Vietnamese Restaurant

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Brian Hennessy.

Mamma Do Hello Pho

Vietnamese restaurant

Once a tired old shop-front on an ordinary thoroughfare in an inner-city ethnic enclave, now it’s a popular little restaurant in a trendy part of town.

Inside, large faux-asian paintings look down on a clutter of cane furniture supporting satisfied patrons indulging the evening away. Squeezed together in shoulder-rubbing, elbow bumping fraternisation, they don’t seem to mind the cramp at all. The food is good, and the atmosphere is one of domestic intimacy and informality. There is a lot of good humour in this place.

The overflow is bursting out onto the footpath outside: perhaps the best place to be on a hot and humid Brisbane summer evening.

The proprietor, a small dark man with a smile as big as the Gulf of Tonkin, is navigating his way through the tangled mass of arms, legs, tables, and chairs. It’s a full house tonight. You can see his wife cooking away in her steaming kitchen up the back, and his daughter managing the till nearby. You get the feeling that you are eating in his own home.

Once, his home was in South Vietnam. He and his family used to live in Saigon.

We chat as he takes my order. I tell him that I was an infantryman with the 6th Battalion in Vietnam. He tells me that he fought with the ARVN (the South Vietnamese Army) close to our area of operations in Phuoc Thuy Province southeast of Saigon. His brother was killed by local Viet Cong. They left their homeland after Communist troops took their capital in 1975.

I return to my conversation with my own family. But I am moved by emotions of both happiness and sadness. Emotions which I do my best to contain as we enjoy our own pleasant evening in this lovely Vietnamese restaurant run by a family of refugee-migrants who have worked hard to make a new life for themselves in their adopted country, Australia.

I feel proud of my country for welcoming them. And I feel admiration for this small family which had the courage to abandon everything that was familiar and dear to them when they made their bolt for freedom. Risking all for a chance to live a better life somewhere across the South China Sea.

Boat-people. Homeless, stateless refugees on a leaky boat in a sea of pirates. A crowded refugee camp somewhere. Waiting, hoping, waiting to begin a new life somewhere else.

Not much different from our Australian forebears are they! Whether convicts or free settlers, our European ancestors carved a life for themselves here out of nothing. No whingeing, just getting on with it. Life back home in the motherland was a dead-end street. Australia, for all its harshness and occasional brutality, offered hope. An ability to grasp opportunity and a willingness to work hard was all that was required.

Old Australians, New Australians: there really isn’t that much difference between our histories.

It’s time to pay the bill. As I do so, the daughter engages me in conversation. Her father has told her that I am an Australian Vietnam veteran. She is pleased to meet me. She was a baby when her parents escaped, so she has no memories of Saigon. Then she brings her mother over to the counter and introduces me. She also knows who I am and tells me about her uncle who spent 10 years in a ‘Re-education’ camp after the fall of Saigon. He is still in Vietnam.

Then she thanks me. Thanks me for the service I and my mates gave to her country and countrymen. It is the first time anybody has thanked me personally for risking my life in Vietnam.

I can’t believe what I hear. A tear that I have saved up for decades, quietly releases itself from captivity and makes a break for it down an old soldier’s cheek.

Later that night, post-trauma memories resurface again.

But it doesn’t matter. It was all worth it.

 

 

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