The hours involved in running a busy Vietnamese café are long but Thi Kim Thu Pham fills the time with laughter.
Hard work and hurdles have been a constant in the 56-year-old’s life. Thu grew up in Vung Tàu, a seaside city in the Bà Ria-Vung Tàu province in southern Vietnam. Her father was killed in a truck accident when she was 14 and she was orphaned at 15 when her mother died of heart issues. Thu believes her mother died of grief. “When my father died she went crazy,” she says.
Thu was 20 when she and her two sisters boarded a boat for Australia in search of a better life. “I didn’t think I could escape from Vietnam to here. It was very dangerous.”
Approximately 80 people packed like sardines in the tiny boat heading to Australia via Indonesia. The journey took about a week. “Everyone was very sick. No-one ate but they all vomited. I didn’t though.” She pauses. “I don’t know how we made it. Maybe my father protected me.”
Waves thumped the small vessel and encounters with thieves were terrifying. “Two guys jumped on the boat. They had a gun and told people with jewellery to give it to them. They were like pirates. Usually they kill the men and rape the women then kill [them] after.” Luckily, police intercepted. “They jumped in and those two guys jumped out [and left] in a small boat. “When I think about that I’m scared.”
Thu arrived in Adelaide via a refugee camp on Indonesia’s Kuku Island. During the hard times, she often wished she could call her parents for advice. After three years in Adelaide she applied for permanent residency, worked at a grocery store and married the father of her four beautiful children. The marriage didn’t last.
When she opened Waymouth Street café Thu Nguyet in 2012, friends thought she was crazy. “I did everything by myself.”
A battle with breast cancer followed but Thu continued to run the business with the help of her children. Work was a welcome distraction.
“You try to forget things. My life felt like it was awful. I still miss my father but I can’t get him back.” Her eyes fill with tears. “He was a very good man and I loved him very much. I used to cry all the time but when you’re busy you think about it less. I work, work, work and try to forget the past.”
It took years to build up clientele. Now, the café is full of a motley crew of regulars. Suited and booted CBD workers, tradies, journalists, bankers, and students fill the humble space. They come for Thu’s constant laughter, her banh mi, Vietnamese salads, soup, and cold rolls. She’s a whiz in the kitchen and also has a decent voice. “I was a singer in a Vietnamese band. I’ve got skills but I stopped singing because I’m too busy and have no time.”
Thu doesn’t play Vietnamese music in her café (she’s worried people won’t like it) but there’s always music playing. “I love music and dancing. I don’t know how to dance but I do it anyway.”
She loves her new home and her attitude to life means she’s always grinning. Once she gets her daughters through university, Thu has big plans for her little eatery. “I hope one day I’ll have money to make karaoke here!”
Where’s the best place to grab a banh mi in Adelaide? Let us know in the comments, below.