From Vietnam To America: One Chef’s Troubled Journey To Freedom

by | May 16, 2023


Picture this: Vietnam 1955 – 1975. Was it a war or a conflict? History differs, but to those who were there, there was no question. This is the story of a young woman, a beauty professional and accomplished home chef, who was born amid the crisis and suffered greatly as she and her family tried to escape it.

The Baby Boomer Generation, 1946 – 1964, remember it all too well. Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z will learn about it in history books and movies, but not to its full extent.

The war between North and South Vietnam stretched from 1955 – 1975, but the aftermath lasted far longer.

[The striking feature image above was created by WFTFC’s Craig Ricciardi, combining an original photo of salt harvesting in Vietnam taken by Quang Nguyen vinh with a photo from Phuong of her amazing watermelon salad]

Even before, the Vietnamese were battling colonial France for independence. When the French bowed out, the Viet Minh communists took over the North. As hostilities deepened over the next few years, North Vietnam was supported by the Soviet Union, China and other communist states. The United States and other anti-communist allies supported South Vietnam.

Soldiers in South Vietnam firing artillery.

Soldiers in South Vietnam

At the start of the war the United States had 900 troops in South Vietnam, which increased to a staggering 1.0 million soldiers by its end in 1975. Over 58,000 American soldiers were killed and – as of 2020 – 1,587 soldiers remain missing in action (MIA). But the toll was far worse on the other side. Some 1.2 million North Vietnamese soldiers and civilians died. In South Vietnam, another 400,000 soldiers and about as many civilians perished. Some estimates place the true civilian toll at as many as 4 million lives.

‘America Heavenly’

The woman you are about to meet was almost one of those statistics, and some of her family members were. You’ll soon understand why she did not want her American name given, so I will refer to her as Phuong – Vietnamese for “Phoenix”. She’s a humble, amazing woman who creates amazing food. But she almost didn’t get a chance to become any of those things.

In the years after the War, many Vietnamese tried to escape to America, including Phuong’s family. She says the people of South Vietnam referred to America as, “America Heavenly.” To come here was worth dying for. And many died trying.

Phuong has a terrible — and I’m sure, unfortunately common — story. Both sets of grandparents moved from North Vietnam to South Vietnam in 1954, after the Viet Minh revolution began. By the time Phuong was born in south Saigon (the capitol of free Vietnam now known as Ho Chi Minh City) in the very early 1980s, desperate Vietnamese were trying any escape route to leave the war-torn country.

Vietnamese citizens attempting to leave South Vietnam

Citizens attempting to leave South Vietnam.

“When I was one-years-old my father tried to escape from my country. He did not make it. We kind of knew, because he had to go through Cambodia and that’s why he got killed,” Phuong explains. “Two years later my mother tried to escape from my country. Yeah she made it. She left three of us. Me and two of my sisters.”

Many families were broken up and Phuong’s was no exception. She was 3-years-old when the children were distributed among survivors. “My two older sisters lived with my father’s home and me with my mother’s side,” she recalls.

As she got older the urge for freedom burned strong, same as it had for her mother and father.

“So that’s when I was 10 years-old. I tried to escape from my country too. I did not make it,” Phuong remembers. “They caught me and put me in jail for one month. My grandparents had to pay to let me go.”

Five years later, Phuong’s uncle successfully escaped to the U.S. He found Phuong’s mother. A short time later, both sponsored the children back home to emigrate to the U.S.

No Happy Reunion

It wasn’t the happy reunion you might have hoped for. In fact, Phuong wound up returning to Vietnam.

“I could not get along with my mom and my step-father because they did not [raise] me. They wanted me to be American overnight. I had to learn the language, how to drive, had to work to make money to help my mom,” Phuong says.

But a couple years later, Phuong came back to America to make a stand on her own.

“When I’m 19, when I graduated high school, when I can live by myself I came back here to work. I worked in a Chinese restaurant and rented [an] apartment behind the Chinese restaurant. I am only 19 years old, from another world, no English, no car, no money.”

But there was food. Necessity led Phuong to start cooking at 9, but she didn’t really embrace it until she was settled in her new home.

“I lived in a very poor country. The family, they have to go the fields at the farm,” she explains. “Nobody home and I had to cook the sticky rice and vegetables, something very simple and take care of my cousin.”

Ochna integerrima plant.

Ochna integerrima

An American Awakening

Soon after moving permanently to America, settling for good in Tampa Bay, Phuong started cooking more – and focused on her native cuisine. A taste of home. Then she married and cooking became even more important.

“I cook the good food when I came to America, when I had to live by myself and then actually really cooked,” she says. “I cooked for my [now ex-] husband. He is kind of on the party side. He had party every weekend.”

Phuong’s cooking now brings a shine to the simple peasant fare she learned to make as a 9-year-old. She still uses the staple ingredients of her cuisine, including watermelon whenever possible.

Watermelon Soup

Watermelon Soup

Watermelon is a revered part of Vietnamese cuisine, but in savory dishes more than sweet – something Americans rarely think of. It’s in short supply in Vietnam, thus treasured. Here, it’s on hand 12 months of the year at every supermarket.

“In my country, we ate watermelon one time a year, on the Lunar New Year only. We don’t have it year-round,” Phuong explains. Vietnamese tradition holds that watermelon is “lucky, because it is red inside. The watermelon is very expensive so we don’t waste anything. Sending the best wishes and cooking the traditional food, you must have watermelon for the Lunar New Year.”

Watermelon Stir Fry

Watermelon Stir Fry

Phuong’s American experience hasn’t been easy. She often works seven days a week in a beauty salon and is raising a daughter on her own. But she’s seen much worse.

“To me, I can take care of myself. I have a place to stay, food to eat, I have a car to drive,” Phuong says.

It took some persuasion to get Phuong to tell her story. It is an honor and privilege to share it – along with one of her favorite recipes: Traditional Vietnamese Watermelon Salad With Shrimp.

You already saw two of her other spectacular dishes if we can ever figure out the proportions, we’ll share those recipes too!