Over thirty years after leaving Dalat for the U.S., award-winning journalist Nguyen Qui Duc returned to Vietnam and started a new chapter of his life in Hanoi. Although he spent most of his years living in the States, Duc’s work has led him time and again to a focus on Asian and Asian-American themes.
As a radio journalist, Duc reported on Vietnam for NPR in 1989, work for which he was awarded the Overseas Press Club’s Citation of Excellence. He also hosted Pacific Time, a program dedicated to Asian and Asian American affairs.
At the same time, Duc continued to publish poems, essays, and short stories generally revolving around the Vietnamese or Asian-American experience. He has been featured in publications including The New York Times and the San Francisco Examiner.
Today, Duc owns and operates sushi bar Tadioto and ramen joint Moto-San Uber Noodle. Both businesses are based in Hanoi, with the former recently opening a second venue in Hoi An.
To learn more about the man behind this eclectic success story, Vietcetera sat down with Duc to talk about the restaurant business, storytelling, and life as a serial creative.
In addition to owning Tadioto Bar and Moto-San Uber Noodle, you do work as a radio journalist and writer. How were you able to dive into multiple industries at once, and what inspired you to do it?
I am foolishly ambitious. But I didn’t dive into all of this in one go. I started out as a journalist, and worked in radio early on then continued doing it over the years in London and San Francisco. I also love to write, whether fiction or non-fiction.
The business activities didn’t happen until I moved to Vietnam. One the one hand, my starting these businesses has been about investing and obtaining a Vietnamese work visa, as I couldn’t get a journalist visa. On the other hand, I’ve come to learn about and face the challenges of doing business in Hanoi. It hasn’t been easy and is often stressful, but I feel lucky I’ve been able to keep at it.
When I reflect on my decision to start these restaurants, I realize it’s a fulfillment of a deep-seated, unconscious desire to build something. That could be a shop, a gallery, a bar, or a counter for noodles in a space that’s only a meter and a half deep.
I’m obviously not a great business owner if you take a look at the amount of money in my wallet. But I’m so grateful that the people who work with me usually trust my passion and believe in my attention to detail.
I can be stubborn, so over the years, I’ve handled failures pretty well. When you fail, you should pick up and move on—I’ve had to do that all my life, given that I grew up with a missing father, experienced my mother’s struggles to raise children while continuing public educational work, and immigrated to a foreign country as a young person.
In 2006, you moved back to Vietnam from the U.S. What brought you back to living in the country where you were born?
I always felt incomplete, having left the country at 17. I never liked America that much, even though I appreciate the opportunities I had and the things I learned there.
I wanted a chance to take care of my mother and this was not possible in the US. It’s a lot easier and cheaper in Vietnam.
In recent years, I’ve made many friends and become more comfortable with my life here. I can do a lot here too, much as cultural differences can make life difficult. The country has changed, and I have changed too.
One thing I love about Vietnam is the chaos, as it allows you to think outside the box and do things that are not regimented. I am passionate but wouldn’t consider myself disciplined. Vietnamese society can be accommodating in regards to that.
Walk us through your career in journalism. What inspired you to become a journalist, and what keeps you coming back to work?
I had many dreams for my career, but in my early days in America, I regularly met or read about immigrants. Jews, Italians, Asians. They all inspired me to tell stories about my community of immigrants.
My parents gave me a great chance by asking me to study French and English early on until it became natural, and almost a duty, to speak up.
I met lots of people who felt it was important to give voice to immigrants and refugees. Once I started working in journalism, I found more opportunities. One great benefit is traveling and meeting interesting people. As a journalist, you can call up anyone and ask to interview them, meet them, and learn things.
It seems preposterous to think that I could do radio, given that English isn’t my first or second language. But I am grateful people gave me the chance and trusted me to tell stories on the radio.
I started by doing news broadcasts in Vietnamese on college stations in the San Francisco area, until I left to work in Indonesia with refugees. After that came the three years I did with the BBC, then upon my return to San Francisco, I worked at a public radio station while doing commentaries and reports for National Public Radio. In between, I wrote for several newspapers and began writing, translating, and publishing in anthologies, periodicals, and newspapers.
