Realizing her Dream with Vietnamese Food in Sanzhi, Li-Cai Lan Phuong  Said She Is a True Taiwanese

On Danjin Road near Qianshui Bay in Sanzhi District, there is a popular exotic restaurant called Vietnamese Food. The owner, Li-Cai Lan Phuong, married a Taiwanese and came to Taiwan 20 years ago. She has lived in Sanzhi ever since and therefore sees herself more as a Taiwanese. She does not feel as at home when she goes back to Vietnam. Although Vietnamese Food has become a fairly popular restaurant, Lan Phuong keeps a low profile. She now has a second dream. She wants to open another restaurant to share vegetarian cuisine from her hometown.

Lan Phuong is a petite woman. She was raised by her grandmother from her mother’s side. Her grandmother died when she was 18 and she had to support herself by waitressing in a buffet restaurant. She started out working in the kitchen, making coffee and juice and then moved on to serving tables. Around this time, Lan Phuong started to dream about owning a restaurant one day. What she did not expect was that she would realize her dream aboard, here, in Taiwan.

Lan Phuong moved to Sanzhi in October 1996, with her husband Zhou Rui'an. There was barely any Vietnamese restaurant in Sanzhi and she had to go to Neihu District in Taipei City to get a taste of her home. Therefore, she rented a place on Gongzheng Street in Sanzhi, serving authentic Vietnamese refreshments, such as Phở (rice noodles), spring rolls, baguette, and coffee. She also sold phone cards and Vietnamese fish sauce and offered services including airline ticket booking to help Vietnamese workers and new immigrants go back to Vietnam. That was how Lan Phuong’s business started.

Based on customer feedback, Vietnamese Food constantly improves not only its menu but its decoration. Lan Phuong’s husband is an excellent carpenter, so the restaurant often surprises its visitors with new styles. Vietnamese grass hut, boats carrying pumpkin, watermelon, and banana, dried Cherry blossom branches with hanging rambutan and mango, a traditional Vietnamese conical hat with a ”Thank You” sign in Vietnamese for their donation to church communities in Vietnam and Vietnamese orphan, Vietnamese miniatures of chicken and dock, and so on, are elements of the restaurant that bring you to Southeast Asia. The restaurant also sells diverse Vietnamese products, including cookie, coffee, sauce, and dried fruit. Dining here is like a trip to a beautiful tropical paradise.

Lan Phuong later realized that apart from her fellow Vietnamese, there were many Taiwanese people among her customers. She drew confidence in her cooking from that and expanded her small ally restaurant to Danjin Road, right across Houcuo fishing harbor. In addition, she invited the oversea Chinese chef from the restaurant she worked at in Vietnam to Taiwan to teach her authentic Vietnamese cuisine. Lan Phuong learned how to make spicy lemongrass hot pot, satay-based hot pot, rice with stir-fried beef and bell pepper, and clay pot rice with seafood, which have attracted many customers and much attention to her restaurant.

To provide customers with more choices, Lan Phuong even worked part-time at Siam Kitchen Thai Cuisine in Taipei to learn Thai food despite being a business owner herself. Therefore, customers can find popular Thai dishes, such as Thai Lemon Fish, Thai spicy sour soup, Thai beef salad, and Thai milk tea, in her restaurant. A female kitchen worker at Siam Kitchen even gave Lan Phuong her secret Thai Cellophane noodles recipe.

Moreover, Vietnamese Food serves 14 vegetarian dishes, including spring roll, stir-fried Phở, Thai spicy sour hot pot, and even Vietnamese baguette, so that vegetarians and religious practitioners can enjoy wonderful meals with their friends and family in Vietnamese Food. As a matter of fact, these vegetarian dishes were the fruitful results of Lan Phuong’s volunteering at Dharma Drum Mountain.

Each of the dishes on Vietnamese Food menu is exceptional. Take the Vietnamese pancake, Bánh Xèo, for example. It is the most popular dish at the restaurant and a prevalent dish in Vietnam. The light golden pancake looks somewhat like Taiwanese egg pancake, but there is no egg in it. It is made of coconut milk, green bean powder, flour, and Turmeric powder, which give it an interesting texture. It is usually served in large sizes for people to share together. It is the restaurant’s must-eat. Lan Phuong actually has batter and salad dishes, such as the pancake, fresh spring roll with lettuce, and Bánh cuốn (rolled cake), made at an open kitchen so that customers can see how they are made and be assured of the safety of the food.

Lan Phuong is a Gemini and does not like to be in a rut, so she often experiments with new textures. Take her popular Vietnamese baguette for example. She spent much time figuring out how to prevent it from hardening and getting stale. Now, her baguette is famous for its springy texture and crispy crust.

Living here for 20 years, Lan Phuong speaks not only fluent mandarin but also good Taiwanese Hokkien. She especially appreciates New Taipei City government for offering new immigrants the opportunity to learn Mandarin through night school. Lan Phuong was able to speak Mandarin in a short time and learn about local culture thanks to these courses. For the past 20 years, she rarely leaves Sanzhi. She said with emotion: “The air in Sanzhi is very fresh and this district is so quiet and beautiful. The locals are kind as well, so I really love Sanzhi. I’ve lived here for so long I feel like I am a Taiwanese and part of the local community. I go back to Vietnam from time to time. It no longer feels like home.” Lan Phuong is not the only one who truly loves Taiwan in her family. Her son, who is in high school in the US and has acquired a green card, deeply loves the land he grew up in as well.

Vietnamese Food opens 7 days a week with no day off. To Lan Phuong, this is not so much for making money as sharing good Vietnamese food with more Taiwanese customers. After realizing her first dream, she is now preparing to open a vegetarian restaurant, Bodhi Tree, in Sanzhi, serving customers who seek healthy food. This is not only Lan Phuong’s second dream but her way of giving back to Taiwan.