Vietnamese-American Dream

Hey guys! I’m Anthony, the co-founder of Mansfield. Peter (the other half of Mansfield) and I recently took a trip to Vietnam. This trip held some personal significance for me so I wanted to share a little bit about my family and my experience in Vietnam. I hope you enjoy hearing a little bit about my parents’ truly inspiring story.

I was born and raised in the U.S. after my parents immigrated here in 1975. Although I am a second-generation Vietnamese-American, many friends would attest that I’m more American than some individuals with centuries of American lineage. I love this country and all that it represents. We have everything in the states; diversity of people, food, and a beautiful range of scenery. I’ve had the good fortune of visiting many countries and there’s an indescribable feeling when the plane wheels touch down on American soil. When you present your passport and the immigration officer says, “Hi Anthony, welcome home,” I can’t help but smile and let out a sigh of relief. I love this place.

Which brings us to Vietnam, a place that is so foreign to me yet at the same time a vital part of who I am. I’m both 100% American and somehow 100% Vietnamese – I’ve always said that I make a terrible Asian because of my lack of mathematical skill and this is further evidence, but I digress. My parents have always encouraged me to never forget Vietnam, but that would be impossible considering the incredible journey they endured.

43 years ago, my dad, a Captain in the South Vietnamese Air Force flying F-5 fighter jets, was deployed on what would turn out to be his last mission. As the North Vietnamese were infiltrating Saigon, his squadron was ordered to circle Saigon and hold off on any attacks against the North Vietnamese, to not return enemy fire and to simply continue circling Tan Son Nhat airport. In the last days of April 1975 before the end of the war, my dad understood that he was fighting a war he knew he would eventually lose, but it wasn’t until this moment while circling the airport that he slowly realized what his orders meant and reality hit him; They had given up. He started crying – he had lost his country. With one last look down over Saigon and a silent goodbye to his parents, he left Vietnam and continued to U-Tapao Air Force Base in Thailand with the hope that the U.S. Air Force would accept him.

On the runway they took his helmet, G-suit, and sidearm, leaving him only with his flight suit and boots. It was at that moment all of his fears were confirmed; South Vietnam was gone and he may never see his family again.

Unsure of the circumstances ahead of him, he did not shut off his engine when he landed in Thailand, particularly since the F-5 plane required a crew to start it back up. As he sat in the cockpit, he asked the tower for the highest ranking U.S. Air Force officer there. He made the request several times and after 10 excruciating minutes sitting on the runway, a USAF Colonel drove out and gave the signal to shut off the engine. The U.S. Air Force sprinted towards his F-5 and immediately started to repaint the aircraft while my father was still exiting the cockpit. As he watched his native flag get painted over, he once again found himself overwhelmed with emotion. On the runway they took his helmet, G-suit, and sidearm, leaving him only with his flight suit and boots. It was at that moment all of his fears were confirmed; South Vietnam was gone and he may never see his family again. This not only included his wife (my mom) and his two children (my older siblings), but also his own parents. In the end, he never had the chance to say goodbye or see his parents again. The Colonel took my dad to the Officers Club to give him food and get him cleaned up. He stayed there for close to two weeks trying to figure out where he could go. Nearly all escapees and refugees were going through Guam, including his wife and children, for whom he had made arrangements with the U.S. Air Force to be transported, so there he went.

Every day busloads of refugees would be dropped off at the refugee camp and every single day my mother, who had no way of communicating with my dad, would walk to the buses to watch them unload in hopes of reuniting with my dad. She did this for weeks, not knowing whether he was dead or alive or if he even made it out of Vietnam, but her hope never wavered. My tiny mother, at barely 5′, stood tall the day he did finally arrive (both figuratively and literally as she hopped on whatever would give her a better vantage point to watch the unloading). The yellow buses came flowing in one by one as they did every day, and one by one they would empty, with no sign of him.  It wasn’t until the last bus, after weeks of waiting, that he did finally appear and walk down the bus steps into my mom’s arms.

Out of all that loss and sorrow came hope. All of the decisions and sacrifices they made were in the name of opportunity; not for themselves, but for their children.

Years later after settling in America, my parents would end up opening their own business and growing their family with my sister and I – naturally born Americans with direct ties to an incredible Vietnamese heritage.

Out of all that loss and sorrow came hope. All of the decisions  and sacrifices they made were in the name of opportunity; not for themselves, but for their children. There are many ways to define the American Dream, often tied to money and material wealth, but ever since the day I could comprehend my parents’ story I knew the true meaning of the American Dream. For my parents, it wasn’t about money or anything material, it was simply about having a choice; a place where their children had a choice to do and become whatever they wanted without intervention. Through their actions they truly embodied that ideal, and for that I am forever grateful.

