Hien Vo - from refugee to restaurant owner: the woman who brought us bowls of pho

Suzanne Carbone
Hien Vo makes diners happy at her I Love Pho restuarant in Richmond.
Hien Vo makes diners happy at her I Love Pho restuarant in Richmond. Photo: Penny Stephens

Australians with a predictable palate were confused about the bowl of aromatic goodness that arrived in Victoria Street, Richmond, 15 years ago.

Pho, which is pronounced "fur", is eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner but restaurant owner Hien Vo had to convince diners that it wasn't soup in the traditional sense.

It was a steaming meal with beef, noodles, vegetables and herbs.

Tan Vo runs the kitchen with wife Hien and serves pho for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Tan Vo runs the kitchen with wife Hien and serves pho for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Photo: Penny Stephens

Australians more accustomed to sachets of chicken noodle soup were discovering the Vietnamese rice noodle soup at I Love Pho, the restaurant run by Hien, her husband Tan and children Hung, Kim, Andrew and Patrick.

As one of the first restaurants in Melbourne's Little Vietnam to serve pho, Mrs Vo's arrival in Australia was not simple.

When she fled Saigon in 1979, she had never seen a boat or the ocean. She had tried to leave twice before and for her then boyfriend Tan, it was his seventh attempt.

I Love Pho T-shirts are as popular as the rice noodle soup.
I Love Pho T-shirts are as popular as the rice noodle soup. Photo: Eddie Jim

Under the Communist regime, boats were intercepted or shot at. Merciless people smugglers took payment for boats that never arrived. Those fleeing faced jail if caught.

Mrs Vo successfully paid her way with gold and became an Australian citizen three years later.

Her restaurant opened in 2000 .


Mrs Vo's tale is one of 16 inspiring success stories in the book Every Bite Takes You Home by Gaye Weeden and Hayley Smorgon.

Asylum seekers from countries including Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan and Tibet connect their old and new homes with recipes dear to them.

Speaking at her Richmond restaurant at a table brimming with spoons and chopsticks, a smiling Mrs Vo said Australia meant freedom.

"We need freedom so we can do what we need to do," she said. "We stay in a good country."

With Mr Vo as restaurant cook, the family runs a chain of restaurants. Joining I Love Pho in Richmond is I Love Pho Express at the hugely popular upmarket cafe court at Melbourne Emporium. And there's Saigon Square at Melbourne Central and Highpoint Shopping Centre.

Mrs Vo is sharing her story in the year that marks the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War.

Grateful to the then Australian prime minister, Malcolm Fraser, for opening the door to refugees, the Vietnamese community has created a delicious food trail from Footscray to Springvale.

After a scary and uncomfortable three-day boat trip to Malaysia, Hien and Tan were placed in a refugee camp in Kuala Lumpur. After a year and nine months, the Australian Government accepted the new arrivals and they were flown to Melbourne.

After the Vietnam War, about 80,000 Vietnamese men, women and children sought asylum in Australia. In the 2011 census, Vietnamese migrants were the sixth largest ethnic group to make a new home in Australia. In Melbourne, 185,000 settlers mainly gravitated to Melbourne's western suburbs and set up home in Sunshine North and Braybrook.

While most Australian children were eating Vegemite sandwiches in the 1970s, others were experimenting with cuisines. David Manne, the executive director of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, was one of the first recipients of pho when he was at primary school and befriended a boy who had arrived from Vietnam.

Mr Manne, who is launching the book on December 6, says in the introduction: "It was through those delicious offerings and open hospitality that my most powerful and enduring memories of warmth and welcome were formed.

"Each serving came with beaming smiles and words I didn't understand, but we shared, and smiled, and spoke through the food."

Mrs Vo's daughter, Kim, is full of admiration for her parents. "My parents have just worked so hard," she said. "I have never known my parents not to work hard."

That means living and breathing their four restaurants seven days a week. There is always a bowl of pho to sustain them.

'Every Bite Takes You Home' is published by Ilura Press and all profits from book sales will be donated to organisations that help asylum seekers and refugees.