In 1992, Thanh Le opened a restaurant called Pho Hoa in the Dorchester neighborhood of Fields Corner. He had been many things in his life: medical school student, army officer, deliveryman (newspapers and pizza), computer scientist. Restaurateur was not on the list. “I knew nothing about a restaurant,” he says. “I didn’t know how to cook.”
A small thing like that wasn’t going to stop him. Le, who is originally from Hue in Vietnam, fled the country in 1981 with his wife, Thao. He had studied to be a doctor, then joined the Army of the Republic of Vietnam during the war. Like many of his fellow officers, he was sent to a Communist re-education camp after the fall of Saigon in 1975. He spent 2½ years there.
“It was really terrible. I don’t want to remember,” he says. “I was a prisoner, and after that it was a really difficult life. We tried different ways to escape, and lucky for me after 10 days on the ocean I came through a refugee camp in Hong Kong.”
Eight months later, his application to move to the United States was accepted. He arrived in April, and two months later enrolled in college. He didn’t speak English, but he worked hard to pick up the language: “My wife was pregnant, so I wanted to learn as soon as possible,” he says. He worked multiple jobs while going to school for computer science, and became a programmer analyst. Then, after seven years, he was laid off.
He needed a way to support his growing family: After Tam, the firstborn son, he and Thao had three more boys. Looking for opportunities, Le went to Atlanta, where he discovered the Pho Hoa franchise. It seemed like an opportunity, like something that could work in Boston. An initial business partner dropped out. People warned him against Fields Corner at the time, telling him it wasn’t safe. But he was determined to succeed.
So he did. This year, the restaurant celebrates its 30th anniversary. Pho Hoa is a pillar of the neighborhood, serving the steaming, fragrant noodle soup that is its namesake dish, along with other Vietnamese specialties, in a Dorchester Avenue storefront across the street from its original location (now Pho Le).
“For almost 10 years, I had no vacation. I worked seven days, 14- to 16-hour days,” he says. “Refugee men worked really hard.”
Le’s story is unique in its details, but familiar in its outline. In the decade following the Vietnam War, hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asian refugees settled in the United States. Massachusetts has more than 47,000 residents of Vietnamese descent, about 70 percent born abroad. Nearly a quarter of that immigrant population lives in Boston, mainly in Dorchester. Fields Corner is the community’s hub, a living study in immigrant entrepreneurship, its streets lined with Vietnamese-owned restaurants, markets, tax consultants, electronics shops, salons, pharmacies, and other small businesses. Last year, a section of the neighborhood was officially designated a cultural district called Boston Little Saigon.
It was a watershed moment for the community, and for Le. “When we came here, we kept the good culture [of Vietnam] and we forgot the bad culture. We always think about the good things, not the bad things,” he says. “For the culture, I was really happy when the city approved the Vietnamese cultural district.”
Meanwhile, in Worcester …
In 1979, Khau Huynh of Kien Giang province also left Vietnam, relocating to Australia with wife Huong Huynh. His story, too, is one of success and deeply difficult experiences.
“We had two young children already in Vietnam. Because of the poor health care system, we lost our two children. After that happened, we were so heartbroken we had to leave,” he says through an interpreter. “We saw the state of the country, from the war to the hospitals — everything. We wanted a better future.”
In Australia, they had a daughter, Linh. Because Huynh’s English wasn’t strong, he says, there were only so many things he could do. He decided to open his own business: a Vietnamese restaurant. He discovered he had a real talent for cooking. When the family came to America in 1985, he found work at a Chinese restaurant, the original Chopsticks in Worcester. He eventually partnered with the owner to open hibachi-style Japanese restaurant Sakura Tokyo in 1991; it closed in 2016. He also founded a wholesale grocery store, which he later sold. And he started his own restaurant, Pho Hien Vuong, in 1989. He turns 65 this year. He still goes to work every day in the tiny kitchen at the restaurant that serves nothing but pho, in its myriad variations.
“Coming from Vietnam, being Vietnamese, it was really important for me to open up a Vietnamese restaurant,” he says.
He is grateful his son, Long, was born in this country, and that his children are happy, healthy, and successful. Linh is a doctor, Long an actuary. “I have a lot of gratitude and appreciation for America, and for having the opportunity to raise a family here,” he says.
The next generation
In 1999, two students met at Brandeis. Noodle shop kids, children of refugees, Linh Huynh and Tam Le had a lot in common. Today they have two children of their own, Madeline, 6, and Thompson, almost 3.
Linh went on to medical school, inspired to become a primary care physician after watching her immigrant parents struggle to get good healthcare. She has many Vietnamese speakers among her diverse patients. Tam got his MBA at Babson and joined his father in the restaurant business. In addition to Pho Hoa, he runs the adjacent Reign Drink Lab, which he cofounded with lifelong friends; he also helped start Chashu Ramen + Izakaya in Worcester. And he owns a restaurant in Quincy, Pho Linh, named for his wife.
“I really admired my father’s work ethic and attention to detail,” Tam says. “We had these walls that were just mirror, and the last thing before he locked up, he would stand on a chair with Windex and towels and make sure those mirrored walls were spotless. He would do that himself. That is something that stayed with me.”
He can also remember worrying about his father on nights Tam wasn’t there to lock up the gates with him. “Today we don’t have roll gates anymore,” Tam says. Now 40, he works in an office in Fields Corner above the restaurant in the building they own, and he’s watched the neighborhood change with time. “I loved it back in the day, and I love it now. It’s great to see all the development, new Vietnamese businesses popping up, the next generation coming through” — people like Diana Nguyen of Fields Corner dessert cafe Sweet Sip, for example. Tam can remember when she used to review his restaurants on Yelp: “She was always so supportive. Now she has her own food business.”
Since opening Reign in 2016, he has become fascinated with Vietnamese coffee. He’s been working on developing supply chains, importing green beans from Vietnam and roasting them locally, working with Arlington-based Barismo. “I’m excited because I think it’s going to be a way to bridge cultures and generations: a modern Vietnamese coffee concept based in traditional Vietnamese culture,” he says. “My Vietnamese culture, my Vietnamese heritage, is really important to me. In the past couple of years, that’s become my ‘why.’ I was given this opportunity by my parents, all the hard work they have done. I feel like my purpose is to use it to create opportunities for others, and to find a way to chaperone our Vietnamese culture into the next generation.”
As for Pho Hoa, it has seen a year of change. At the end of 2021, Anh Hong — another beloved Vietnamese restaurant in the neighborhood — announced its closure due to a landlord dispute. Owner Victoria Nguyen and Tam Le decided to join forces, combining their restaurants and specialties under one roof. At Pho Hoa, diners can now also get the seven-course beef menus for which Anh Hong was known.
The timing was right. Thanh Le, who is in his 70s, is retiring. He has a lot of hobbies to pursue: Ping-Pong, tennis, guitar, piano. And he has four grandchildren to spend time with.
“My children and my grandchildren are the future generation. I kept the culture as well as you can in my family, and my children learned to bring it to the community. We have a rich culture — a different culture, but a good culture. We should keep it. We make this country more beautiful with different cultures,” he says.
And he offers this parting advice: “Work hard. Always use your brain. Don’t be afraid of anything. Look at me: Why did I have success in the restaurant field when I knew nothing about it? That’s an example for the people to work and learn in this country. Always dream, and on the road at some point, you get your dream.”