“I love my customers,” says Dan Nguyen, owner of Lang Van Vietnamese restaurant in east Charlotte. “They are family to me.”
Nguyen’s English may still be a bit choppy, but her meaning and emotion is fluent. Her eyes well with tears of pride and joy as she shows me a vase filled with pastel flowers that her customer and friend Tiffany sent her. An uncluttered and colorful mix of sunflowers and roses, the floral arrangement complements the setting inside Lang Van, the cozy and unpretentious eatery that Nguyen has owned since 2009.
Upon entering the utilitarian rectangular building near the intersection of Shamrock and Eastway drives, visitors are confronted by a surprising and fanciful bamboo curtain. This tiki-bar-like concession to exotic Southeast Asia aside, the rest of the dining room is pretty basic. Framed awards recognizing Lang Van as the best restaurant in Charlotte going back several years line the plain white walls. Small tables and diner-style booths sport table cloths emblazoned with multi-hued maps of Vietnam, a reminder of Nguyen’s homeland.
But today the booths are empty and chairs are stacked on the tables. Although Lang Van is allowed 50% occupancy under the extended Safer-at-Home phase of North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper’s three-phased plan to open up the economy while stemming the spread of COVID-19, Nguyen has chosen not to have indoor seating at her establishment.
“COVID is bad. I care for my customers a lot. I care for my family,” the 48-year-old restaurateur says, explaining her decision against implementing indoor seating. “I want them to be healthy.”
Of the nine people on staff at the restaurant, several are family, including Nguyen, her husband Tuyen Tran who cooks in the kitchen, and their two children Alice and Henry Tran. Over the years, Nguyen’s sister, cousins, and nieces have also worked at Lang Van, and some still do. But the business has paid dearly for Nguyen’s determination to keep her family and customers safe. For three months the restaurant has been operating as take-out only, and bills have been piling up. It was particularly rough early in the shutdown.
“One week we had no customers, [but] I tell my husband … [we’ll be] open every day, busy or not busy, we’ll be open,” Nguyen says. “We lost a lot of money for three months, but I don’t care. We work hard.”
Despite the restaurant’s dire financial straits, Nguyen insisted on paying her staff their full wages. Take-out business picked up a little as word spread that Lang Van was still open, but as the days lengthened into summer, money continued to dwindle.
The Charlotte community gets behind Lang Van
Gradually the unthinkable dawned on everyone lucky enough to have discovered the tucked-away gem of east Charlotte’s dining scene: The city’s oldest and best Vietnamese restaurant could soon disappear.
“I heard tonight that one of the most iconic restaurants in Charlotte is struggling through these hard times,” reads a June 18 Instagram post about Lang Van from Made To Last Tattoo owner Chris Stuart. “I’ve been eating here for over 20yrs and this woman I would consider family…I’ve always said she and the entire staff deserves an award for hospitality, so let’s show them some appreciation and support for their many years serving us.”
Rapidly, Nguyen’s love for her customers was reciprocated. Stuart’s post was shared by the Plaza Midwood Facebook group. On June 19, Neighborhood Theatre amplified the message on their Facebook page: ”Another staple on the east side is in danger of going under. This joint is some of the best Vietnamese in town… Y’all drop by and show em some love and get a great meal.”
The call was picked up by the online neighborhood app Nextdoor Plaza Midwood.
“Lang Van is struggling,” Rose Hamid posted on Nextdoor. “If you love Lang Van as much as I do, plan to order from them.”
“I drove by today around 1:00 p.m. and was surprised to see an empty parking lot,” wrote Porter Merrill. “Please support them if you can.”
“We heard the same thing … and got takeout last night,” Megan Fuller posted. “I almost cried when I got to see the owner and employees. They truly treat everyone like family!”
Many more people shared stories of wonderful meals and acts of kindness by restaurant staff.
The recovery process
“Save Lang Van Vietnamese Restaurant,” reads the title of the GoFundMe page launched by Carly Valigura West on behalf of Tuyen Tran.
“I have no affiliation with the restaurant besides being a dedicated patron and fan for over 20 years,” West wrote on the page. “The owner, Dan, always greets us with that huge grin of hers, tells us what to order, and I just can’t imagine not being able to enjoy the best Vietnamese cuisine outside of Vietnam ever again.”
In less than 24 hours the campaign raised $30,000. As of July 6, the total stands at $57,687 raised from 822 donors. That was enough to not only catch up on bills, but allow Dan and the team to take the week off for Independence Day, a much-needed break and a tradition of sorts for the restaurant staff.
On June 20, West posted an update on the page.
“We just got back from seeing Dan and everyone at Lang Van,” West wrote. “Dan cried, I cried, it was fantastic. She is just over the top thrilled and in awe of everyone’s generosity. There was a line out the door to get take-out and I couldn’t have been more thrilled to watch people ordering take-out and forcing her to take their very generous donations.”
In Lang Van’s dining room in east Charlotte, Nguyen remembers learning about the fundraiser and its success.
“My customer comes in and shows me…” She stops talking and mimes, indicating that they showed Nguyen the GoFundMe page on their phone. “They say, ‘You see it?’ Then I’m so happy.”
Donations have come from other sources too. Nguyen says that people have come in with cash donations of $50, $100, $200 and more. One customer comes in from Lake Norman with a weekly donation of $100. Another came in three times, bringing $150 each time.
Nguyen recalls a customer named Cindy who came in for take-out on a weekday and was disappointed to see the restaurant empty. She left and returned one hour later with $1,000 in cash.
