Miss Saigon Amherst: Untold Struggles of an Ethnic Restaurant

It was 5:13 p.m. on a Friday at Miss Saigon, the only Vietnamese restaurant in Amherst, Massachusetts. On North Pleasant Street, the decade-old business is unimpressively situated between a Florence Bank ATM and a small alley that leads to the parking lot of a nearby CVS. At least seven people were waiting by the entrance, admiring the colorful feast on every diner’s table. A middle-aged white couple stood comfortably in matching neon blue parkas. A group of three Chinese college students in UMass sweatshirts leaned on the wall, next to two casually dressed young Indian men.

Dressed in the red Miss Saigon T-shirt and black apron uniform, the manager walked to the first couple in line. Her petite physique swayed ever so lightly. Blinking several times, she greeted the couple in parkas, her lips curled into a tired but nevertheless tender smile. The yellow dim lights rendered the bags under her eyes less visible. In the bustling restaurant, her diction was slow and relaxed, all syllables enunciated as if she were not speaking English, but Vietnamese.

When we met at GoBerry, a frozen yoghurt place three minutes away from Miss Saigon, the manager was wearing a bunny-print gray long sleeve T-shirt and relaxed black pants, her dry black hair tied into a neat bun. She is 36 years old, though the creases on her cheeks suggest a larger number. Her small frame is only around five feet tall and 95 pounds at most. She wouldn’t let me pay for her cup of frozen yoghurt, her refusal firm but gentle and fond at the same time.

The manager of Miss Saigon, Nhu Nguyen, was originally from Dong Nai province, Vietnam. She came to the United States in 2001, at the age of 20, after her older sister sponsored her. Nguyen and her sister first settled in Memphis, Tennessee, but then Nhu’s sister moved to Texas to help with the business owned by her husband’s relative, while Nguyen remained in Memphis to take care of her sister’s nail salon.

In 2010, Nguyen got married to a Vietnamese Pioneer Valley local, whom she fondly called ông xã — a casual, loving term for “husband” in Vietnamese. She moved in with him and began working at Miss Saigon, which he opened in 2007. Seven years after, they obtained a house in Sunderland, living with Nguyen’s mother and the couple’s two boys — one is four and a half years old, and the other is one and a half. While Miss Saigon is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday, leaving little time for family, Nguyen can count on her mom at home to take care of the boys when she is not there. On Mondays when the restaurant is closed, the whole family dines out and has fun together.

“I like doing this,” Nguyen said softly. “So even when it’s busy or crowded I still feel like it’s a good thing. That means the customers like the food. But sometimes it’s really stressful because all by myself I have to manage the front desk, and the kitchen, too. I have to make sure the chefs prepare the food correctly accordingly to the diners’ diet needs. Some people are vegan, some can’t eat nuts, etc., you know.”

And Nguyen will go out of her way to ensure every dish satisfies the diners’ individual needs, be they non-Vietnamese foreigners who need some accommodation or Vietnamese who demand an authentic taste. However, because there are so few Vietnamese in the area (the United States Census Bureau reported only 0.5% of the Amherst population is Vietnamese in 2010), Nguyen and her family have to adjust the recipes so that non-Vietnamese foreigners can enjoy Vietnamese cuisine as well.

Fried tofu in tomatoes – an iconic and absolutely flavorful vegan Vietnamese dish.

“You have to change the recipes [to suit foreigners’ taste]. You just have to. The other day we had a foreigner who heard great things about bún bò huế and wanted to try it, but when we served it he told us to bring it back. ‘Take it away, take it away, it’s too smelly,’ he said.” Nguyen recounted, swatting her hands lightly to express the guest’s sentiment. Many Vietnamese dishes have shrimp paste, which many foreigners can’t handle, like the aforementioned bún bò huế (an all-time favorite dubbed “Middle Vietnam” on Miss Saigon’s menu), or bún riêu (crab noodle soup). “When we make them we have to reduce the amount of shrimp paste that we put in.”

Nguyen applies similar consideration to Vietnamese diners, who she knows will prefer a more familiar Vietnamese taste. Besides relaying the order to the chefs, she herself takes on little things to make the diners’ experience as authentic as possible. “When we serve Vietnamese customers, sometimes I’d bring them a small serving of shrimp paste or thicker fish sauce, the way Vietnamese people eat Vietnamese food.”

“The other day a Vietnamese family asked me if our food was 100% authentic Vietnamese food and I said no, because we serve mostly foreigners here. But it doesn’t mean the food is so bad to non-Vietnamese that it’s inedible.” The family ordered bánh canh cua (udon crab soup) and bún bò huế.

