A Refugee’s Culinary Journey

Vietnamese chef Hoa Van Cao cooks simple dishes that honor the country he was forced to leave.
Chef Hoa Van Cao fled Vietnam 31 years ago -- and Boston is richer for it. (Photo: Steve Holt)
Jun 19, 2012· 2 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

Hoa Van Cao’s journey to ladling phó for the good people of East Boston has been long—and hard.

Thirty-one years ago, the young man stepped aboard a wooden boat in Vietnam expecting never to see his beloved homeland again. Once he and the other 33 men, women, and children were packed tightly across the vessel’s 36-by-10-foot frame, the boat began the one-day, two-night journey across the Gulf of Thailand to the coast of Thailand. Hoa and his countrymen were leaving behind the fear and immobility created by a cruel Communist government for the hope of greater opportunity elsewhere.

Where that would be, few knew.

Those, like Hoa, who safely reached the shores of Thailand entered refugee camps where food and water were limited, the language was foreign, and one’s length of stay and final destination were unknown. This uncertainty, Hoa says, was the hardest part of the entire ordeal.

“We had no clue,” he says. “We had no future. We didn’t know where we were going, where we were staying.”

Their only hope for leaving the camps came in the form of visits from sponsors from developed nations like the United States and Canada. The sponsors were interviewing refugees and helping them apply for asylum abroad. Hoa wanted to end up in the United States, which he says was an obvious choice.

“The American troops were over there, and I was 10 or 11 years old,” he remembers. “They were nice. They’d say, ‘America is No. 1,’ so I got that idea and made that choice.”

Several months later, after all the paperwork had cleared, Hoa was in Boston. A hard-working, proud man, he remembers being thankful for the assistance he received from the federal government early on while he searched for work. When he finally found work, it was as a busboy in the food court at Logan International Airport, Hoa’s first taste of the restaurant business.

He would work at the airport from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m., going straight to English language classes from there. He’d move up a bit at the airport, eventually becoming a cook in the dining room, before launching out to start his own venture with a partner—a bakery in Boston’s Chinatown.

But the bakery floundered, as did the pizza place and coffee shop after that. He worked in other people’s kitchens for a few years. The Vietnamese restaurant in Woburn, a suburb of Boston, wasn’t meant to be either. Finally, in 2008, Hoa returned to East Boston to place perhaps his most outrageous bet yet: that a neighborhood made up largely of Italians and Latinos would latch onto a Vietnamese restaurant, its first.

“When I first took over this place, business was slow and not that busy,” he remembers, but after working to perfect his dishes and set a standard for using only the freshest ingredients, business at Saigon Restaurant began to pick up.

Today, his neighbors call in to have their pork vermicelli or sliced chicken with mango delivered. When you order in, many times it’s Hoa standing at your door with the food. But many prefer to drop by his elegant, clean dining room for a steaming bowl of phó and some hot tea. Regulars ask to see Hoa, and the chef gladly steps out of the kitchen to sit with diners and share a story.

“This is a wonderful restaurant,” Anna, a local artist and Saigon regular, tells me as she pats the chef on his shoulder, “and Hoa is a good, good man.”

Hoa smiles, and blushes at the kind words. Anna and others probably don’t know about the trials the chef has been through: experiencing the Vietnam war as a young child, fleeing the country in 1981 with the “boat people,” joining fellow exiles in dismal refugee camps, and finally landing in the United States, not one mile from where his restaurant is now. But while he doesn’t wear his experiences on his sleeve, Hoa believes he’s been given a special opportunity, one he is using to please his neighbors with the tastes from a country he loves—but feels fortunate to have left.