'We had no hope': Coco Tran, who launched a vegetarian restaurant empire, first had to flee Vietnam

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen
“Coco” Tran invites you to a free meal to support local charities Wednesday. (File/Louisville Courier-Journal)

Huong "Coco" Tran thought everything was over when the Taiwanese merchant ship left her and her family floating in a tiny fishing boat in international waters.

She and 18 relatives had pushed from the shores of Vietnam with nothing to eat or drink. They floated for two days before a ship came into view. Then it kept moving. 

"We had no hope," said Tran, who was 29 when she fled Saigon on May 2, 1975, as communist troops overtook the city. "We were in a little boat in the ocean — very, very scary. We thought we (might not) survive."

Tran and her family refused to give up, trailing the merchant ship until it turned around to see why the impossibly small, crowded boat was following them. The merchants brought them aboard, but only after stripping the family of what money and possessions they had managed to smuggle from home.

A penniless Tran would eventually reach the United States and then open several restaurants and, most recently, start a line of non-GMO tofu. 

But first, she had more hardships to overcome, including living on the ship with no known destination, no real shelter and a herd of live buffalo.

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Live buffalo and parts unknown

With Tran and her family on board, the merchant ship stopped to trade at cities such as Bangkok, Hong Kong and Okinawa. Without sponsors, the family was unable to gain entry through any of the ports, so they lingered on the ship.

"We were worried and didn't know where we'd go," Tran said. "We just said, 'We want to go to another country with freedom.'"

In Taiwan, the merchants picked up live buffalo destined for Hong Kong. For a week, the family slept on the deck among the herd. Some of the buffalo perished in the heat. Tran wondered if her family might suffer the same fate. 

The bouquet salad dish at Roots and Heart & Soy at 1216 Bardstown Road in Louisville, Oct. 16, 2015.

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"They'd throw them in the ocean, and I'd think about us," she said.

After a month, a Taiwanese refugee camp admitted the family. There, Tran connected with her brother Tim Tran, who was studying at the University of Louisville’s J. B. Speed School of Engineering. 

"He said, 'We've got you. We have a plan for you to come to the United States,'" Coco Tran said.

From Taiwan, the family flew to Guam, where Tran's sister-in-law gave birth in a Navy hospital camp. When the baby was a week old, the family flew to another army camp in Arkansas.

The pan-fried rice noodles with seasonal vegetables dish at Roots and Heart & Soy at 1216 Bardstown Road in Louisville. Oct. 16, 2015

The family settled in Louisville on Aug. 2, 1975, sheltered by sponsors from a local church. Altogether, the journey from the shores of Vung Tau in Vietnam to Louisville took three months to the day. 

From a first hamburger, a dream 

Tran's sponsor family treated her to an American meal of hamburgers and fries at McDonald's shortly after her arrival. It would change her life.

Tran had never eaten a hamburger, let alone seen a fast food restaurant, filled with gleaming steel and built for speed. She was transfixed by the efficiency serving fast food required.

"In my mind, I (was thinking) I can do something like this, and I only need one person behind the counter and I'll cook," she said. "Not hamburgers, but my food — egg roll, fried rice."

She kept that image in her mind for five years as she worked packing ice cream cones in a factory, studying English and planning her dream restaurant during breaks. Tran's hard work and dedication was not lost on the factory owner, who offered to back her plan. 

Together, they opened the Egg Roll Machine, Louisville's first Chinese fast food restaurant. A second Egg Roll Machine would follow. In 1985, she opened Cafe Mimosa, a modern Vietnamese-French restaurant, also the first of its kind in the city.

The butternut squash soup dish at Roots and Heart & Soy at 1216 Bardstown Road in Louisville, Oct. 16, 2015.

Changing the flavor of the city

When Tim Tran came to Louisville as a student in 1972, ingredients like the fish sauce in his favorite Vietnamese dishes were hard to find. 

"There was one Filipino grocery in downtown where we got our ingredients, and Vietnamese food now is so popular in the states," said Tran, now an engineer. 

Even small towns have pho and Bahn Mi shops, a testament to what Vietnamese refugees brought to the U.S., he said. "It's become part of American food now."

That's also part of Coco Tran's Louisville legacy. So is the introduction of locally made tofu on the city's first all-vegetarian menu. 

In 1998, Tran met a Buddhist monk who convinced her to cut out meat to ease her allergy symptoms. She converted to Buddhism and a year later opened Zen Garden and Zen Tea House. She opened Roots and Heart & Soy in 2011, both vegetarian. Those two restaurants are now her sole focus. 

She wanted to serve non-GMO, organic tofu in her sesame-glazed potstickers and sizzling sticky rice. Finding none, she made her own. She imported a gleaming tofu machine from Taiwan and found an Indiana farmer who grew enough organic soybeans to send her twice yearly shipments via semitruck.

The braised beats, white beans and cabbage soup dish at Roots/Heart and Soy at 1216 Bardstown Road in Louisville. Oct. 16, 2015

Tran built a tofu kitchen in her restaurant, where her customers delight in watching her grind, boil and process about 200 pounds of soybeans each week.

Heart & Soy is licensed for wholesale, but ongoing pandemic-era staffing issues have prevented large-scale production. Still, she hopes to eventually ship her tofu to restaurants and groceries in Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee and beyond. 

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At 76 years old, Tran shows no signs of slowing down.

She said she's traveled so much, she's had no time for children or even a cat. "I'd feel sorry for a pet if I had it," she said.

Travel is in her soul. She said fleeing Saigon with no money and no destination prepared her to take brave leaps. 

"It made me very strong," she said. "We left the country with nothing because of freedom  — that was the only reason. We left everything behind to go forward to our future. It was scary, but it only made me stronger. Now I don't worry about the future."

Tim Tran said he's proud of his sister and everyone in his family who fled Vietnam with nothing and made a comfortable living in an unfamiliar land. 

"When I got to this country to go to school, (that) was all planned," he said. "For them, literally nothing except the clothes on their back, to start out in a foreign country not knowing much about the language, their story is very inspiring."

Though it's inspiring, he added, it's not unique. 

"It's the same story of many successful refugees," he said. "A lot of them start out with nothing but have now become successful business owners."

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South Region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

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Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com