From an interview with Lan Nguyen.
Eighteen years ago, Lan Nguyen was attending Hanoi-Amsterdam high school in Hanoi, Vietnam. She is an only child and had no intention of leaving her family, her home and the life she knew. One day her parents announced that she would be going to Canada on an international scholarship – alone. While she initially rejected the whole notion as crazy, Lan eventually packed off to Canada where she studied at York University in Toronto, struggled and graduated with honours and awards. She worked as a server, and an accountant, met her future husband, started a family and opened LAN Vietnamese Cuisine, dedicated to serving authentic Vietnamese fare in a fine dining setting. Lan’s passion for Vietnamese culture, her entrepreneurial spirit and her magnetic personality have earned her a dedicated clientele and provided us with an amazing story of making a life in Canada even if you didn’t plan on it.
I never imagined coming to Canada. I was an only child – an only girl child – I wasn’t even allowed to go to a friend’s birthday party by myself! My parents were so protective. If I wanted to go camping with my friends, or even go over to a friend’s house, I was told no, because it was “too dangerous!” Then suddenly, my parents informed me that I was going to be leaving home to go to another country for four years – alone!
My dad said, “In two weeks you’re going to Canada on a scholarship. It’s time to leave home and explore a new world. It’s hard for us, but it’s time we let you go. You’ll find something you’ll be interested in – something you want to do in the future. Your cousin is in Canada and she’s going to guide you through your first year. You’ll be fine.” Next thing I knew, we were shopping for winter clothes!
I always wished to see snow in-person – in real life. I love snow. I was born in December, so I’m meant for the winter time. That was the one wish that came true when I came to Canada. Otherwise, for the first month I cried every single day. I felt so lonely. I thought “How am I going to survive for four years?”
Study and hard work pay off
The one thing I knew was that I was here to study. I came to Canada on an international scholarship at York University in Toronto. Even though my school was the top school in Vietnam, I have to say that I was really impressed with the Canadian educational system. I loved the fact that I could talk to the professors every single day and that I could explore so many new things.
I grew up in a family where education was very important. My grandma and grandpa had PhDs and my mom and dad have Masters. I worked hard and graduated at the top of my graduating class. I faced challenges being here alone too. There were times when another student took advantage of my trusting nature to try to score better marks than me. But marks aren’t everything.
Around this time I met my husband. He was studying mechanics at Seneca College and happened to be at the York University library to print out some documents. We were both taking a break at the McDonald’s there when he approached me and asked, “Are you Vietnamese?”
I said, “Why do you ask? Do I look Vietnamese? And what difference does that make?” He told me that I did look Vietnamese and that’s why he approached me. He wanted to have a conversation in Vietnamese. I had recently been hurt by people I trusted and had learned my lesson, so I let him know that I was not interested in talking to somebody I knew nothing about. As it turned out, I met him later in two different scenarios. I didn’t know if it was just coincidence or if there was a reason why I met this guy three times in a row.
We started talking and sharing stories and that’s how our story got started. We were opposites in many ways. While I grew up in an over-protective family, he grew up without a father. He started working at a young age to try to make some money. He had a hard life. Where I had trusted every single person I met, he never trusted anyone in his life. We were the sun and moon and balanced each other.
We became best friends before we started dating, and then eventually shared a small basement apartment. We had two rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom. It’s funny, but even though we were dating for a couple years, it wasn’t like a typical boyfriend and girlfriend; we barely saw each other because we were both going to school and working so much.
I finished school each day around 5:00 p.m. and took a bus to the restaurant where I worked as a server until 11:00 p.m. from Monday to Friday. I reserved the weekends to study and catch up on my assignments. My husband went to school from 8:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. He would go back to the apartment and sleep until 9:00 p.m. and then work from 10:00 p.m. until 6:00 a.m. in a car factory. He would take a nap and then get to his first class at 8:00 a.m. and start over again. We had no time for bubble tea. We had no time for movies. It’s like we talked on the phone for two years.
After graduating from Seneca my husband worked two jobs. We saved our money until we had enough for him to open a small engine shop. I was also finishing my MBA at Schulich School of Business at York University.
From international scholarship to international cuisine
There was a lot of group work where we had to meet up with a classmate to discuss the project we were working on. We would usually meet over lunch or in a coffee shop. I was the only Asian girl in the group and some people made fun of my culture. They always say, “Lan, let’s go down the street, and find some cheap Vietnamese restaurant and enjoy the cheap Vietnamese food.”
I didn’t like the way that sounded, but when I told them that they were discrediting my culture, they said that all Vietnamese cuisine is cheap and asked me to name one restaurant that wasn’t cheap and served food that properly represented my culture.
Unfortunately, they were right at that moment. All the Vietnamese places I knew served a similar menu of inexpensive food. One of the guys in the group challenged me to do something to change the image of cheap vietnamese food. I said, “Don’t dare me. Who knows – maybe I will.”
