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Why the legacy of Hy Vong, a Vietnamese restaurant in Little Havana, endures years later

 Tung Nguyen, 73, lifts strands of cellophane noodles to cut
Alyssa Ramos
Tung Nguyen, 73, lifts strands of cellophane noodles to cut as she prepares signature dishes from the Hy Vong menu during one of the restaurant's food pickups in October. Proceeds from the event went toward the Refugee Assistance Alliance.

When it comes to Vietnamese cuisine in Miami, many food critics and locals have said Hy Vong did it best. The restaurant, formerly located on Calle Ocho in Little Havana, garnered a cult following thanks to the unexpected friendship between two women.

In the South Miami home of Kathy Manning and Tung Nguyen, mini towers of brown takeout boxes and tubs crowded every available surface. Each one contained various Vietnamese dishes — spring rolls, pork rolling cakes and pho.

A five person team helps cook, assemble and distribute more than 100 orders.

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It's just a really big pickup, Nguyen's daughter, Lyn, said apologetically. People have ordered a lot.

Alyssa Ramos

For more than 30 years, Manning and Nguyen ran a Vietnamese restaurant, Hy Vong, in Little Havana — just a block away from the Versailles restaurant on Calle Ocho.

The restaurant closed in 2016. Manning said she and Nguyen, the principal chef, have been getting older, and they’ve since downsized their operations.

"We work when we want to. I am 76 going on 77. Tung is 73, so we don't push it," Manning said.

In lieu of a brick-and-mortar store, Manning and Nguyen now arrange so-called pick-ups every couple of months, during which customers can choose to order food online and pick it up in their cars.

Over the years, the restaurant garnered a cult following. People would wait for hours in lines stretching out the door, just to get a taste of Nguyen's food.

"She didn't change your dishes to try and fit whatever 'American taste,'" said Manning. "She cooked the way she eats and that's what we serve."

Leslie Ovalle

About half an hour before the first pick-up, cars were already camped out in front of their house like a school pick-up line.

Unlike past pick-ups all of the proceeds for this event went toward the Refugee Assistance Alliance. The organization helps resettle non-Spanish-speaking and non-Haitian Creole speaking refugees. The RAA has been helping Afghan refugees after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August.

"We can't just give them money and a house," said Manning. "We have to connect."

The refugee experience matters to Manning and Nguyen deeply. In 1975, Nguyen came to the U.S. as a refugee during the Vietnam War. She fled by boat.

"Very, very, very tough. Some people die," Nguyen said.

For her, community was survival. Nguyen couldn't afford to let her homesickness stop her from figuring out how to move forward and make a home here.

There's a Vietnamese proverb that Nguyen lives by: "kiến tha lâu cũng đầy tổ."

It translates to "ants gather food day by day to fill their nests."

It means that little by little they could reach their goals. Every sacrifice, every struggle and every small success would add up.

They found hope and community in their hole-in-the-wall, no-frills kind of restaurant.

"I think that, especially for people who don't speak the language [English], it's very difficult to be heard and to be respected … for anything that you're fighting for, because people don't always have the patience to try and listen."
Lyn Nguyen

Customers sat on fold-up chairs at wooden tables. There wasn't any music or A/C. To get to the bathroom, you had to go outside.

"I was so embarrassed that this is what they did," said Lyn Nguyen. She only saw the cosmetics of their situation as a teenager. "It really took me growing up and leaving to really appreciate what they've done, what they built."

Nguyen didn't look back. She had to let go of her own country until she learned English and assimilated, she said.

"I think that, especially for people who don't speak the language [English], it's very difficult to be heard and to be respected … for anything that you're fighting for, because people don't always have the patience to try and listen," Lyn Nyugen said.

Kathy Manning and Tung Nguyen
Alyssa Ramos
Kathy Manning and Tung Nguyen in their South Miami home.

Nguyen came to Miami, alone and pregnant with her daughter. She paid for diapers and food by cooking dishes for the local Vietnamese community.

Manning's family moved to Miami from the Midwest in 1960. While attending the University of Miami in the '70s, she lived in her parents' big empty house in Coconut Grove where she began taking in Vietnamese refugees.

Manning hosted Nguyen through her local church, and together, they raised Nguyen's daughter Lyn.

"It's kind of like we've created this mishmash culture that's our own," Lyn Nguyen said.

The duo's headstrong personalities coupled with their stark approaches to life led to a lot of bickering

"No easy, different cultures. Me don't know her. Her don't know me. And her, typical America — everything right away," Nguyen said.

Over time, the two women created their own method of communication. Manning learned some Vietnamese that, it seems, only Nguyen could understand. Meanwhile Nguyen would learn English by listening to other people.

"That communication style, I think, really developed because Kathy was willing to be patient and make the effort to try and give my mom a voice," Lyn said.

Manning said she and Nguyen had to learn to accept each other, one way or another.

"She needed me to help navigate America and I ended up needing her to help me understand myself," Manning said. "It was a matter of will, we decided we were going to make it."

Alyssa Ramos is the multimedia producer for Morning Edition for WLRN. She produces regional stories for newscasts and manages digital content on WLRN.
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