From Vietnam to Old Town: Café owner shares her story

Cassava Café
Owner of Cassava Café Vung Nguyen drains boba. (Vishakha Darbha/Medill)

By Carlos D. Williamson and Ya Zhou    Video by Vishakha Darbha

Vung Nguyen has been a survivor her entire life.

Even when she was forced to move from her home country to a refugee camp as a girl, she remained optimistic. After her family moved to the United States, Nguyen hoped her situation would improve.

But living in public housing wasn’t what she expected. Nguyen and her family, however, refused to quit and fought through poverty with the help of some close relatives and mentors.

While Nguyen did go on to college, a few health issues prevented her from pursuing her dream job. Despite all of the roadblocks, the 26-year-old is the owner of Cassava Café in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood.

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Vietnamese refugee Vung Nguyen talks about her dreams of growing her business and ultimately becoming a doctor. (Vishakha Darbha/MEDILL)

Q: Where are you from originally?

A: I was born in Vietnam. And then we escaped from Vietnam and went to Hong Kong as refugees, we lived in the refugee camp for six years.

In 1997, Great Britain had to return Hong Kong back to China. So we were sent back to Vietnam in 1996. I didn’t move to the United States until 1998. I was nine turning 10.

Q: Why did you have to leave Vietnam in the first place?

A: My dad claimed that after the Vietnam War, a lot of Vietnamese people, especially poor people, were sent to the mountain area. It’s kind of like a way to kick out the ethnic Vietnamese who have darker skin.

Q: Can you tell me a little about your childhood in the United States?

A: I didn’t move to the United States until 1998. At the time, we lived in Arizona for a few months. Then we moved to Colorado because my dad’s uncle lived there.

There’s not a lot of things in Arizona if you can’t speak English. Not a lot of places will hire you. My dad’s uncle owned a landscaping company, so my dad was able to work for him for a few months. So we lived with him for a few months, until we were able to apply for public housing.

Q: Although your family was poor, you managed to go to a private high school in Denver. You also attended Occidental College. How did you accomplish all of this?

A: All of my life, I was the one who took care of everyone. Part of me felt guilty for leaving home for college. I applied to 13 colleges.

[Before that], one of my high school advisers and mentors, who worked at the financial aid office, interviewed me so that I could be admitted into this school. I went to a private high school. And in order to get in, you have to test in. You have to pass all the exams. She fought really hard for me to attend to that high school, so she knows a lot about my personal life.

She felt it was time for me to just live for myself, and when I told her I got into all of these school, she didn’t say anything. She encouraged me, but she didn’t push me to go to certain schools.

My parents did the same thing. My mom kept telling me, “You have to go to school in Colorado so that way we can look over you and take care of you.” My dad said, “It’s your life. You get to decide.”

Q: You originally wanted to be a doctor. What made you want to start a business instead?

A: I was sick my junior and senior year, and I was barely able to graduate. When I finally did, I took a job in Colorado. And the entire time I was there, I actually worked in the health care industry, too. I was an EMT.

I did all of this just to prepare myself to be a doctor. When I moved to Chicago, that was another year off. So that’s two years. At the same time, I focused on the medical field and anything that is medical related.

I volunteered at hospitals and worked at a dental office, just so my resume could reflect that. I studied for the MCAT, but some of the stuff I didn’t remember anymore. Whatever you learn in school, it’s not there.

Q: What’s it like to open and run a café?

A: In the beginning, when I first opened Cassava Café, I was very, very afraid of its future. When you first start planning it out, you just envision all of the good. You’ll see the bad, but you’ll push it aside. I am a very optimistic person.

Cassava Café is between Old Town and the Gold Coast, which has a lot of money. So you have the super wealthy people and you have the students. Students always hunt for the bargain. Wealthy people, I feel like because they’ve been here for so long, all they know is Starbucks because it’s always in your face.

One block from us is a Starbucks. Two blocks that way is another Starbucks. Dunkin’ Donuts is just around the corner.

So you have all of these options, and here is Cassava Café where we sell bubble tea and coffee, which is like, “Wait, what?” Not a lot of people in Chicago, besides the Asian community, have heard about bubble tea [a mix of tea, milk, sugar and other flavors]. After I explain it to them, they just order coffee.

Q: What are some difficult aspects of running a café like this?

A: What bothers me the most is educating the customer. When they walk in here, take the taro milk tea, for example, they expect it to be purple. They expect it to taste a certain way, and ours does not because we don’t use powder or syrup. And to them, they already have their conclusion of what taro is. It’s because your taro drink does not taste like other places where they normally go and get it. They’re just like, “Oh this is the worst bubble tea shop ever” based on one drink.

Q: What makes your café unique?

A: On the menu, I have Thai tea, Vietnamese coffee, bubble tea and lattes. I moved so much throughout my life from one country to another. When I was in college, I visited a lot of countries. I went to India. And I’d go back to Vietnam to visit my grandparents.

My menu represents that. I have Vietnamese coffee because growing up, that’s what my parents drank all the time. I have a Masala Chai because, when I was in India, my friend’s dad would make it every single morning for me. And I love the smell of the spices.

I do feel like my life is a fusion.

There is one item on the menu called East meets West. It’s our special. We say East because we use natural green tea from Japan and West because we add espresso to it. That’s more European. So it’s East meets West.

Q: Do you plan to eventually go to medical school? If not, what is your ultimate goal for your business?

A: I always tell my boyfriend that if I can’t get into medical school, I’ll build myself an empire. You’ve heard of Virgin Airlines and Virgin Mobile? It’s different companies, but it’s owned by one guy. That’s what I envision doing.

When I first moved here, I kept craving crawfish. You know those Louisiana-style crawfish? I was like, “After Cassava, I’m going to open up a crawfish boil place.”

Photo at top: Cassava Café owner Vung Nguyen drains boba, an ingredient in bubble tea. (Vishakha Darbha/MEDILL)