Understandably, my parents didn’t have time to pack any material things other than their wedding album to help us remember Vietnam. What they were able to pass down to us was their native language and their food. Knowing that my sister and I would grow up American, my parents always made it a point to instill Vietnamese culture into our every day lives, even teaching us Vietnamese as our first language knowing that we would learn to speak English in school. But it was my mom’s cooking that truly connected me to my Vietnamese roots. Growing up, family dinner consisted of traditional Vietnamese food and conversation in Vietnamese, which turned out to be the most effective and organic way to foster the language. These nightly gatherings provided me with a part of Vietnam I could touch, smell, feel and taste. It was my mom’s way of expressing her love for us. She put her heart and soul into every meal. Her food was the only tangible part of Vietnam that I could comprehend.

About a year ago, after visiting Seoul several times and realizing I’d come so close to Vietnam, I decided It was time to take a trip. I called Peter and we decided to make it happen. I specifically wanted to do this with him and our wives because he knows me and my family deeply, so much so, that if he didn’t call my dad “Mr. Nguyen”, he’d say “Hi, Bo!” (“Hi, Dad!” in Vietnamese) which he learned from hearing me greet my dad for years throughout high school. I wanted to experience Vietnam without any filters or preconceived notions and share that with the people who could understand the magnitude of what being in Vietnam was like for me. I had told Peter that it’s weird being from somewhere, but having no idea what that place is like or having ever been there. It was as if a piece of me was a mystery and Vietnam was just something I read about in a book. It may as well have been a fictional place. I would be very interested to hear if other second-generation citizens share this sentiment. 

That year finally passed, Peter and I, along with our wives, all met in Vietnam. The plan was to do everything spontaneously once we got there. We only knew we wanted to start in Hanoi and at some point see Ha Long Bay. I knew that I wanted to see it through a lens everyone could understand and one that helped me understand Vietnam: food.

With our priorities aligned, what was our first stop? A legit bowl of Pho from the homeland. We dove right in and chose the spot with the most locals in attendance, complete with the tiny plastic chairs and tables on the sidewalk. Of all the Pho spots we checked out (of which there were many fourth and fifth meals), Pho Thin was the spot for us. Local Tip: Order a side of the “Banh Dau Chao Quay”, its a crispy on the outside, super soft and airy on the inside fried bread for dipping into the Pho broth. For the Italian foodies, think of it as a Vietnamese “scarpetta“. This was the beginning of what would turn Vietnam into a food tour.

Of course Pho is just one of many amazing dishes found in Vietnam. We made sure to take in all that Hanoi had to offer, which means the experience wouldn’t be complete without some street meat and fresh produce.

On to Banh Nam and Bun Bo Hue (Central Vietnamese specialties), Coconut Ice Cream atop Coconut Sticky Rice, and Banh Mi with Pork and Pate placed inside the crispiest thin layer of bread crust surrounding the fluffiest crumb (side note: did you know “crumb” is what the soft part of the bread is called? I had to google it for this post). This style of perfected bread is precisely where you discover the heavy French influence on Vietnamese cuisine.

Of course we did the tourist thing and visited the now famous restaurant where Anthony Bourdain and President Obama met for a couple brewskies and some Bun Cha at Bun Cha Huong Lien. The table and seats along with all the plates and utensils they used are now protected under a glass case.

This was just a small sample of our gastronomic adventure through Vietnamese food, but there was something we noticed after every meal; Vietnamese cuisine is all about balance. Finding the harmony between sweet and sour, crunchy and soft, spicy and salty.

Eating wasn’t the only thing we did, although I would attest that’s the best way to get to know a culture. We visited the natural wonder that is Ha Long Bay, where there are almost 2,000 individual islands. If you’re like me, you worry about being disappointed because places don’t live up to the thousands of photographs you see. I can verify that Ha Long Bay will put you in awe and lives up to its photogenic reputation. To think that we only saw a tiny fraction of the 2,000 islands further boggles my mind.

Vietnam turned out to be more than we expected. A place filled with amazing people, food, and scenery. On a personal level, it helped me better understand my heritage and fill in that mysterious piece of me that was always missing. Analogous to the harmony of opposites in Vietnamese food, this trip helped me understand the compassion behind how my mother came to be the sweetest, most caring little lady on earth and the rigor necessary for my father to provide for our family in a new country that didn’t speak his first language.

In our travels through Vietnam, we also met some really inspiring people which we’re excited to share more about later. Until then, thank you for joining us on our journey!

And how could we forget? Bia (Brewski) was an integral part of our journey as well and what better way to sign off than with a Vietnamese “cheers”? Mot, Hai, Ba, Vo!