“I brought them fresh cayenne peppers, because us Vietnamese can handle real chili. Usually cayenne peppers are too much for foreigners, so I’ll bring them jalapeños instead. I got [the family] some coriander as well, which foreigners tell me taste like soap.” At the end of the day, the wife cheerily told Nguyen it was the best, most authentic rendition she had ever tasted. “It was so good she finished the broth as well, which she said never happened before,” Nguyen said excitedly despite her obvious exhaustion.

When she’s made close friends with frequent diners, they’ll often tell her their honest opinions about their dining experience. Nguyen loves that. She welcomes both compliments and constructive criticism, always on the lookout for ways to improve Miss Saigon, whether it’s food or service quality. “Everyday Miss Saigon brings me something memorable, both good and bad, but that’s a great thing.”

Despite competition from other Asian restaurants around downtown Amherst, Nguyen’s work ethic doesn’t allow her to stoop to their ways of operating. She can always raise the prices, but she’s proud that Miss Saigon is among the least expensive restaurants in the area.

“That Thai restaurant across the street, you know? It’s so expensive, and they give you such skimpy servings.” Nguyen whispered with a frown, as she curled her left hand into a ball. “I hate that. I’d give my customers as big of a portion as I can. Whenever I serve food I’ll fill up the bowl as much as possible. Ông xã keeps telling me we won’t make any profit if I keep doing that, but who cares? I wouldn’t want a skimpy serving. I’d want my money’s worth, you know?”

College students will especially agree, many grateful for Nguyen’s generosity. “Of course you’re going to get big portions in the U.S. That’s just a given,” said Charlie, a Five College student. “But I do have to admit Miss Saigon gives you a lot. Especially in this economy.”

“The portion is so huge it’s so satisfying. I do feel like I’m getting my money’s worth,” said Nadia, a bi-weekly diner at Miss Saigon from Mount Holyoke College. “And when you’ve made friends with the manager, she gives you little extra things like more peanuts or herbs as well.”

The fact that the servers are foreigners can also be an inconvenience. Unfortunately, the Vietnamese students around Amherst are international students who require a working visa that Nguyen doesn’t have the resources to help sponsor. “I’d prefer hiring Vietnamese students so it’s easier to communicate,” Nguyen said. “My English isn’t good, you know. I came here not knowing a lick of English.” And, like Nguyen, a Vietnamese server will be able to tell the subtleties between serving Vietnamese diners and serving foreign diners — to twist and tweak an order so that it suits the diner’s taste as a foreigner or a Vietnamese. For now, that’s something only Nguyen can do. “The servers, as foreigners, can’t really understand those nuances.”

Still, while it’d be nice to have Vietnamese servers around, Nguyen loves and appreciates her employees all the same. “I don’t really mind my employees being non-Vietnamese.” She understands that they’re just college students who want some extra money, and goes out of her way to make things easier for them. “Sometimes I’ll pay them a little bit more, or I’ll take care of small chores so that they can leave early to do homework. Or sometimes they bring homework with them as well.”

Nguyen’s voice softened as she scooped up a spoonful of melted frozen yoghurt. “Nationality doesn’t matter, as long as they’re nice people. As long as they have tâm (heart).”

But no matter how hard she tries, tâm seems a luxury nowadays.

For now, all her servers are students, which means they tend to work part-time and short-term only. “I have many new employees who don’t really know how things work.” Nguyen sighed. With the exception of one girl who’s been with Miss Saigon for six years and is an expert server, Nguyen says that she can’t leave the servers to their own devices.

“They’re new and I always have to train them on the littlest things. When they’re slow at serving I have to lend a hand. That’s why you always see me rushing and dashing around all day without taking a break. I could really use some more help.”

While hiring more servers would appear to be an obvious solution, Nguyen’s situation isn’t that simple to solve. She says that everyone wants to make as much as they can, i.e., to take as many tables in one shift as possible. Having extra people means each will take fewer tables, and hence less money. Not to mention a lot of diners at Miss Saigon are college students, who can usually leave only meagre amounts for tips.

“Of course we don’t make that much profit to begin with, but I don’t mind paying them a little bit more,” Nguyen explained. “I even told them to just do the best they can and not worry about the tips. ‘If the customer doesn’t give you a lot of tips, I’ll compensate and give you the whole 20% tips. I’ll let you out early and still pay you, too.’ That’s what I always tell them. But still, if I hire more than three for a shift they’ll all just quit.”

On top of that, Nguyen has just launched a separate beverage and dessert menu this month. It’s something she’s always dreamed of doing, and she has good reason to. People love the variety and the quality of the drinks she offers.

