Former refugee who found peace in Aldeburgh relives her desperate journey to the west

Thao Nguyen

Thao Nguyen - Credit: Archant

For most of us, the daily stories of death and despair on our TV screens are as distant to us as the lands out of which these tragedies unfold.

Aldebrugh market

Aldebrugh market - Credit: Archant

For most of us, the daily stories of death and despair on our TV screens are as distant to us as the lands out of which these tragedies unfold.

Thousands of people are fleeing war-torn Syria, Iraq, Sudan and other African countries and taking to the sea in desperation as they bid to reach the relative sanctuary of Europe.

For many of us, it is incomprehensible how they could risk everything for a refuge away from their countries.

For one woman in Aldeburgh it will bring back memories of her own time on a boat, packed with 70 other refugees, adrift on the South China Sea as she sought to escape the aftermath of the war in her own country – Vietnam.

I went to talk to Thao Nguyen about her business, Red Chilli Kitchen, but clearly her past has a lot to do with it, as she admits, writes Martin Chambers.

Thao was one of the Vietnamese Boat People who took to the seas in their desperation to escape persecution at home. The war in Vietnam ended in 1975. Between then and 1995 about two million people fled the country. Many of those who tried to escape by boat did not survive, killed by pirates or dying through the lack of water or over-crowded boats.

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Thao’s father had been a translator for the Americans, and after the war ended her family was singled out and he was sent to one of the new regime’s “re-education” camps.

When her father’s health began to deteriorate badly, Thao’s mum, who she says is “very stubborn and very strong”, decided that enough was enough. Escaping the country was the only path they could take.

After losing money on several occasions to boat owners who did not turn up as promised, her father escaped by sea and was rescued by a Danish Maersk ship that took him to Singapore. He worked there for the Red Cross before heading off to a new life in Denmark with Thao’s brother and sister, who had also escaped.

Thao was 12 in 1984 when she quit the unbearable conditions of her native country and without any other member of her family escaped Vietnam on a small fishing boat.

“My mum took me out to the boat,” says Thao, “and I said goodbye to her, and then we were whispering. I wasn’t scared. I was too young. Then I was on the boat, and we found that the motor didn’t work. So we put up a sail and we had to depend on the wind, but somehow there was no wind. So we didn’t go anywhere.

“There were other fishing boats around and they took our money but they didn’t want to help us.

“But luckily there was another one, it was a fishing boat and it was trying to escape and we gave them money and they took us to Indonesia. I was drifting on the sea for 10 days.

“We were scared as we were running out of rice and water. We had one small bowl of rice and some water a day, so we prayed for the wind and prayed for the rain but there was no wind and there was no rain.

“When I was on the boat I realised how lucky we were, for other people had met pirates. What the pirates did was terrible.

“After 10 days we came to a beautiful island in Indonesia with beautiful flowers and colourful fish.”

After seven months in a children’s home, Thao was resettled in Denmark, where she was eventually reunited with her family.

“I came to Denmark in November, 1984 – it was the first time I had seen snow. It was beautiful.

“Then my mum came out. She escaped in her own boat.”

Years later, approaching 30, Thao arrived in London.

“I came to London on holiday,” she says, “but I felt at home somehow ? warm and home.

“After two weeks I decided to stay in London and I got a job in accounting and I met my husband. He was working in London but he was from Aldeburgh, so that is how I am here in Suffolk. I love it here.” Her mother was the inspiration behind her business venture. In Vietnam she ran a restaurant, and in Denmark she passed her passion for cooking on to her daughter.

“I remember when I was living at home. Every weekend we would have a big feast and my mum would explain to me and my sister how to cook this and how to cook that, and I would think ‘Not again’ and it went in one ear and out the other ear.

“When my daughter was born I said I would cook everything for her. I don’t like to buy anything; I like to do it all myself. I had to learn to do everything. Now suddenly it is quite relaxing and nice, to do something different from accounting. I realised I like to feed people as well.”

She set up Red Chilli Kitchen in October, 2013, and it took eight months to get production going, bottling her Tomato Chilli Jam, Vietnamese Curry Paste and Vietnamese Tomato Marinade by herself in the kitchen the old-fashioned way.

“My first customer was Salter and King in Aldeburgh. My home is in Aldeburgh now and my first client was from Aldeburgh, so it was a nice feeling, and he still stocks my products.”

Her chilli jam, curry paste and marinade are sold in a wide range of shops across Suffolk and Norfolk, as well as Snape Farmers’ Market and Aldeburgh Market. The Otley White Hart even uses her chilli jam on the menu. She also sells from her website where there is a list of stockists.

The Red Chilli Kitchen logo, a long red chilli shaped to represent her native Vietnam, is a reminder of the traumatic past that brought Thao from south east Asia to Europe and finally east Suffolk.

Thao’s incredible journey from Phuoc Long, in what was then South Vietnam, to Aldeburgh is one that brought pain, fear and heartache, but ultimately happiness with her husband and five-year-old daughter.

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