On a recent bone-cold winter afternoon, years removed from his native Vietnam, Thai Nguyen's gaze took in the spacious expanse of New Saigon Restaurant on South Federal Boulevard. What he saw had to warm him.
The award-winning establishment Nguyen runs with his chef/wife, Ha Pham, was packed with diners inhaling steaming bowls of pho delivered from the kitchen by a bustling cadre of waiters. Next door at New Saigon Bakery & Deli, operated by two of his five daughters, customers lined up for banh mi sandwiches and pastries while workers wrapped presents for the Tet New Year's holiday, which is Saturday.
Two new grandchildren were on the way.
Life in America was good, far better than he could have even dreamed on the day he clambered aboard an overloaded fishing boat and set sail for — well, exactly where and what he did not know.
"My story is just a little one among 10,000 stories," Nguyen says. He pauses. "Actually, one among 1 million stories.
The couple were among an estimated 1.3 million people who fled Vietnam in the wake of the Communist takeover in 1975. Most of them, about 823,000, found their way to the United States, resettling in places as far-flung as Los Angeles, Minneapolis and the Gulf Coast. About 21,000 Vietnamese live in the Denver-Boulder area, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Nguyen and Pham, who had never seen snow, wound up in Denver.
"America has been wonderful to us," says Nguyen, who knows more English than his wife and does most of the talking. "I tell the next generation to respect their country, get involved with it."
Boarding a small boat
Nguyen, 55, was born in Saigon but grew up in Vung T…u, a beach town about 50 miles southeast of what is now Ho Chi Minh City.
He was a high school senior when South Vietnam fell. Although he planned to go to college, with thoughts of studying agriculture or forestry, those dreams were scuttled. His father was a government employee — he had been posted to Washington, D.C., where he worked with Interpol — and thus was viewed as an enemy of the state. He was sent to a re-education camp, leaving his family stripped of opportunities and benefits by the punitive new regime. The family sold many of their possessions to get by.
Nguyen took any odd job he could, scuffling to make ends meet and help support his mother and four siblings.
"I did simple labor, whatever people hired me to do," he said. "Here we had a country to rebuild. But the communists couldn't learn from the history of the American Civil War, where the people came back together after the conflict to move the country forward.
"They pushed a whole generation of us out to sea."
He and Pham met and married. In 1981, caring for their 2½-year-old daughter, Thoa, and fed up with the Communist government, they boarded a fishing vessel, hoping it would carry them to freedom.
"We had nothing with us," Nguyen recalled. "No money, not even cigarettes."
The boat was designed for a crew of about 10. When it set out on its journey, 119 people were aboard. Most were crammed into a hold normally filled with ice for the fish. The drinking water ran out after the first day.
"On the third day, a huge storm came up," Nguyen said. "Waves bigger than the boat. I knew we were going to die. I had accepted that."
And then, a miracle: Hours into the storm, a freighter flying an American flag loomed before them. Its crew rescued the young family and their fellow passengers, ferrying them to an offshore oil platform. They spent a day there before being transported to a refugee settlement in Indonesia.
Landing in Denver
One year later, in October 1982, Nguyen and Pham landed at Denver's Stapleton Airport, their trip sponsored by Catholic Relief Services, an international humanitarian agency. The family landed in the Mile High City because Nguyen's aunt lived here.
"When we came to Denver, we were asked if we wanted to go to work right away or use government assistance," Nguyen said. "We chose work. We didn't want to go on welfare."
The two landed jobs as janitors at the since-closed Chez Andre restaurant. They worked the midnight shift, riding the bus in from their home in Aurora. Nguyen soon found a second job at a furniture store.
A bit of serendipity occurred. New Saigon Restaurant, which had been open about two years, was owned by a woman who knew Pham's father. The couple dropped by one day and, on a lark, stepped into the kitchen and began helping prep vegetables for the evening meal.
"Our friend was really impressed with Ha's knife skills," Nguyen said with a laugh. "She called us up the next day and told Ha, 'Hey, I was watching you slice those onions, and you're really good. Do you want to come work here?' "
Pham took the job. Within a year, she was head chef. She had always cooked, learning from her mom and later on absorbing lessons from her mother-in-law. Both were terrific cooks.
In 1987, the couple took out a small-business loan and bought the restaurant.
"At first, it was hard to get the ingredients like we had in Vietnam," Nguyen says. "But eventually, more Asian markets opened, and traditional American groceries began carrying such products. There's been a big change in that respect."
A successful restaurant
New Saigon flourished. It has won numerous "best of" honors and developed a large base of loyal customers who flock in for pho, fried soft-shell crab and banh mi, the delicious national sandwich of their homeland that reflects Vietnamese and French influences.
What began as a simple four-page menu has morphed into one boasting scores of dishes.
Today, the family owns most of the eastern side of the 600 block on South Federal, including the building that houses a Napa Auto Parts store. They paid off their restaurant loan 20 years ago.
In 2012, the family opened New Saigon Bakery & Deli next door. A sleek, contemporary space, it is run by Thu Nguyen, their middle daughter, and her oldest sister, Thoa, who was sent to France by her parents to train as a pastry chef after a stint at Denver's Johnson & Wales University, the culinary school.
The two sisters remember crawling on the floor of New Saigon and playing hide-and-seek under the tables as toddlers. Like their three sisters, they began working at the restaurant at age 13. They staffed the host stand, bused tables, absorbed the trade.
"We learned a lot from our mom," Thoa said. "She'd been a saleswoman in Vietnam. She taught us how to sell and use your personality."
Adds Thu: "It's been great working with your family every day. We literally grew up in the restaurant. It's what we know."
Nguyen managed to get his parents and siblings out of Vietnam in 1992, sponsoring all of them to come over. His father died 11 years ago; his mother passed last month.
He has since visited Vietnam. It was bittersweet.
"America is my home now," he says. "The Vietnamese government is recruiting young people to come back to Vietnam. I tell my children, 'No, you're an American. You owe your loyalty to this country.
"I'm still teaching my children to respect and value what they have. They're really lucky."
William Porter: 303-954-1877, email@example.com or twitter.com/williamporterdp
The number of Vietnamese who fled the nation in the wake of the communist takeover in 1975.
Vietnamese who settled in the U.S.
The number of Vietnamese living in the Denver-Boulder area, according to the census.
The number of people on the fishing vessel that Nguyen and his wife boarded in 1981 looking to escape Vietnam. The boat was designed for 10.
The year the couple took out a small-business loan and bought New Saigon Restaurant.
The year the family opened New Saigon Bakery & Deli next door.