by Len Lear
Hue van Tran, who lives in Lafayette Hill with his wife, Anh Ly Tran, who is Chinese, are both in their mid-70s. Hue, who has been called (unofficially) “the Mayor of the Vietnamese community in Philadelphia,” has a personal history that would make a Tom Cruise action movie seem dull.
Tran was a successful pharmaceutical executive in Vietnam, so he was naturally persona non grata when the Communists took over South Vietnam in 1975. All of his property was confiscated by the government, and he was ordered to undertake a new career as a farmer. Because of the ensuing persecution, the Tran family, like countless thousands of others, left behind all their possessions to escape from Vietnam on a boat.
“All freedom taken away,” explained the slim, energetic native of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). “We must leave for sake of children. We know of great danger, but children must be free. Cannot live as slaves!”
The father of five daughters, Tran said that young women had virtually no opportunity to pursue an education under the Communist regime. Their only option was to work in the fields and receive unrelenting political indoctrination.
As a result, late one night Tran, his wife, five daughters and several cousins set out into the South China Sea in a fragile boat. They had enough food for three or four days but no other possessions except the clothing on their backs.
Unfortunately, “boat people” in the South China Sea during those perilous times were as numerous as daffodils in May, and other overpopulated nations in Southeast Asia were not anxious to add refugees to their burdens. And to make matters even worse, there were ubiquitous pirates stealing the meager possessions from the refugees in addition to violent attacks against them.
The dozens of people on the boat, including Mr. and Mrs. Tran and their five children, ran out of food after three or four days. For the next five or six days they wandered in the South China Sea with no food or water. Hunger pains were so wretched that one daughter began to drink her own urine. “Many large ships pass us by,” said Tran. “We wave and wave. They ignore us.”
To make matters even worse, their boat sprang a leak, and the family used their remaining energy to bail out the water. When they were all close to death and hope had virtually vanished, they were miraculously found and rescued by a Japanese fishing vessel. “I still write to the captain of the Japanese boat,” Mr. Tran told me several years ago.
For 10 months the family lived in a refugee camp in Japan while Anh Ly cooked in a nunnery (thus learning how to make some great teriyaki dishes). A Vietnamese friend who had come to Connecticut a couple years earlier then sponsored the Tran family, who came to the U.S. and worked in the friend’s restaurant for a year.
The Tran family then came to Philadelphia and opened a restaurant in 1981, where they worked 365 days a year for seven years. “We finally had day off in eighth year,” stated Mr. Tran. Despite the around-the-clock labors, Hue insisted that it “was wonderful. Our children had freedom to study. All went to college. That is worth everything. We are free!”
The South Philadelphia restaurant, Vinh Hoa, was at 746 Christian St., but Hue moved it to City Line Avenue in an Overbrook Park shopping center in the 1990s. It is now closed, and the Trans are enjoying their well-earned retirement at their home in Lafayette Hill.. When he was in South Philadelphia, Mr. Tran was often referred to as “The Vietnamese Mayor of Philadelphia” because he helped so many immigrants from Vietnam navigate through the maze of city, state and federal government agencies and programs that are hard to access for those who do not speak English, have a bank account or credit card, etc.
We have known Mr. Tran for about 35 years, and I can say without hesitation that he and his wife and children are all extremely appreciative of the intangible benefits of living in the U.S. But he has not forgotten to help others in need.
“The man is a saint,” said Jordan Davis, who was a regular customer at his restaurants. “What little money he had left over from working all those hours, he would send to other refugee families in Thailand. He never turns anybody down.”
“I cannot tell you how helpful he was to our family and to so many others,” said Benny Lai, owner of the popular Vietnam restaurant in Chinatown and Vietnam Cafe in West Philadelphia. “He would always take the time to help anyone who needed it.”