Lunch at Long’s

Along with steamed sea bass and milk apples, ironies of a lost war.

 

In January, on my final day in the city I still refer to as Saigon, I tried to call Seven Wonders World restaurant one last time. Again a recorded message in Vietnamese seemed to indicate that I had been dialing the wrong number—and that the opportunity was slipping by to discover the latest chapter in an epic family story that runs through Connecticut and reveals the ironies of a lost war.
 I hailed a taxi at the hotel, and asked the driver to take me to the Cholon district. There, in the old Chinese section of Ho Chi Minh City, I hoped to find Trinh Tu Long, the owner of Seven Wonders World. Along the way, I reviewed what I had seen so far in my first trip to the country since the U.S. Army brought me there, free of charge, in 1966.

What I had witnessed, a city of nonstop bustle and burgeoning capitalism, was what few could have imagined when Saigon fell in 1975 and the Communists took power, and when it appeared certain that 58,000 American lives had been lost in vain.
But then, any student of that war and its aftermath might do well to consider the case of the Trinh family and what it says about what has changed.
At the time the war ended, the Trinhs had been in the wholesale onion business in Saigon, and had done well enough to have a small house in the country and a truck to transport their goods to the city. All eight children attended school.

But with the change in power, the new government took control of commerce. Farmers, wholesalers and all others who depended on the marketplace for a living had to make do with meager official handouts. Large bank accounts were suddenly worthless. Moreover, political oppression and a pervasive thirst for revenge put thousands of men and boys into “re-education” camps, from which many did not emerge.
For the Trinhs, there was but one answer—escape in secret, and in stages. Tan, the fourth-oldest at 15, and a cousin were the first to try. At the time, Tan’s siblings, including Long, then 10, were not told of the plan for fear that if word got out, retribution would certainly follow. Long was surprised when he learned that Tan had left, and that older brother La had joined him.

La had known a boat owner who, like others, ran risky voyages that were subject to rough seas and attacks by pirates. It hadn’t been La’s intention to join Tan on the boat, but at the last minute he came aboard. The 40-footer carrying 97 refugees took three days to reach its destination, and it was two months before word got back to the Trinh family that Tan, La and their cousin were safe, at a relocation camp in Malaysia.
I knew this part of the story because for nearly 25 years, ever since Tan Trinh and his brother La opened Ming Dynasty, a Chinese restaurant in Rocky Hill, I have been a customer. Tan has been the face of the restaurant, and La has been in the kitchen.

Tan and I often talked of family—he and his wife, Tina, also a Saigon native, have four children. And the restaurant itself has been a family affair—over time several members have worked there, including Long, who’d been left behind in Saigon all those years earlier. Once Tan and Tina earned their green cards, they began bringing over family members, including their parents and Long, though it wasn’t a permanent move.  
To the Trinh family physical roots remained important. They loved the opportunities that America provided. Long, for example, studied interior design in Boston. Yet like so many who had fled, he still loved the country of his birth—a place of gorgeous vistas and warm people. Though the cold politics remained—still firm one-party rule and oppressive bureaucracy—the emergence of capitalism at a breakneck pace had stunned everyone. And it had signaled opportunity.

I had seen this throughout my trip—Chevrolet and Ford dealerships on the road from Bien Hoa to Ho Chi Minh City, billboards in the city advertising computers and high-definition TVs, high-end shops and galleries on Le Loi Street in the heart of the tourist district.
I saw it too at the Caravelle Hotel, where many journalists who reported on the war had stayed. The urinals in the men’s room of the refurbished Caravelle were manufactured by American Standard, the very model the company made for the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford.  
And clearly, if our long and divisive war hadn’t made Southeast Asia safe for democracy, it had, in time, made it safe for Louis Vuitton and Sony.
Even as the taxi took me away from the tourist district, I saw considerable evidence of this. When the taxi arrived at Long’s restaurant at the far edge of Cholon—about a 30-minute ride (costing 120,000 dong, approximately $6)—I was astonished to see a Disneylike edifice. Apparently, Seven Wonders World wasn’t merely a name but indicated a serious attempt by a former interior design student in the U.S. to recreate the spectacular exteriors of the iconic structures that have inspired many artists and architects.

It just so happened that I was lucky that day; Trinh Tu Long was there, and the man who had once worked in the Rocky Hill kitchen took me on a tour of his place that features ballrooms for weddings and enormous stone façades carved to represent the fabled wonders—the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Great Wall of China, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Temple of Artemis, the Taj Mahal, etc. Long had actually traveled to see the still existing wonders before he began construction on his restaurant, which took almost nine months.
Seven Wonders World is a kind of fantasyland where it’s often hard to get dinner reservations. At lunch, however, there was space, and Long sat with me at a table. He told the Trinh family story from his point of view, and how, when he came up with the “crazy” idea for the restaurant, the family—as is the Vietnamese tradition—came together to help financially in order to make it possible.
Then waiters brought out French wine and one delectable dish after another: a whole steamed sea bass, pickled cabbage, steamed rice paper roll, dim sum, and the marvelous native fruits mangosteen and milk apples to eat with a spoon.  

Long confided to me, “This is not the best location for a restaurant.” Indeed, the tourist district is several miles away—and there, Long says, real estate prices match Manhattan’s. Even so, for Long old Saigon is, in the end, home. It is the place where his parents—never entirely comfortable living in America, where the language and customs were different—returned near the end of their lives, so they could be buried in native soil.
During our visit, Long introduced me to his wife, Sang, the mother of their two children, who attend private school. Sang, I learned during this study in Small World-ism, happens to be the sister of the owner of A Dong Asian Market, located in West Hartford.
As it turned out, my unannounced trip to Seven Wonders World had been perfectly timed. Any later in the day and I would  have missed Long. His driver was picking him up at 3 p.m. to take him an hour-and-a-half away for a golf date—on a magnificent 18-hole course that’s lit for night play. Par, I guess, for a course in the legacy of an indefensible war.


 

Lunch at Long’s

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