“Sometimes I go to Miss Saigon just to order drinks,” said Linh, a Vietnamese junior from Mount Holyoke College, giddy at the thought of Miss Saigon’s bubble tea. “I know there’s Lime Red that specializes in bubble tea, but I think Miss Saigon has the best bubble tea. So many flavors. My favorite is mango. And you can ask the manager to customize it for you, too.”

In addition to managing (and micromanaging) the restaurant, Nguyen is also in complete charge of making beverages. Because she herself devised all the recipes, the most she can ask the servers to do is peel the fruits.

So at any given time in Miss Saigon, Nguyen will be hurrying back and forth between the beverage station behind the register and the kitchen, eyes scanning every table in the restaurant to make sure all is going smoothly. She rarely gets a chance to rest and most of the time Nguyen doesn’t even get to eat at all. “My lunch box would just go cold and I’d never get to touch it until 11 p.m. or 12,” two hours after closing.

After an exhausting week, Monday is supposed to be the family’s rest day, but “it’s even busier than when the restaurant’s open.” While Nguyen and her husband try to make time for family, they have to prepare for a new week for Miss Saigon as well. They’ll split ways to go grocery shopping, oftentimes at Costco and a Vietnamese market. Nguyen herself handpicks food that grocery delivery services do not have, especially Vietnamese spices and herbs. While her husband cooks up sauces, she will wash and chop up the ingredients. They then give the restaurant a check-up in case there’s anything that requires maintenance, like the water system, the trash disposal, the A.C., and other miscellaneous, essential things. The work is never-ending.

Vegetable phở, with complimentary bean sprouts and (a lot) of sriracha!

On top of that, Nguyen has recently been seeing a doctor every Monday. She couldn’t recall the illness with which she was diagnosed, only that it has to do with stress from her work at Miss Saigon. “I’ve been feeling dizzy,” Nguyen said, pointing to her left eye, “and this eye has been blurry, like there’s a thick layer of fog in front of it. I can’t really see much out of it anymore. And it’s such a shame, because I’m really good at multitasking, as you can see my hopping back and forth in the restaurant. Now I’m not able to keep track of what’s going on in the restaurant as well as I was before.”

And what was the piece of advice that the doctor gave Nguyen? A rather standard one.

“He told me to relax and avoid stress, but how can I do that?” Nguyen laughed. “I can’t talk to the customers as often anymore, either. It’s part of what makes doing this fun, you know. And I’m so busy I get impatient at times. During busy hours when I’m taking orders and the customers hesitate and go ‘ummmmmm,’ in my head I’m like, ‘Please just order already,’ and I feel really bad when I do that.”

“Yeah, I noticed the manager hasn’t been interacting with the diners often,” said Natalie, a Miss Saigon frequenter, bobbing her head. She slurped on an avocado and durian smoothie with bubbles, her dirty blond hair blowing in the wind. “When my friends and I eat there, [Nguyen] would check in with us maybe every 10 minutes. And she’s very pleasant to talk to. Like, she’s really cute and considerate and accommodates whatever we want in our food. But now she’s so busy I can’t even say hi to her anymore.”

So Nguyen enriches communication between diners and the chefs, trains and assists new staff, owns the extensive beverage menu, and runs the entire restaurant. Miss Saigon absolutely cannot function without Nguyen. Nguyen herself knows she’s working a stressful, labor-intensive job that should pay more than this does.

But when asked if she’d retire from Miss Saigon anytime soon, Nguyen fervently shook her head.

“Ông xã is still hanging onto this place, so I can’t leave him. He’s had this place for 10 years already,” Nguyen mused, drawing circles in the puddle that used to be frozen yoghurt with her plastic spoon. “And we’ve gone through the hardest time, which is the opening of the restaurant. Trying to organize it and figuring out how a restaurant works. Now it’s just about maintaining the business.”

Which is incredible hard work. But it’s incredible hard work that satisfies and fulfills.

After good-naturedly boasting about Miss Saigon frequenters from whom she receives much constructive feedback, Nguyen said she believed the reason people return to Miss Saigon was because of the fresh and healthy dishes. The family does, after all, handpick Vietnamese ingredients every week instead of stocking on American alternatives to ensure as much authenticity as possible.

“Chinese food, they use a lot of oil and maybe chemicals not good for your body,” Nguyen commented, scrunching her face. “I like Asian food, but I don’t eat Chinese that much because it’s just really greasy. Miss Saigon has fresh veggies and meat delivered to us every day, and there’s not that much oil in our food, even stir-fry dishes. I do believe we attract customers because people know Vietnamese cuisine is healthy.”

Or it can also be because Miss Saigon’s manager has tâm. Every single day, Nguyen pours in all she can to take care of the restaurant regardless of her alarming health. Because the pleasure from contented customers and a well-operated business outweighs the dizziness and the growing blur in her left eye.

Image credit: X

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