Linh Vu was seven years old when she and her father, Vu Khanh Thanh, fled the communist regime in Vietnam. In the middle of the night they boarded a flimsy wooden boat to set out across the South China Sea.
After the communists won the Vietnam War in 1975, Linh’s family started to plan their escape. Her father was a philosophy lecturer in Saigon and he knew it wasn’t long before the communists would send him to a camp to be “re-educated”. “Most people who ended up in those camps didn’t survive,” Linh says.
In 1979 she left her home and her mother, younger brother and sister behind. They were only reunited five years later.
“I was very frightened,” Linh recalls. “We were dressed as local villagers and had to hide in the reeds waiting for a signal from the boat.”
They spent weeks at sea. Most of the time they remained on the lower deck, hiding from pirate ships. “I didn’t know where we were going.” They were finally rescued by a British naval ship and taken to a refugee camp in Singapore. After a few months they were moved to another refugee camp, this time on Thorney Island in West Sussex, where they lived for three years.
Linh’s father spoke fluent English and became the interpreter and head social worker of the camp. His important role meant that she was sent to an English school in the local village where she easily made friends. “In Thorney Island I felt a sense of belonging,” she says. “Everyone was incredibly empathetic towards Vietnamese refugees. The people in the village even threw us a Christmas party with presents.”
When the camp closed they moved to a council flat in Hackney. Linh’s dad set up the An Viet community centre, dedicated to supporting the Vietnamese immigrants, and when the rest of the family moved to London he opened the legendary Huong Viet restaurant there. Linh and her husband Colin, whom she met while they were both studying architecture, followed in her parents’ footsteps. Until recently they owned Namô (now Viet Vu) in Victoria Park village, before passing it on to her brother, Toan.
Linh has been back to Vietnam to visit relatives and retrace her family’s roots. Her parents have never been back. “They have always said, ‘We left for a reason and we’re not going back while the country is still communist,’” she tells me. There is also the worry that it would be unsafe for her father to return to his village in North Vietnam. “He left forty years ago but the people there don’t forget and still bear grudges.”
What makes you most proud?How my dad set up the Vietnamese Community Centre in early 1980s to help Vietnamese refugees resettle and become self-sufficient.
Where do you hang out in East London?
Victoria Park village.
Best coffee in these parts?The Deli Downstairs in Victoria Park.
Best restaurant?Vu Viet restaurant of course! 178 Victoria Park, E9.
How has the area changed?It has become smarter, but it’s hanging onto its integrity… just, thanks to all the great locals and traders who still live and work in the area.
Anything you would change?The one-way system.
The area’s best-kept secret?Sublime’s Other Half: a men’s pop-up clothes and gift shop. 174 Victoria Park Road.
If East London were human?
Joseph’s technicolor dream coat – any dream will do!
East London in a word?