“After that a lot of people came in,” Nguyen continues. “The last week, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, it was crazy — so many orders to go.”
There seems to be no end in sight for the city’s generosity toward Nguyen, her family and their beloved restaurant. As Queen City Nerve takes photos of Nguyen, a man steps up, says hello to her and then presses a stack of $20 bills into her hands. After posing for a picture with Nguyen, the man waves goodbye, refusing to give us his name as he leaves.
“People are very kind to me, Nguyen offers. “Can you tell them I am so happy?”
Coming to America
Running a restaurant has been a challenge, but even before Nguyen started working at Lang Van, life was not easy. “Before I leave my country, I was poor,” she says. Nguyen was born September 4, 1974 in Tuy Hoa, in what was then South Vietnam as the 14-year long Vietnam War drew to a close, .
“She didn’t have any parents [and] she didn’t have any education,” said Henry Tran, translating Nguyen’s Vietnamese in a November 2017 oral history interview that Nguyen and her two children did with Southern Foodways Alliance. Nguyen was in her early 20s when she met and married Tran, but the couple didn’t stay together long. Tran left to find work in America, leaving Nguyen behind for five years. Once Tran was settled, he brought her back with him to Charlotte in 1999.
“I came here to America,” Nguyen says. “I am so lucky.”
But life was hard for the 26-year-old newcomer to the U.S. Nguyen and her husband stayed with friends and acquaintances from Vietnam, at one point living out of their car for three months. Then one day, with only five dollars in her pocket, Nguyen stepped through Lang Van’s door into the bamboo festooned foyer.
“She saw that the place [and] the customers were really friendly,” said Alice Tran translating her mother’s words in the 2017 interview. “She wanted to help the customers and make them happier. So that’s why she applied for the job.”
Lang Van’s owner No Duong took Nguyen under her wing. After working in Asian restaurants in Charlotte since the early 1980s, Duong’s family opened Lang Van in 1990. The name translates to Land of the Tattooed Men and comes from a myth-shrouded third-century BCE kingdom that is believed to be the forerunner of Vietnam.
No Duong’s brother, Cuong Duong, subsequently opened another Vietnamese restaurant, Ben Thanh, named for an open-air market in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) that has been in operation since the 19th century.
At Lang Van, Nguyen worked diligently, learned the ropes and rose steadily through the ranks. By 2004, she was part owner of the restaurant. In 2009, when No Duong moved to California to be with family, Nguyen took full ownership of Lang Van.
“One of the owners couldn’t work here anymore, but they loved the customers” Alice said in 2017, translating her mother’s words. “They made my mom promise to make the customers happy. Mom promised, so now she’s working [hard] to honor her words.”
Good morning, Vietnam
With her newfound influx of funds, Nguyen has paid her bills, but she’s also paying it forward. She’s recently given each member of her staff $1,000. On the day Queen City Nerve visits the restaurant, three employees cheerfully display envelopes filled with $500 each that Nguyen had given them that day. Nguyen is relieved just to pay rent.
“I usually keep this to myself, but today I tell you,” she confides. Through April and May, the restaurant was able to pay it’s $4,700 per month rent in full, but in June, Nguyen fell short. Luckily, she has a great relationship with her landlord which she’s been developing since No Duong owned the spot.
So when she called to say she was short for June, the landlord told her anything she could pay was fine, Nguyen recalls. She paid $3,300 and will deliver the remaining balance shortly.
As for the rest of the money, it has finally given Nguyen a chance to take a little time off. She usually works from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m., but recently, she found some precious moments to spend with a customer named Alison. She’s a cancer patient, Nguyen says haltingly.
“She’s only 34 years old. Usually I don’t go anywhere but here. The last month it was not busy and I got the time. I come home with her. I would sit with here every week.” Nguyen pauses as her eyes fill with tears. “She passed away two weeks ago.”
This poignant vignette illustrates why Lang Van is so essential to so many people in Charlotte.
Yes, it is an exceptional restaurant, many say the best in the city. And on one level perhaps Charlotteans have fought for Lang Van because they were damned if they were going to see another institution like the Manor Theatre or Carpe Diem disappear.
“It’s an icon, and Dan Nguyen is an ambassador for the city,” says Central Piedmont Community College English instructor Amy Bagwell. When CPCC presents its spring literary festival Sensoria, Bagwell and her colleagues take the visiting writers to Lang Van each year because they want the literary luminaries to experience the finest restaurant Charlotte has to offer, Bagwell maintains. Amy Bloom, Tracy K. Smith, Ben Marcus, Chris Abani, Carolyn Forché, Richard Blanco, and Li-Young Lee, for whom Dan kept her doors open late, have all been to the Southeast Asian eatery on Shamrock and loved it.
That still doesn’t explain the emotional attachment people have for the 30-year-old family owned restaurant. Perhaps Nguyen’s embrace of her customers as a kind of extended family is a potent force in unsettling times. More than a restaurant, Lang Van is an accepting homespun hub for a city that may be growing too quickly for the connective tissue of community to catch up.
It’s only fitting that the Queen City’s quintessential eatery may well be a joint started by refugees welcomed to America after fleeing war and poverty in their homeland. It means there may be hope for other refugees currently incarcerated at our borders, if only we as a country can turn to our better angels.
“I love America,” Nguyen maintains. “Before I came here, I had no money, no education, nothing. I slept in my car for three months. Now I have a little bit.”
Once again, Nguyen’s eyes grow misty.
“Everybody in the world I love. I wish them well. No more sickness. No more troubles. We’ll be okay.”