A spread at Vung Tau, including lemongrass beef charbroiled in banana leaf, shaking beef and bánh hỏi with grilled pork and sugarcane wrapped in shrimp. (Photo by Michelle Le)

For Vietnamese refugees, restaurants provided economic opportunity and community. Today, they offer a delicious case study in regional flavors.

At San Jose’s venerable Vung Tau, soup is history.

The restaurant serves eight noodle soups, each of which starts with the same broth but tells its own story about Vietnamese history through toppings, condiments and serving style.

Hủ tiếu nam vang, a clear noodle soup popular in southern Vietnam, takes inspiration from the bordering Cambodia (nam vang translates to “Phnom Penh,” Cambodia’s capital city) and China, with Chinese celery among the soup’s toppings. In hủ tiếu bà năm Sa Đéc, meanwhile, which hails from the city of Sa Đéc in the Mekong Delta, the noodles come dry, topped with a rich tomato pork sauce, and the broth comes on the side, to be ladled into the bowl of noodles. The hủ tiếu triều châu is served with egg noodles and hoisin sauce — vestiges of Chinese merchants who came to Vietnam.

Nhan Huynh, left, cooking in the kitchen at Vung Tau in San Jose. At right, Vung Tau’s hủ tiếu nam vang, a regional specialty. (Photo by Elena Kadvany)

“Those are the kind of subtle differences that I think make the dish such an interesting lesson in history,” Anne Le Ziblatt, whose parents opened Vung Tau in 1985, said of the soups. “It’s not just one type of food. From region to region, it can taste different.”

San Jose is home to the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam — the 2018 census counted about 110,500 Vietnamese residents. The city’s many Vietnamese restaurants, delis and markets arguably serve the best Vietnamese food in the Bay Area, catering still, for the most part, to the tastes of an immigrant community. (Le Ziblatt said that her mother, Nhan Huynh — still a fixture in the busy Vung Tau dining room — often goes an entire day without speaking a word in English.) Menus across the city reflect the regionality of cooking in Vietnam, where one village’s soup might taste different from the next, unique distillations of migration, colonization, geography and identity.

Nhan Huynh and Anthony Le, who opened the original, 12-seat Vung Tau in San Jose in 1985 after fleeing southern Vietnam. They later expanded to the current, larger location. (Photo by Federica Armstrong)

San Jose’s Vietnamese food, from cash-only strip mall stands to traditional restaurants, makes a compelling — and insanely delicious — argument for exploring far beyond mainstream Vietnamese dishes.

At Vung Tau, named for the southern Vietnam port city its owners immigrated from, learn the origins of hủ tiếu nam vang, which Le Ziblatt fervently believes deserves as much if not more recognition than pho. Get to know bánh xèo, and bánh khọt at the glorious Grand Century Mall, home to a long row of fluorescently lit food stalls and a market practically overflowing with Vietnamese snacks by the pound. At a pop-up in a strip mall across the street, pandan broken rice and duck liver pâté with levain toast from the Midwife and the Baker marry Vietnamese and California ingredients in unexpected ways.

“There are a lot of dishes that are underrated that are not known here,” said Hieu Le, who runs the Hết Sẩy pop-up with his wife, Duy An. Both were born in Vietnam. “The goal for us is to highlight some dishes that I think deserve more love.”

Bún Bò Huế An Nam (top and bottom photos) and the Grand Century Mall food courts (center) are among the many eateries worth seeking out in San Jose’s Little Saigon. (Photos by Michelle Le)

The hyper-regional Vietnamese dishes found across San Jose trace the stories of the thousands of refugees who settled there after the fall of Saigon in 1975.

Many Vietnamese refugees were drawn to San Jose by a growing immigrant community and warm climate that reminded them of home.

“We came here to survive, to rebuild,” said Loc Vu, who founded the Vietnamese Museum of the Boat People and the Republic of Vietnam in San Jose. “We were looking for community.”

The volunteer-run museum, in a historic Victorian house filled with photographs, artwork and tributes to the Vietnamese refugee experience, is believed to be the first of its kind in the U.S. Two life-size wooden replicas of historical boats — the Tan Phat, rescued by the Japanese in 1980, and the Hai Nhuan, which landed in Hong Kong — sit outside the bright yellow house.

