It is a tale of two families, one country and a desire to have a better life.
The tale has a happy ending for Chi Le and Nhon Pham — husband and wife and co-owners of Binh Minh Vietnamese restaurant.
Pham was one of the few who escaped by boat crammed in with others for a perilous trip out of his country. It would take a few years but his life was about to turn around after living in war-torn Vietnam.
The boat ride is just the beginning of his journey to freedom. There was a refugee camp in Thailand for one year and then another year spent in Indonesia studying English. He was waiting, hoping and praying to make it to America, and in 1982 he got his chance. “I was so lucky to get to come to the U.S.,” says Pham. “Some people were in the camp for years – it was hard to sit and wait.”A 20-hour plane trip was his ticket out of nowhere and heading to somewhere better.
Pham landed in Greensboro, North Carolina, knowing no one and nervous, but thankful for a fresh start. His English was shaky and he was scared.
Years passed and out of necessity and to control their schedules, Pham and brother Minh, decided to open Binh Minh (a new day, “dawn” in Vietnamese) in 1997. He admits the first few years in business were hard. “We only had family working in the restaurant since we couldn’t afford to pay anyone,” smiles Pham.
In 1993, with the help of Lutheran World Relief in High Point, another Vietnamese family arrived in Greensboro. Pham met Le when he was paying it forward by helping newly arrived Vietnamese families adjust to life in the U.S. The two married in 2001.
His story became her story as they joined together to run Binh Minh. Pham leaves the running of the restaurant to Chi and brother, Minh. Chi runs the front of the restaurant with grace and a friendly smile. Minh is happy to run the kitchen and family staff to make sure food is served with excellence. When she is not busy, Chi tutors the kids in the family who come to the restaurant after school.
The years have flown by but the hard work of the combined families has clearly paid off. The peaceful, serene atmosphere that comes from being with family spills out onto the customers in the form of good food and goodwill. “Our customers are like family,” says Le. “We have many repeat customers who come so often that we just say, ‘same, same’ when we see them.”
Family time is everything to the Le and Pham families. “It doesn’t matter how busy, crazy everyone’s schedule is, we always find time to be together for some Vietnamese food,” says Chi's brother, Binh Le.
I know this is true because on this night, in their restaurant, family is everywhere. A niece visiting from France is behind the register, brother Binh stops in to work on a computer and Chi’s sister, the effervescent Thao, sits down to chat. Chi is busy greeting and talking to customers and bringing out heaping bowls of noodle soup.
I ask why Vietnamese food is so popular. Thao is quick to reply. “Vietnamese food is light, we don’t use pre-made sauce and everything is made fresh.” She points to the chicken salad we are eating. It is a favorite item on the menu. “The secret is thinly shredded cabbage and our sweet and sour sauce,” says Thao. She rattles off the other ingredients in the chicken salad (not American style) —diced red pepper, garlic and shredded pickled carrots. We prep food constantly – we don’t make anything ahead.”
I ask about the peanut sauce and the fresh roll I am eating made with shrimp. The secret in making the roll is dipping the translucent rice paper in warm water. As to the peanut sauce (delicious), she revealed tamarind sauce and peanut butter are used but the other ingredients are a family secret. The vegetable crepe is unusual for a Vietnamese restaurant. Filled with chopped, thinly sliced vegetables, it is a perfect, light dish with fish sauce (diluted for American palates) accompanied by lettuce, cilantro and mint. The chicken lemon grass’s tangy sauce was a perfect accompaniment served with traditional Jasmine white rice. The trendy noodle soup, Pho, is popular and the best I have eaten.
The conversation returns back to family and the gratitude felt for being in America. “We are so blessed to be here,” Thao says. “Our lives were destroyed in Vietnam but here we have great jobs (her siblings including Chi all have college degrees) and we push the importance of education to our children. Our father sacrificed so we could be successful and that is why we continue to work so hard.”
Every dish is a treat for the senses but the real stars are the families who serve up love and gratitude one dish at a time.