and repair five customer complaints, such as an inoperable horn and parking brake, and audio issues, Vu said.

He won that and was given an all-expenses-paid trip to Irvine, Calif. — the headquarters of Mazda North American Operations — for the national competition in October. He was put up in the luxury Montage Laguna Beach and got a tour of corporate headquarters.

"I was excited to meet those guys from the hotline, because when I have problem here, I have to call the hotline," Vu said.

For the national competition, he was working on a different model, a 2019 MX-5 Miata RF convertible, but the format was otherwise the same. He finished the tasks first, while Jason Keeney — shop foreman at Mazda of South Charlotte, in North Carolina — came in second. The two will be competing together in Hiroshima, where Mazda has its international headquarters.

In the fall, Vu traveled to North Carolina to meet Keeney, who went to the national competition in 2016 but didn't progress to Japan, and work with him for a few days.

"He's very driven, very motivated, very professional," Keeney said of Vu. "You can tell he has a passion for his trade, and for Mazdas in general. He showed nothing but the utmost respect for me and our dealership and our service director."

If the international competition on May 22 is anything like the ones in the U.S., "we're going to come back champions, as long as we don't throw up or nose starts bleeding, something crazy," Keeney joked.

Vu said there are a total of 22 countries competing in Japan — including Austria. It admittedly feels weird to him to be representing the U.S. in a competition against Austria when he's not a U.S. citizen — at least not yet.

Sticking with Mazda

Vu's mother was six months pregnant with him when she and Vu's father fled Vietnam among the boat people seeking refuge after the Vietnam War. Their boat was robbed by pirates, and they went days without food before getting picked up by people working on an oil rig and transferred to the Malaysian island of Pulau Bidong.

Vu was born in a refugee camp there, and two months later the family settled in Austria.

He describes a relatively normal childhood growing up in the city of Wels, hanging out after school with friends from his apartment complex and playing soccer. Not a good student, he opted not to go to college, instead deciding to go to trade school to become an auto technician.

He met his now wife, Bianca, at a bar when he was 17, and they had a daughter, Kimberly, in 2003. After working for Toyota and Citroën, Vu left the automotive field to work for Trumpf, a machine tools and laser technology manufacturer.

He wanted to see what other options were out there, and to know what it was like to work a job where you know what to expect every day. But after four years, he returned to work in automotive repair.

Meanwhile, his parents came to the U.S., considering other family members ended up here after fleeing Vietnam in 1980. Vu said his mother became a U.S. citizen in 2008 and she petitioned for him. Vu's parents live in New England.

Vu got his green card in 2011, he married Bianca in the U.S. the following year, and then he returned to Austria to be with his wife and daughter until his family's immigration paperwork was completed. During that time, he began working for Mazda.

"They're easy to work with," he said of the cars. "The technology makes sense to me."

Vu moved to the U.S. permanently with his family in 2015. He and Bianca spent half a year at Norwich Adult Education, improving their English and learning about the rules of America.

Vu and his supervisor, parts and service director Jeff Janssen, both note that Whaling City Mazda technicians initially overlooked Vu when he dropped off his resume. But when he returned, Janssen could tell Vu knew what he was doing.

"He's a great tech, good person to work with, his skills are second to none," Janssen told The Day. "I don't think there's anybody that can diagnose a car like he can."

e.moser@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects the spelling of Tuan Thanh Vu's name in the photo captions.

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