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Vietnamese immigrant wants to pay his success forward

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The year was 1975. In America, the Watergate scandal was wrapping up in court, the second wave of feminism was well under way, the popular television shows “Wheel of Fortune” and “Saturday Night Live” premiered, the Pittsburgh Steelers were Super Bowl champs and Bill Gates was in Albuquerque founding Microsoft.

Across the ocean, a 3-year-old Nam Tran was completely oblivious to all of this but that year the direction of his life would change and land him in the United States.

In 1975, Tran and his mother were Vietnamese citizens in the capital city of Saigon. It would turn out to be the final year of the Vietnam War and also the year Saigon fell to the north, putting Americans stationed there and some Vietnamese citizens in danger. Tran’s mother, he said, was one of those people because of her work as a translator for the U.S. Embassy. Tran said it was these connections that he believed saved their lives.

“A guy she worked with said ‘I’ve been looking for you. Go home and pack up and meet me at this cafe,'” he said. “He met her there and he had documentation for us and we flew out as military personnel that day.”

The menu at the Vietnamese fusion restaurant Café Nom Nom includes a spring roll featuring Chinese sausage, Hot Cheetos, green onions, cilantro, cucumbers, green leaf lettuce and rice noodles. (Courtesy of Nam Tran)

Although he remembers very little of the ordeal, Tran said his early life and his mother – whom he describes as extremely loving but straightforward, intimidating and driven – inspired him to excel. Tran opened the first of his three N Studio hair salons in 2011 and this summer he opened his Vietnamese fusion restaurant Café Nom Nom near the University of New Mexico. His salons are located in Corrales, the North Valley and next to his restaurant.

“Food was my first passion,” he said. “I learned from my mother.”

He has also trademarked the phrase New Year’s Eve Chile Drop and started the practice of dropping a large chile in Nob Hill to celebrate the New Year.

Young entrepreneur

He started his first business before he was old enough to drive.

“There was this one particular house in our neighborhood and it looked like the house from that movie ‘Psycho’,” he said. “The grass was really high and the shades were never opened. One day, I went to the house and knocked on the door. When the lady answered, I asked her if I could mow her lawn for $20. She agreed but I told her I didn’t have a lawn mower so could I borrow hers.”

He was in seventh grade and went back the next day to ask the same woman if he could borrow her lawn mower to do other yards. He said surprisingly she agreed and his lawn mowing business was born.

Tram and his mother were initially taken to Hawaii and then flew to Texas where his mom knew a military pastor who had served in Vietnam. They lived with the pastor and his wife for a little bit before his mother decided to send him to boarding school while she worked to establish herself.

“I hated it,” he said. “That’s when I also got into the bad habit of swallowing gum. I would swallow gum and get a stomachache and then she would keep me at home with her.”

A view from the roof top at Café Nom Nom facing west. The University of New Mexico can be seen in the background. (Courtesy of Nam Tran)

Eventually Tran’s mother married and the family moved to Colorado Springs. When his stepfather landed a job at Intel in the late ’80s, they moved to Rio Rancho. Tran went on to graduate from Cibola High School in 1990.

It was there he met Richard Harvey, who became a lifelong friend. The two have periodically lost touch but always seem to reconnect. Harvey described Tran as someone who comes across as bigger than life sometimes, a man who has reinvented himself many times over, doggedly pursuing any idea he gets in his head.

“I remember, this was late ’90s or early 2000s, and I had not seen him in a few years,” he said. “I was at a club and my friend kept talking about this guy and how ‘You need to meet him.’ I said OK. I go downstairs, the guy turns around and it’s Nam. I just started laughing and I said ‘I know him!’ He had my buddy all ramped up like he was some royalty.”

Overcoming doubts

Although he’s been in the United States for most of his life, Tran said there were times he still felt out of place because of cultural differences. After he graduated, he was floundering, bored and unsure of what he wanted to do with his life and began hanging out with the wrong crowd. The group was burglarizing cars one night when they all got arrested.

“I felt different when I looked at everyone else,” he said. “Growing up I never heard ‘I love you’ from my mother. I almost felt inadequate. I felt maybe she didn’t (love me).”

He said after the incident, his mom sat him down for a heart to heart and asked why he was making bad choices. He told her the truth. Her lack of affection through the years had given him doubts about himself. She apologized and explained that growing up in Vietnam it was not common place to say I love you to children. That a parent’s job was to provide discipline and guidance. The two became closer after that, which gave him the boost he needed.

He opened his first business, a bar in Colorado Springs, with a friend and started going to school to become a hairdresser. He would go to school Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and go home for a few hours and then work at the bar, finally going to bed about 3 a.m.

He got his first job as a stylist at a salon in Denver and four years later he opened his first salon. A relationship, which has since ended, brought him back to Albuquerque where he worked for three years building a reputation before opening his salon here.

Tran said he realized his drive to succeed was a way of showing his gratitude for being given the opportunity to live in America.

“I want to get to a point where I can help people,” he said. “I didn’t realize it at first, but I’m paying it forward to the person who saved our lives (in Vietnam.)”


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