At 65, This Cancer Survivor And Noodle Maker Proves It’s Never Too Late To Go For Your Dreams

Decades after immigrating from Vietnam, Dan Minh Vu is finally making the handmade traditional rice noodles he came to the United States to share.
Courtesy of Dan Vu

After almost 30 years, decades in factory work and a nearly two-year battle with gastric cancer, an often-fatal disease prevalent in Asian populations, 65-year-old Vietnam native Dan Minh Vu is reinventing himself once again to finally reach his goal: making the fresh rice noodles of his homeland and bringing them to underserved expatriates in the United States. Saigon Fresh Noodles is the first to supply this option in the Atlanta metro area, proving that it’s never too late to follow your dreams back into the kitchen.

In this edition of Voices In Food, as told to Su-Jit Lin, Vu shares his long-delayed journey toward becoming a professional noodle maker, the detours and curveballs along the way, the tenacity and support that goes into something as simple as a bundle of noodles, and how it feels to finally turn half a lifetime of dreaming into reality.

I was born in Nam Dinh, Vietnam. I left there for Saigon in 1975, after the war, leaving my parents, friends and family behind for the first time. I’d just graduated from high school and there were more opportunities outside of farming in the South. There, in Saigon, I worked in a few different industries. I once ran a textiles company, a cardboard manufacturing company, a Vietnamese bar and restaurant, and a wedding dress shop.

We did OK, but when I had my daughters, Trang, Trinh and Truc, it wasn’t enough anymore. I wanted more for them.

Education in Vietnam just wasn’t up to par with that of America, and I measure my success through that of my children. To see them educated and in good jobs, happy … that’s what makes me happy. So, in 2000, I came to the United States for the same reason everyone does: in search of a better life for my family. One where I could just make noodles.

I have always loved making noodles. I wanted to provide homemade noodles to the community here, as I had heard they were mainly using frozen noodles in the United States. I had been thinking about it since the 1990s, before I even moved.

Once more, I left everything I knew behind. I brought with me a machine to make bún (a noodle shape), which I bought in 2000. It was about 12’ x 3’ x 5’ — enormous and heavy. We took it apart and packed it in boxes, taking with us more boxes of machine parts than luggage! It came with me to Staten Island in New York, where we stayed with some family who had a house there for six months before moving to Syracuse, New York, with other family.

But instead of finding a better life, I found myself back in a factory.

Because I was new to the country and didn’t know the language, starting a business wasn’t easy. I needed steady income to support my family and provide them with health care. While my wife began working at a nail salon, I got a job assembling furniture in Syracuse, where I stayed for eight years.

All the while, though, I kept my dream of making noodles alive.

Knowing there was a larger Vietnamese population in Atlanta, I started planning to move there. By the time we were able to leave in 2008, I had purchased another noodle-making machine, only this time, it made phở. This was even larger than the one before! My original machine, from 2000, didn’t make it down with us, but I was determined to try to pursue the business once more.

However, I found that back then, there actually weren’t a lot of pho restaurants, despite the population. There was lower demand than I anticipated, so once again, my calling went on hold. I then became a handyman and maintenance worker for an apartment complex in Chamblee for several years. After a layoff and tough times, I found work again in 2016, assembling HVAC equipment, and became part of a tight-knit community of Vietnamese workers.

With them, I was reminded again of my purpose.

“After so many false starts and stops, so many years of hopes and fears, I am finally able to come back to my original intent 30 years ago: to provide the Vietnamese American community a taste of home.”

I began making noodles on a volunteer basis at my church, Holy Vietnamese Martyrs Catholic Church in Norcross. I had bought a bánh cuốn (steamed rice rolls) machine, and started making it for the leaders to sell once a month, and at special events and festivals to raise funds. The annual fall festival hosts thousands of attendees, and with years of experience and happy customers, my confidence and passion continued to grow.

In December 2019, my wife and I went to Vietnam and I decided to go all in. I ordered another machine, and this one made phở, bún, my quang … all types! This was my third attempt and I was ready — I really thought it was it this time.

But by the time it was delivered in May 2020, we were at the start of the pandemic and restaurants were really struggling.

Soon, so was I.

It was that month that, at age 64, I was diagnosed with stage 2 stomach cancer — and I was faced with the possibility of potentially never seeing my American dream come true.

I tried to work at the factory here in Atlanta while still undergoing treatment, but the night shifts and the surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy took a toll on my body. My family decided it was best for me to retire early to focus on my health.

I tried to stay optimistic throughout, and luckily, my progression toward recovery was steady. I lost a lot of weight; surgery had taken out 85% of my stomach, so I had less of an appetite. I also had to follow a strict, healthy diet. But my family and the community of Vietnamese workers I had become a part of supported me throughout my cancer treatments. Slowly, I gained my health back.

In August 2021, I went through my last treatment. I was officially in remission. And my wife and daughters told me this was it. The time was never right before, and this time, we were going to make it right and not let anything stand in our way.

Because I was now retired, I finally had the time to really devote to my business. I wanted to keep myself busy anyway, instead of just staying in the house all day. I had regained my strength, energy and passion. And I wanted something to pass on to my daughters one day, even though they have found success with full-time jobs. A cultural legacy, family business — something to be kept and carried on, a way to remain in our Vietnamese community and in touch with our roots.

So, in March 2022, production for Saigon Fresh Noodles officially began at a shared certified commercial kitchen in Duluth that one of my daughters found for me on a list from Georgia’s health department website. Since then, I’m there nearly every morning, and all day on weekends.

Beyond just supporting and encouraging me, my daughters and my future son-in-law have pitched in to help; they come to the kitchen whenever they have availability, and assist with deliveries to local Vietnamese supermarkets — a quick expansion we were able to undertake only because we did it together.

My daughters spoke to store managers, asking to present our products. After we gave them our noodle samples, they agreed to give us shelf space to test our products. We almost sold out on the first weekend! Now we’re in Hong Kong Supermarket on Jimmy Carter Boulevard in Norcross and Ba Hue’s Market on Buford Highway in Chamblee — one of the main attractions on that famous strip. We’ve also started providing our noodles to a pho restaurant chain with several locations in metro Atlanta.

After so many false starts and stops, so many years of hopes and fears, I am finally able to come back to my original intent 30 years ago: to provide the Vietnamese American community a taste of home — to remind them of childhoods spent eating fresh noodles. And possibly, to provide non-Vietnamese people childhood memories of the same, sharing a bit of our old home and lives with our new ones.

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