A parent will do absolutely anything to protect and provide for their children. For many in search of safety and opportunity, that means leaving behind everything and everyone you know in the hope of a better life.
Like millions of others in Vietnam in the late 1970s and 80s, a young couple decided to leave their home behind so that their infant daughter could have a better life. Since then, the refugee turned successful restaurant owner has proven how far hard work can get you…
Fighting For Their Lives
In 1980, a young fisherman named Canh Van Nguyen and his wife from Saigon, Vietnam, or what is now Ho Chi Minh City, welcomed their first daughter into the world. It should have been the happiest and most exciting time in their lives but they were sadly fighting for their lives.
Living In Fear
At the time, Vietnam was struggling in the aftermath of both the Vietnam war and their own civil war. According to Nguyen, his home had become a dangerous place and he lived in fear that something was going to happen to him and his family since gunfire and bombs explosions were a daily occurrence.
The Only Chance
The young fisherman knew that his family wouldn’t survive long if they stayed in their home. While it was difficult to think about leaving their home behind and everything they knew, the young couple knew that leaving was the only real chance their family had.
Fleeing By Boat
So Nguyen and his wife fled Vietnam with his wife and weeks-old daughter on a small fishing boat. Yet Nguyen and his family weren’t the only ones desperate to escape Vietnam. Around that time, around 2 million people escaped Vietnam by boat.
One Of Thousands
“Dad was a fisherman in Vietnam who sailed around 30 people from Vung Tau, Vietnam, as thousands of people did at that time trying to escape the aftermath of the war,” Nguyen’s daughter, Anh, told Teesside Live about the moment her parents left behind their home.
A Risky Move
However, fleeing Vietnam by boat was far from a safe bet either. According to Nguyen, he knew it was a risky move to try and sail the small fishing boat into open waters to get to Singapore. Thousands of Vietnamese refugees died while at sea, but it was their only hope at surviving.
“We never go across the sea like that,” Nguyen told the BBC about the gamble that he and about 30 other people made trying to escape certain death. “Yeah, but we have to go. Just go. That’s it.” Thankfully, that gamble that Nguyen and the others made worked out.
A Stroke Of Luck
After a few days at sea, the boat full of refugees experienced some luck when they crossed paths with a British oil tanker called the Ebalina. The captain and crew on the tanker rescued Nguyen, his young family, and the rest of the refugees on the wooden fishing boat.
The Refugee Camp
After the rescue, the captain of the Ebalina brought the refugees to a refugee camp in Singapore. According to Anh, who was just months old at the time, she and her family spent a few months at the camp before they were eventually flown over to the United Kingdom.
A New Beginning
“We were then flown over to U.K. and ended up in a Whitley Bay YMCA,” Anh told Teesside Live about the moment she and her parents arrived in England in 1981 and were allowed to restart their lives. “There a parish priest from St. Peter’s Church came for us and brought us to South Bank.”
Ignoring The Hatred
According to Nguyen, he and his family struggled with racism in their new home. However, it never changed how they felt about their new home. According to Nguyen, he felt nothing but appreciation for England since they were finally free and safe from the horrors of war.
A Leap Of Faith
After settling in Middlesbrough, Nguyen found work at a Chinese takeaway restaurant. After several years of working for other people, Nguyen started thinking about starting his own restaurant. Eventually, the former fisherman took another leap of faith and started his own Chinese food business.
The Food Truck
Because he couldn’t afford to open his own restaurant just yet, Nguyen started selling his food out of a trailer hooked up to the back of his van. “He built burners and a fryer in it with my mam,” said Anh. “He parked at industrial estates and outside the Tiger pub in Normanby.”
It was there that Nguyen started building a name for himself among the locals, who loved his food and became loyal customers. After some time, Nguyen was doing so well that he was finally able to open up a real restaurant, which he named ‘Saigon’ after his home, in the early 1990s.
A Huge Success
“We called it Saigon after the place where we are from, now Ho Chi Minh City. That’s why it’s a Vietnamese name rather than Chinese,” Anh explained. Nguyen has been serving the people of Teesside ever since first opening doors to the restaurant, which has been voted the area’s best Chinese food restaurant several times over the years.
A Hard Worker
“I can’t tell you how much of a great man my dad is, how much he sacrificed for us and how hard he works,” Anh said about her father, who worked hard to provide for her and her younger brother and sister who were both born and raised in England.
“He’s well loved and respected in the community, and has worked all his life to give back for the life we have today,” Anh added. And after more than 30 years of running his restaurant, Nguyen still cooks all the food and runs the family business. “His nickname is Saigon Sam but some people know him as Peter. He’s still the person who cooks all the meals – he’s 63!”
Even though it’s been decades since Nguyen and his wife resettled in England, the family is still grateful for the opportunity that they were given. “He’s the most patriotic person I know. He is proud to be British and loves the Royal Family so much my sister is named Elizabeth after the Queen – even though Vietnamese people can’t pronounce it properly,” Anh said.
“We will be eternally grateful,” Anh said. “That’s why my dad has always tried to give back – by his kindness to everyone he meets, the love in his food or giving local families jobs.” While Nguyen has earned some time away from work, he has no plans of retiring.
In an interview with the BBC, his daughter Elizabeth claims it’s because her 63-year-old father doesn’t want to disappoint the community that has supported him for so long. “I think he doesn’t want to disappoint any of his customers,” Elizabeth said. “They’d be devastated if he retired.”