When Vietnamese refugees Tinh and Lan Nguyen resettled in Alice Springs, they decided to share the flavours of their homeland in a tranquil garden restaurant.

By Nathan Dyer 

It took Lan Nguyen three long, painful years to escape communist North Vietnam. When she finally did, and she and husband Tinh arrived in Alice Springs with their two young sons, the former hairdresser had a dream. That dream was to grow her own vegetables and offer the people of Australia’s Red Centre something they had never had before: authentic cuisine from her beloved homeland.
“I saw in Alice Springs there was no Vietnamese restaurant, so I always dreamed of opening one,” Lan explains, as she recounts how her family arrived in Alice Springs in 1994 with little more than the clothes they were wearing. Lan says that after the war, life was oppressive in North Vietnam. “If you wanted to run a business it was very hard under the communist regime. They controlled everything and if you wanted to do something it was not easy.”
In 1991, Tinh and Lan made the heartbreaking decision to leave to find a better future for their sons, Tuan and Zung. The Nguyens escaped by boat with 41 others and after 11 frightening days at sea, they sailed into Hong Kong where they were detained as illegal immigrants. After three years they were granted refugee status and sent to the Philippines for processing.
Tinh, a crane driver by trade, says he chose Australia because he had heard “the people were very friendly and the climate was warm”. Along with four other Vietnamese families, the Nguyens were resettled in Alice Springs. But, according to Lan, the others were unable to bear the harsh conditions of the country’s dry interior and soon left for Melbourne and Sydney. “My family was the only one that stayed,” she declares with a smile.
Soon after arriving in the centre, Lan started working for Dieter Winter, the owner of a small farm on the outskirts of Alice Springs. Tinh got a job in catering at the airport and worked on the farm on his days off. The couple saved for four years before offering to buy the farm in 1999. “Dieter said, ‘Okay, but only for you, because nobody else can work so hard’,” Tinh says. In 2007, after eight years building up a market garden, and with plenty of encouragement from locals, the Nguyens decided it was time to start a restaurant. “Maybe many people thought we were crazy,” laughs Lan. If they did, they don’t now. After more than a decade of hard work, the Nguyens’ dream is a flourishing reality. Since opening its doors for Chinese New Year in 2008, their Tinh and Lan Alice Vietnamese Restaurant has become a culinary icon of the country’s dusty centre.

This story excerpt is from Issue #86

Outback Magazine: Dec/Jan 2013