I focused a lot on the arts, particularly in Asia. I met writers and artists in the region—particularly in Vietnam—and wrote about them for galleries. It all was about telling stories, not limited to journalism. I worked on books, television, film and theatre projects.
During the last six years I lived in the U.S., I hosted and produced a national show about Asia and Asian American issues.
I am basically retired from the profession these days, but enjoy writing an occasional piece here and there for various publications.
What do you consider to be the most important piece of journalism you have ever worked on?
Perhaps the report I did for National Public Radio in 1989, about my first return to Vietnam and rediscovering the country and finding out about life in the country at the time. I’m also grateful that I was able to write commentaries for National Public Radio, expressing viewpoints of people of color and immigrants, and offering a perspective informed by Asian sensibilities.
You are the author of Where the Ashes Are: The Odyssey of a Vietnamese Family. Tell us more about the story and where you drew your inspiration from in writing it.
Every Vietnamese family has a story to tell. The 20th century was particularly challenging for the Vietnamese, and my family happened to be in the midst of it. This was the story of my parents, but it is also a moment in Vietnamese history. I’m glad to have had the chance to share their story with others, but I still wish I’d written a better book that illuminated more.
In addition to writing, you made a documentary film called Shanghai Nights. This film won the Edward R. Murrow Award of Excellence in Television Documentary. Can you explain why you chose to cover the topic you did, and what you hope viewers gained from watching it?
I was lucky to have been introduced to the writer Mian Mian who had an incredible story and wrote a marvelous book about sex, drugs and rock and roll in China. It was about the disillusionment and sadness of a particular generation.
The editors at Frontline had given me the opportunity to work on a piece about Vietnam the year before and now wanted me to report about the youth of Shanghai. I am grateful to them and the producers who helped me decipher what I was seeing and bring the story to life.
The people at Frontline are very good at seeking out hidden stories, going beyond the conventional views about any issues, any society. In creating Shanghai Nights, we wanted to show features of a changing China, particular after the passion and disaster of the Tiananmen uprising.
Where did you get the inspiration for your two Japanese restaurants?
I love sushi, and I admire the Japanese ability to work in very small spaces. I admire their sensibilities, discipline and designs. I wanted to combine Vietnamese street food culture with Japanese designs. Plus, I needed to give people more reasons to come to my bar beyond just drinking with me. My liver couldn’t handle it anymore, after nearly ten years of drinking every night.
What is the most challenging aspect of working in the food and beverage industry?
Personally, the biggest challenge is simply not knowing what I’m doing. I am constantly learning things and facing challenges that most people would have figured out way before opening a restaurant or a bar. For example, I don’t know how to read an Excel business report, and I’m no expert in finding a good manager or the right staff.
Then there’s the drinking. I love it and I do it a lot, but I can’t handle it anymore.
Who should we interview next, and why?
Consider average, hidden people. Chefs, carpenters, electricians, small merchants, agricultural workers. Every older tea lady or noodle seller would probably have fascinating stories, and can talk of how they view the changes in Vietnamese society. They are all doing work informed by the struggles of previous generations. I would look into which traditions they are keeping or changing. I would seek to know how they keep this country moving. I would ask them to provide a contrast to urban stories or stories of people with opportunities.
Otherwise there are so many interesting people. The filmmakers Nguyen Trinh Thi and Tran Phuong Thao, whose incisive and artistic documentaries reveal such unconventional lives, of transgenders, spiritual characters, AIDS patients, minorities, etc. They also share their skills and knowledge, much like the composer/musician Kim Ngoc who run the Dom Dom music education organization. There’s Truong Uyen Ly, a former journalist and a determined woman. She’s a cultural worker, and I’ve always known her to be thoughtful and brave. Today she runs Hanoi Grapevine along with side projects involving foreign and local institutions.
On the business side, Nguyen Thi Ngoc My, she’s from a prominent business family. She’s young and ambitious. She’s had opportunities to study abroad and run big architectural and hospitality projects. She also has her heart in the right place with charitable work. She represents the next generation of Vietnamese who boast both opportunities and vision. Her story may shed light on where this country is headed.