Live with Five: Vietfive owner shares struggles, journey to establishing West Loop coffee shop

Tuan Huynh, talking to his friends at LUV festival
Tuan Huynh, left, talks to his friends at LUV festival. (Ruomeng Xu/MEDILL)

By Chloe Xu and Ying Julia Jing
Medill Reports         

In the upscale West Loop neighborhood stands Vietfive, a Vietnamese coffee shop owned by Tuan Huynh, who is widely respected as a leader in the Chicago Asian American community. However, he also has a complicated personal and family history. When he first arrived in the United States as a refugee fleeing oppression in Vietnam, he was only 3. But the New World was also harsh to him. He was accused of first-degree murder just past his 18th birthday.



Huynh: David, I’m Tuan. Nice to meet you.

Customer: Good to meet you too.

Huynh: So that’s how it is. You know.

“Five” means “nam” in Vietnamese. Everyone can count to five. Ready? một, hai, ba, bốn, năm. That’s Vietfive.

Title: Live with Five

[Music in background]

Huynh: My name is Tuan Huynh, and I am the owner and founder of Vietfive coffee. I wanted to start Vietfive to share our family’s refugee journey and build the community through the love of Vietnamese coffee.

Robusta is completely new, right? It’s a small market for it right now, but it is trendy. A lot of people still come in here for a, you know, Americano or this latte, this flavor of latte, this and that. And we simply just say, “We all can do Vietnamese coffee, but try it and you’ll see the comparisons and difference between the two.”

There’s so much more people we can reach, more stories to share, more educating to do, not only about Vietnamese coffee but to celebrate our culture and see the commonalities and people. And there’s still a community to serve.

We’re doing a festival. We’re putting together a festival called LUV Fest. Luv: L-U-V. LUV stands for love, unity and visionaries of the AAPI community. It’s really bringing the best in our cultures to the forefront and to celebrate and allow the community around us to come together and celebrate AAPI month.

Cervantes: It’s going to be on the 31st at Daley Center Plaza. And this is the reason why we’re doing it: Because we just thought that, you know, our culture is very much ingrained in Chicago and that like we have to celebrate. It’s like one of the things that makes Chicago beautiful is that like our Asian community.

Huynh: In this neighborhood, we get to build personal relationships with our neighbors, our city on a more personal level.

You guys, record this. Record this.

Vietfive is the direct translation of Vietnam. If we just count to five in vietnamese, một, hai, ba, bốn, năm, it means five. In numerology, the number five means making choices that lead to change, that leads to freedom.

My dad was incarcerated by the communist government for five-and-a-half years. Our time at sea, when we escaped on a fishing boat, 45 by 15 feet. I was the youngest of 55 people.

I think a lot of my memories are from my parents retelling the story. But coming into the U.S. and growing up as a young refugee, even for my family, is very scary. It’s new. It’s different. For me, going to school was not a place first being welcome, but reminding that right away you’re different. You might not understand the language, but you can see people’s expressions that you’re somehow different and not wanted.

People around me know I’m crazy, like, I’m mentally jacked-up. I have a mental battle with me all the freaking time because, I don’t know, I have undealt trauma that I’ve dealt with my whole freaking life. I fight a different battle. I got two different spirits in me that’s fighting all the time to do good and be good.

I think for me, growing up in that way, in a lot of conflict, I never had a positive conflict resolution. I’ve always been reactionary to what was coming towards me. I’m not making any excuses. But even when I didn’t understand the language, you can see in people’s expressions their dislike of you no matter what you done. We got involved in like the drug trade, gang violence, and at the age I just turned 18, three weeks to my 18th birthday, I shot and killed a young man.

You know, as an Asian culture, it’s a shame, right? It’s a shame and a disgrace in a sense. I was not a son that the parents can be proud of, a brother that someone can boast about or brag about. You know, my dad, as a war hero in his own right, it’s hard for him to accept a son that’s serving a first-degree murder conviction.

So it was definitely a broken relationship. And you know, in Asian culture, that’s the greatest punishment you can have, is a separation from your family. And I was sentenced to a life imprisonment with eligibility parole of 15 years. When my classmates that was a similar age as me was getting their graduation and getting a diploma, that year I was walking to a maximum-security prison.

This is the auditorium. This is the yard.

[Text: Tuan was in jail for 15 years]

Huynh: The world passes you by every day. And you’re just in one place, and then you’re finally, you know, out. And I didn’t know, you know, the people that are your age, they have gone way ahead of you, you know.

So I think for me, I just feeling a little bit behind, initially, you know. The world’s gone by, and you are forgotten. I went to a conceptual design school, which I didn’t know about the internet. I didn’t know how to turn on a computer. I googled “Google” because I didn’t know what Google was, and I didn’t know how to get on Google. But I guess apparently when you turn on the computer and you click, you know, the thing, you on Google. So I didn’t even know that.

And after three-and-a-half years, I graduated with my, you know, bachelor’s degree in design, specialized in packaging. And I was offered an opportunity to come to Chicago to work for Leo Burnett.

It’s an ad advertisement agency here in Chicago. I was offered and I accepted, and I moved to Chicago. In 2019, I was able to go back to Vietnam for the first time since I was a kid, and, you know, visiting my family, being reunited with my, you know, families I haven’t seen in a long time. But I also experience our coffee.

And when I got a chance to drink it and seeing how the process and, you know, the plants, it just changed my whole life. I just was like, I don’t get this in America, you know, I don’t get this where I’m living, so when I came back, I started importing the coffee.

I do robusta coffee, OK? So we grow and harvest this coffee on my family’s farm in Vietnam. We import right here to the city of Chicago, where our shop is in the West Loop. Come check us out.

I think coming into Chicago, particularly in the West Loop neighborhood here and the city have really embraced what we’re doing at Vietfive, embracing my journey, my story, my family’s story.

I’ll never call myself an Asian leader in the city. Others have. So I appreciate that. But I know there is a responsibility of being out and open.

LUV fest, come on out, yo. We are setting up, you got Vietfive, you got Sweet Delight Chicago, you got Chicago is Asian, you got so many different businesses out here, y’all come check us out.

Hi, Kai, I’m Tuan. Pleasure. A pleasure. What’s up, guys! Thanks for being here. Man, thank you!

Oh, yeah, I think my parents are more proud than ever. They’ve been here for the one year, they’ve been here for our grand opening. Now I give them something to brag about.

It’s kind of funny, I do coffee like everywhere. I’m going to Vietnam tomorrow, man.

Customer: Oh, yeah, how long you gonna be there?

Huynh: Two weeks, so. Yeah. See the farm, working on distribution, you know, picking it up. So.

Chloe Xu and Ying Julia Jing are graduate students in the video & broadcast specialization. Connect with Chloe on LinkedIn. Connect with Julia on LinkedIn.