By Kathy Eaton
Photos by John Butenschoen
Several years after Saigon fell in 1975, two Vietnamese men, both 26 years old, became refugees. Their journeys brought them to Oregon, where they now live and thrive in the community. A young Portland chef, now 30, was born in New Orleans after her parents and siblings emigrated from North Vietnam in 1979, moving to Portland after Hurricane Katrina. All three individuals will celebrate Lunar New Year (TET) with family honoring Vietnamese traditions. A TET celebration was held at The Oregon Convention Center on Saturday, February 4. For more information: See vnco.org.
Story of survival
Francis Pham vividly recalls his journey escaping South Vietnam on October 4, 1986. After Saigon’s fall in 1975, Francis (then named An) had limited options when he was sent home from Catholic school to live with his family. Working would jeopardize his family’s application for refugee status, so An and his fiancee raised chickens. Fate intervened when An’s high school friend offered to pay his passage out of Vietnam, but they had to leave at dawn the next day. Waiting much of the following day, they finally boarded a tiny wooden boat in total darkness. He learned later that 172 people were loaded in the small boat like sardines, and he prayed he would survive the journey. The engine died the following morning and, bailing water out of the boat, An devised a way to capture stormwater for drinking. Drying the fish that jumped into their boat, passengers drank fish juice to survive. An latched his small wooden cross to the front of the boat, “so God could guide us.”
On the eighth day at sea, they encountered a large ship flying Thailand’s flag, whose crew distributed dry noodles, water and cigarettes. With An’s boat headed to Malaysia, storms forced them to throw their provisions overboard as they feared capsizing. On the tenth day, they spotted a platform belonging to the British Shell Company and the captain used a cable to pull their wooden boat in. An was tapped to meet the company director and, translating from French, devised a plan to helicopter the refugees to Pulau Bidong in Malaysia. Months later An was sent to the Philippines where he served as a translator. In September 1987, he flew to Houston, staying until 1989, when he joined his fiancee’s family in Portland.
An married Lan Tran in July 1989 and attended Portland State University, graduating in 1994 with a degree in computer engineering. The same year, he became a U.S. citizen, adopted the name Francis, and went to work for Intel, where he stayed 17 years. Since 2010 he has managed his wife’s business, Roseway Family Dental, 7346 N.E. Sandy Blvd. Their son, Matthew Hieu Pham, was born in 2001 and attends La Salle High School.
“When you come from nothing, you appreciate what you have,” said Francis, who instills values of hard work and respect in his son. Their family maintains Vietnamese traditions through food and language, balancing their culture with adopted American traditions.
Father Dominic Tinh Pham, pastor of Our Lady of LaVang Catholic Church, 5404 N.E. Alameda Drive, waited eleven years with his parents and six siblings in South Vietnam to obtain refugee status to move to the United States. Father Pham’s father, who worked for the U.S. government in Saigon, was regarded as an agent of the CIA.
“Growing up, I was nicknamed ‘rebellious son,’ as kids labeled my father a traitor,” he said. Father Pham was 26 when his family obtained refugee status and moved to America in 1991. Raised a Catholic, he never lost faith and subsequently attended seminary in the U.S. In 2003, Father Pham was ordained a Catholic priest and graduated from Mt. Angel Abbey in Oregon. He served around the world until 2013, when he became Superior of Domus Dei (House of God), headquartered in New Orleans. On August 15, 2016, Father Pham was assigned to be pastor of Oregon’s only Vietnamese Catholic Church.
Father Pham’s parents and siblings, their children and grandchildren also live in Portland. For him, family is the center of community and his parish is like family. He honors his Vietnamese roots with traditional food and language, and foremost he respects his elders. Vietnamese Americans from around the region travel to Portland to celebrate the annual Freedom Mass on July 4th weekend at The Grotto, 8840 N.E. Skidmore St., to give thanks for protection and offer gratitude for living in America. For more information: See gxlavangoregon.com.
Vietnamese roots reflected in cuisine
Anh Luu, head chef at Tapalaya, 28 N.E. 28th Ave., is a first generation Vietnamese American, born in New Orleans to parents and two older siblings who emigrated from Hanoi, North Vietnam in 1979. After initially relocating to a refugee camp in Los Angeles, Luu’s uncle found a fishing job in New Orleans and convinced the family to move.
“New Orleans was a lot like Vietnam, located at the same latitude with a similar climate. Vietnamese food culture, influenced by French cuisine, was also evident in Creole and Cajun food,” said Luu. Her family had thrived in New Orleans, where her musician father studied electronics and opened an electrical repair shop. Luu remembers going to a Vietnamese farmers’ market on weekends where they sold live rabbits and frogs.
“Food is a big deal for third world people,” she said. At a young age, Luu decided she wanted to be a chef.
According to Luu, Vietnam is a matriarchal society. “Moms are in charge. They set the rules and enforce them.” Luu adopted a similar leadership style, acknowledging that she gets things done and is unafraid to lead.
The family lost everything when Katrina hit in 2005, moving to Portland to join her older sister and her husband. Luu subsequently returned to New Orleans and attended three different colleges in Louisiana, first studying business, then studio arts. In 2009, she returned to Portland to attend Western Culinary Institute and started working part-time as a line cook at Tapalaya. Based on Luu’s hard work and collaborative style, owner Chantal Angot promoted Luu to head chef in 2013.
“Anh’s made a name for herself in the Portland food scene and is on track to open her own restaurant,” said Angot.