For 30 years, they have been serving Vietnamese culture and cuisine

“It was really awful. I don’t want to remember,” he says. , after 10 days on the ocean, I crossed a refugee camp in Hong Kong.

Eight months later, his request to move to the United States was granted. He arrived in April and two months later enrolled in college. He didn’t speak English, but he worked hard to learn the language: “My wife was pregnant, so I wanted to learn as soon as possible,” he says. He held several jobs while going to computer school and became a programmer analyst. Then, after seven years, he was fired.

He needed a way to support his growing family: after Tam, the eldest son, he and Thao had three more boys. Looking for opportunities, Le travels to Atlanta, where he discovers the Pho Hoa franchise. It seemed like an opportunity, something that could work in Boston. A first business partner dropped out. People warned him about Fields Corner at the time, telling him it wasn’t safe. But he was determined to succeed.

So he did. This year, the restaurant celebrates its 30th anniversary. Pho Hoa is a neighborhood mainstay, serving the steaming, fragrant noodle soup that bears his name, along with other Vietnamese specialties, in a storefront on Dorchester Avenue across from his original location (now Pho Le).

“For almost 10 years, I didn’t have a vacation. I worked seven days, 14 to 16 hours a day,” he says. “The refugee men have worked very hard.

Le’s story is unique in its detail, yet familiar in its outline. In the decade following the Vietnam War, hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asian refugees settled in the United States. Massachusetts has more than 47,000 residents of Vietnamese descent, approximately 70% of whom are foreign-born. Nearly a quarter of this immigrant population lives in Boston, primarily in Dorchester. Fields Corner is the center of the community, a living study in immigrant entrepreneurship, its streets lined with restaurants, markets, tax advisers, electronics stores, salons, pharmacies and other small-owned businesses. to Vietnamese. Last year, part of the neighborhood was officially designated as a cultural district called Boston Little Saigon.

It was a watershed moment for the community and for Le. “When we came here, we kept the good culture [of Vietnam] and we forgot the bad culture. We always think about the good things, not the bad things,” he says. “For culture, I was really happy when the city approved the Vietnamese cultural district.”

Meanwhile, in Worcester…

In 1979, Khau Huynh from Kien Giang Province also left Vietnam to move to Australia with his wife Huong Huynh. His story too is one of success and profoundly difficult experiences.

“We already had two young children in Vietnam. Because of the bad health care system, we lost our two children. After that, we were so heartbroken that we had to leave,” he said through an interpreter. “We saw the state of the country, from the war to the hospitals – everything. We wanted a better future.

In Australia, they had a daughter, Linh. Because Huynh’s English was not strong, he said, there were only so many things he could do. He decided to open his own business: a Vietnamese restaurant. He discovered that he had a real talent for cooking. When the family arrived in America in 1985, he found work at a Chinese restaurant, the Original Chopsticks in Worcester. He eventually partnered with the owner to open Japanese hibachi-style restaurant Sakura Tokyo in 1991; it closed in 2016. He also founded a wholesale grocery store, which he later sold. And he opened his own restaurant, Pho Hien Vuong, in 1989. He will be 65 this year. He still goes to work every day in the small kitchen of the restaurant which only serves pho, in its countless variations.

“Coming from Vietnam, being Vietnamese, it was really important for me to open a Vietnamese restaurant,” he says.

He is grateful that his son Long was born in this country and that his children are happy, healthy and successful. Linh is a doctor, Long actuary. “I have a lot of gratitude and appreciation for America, and for having the opportunity to raise a family here,” he says.

Dorchester restaurant stalwart Pho Hua has been serving Vietnamese cuisine since 1992. Current co-owner Tam Le (centre) took over from his recently retired father Thanh Le (right), having grown up in the restaurant since 11 years old. Also pictured are his stepfather Khau Huynh (left) and his children Thompson Le, 2, and Madeline Le, 6.Lane Turner / Globe Staff

The next generation

In 1999, two students meet at Brandeis. Noodle shop children, refugee children, Linh Huynh and Tam Le had a lot in common. Today they have two children of their own, Madeline, 6, and Thompson, almost 3.

Linh went to medical school, inspired to become a primary care doctor after watching her immigrant parents struggle to get good health care. She counts many Vietnamese speakers among her various patients. Tam earned her MBA at Babson and joined her father in the restaurant business. In addition to Pho Hoa, he runs the adjacent Reign Drink Lab, which he co-founded with lifelong friends; he also helped start Chashu Ramen + Izakaya in Worcester. And he owns a restaurant in Quincy, Pho Linh, named after his wife.

“I really admired my dad’s work ethic and attention to detail,” says Tam. “We had these walls that were just mirrors, and the last thing before he locked himself in, he was standing in a chair with Windex and towels and making sure those mirrored walls were spotless. He would do it himself. It’s something that stuck with me. »

He also remembers worrying about his father on the nights when Tam wasn’t there to lock the doors with him. “Today we don’t have rolling barriers anymore,” says Tam. Now 40, he works in an office at Fields Corner above the restaurant in the building they own, and he’s seen the neighborhood change over time. “I loved it then, and I love it now. It’s great to see all the development, new Vietnamese businesses springing up, the next generation coming” – people like Diana Nguyen of the Fields Corner dessert cafe Sweet Sip, for example. Tam recalls when she used to review her restaurants on Yelp: “She was always very supportive. Now she has her own food business.”

Since opening Reign in 2016, he has become fascinated with Vietnamese coffee. It works to develop supply chains, imports green beans from Vietnam and roasts them locally, working with Arlington-based Barismo. “I’m excited because I think it will be a way to bring cultures and generations together: a modern Vietnamese cafe concept based on traditional Vietnamese culture,” he says. “My Vietnamese culture, my Vietnamese heritage, is really important to me. Over the past two years, it’s become my “why”. I had this opportunity thanks to my parents, all the hard work they did. I feel like my goal is to use it to create opportunities for others and find a way to guide our Vietnamese culture into the next generation.

As for Pho Hoa, he has had a year of change. In late 2021, Anh Hong – another beloved Vietnamese restaurant in the neighborhood – announced its closure due to a dispute with the owner. Owner Victoria Nguyen and Tam Le have decided to join forces, combining their restaurants and specialties under one roof. In Pho Hoa, diners can now also get the seven-course beef menus that Anh Hong was known for.

The time had come. Thanh Le, who is over 70, is retiring. He has many hobbies to pursue: table tennis, tennis, guitar, piano. And he has four grandchildren to spend time with.

“My children and my grandchildren are the future generation. I kept the culture as much as possible in my family, and my children learned to bring it to the community. We have a rich culture — a different culture, but a good culture. We should keep it. We make this country more beautiful with different cultures,” he says.

And he offers this parting advice: “Work hard. Always use your brain. Don’t be afraid of anything. Look at me: Why did I have success in the restaurant business when I knew nothing about it? It is an example for people to work and learn in this country. Always dream, and down the road at some point you realize your dream.

Devra First can be contacted at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.

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