The wall of a winding, narrow staircase, draped in an American flag, is covered with framed photos of cemeteries of fallen soldiers. Upstairs, a room is dedicated to imagery of boats, on which Vu and thousands of Vietnamese people fled despite the “incredible odds against them,” he said. “They’d rather take those odds. There was no future for their children” in Vietnam.

A painting at San Jose’s Vietnamese Museum of the Boat People and the Republic of Vietnam captures refugees’ exodus by boat from Vietnam. (Photo by Elena Kadvany)

One painting documents the hard numbers: nearly 1 million Vietnamese fled between 1975 and 1995, peaking with 326,000 in the mid- to late-1970s.

In 1975, the U.S. admitted about 130,000 refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos and created four resettlement camps, including Camp Pendleton in San Diego, according to the museum. Within a few months, the refugees dispersed to 813 different zip codes across the country.

Vu arrived in Springfield, Illinois, in 1975. After one memorably cold winter, he and his family left for Northern California. There were few Vietnamese restaurants in San Jose at the time, he said. Families served communal meals in the garages of their newfound suburban homes.

Many went on to open restaurants, a business with low barrier to entry for immigrants who didn’t speak English, said Cuong Nguyen, who owns Pho Wagon in San Jose.

The volunteer-run Viet Museum in History Park in San Jose pays tribute to the Vietnamese refugee experience. (Photo by Elena Kadvany)

Le Ziblatt’s family spent a year in a refugee camp in Indonesia before resettling in Lodi, where a Catholic charity had agreed to sponsor them. Her parents cleaned houses, worked double shifts at a cannery and enrolled in community college. They left Lodi for San Jose with the express goal of opening a Vietnamese restaurant there.

Because bank loans were out of reach, they got seed money through informal channels — often, large groups of Vietnamese immigrants who would pool money and take turns on who could cash out every month to support a new business, from restaurants to grocery stores and pharmacies, Le Ziblatt said. She vividly remembers the moment when her father, Anthony Le, made the down payment for the original 12-seat Vung Tau: He pulled the cash from a stash rolled into his sock.

“The restaurant was so busy. It was such a hit. I remember there being lines out the door because it such a small space,” Le Ziblatt said. “This was one of the first restaurants serving really authentic food.”

At Vung Tau and restaurants across San Jose, what started as vehicles for economic opportunity became tight-knit immigrant enclaves, rooted in food.

“It became a community of people. If they needed a realtor, one of their friends who was a customer was a realtor,” Le Ziblatt said of her parents. “It became a hub for them.”

Vung Tau owner Anthony Le talks with customers during lunch at the Vietnamese institution. (Photo by Federica Armstrong)

In America, restaurants also became the family business. Le Ziblatt’s grandmother, Chac Do, joined Vung Tau a few years after it opened, and other family members would go on to run outposts in Milpitas and Newark. Le Ziblatt and her aunt, Tammy Huynh, opened the contemporary Tamarine in Palo Alto in 2002. Huynh and her sister Tanya Hartley recently expanded with Tam Tam in Palo Alto. And Le Ziblatt is opening her own venture, Nam Vietnamese Brasserie, in downtown Redwood City next week.

Today, the majority of Vung Tau’s business still comes from local Vietnamese customers.

“My mother believes in serving things exactly the way she had them. She believes in sticking to traditions,” Le Ziblatt said.

Nhan Huynh in the kitchen at Vung Tau in San Jose, which she’s run since 1985. (Photo by Federica Armstrong)

For more coverage of San Jose’s deep-rooted Vietnamese food scene, check out our other articles in this series:

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Elena Kadvany

A writer with a passion for investigative reporting, telling untold stories and public-service journalism, I have built my career covering education and restaurants in the Bay Area. My blog and biweekly newsletter, Peninsula Foodist, is the go-to source for restaurant news in Silicon Valley. My work has been published in The Guardian, Eater, Bon Appetit’s Healthyish, SF Weekly and The Six Fifty.

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