While waiting for Tet to start on Jan. 23, I think about two friends of mine from the modern Vietnamese diaspora.
They have never met, but both are making a success of their lives in this new age.
Binh sells gorgeous crafts from Hoi An town, near Da Nang.
Qui sells delicious pancakes and shrimp pho in St. Louis.
I met Le Nguyen Binh while accompanying my wife on a child-care mission to Vietnam in 1991. We were walking through the coastal village of Hoi An, part of the Cham ethnic empire, with a cluster of residents following us.
I noticed a young man in a wheelchair, smiling, listening intently, keeping pace with us. We started chatting in English, and it wasn't hard to figure out that with his language skills and intelligence and interest in computers, he was going to find his place as Vietnam became part of the modern world. We traded names and numbers, and stayed in touch.
Now Binh runs an outfit called Reaching Out Vietnam, which employs people with disabilities who make jewelry and scarves and other goods. He has also founded Tien Bo (Progress), a self-help group for able-bodied people, and has also founded a computer training center.
This story gets even better. Binh has since married Quyen, and they have a son named Vung, which means Sesame.
A few years ago, Binh flew to a conference in Washington, D.C., and arranged a side trip to New York, staying at the very hospitable Crowne Plaza Hotel near LaGuardia Airport, where he was instantly the star resident.
I could not meet him the first day, so he took off on a sight-seeing jaunt into Manhattan. Imagine the courage of a Vietnamese man, confined to a wheelchair since a medical accident in his mid teens, taking the bus to the train, negotiating the cavernous subway corridors of midtown, visiting the Empire State Building on his own.
The next day I drove Binh into Manhattan, down through Harlem, alongside Central Park, to the Metropolitan Museum, which made access so easy from the garage. We found our way to the Van Goghs, where, by sheer luck, a docent was giving a lecture on, as I recall, The Flowering Orchard. I looked at Binh in his wheelchair and have never seen a more beatific smile in my life.
“This is why I came here,” he said.
Binh flew home to Hoi An, to resume his work. Whenever my friends are sight-seeing in Vietnam, I try to steer then to Hoi An. Last year Reaching Out was again judged one of the best small businesses in Hoi An.
I just heard the other day – Binh and Quyen are expecting another child in May.
* * *
My other friend, Qui Tran, runs the family restaurant, Mai Lee, in a shopping center right near the Brentwood stop on the MetroLink rail line in St. Louis. When I am out in St. Louis pushing my Stan Musial biography, my buddy Tom Schwarz and I stop at Mai Lee for banh and spring rolls.
Qui’s parents, Sau and Lee Tran, made their exodus from Vietnam, arriving in St. Louis in 1980. At first, Lee Tran worked in a Chinese restaurant but in 1985 she figured a way to sell her national dishes in her own place. Mai Lee now bustles at lunch and dinner, with the entire Tran family trying to keep pace with the crowds.
“The new Mai Lee was worth the wait, believe us. And a weekend night crowd showed a superb mix of adults and children, grandparents and grandchildren, all ages and colors and sizes, and speaking many languages. A joyous experience,” wrote Joe Pollack and Ann Lemons Pollack in their popular dining review, St. Louis Eats and Drinks.
It’s not hard to notice Qui. He’s the one with huge tattoos on huge muscles, bristling with confidence. The next generation. The American dream. I call him “my Vietnamese soul brother.”
I doubt my two friends will ever meet, but they are linked in my heart. The word Vietnam evokes all kinds of images in the United States; when I hear the name these days, I think of beautiful scarves, succulent dishes, brains and muscles and courage.
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