That night, I was talking with my husband (my boyfriend at the time) during his break. We talked for an hour. I told him how I felt and that I wanted to do something. I really wanted to change the way people thought of Vietnamese culture. I wanted to bring my home here.
Besides being a genius mechanic, my husband also loves cooking. He is always happy when he’s cooking. At 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning he would be cooking, singing a song and feeling so happy. One day he came home and said, “Lan, I have an idea. Why don’t you quit your job and we’ll start something new! You said you wanted to bring your hometown here. Let’s open a restaurant. We’ll change the cuisine, we’ll change the culture – and I’ll do the cooking.”
I was really excited to hear his idea, except that we didn’t know anything about running a restaurant. I worked as a server every day but that’s all I did was serve food. He said that this was exactly what I needed to do. He would cook and I would serve. He said we could use our savings, give it two years and if it didn’t work out we could go back to what we did before. We were young, we were smart and we had our education so we didn’t have to worry about finding another job in the future. We wanted to live life to the fullest and share our culture.
In 2013 we opened LAN Vietnamese Cuisine on Queen street East in Toronto. Our restaurant is not like other Vietnamese restaurants. If people think that Vietnamese food is just cheap, I wanted to change that perception. I wanted to change people’s ideas about my culture.
We serve our customers the same high quality of food with the service you would expect from an Italian or french restaurant. If Vietnamese cuisine can live up to the same standards then we should get paid the same. Our culture is of equivalent value.
The journey is not easy. We made more money in our previous careers, but we chose the restaurant because we wanted to send out a message to people. I want Vietnamese people to be proud of themselves, to be confident in themselves.
Focussing on family during COVID
When the pandemic hit we took extreme precautions. We knew we would lose money and people called us crazy. But I didn’t want to take any chances of my kids getting sick, so we closed a week before the lock down order.
I was the main person interacting with the customers. We were super busy and I had no way of knowing if a customer had COVID or not. It could come to me, then it would come to my kids. Then basically, what is the point of working hard for money if you don’t have health? So we shut the restaurant down completely from March 10th to September 10th.
When we reopened, it was only for take out. Even though at that time, we could have made a lot of money with our patio, we only did takeout. I was thinking of my kids during COVID.
That was one of the surprising and wonderful things. Thanks to COVID I spent a lot of time with my kids. I taught them to sing in Vietnamese, to write a song in Vietnamese and we read poems in Vietnamese. And even now with virtual learning, I’m trying to learn French myself because all my kids are in the French immersion program at school. After finishing at the restaurant, I would take half an hour each day to learn a little French.
We set up a small gym room for them at home, where they have their own monkey bar, they have their jumping place. And so, they do all the activity at home. And then, along the way, when they had the free time, they would sit down and draw pictures and even make thank you cards for the customers who have been so supportive of our business.
COVID has been very hard on the restaurant business and sometimes I do feel sad because we are working so hard to make money with our restaurant. But, at the end of the day, I feel happy because we’re still healthy. My kids are at home with me, they’re studying, they’re happy and they’re all healthy. And, that’s what I need at the end of the day.
A few tips for newcomers to Canada
I’m sharing my personal story with newcomers, so that when they are starting that new journey into this unknown world they have an idea of what the next few years might be like. Especially if they just took the leap and completely went with their passion and gut like my husband and I.
When you are facing a new country at the beginning, there will be challenges. But trust yourself, trust your decision and have faith in the new journey, because I am telling you, even though I faced a lot of challenges, at the end of the day, Canada is a wonderful country.
When you feel you’re having the worst day and want to give up, you just need to whisper to yourself, “Get up and try it one more time. It will be worth it.”
Be confident. Be yourself. Don’t let anyone devalue your culture. Don’t let anyone tell you what you have to do, because you are the only one who knows what you want to do. Be proud of your home country and your background. Bring it to Canada and share it just like we did. I have fallen in love with Canada. It’s an amazing country to have a family and raise your kids.
What you get back by achieving your goal is not as important as what you become by achieving your goal. It doesn’t matter if you can make your business a big success. If you become a better person, if you think wiser about life, if you are happier with life – that’s what matters.
As long as you are willing to work hard and give it a try, the Canadian system will be there to make sure that you have the opportunity to achieve your dreams, even if it’s not your home.
Home is where the heart is
I never thought I would stay in Canada. My parents never thought I would stay in Canada either. But they continue to be so supportive of my decision. When my husband and I met it seemed like destiny. You know when you find the right one – the other half of your life. We go back to Vietnam every summer (except during COVID) and my mom and dad come here every Vietnamese new year.
My dad said, “You are our only child, but It doesn’t matter if you stay beside us or not. What matters is that you have a happy life with your family. As long as you remember your background and your home it doesn’t matter where you stay.”