When Vo Van Than heard a rattling noise, he thought it was the garbage collectors. It was shortly after 8 a.m., and he was lying in bed on the second floor of the Paris restaurant he manages, the "Foyer Vietnam."
When he heard loud footsteps on the stairs, he knew that something was wrong, but by then it was too late. When Than opened his door to see what was happening, he was suddenly face-to-face with a broad-shouldered man who pushed him back into the room. "Stay in there," the man said to Than. "We're from the Vietnamese Embassy."
Ten men had broken into the restaurant, after smashing a glass panel in the front door. Now they covered the windows with cardboard and attached signs that read: "Closed for renovation." They connected the phone line to an answering machine, and they installed a door on the second floor to prevent Than from getting into his restaurant.
It was a well-planned operation, but how could it have come to that?
The "Foyer Vietnam," with its worn, red wooden door, is on Rue Monge, in the old university neighborhood on the edge of the Latin Quarter. The prix fixe lunch costs €10 ($12.80), €8 for students, and includes an appetizer, an entrée and dessert, almost unheard of in this expensive city. The food is simple, but it's so good that celebrity chef Alain Ducasse once mentioned it in a book. And the "Foyer Vietnam" is the only Vietnamese restaurant in Paris with a picture of Ho Chi Minh on the wall.
Fleeing the Communists
Vo Van Than, the manager, even looks a little like Ho Chi Minh, with his long, salt-and-pepper beard and high forehead, but his white apron doesn't fit the picture. He is 56 and came to France in 1979, after fleeing from the communists. The odd thing about this story is that he is running a restaurant that was rented by the embassy of communist Vietnam.
Than grew up in divided Vietnam, with the north controlled by the communists and the south by a regime backed by the United States. He was born into a wealthy South Vietnamese family. His grandfather was a mandarin at the imperial court, and his father was a prefect for the regime. Protected by one of his brothers, a general, Than spent his military service as a guard in a prison for political prisoners.
When the war ended and the south capitulated in 1975, Than himself became a prisoner at first. The family was dispossessed. Then he took his wife and child and fled the country in a tiny boat, landing first in Malaysia and eventually arriving in Paris.
Vietnamese expatriates have been drawn to the capital of the former colonial power for more than a century. In the 1920s, Ho Chi Minh met the grandson of Karl Marx in Paris and became enthusiastic about communism, before eventually becoming a freedom fighter.
Finding Peace in the Kitchen
Two Vietnamese student bars have existed in Paris since 1959. The communists met at "Uncle Ho's Restaurant" on Place Maubert. Less than a kilometer away, the South Vietnamese Embassy opened a student cafeteria loyal to its regime, the "Foyer Vietnam." Both establishments existed until Vietnamese reunification in 1976. After North Vietnam defeated South Vietnam, the new communist embassy also took over the "Foyer Vietnam."
When Than arrived in Paris, he wrote pamphlets against the regime and took up with the remaining members of a group of South Vietnamese boy scouts. His rage against the regime only dissipated with time after he became a cook. After learning his trade at "Au Pied de Cochon," a brasserie in the Les Halles district, he opened a Vietnamese restaurant on the outskirts of Paris. Cooking made him happy.
In 2001, a powerful Vietnamese businessman with connections to the embassy asked him if he would be interested in taking over the "Foyer Vietnam." His brother in the United States urged him not to work for the communists, saying that there was no love or friendship to be had with them. Than says that he had wanted to do something for his country, which he had not seen since fleeing in the 1970s. He accepted the position.
A Complicated Expat World
For Than, running the restaurant for the communists was a form of reconciliation. He even hung up a picture of Ho Chi Minh in the restaurant, a man he says he admires for being a patriot. The "Foyer Vietnam" became his life's work. The only problem was that there was never a contract and no documentation of his ever having been paid. Than has been running the restaurant for more than 10 years, and the regulars know him, but his name does not appear on any documents.
The Vietnamese expatriate community is a complicated world. There are many old stories, rivalries and dependent relationships. One day Than quarreled with the wrong people. Now the embassy and the Vietnamese expat association that runs the restaurant want to get rid of him, but he wants to stay. He has become a squatter in a restaurant that was established by his native land. He refuses to be driven out a second time.
The group that tried to lock him out of the restaurant included the officially appointed new managing director, who was supposed to replace him. The authorities, who were alerted on the day of the incident, Nov. 12, decided the man could not break in by force and Than was allowed to stay, at least temporarily.
He hoped that a story about reconciliation would not turn into a story about wounds that never heal. But Than already sensed that he wouldn't be able to stay. Last Thursday, the police closed the restaurant until further notice.