Lunch at Indochine Bistro, Featuring Kevin Nguyen: from Vietnamese Boatperson to successful Calgary Restauranteur

This morning after our lovely celebrity breakfast, Nigel and I decided to walk along 4th Street all the way downtown. At 7th Avenue we split up and he went to pick up our rental car. I decided to take the C-train, a light rapid rail system part of Calgary Transit.

Right off the bat I had two really strange experiences: I politely approached a very nicely dressed woman to ask her how to get to Kensington. She responded curtly “2 stops” and then she started running away from me. She ran down the elevated platform back in the direction she had come from and stopped several times to look over her shoulder back at me to see if I was following her. I knew it was a bad hair day today, but I didn’t realize I looked that scary……

Then, right after, an older Asian-looking man came up to me and told me “I am looking for a woman, I don’t have a wife”. I told him that I wouldn’t be able to help him in that department. He was very short and not threatening-looking at all, and he really seemed to be desperate for some female company. I wasn’t at all scared, but rather bewildered, somewhat bemused and almost sympathetic to his plight. He then proceeded to ask me a few more questions about whether I was married and where my husband was. At that point he realized he wasn’t getting anywhere with me. Then a young rather dishevelled-looking woman came up on the platform and he tried his luck with her, settling in comfortably in the transit shelter beside her.

I stood there, puzzled, after two really strange encounters: one nicely dressed woman runs away from me (I must have looked really scary), and right afterswards an older man solicits my company (I guess I must have looked good enough to him….). Every urban centre has its interesting characters and experiences, and Calgary is obviously no exception.

Then one young couple restored my faith in humanity. I took all my courage together and asked them too how to get to the Kensington Area on the C-Train. They explained that sometimes 7th Street can be a little gritty and then took me to the automated ticket machine and showed me how to obtain my $2.25 admission onto the C-train to get over to Kensington. The world was sane again….

I was in the mood for a light lunch and right in the heart of Kensington there is this recently opened restaurant called “Indochine Bistro”, a bistro/ lounge serving Vietnamese food. After my filling breakfast at the Twin Gables B&B I couldn’t have handled a big lunch, but by this time (about 2:30 pm) I needed a little meal to tide me over to the evening, so I had a lovely vegetarian noodle soup, which was just enough after my delicious morning meal. .

Often my curiosity gets the better of me and I started talking with the owner. It didn’t take me long to realize I had stumbled over a really interesting human story.

Kevin Nguyen is 31 years old and was born in Saigon / Vietnam (today’s Ho Chi Minh City). He grew up in a well-to-do middle class family and lived a very good life until he was 12 years old. Then his family had to flee the country due to Vietnam’s political problems.

His mother, his sister and Kevin became “”Vietnamese boat people” and spent about 2 years living in a refugee camp in Malaysia. Kevin describes the living conditions as incredibly difficult, hundreds of people were squeezed into long buildings that were subdivided into different sections that each held many families. In addition to the cramped conditions, there was never enough food and Kevin’s aunts and uncles kept sending money from Canada to help. Kevin summarized his experience as “living in very poor conditions, but there was also a lot of love and humanity”.

Originally Kevin’s family wanted to move to the United States. But because they had family members in Canada and Great Britain, that would have meant that these two countries would have had to reject their refugee status application first before they would be able to apply to go to the USA. Kevin’s mom decided that the wait would be too long and applied to go to Canada instead.

At 14 years of age Kevin came to Canada, more specifically to Calgary and his family settled in. Kevin said that to this day he is very grateful that this country took him, his mom and his sister in. Upon his arrival in Canada, Kevin went straight into Grade 10 at Western Canada High School in Calgary and said that he never really experienced rejection from his class mates as a newly arrived refugee. He did say that he went through a major experience of culture shock adjusting to Canadian culture, food and traditions.

After high school he went to the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology and studied electronics and petroleum engineering and graduated with a Bachelor of Petroleum Technology. He worked for several oil and gas companies and consulting firms in Calgary before he decided to partner up with a friend to open a restaurant.

Although that business venture did not work out, Kevin was hooked on the hospitality industry. Despite the fact that there is a significant amount of risk involved in running your own restaurant, he enjoys being his own boss. He opened his own restaurant, Indochine Bistro, in October of 2005 and he intended it to be different from the usual Vietnamese restaurants that resemble cafeterias more than comfortable eateries. The name of his restaurant is from the French word Ïndochine which used to be the French name for Vietnam.

Kevin enjoys owning a restaurant and said he loves meeting people. In particular he loves working behind the bar and calls it a dream job. Kevin explained that the Kensington area is a great neighbourhood for his restaurant since there are so many people taking a stroll and it’s a really close-knit neighbourhood with the feel of a real village. In the summer there are many street festivals so there is lots of action going on.

Indochine Bistro features an extensive menu with 73 items of quality Vietnamese cuisine. Eating out at Indochine is extremely affordable: only one item was over C$10.00 and most of the dishes cost between C$6 and C$8.

I enjoyed my little exploration of Calgary’s Kensington area, it definitely had a very cozy, village-like feel to it. And it was great meeting a young Calgarian who has made an amazing life transition from living a comfortable middle class life in Vietnam to becoming a refugee to making his mark as a successful young entrepreneur in Canada.

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