There’s an 81-year-old Vietnamese lady who’s considered an institution in Los Baños, Laguna’s food scene. She’s a familiar name and face among the province’s UP and IRRI (International Rice Research Institute) community.
Just mention “Lola Phuong” or “Mrs. Phuong” to Elbi folks—from UP chancellors and scientists, to IRRI directors and researchers (both local and foreign), to residents and students—and they would know, especially those aged 40 and above.
She is Phuong Thi Nguyen Martin, founder and owner of the four-decades-old Phuong Vietnamese Restaurant in Los Baños, popular for its homemade Vietnamese fare such as the Pho Bo (Beef Noodle Soup), the Banh Xeo (Rice Pancake), and Banh Mi (Vietnamese Baguette).
Born and raised in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), Mrs. Phuong arrived in the Philippines as a refugee from the Vietnam War in 1975. Then 34 years old, she came to Manila with her Ilocano husband, Rudy Martin—who worked on the rails in Vietnam—and her 12-year-old son Rolie from her first marriage. Her first husband, a Vietnamese soldier, died in the war.
After a week in Manila with other refugees, the Martins stayed in Pangasinan for two months before finding home in Los Baños. Initially, Mrs. Phuong was hesitant to move to the Philippines, which was perfectly understandable. She had no idea about the kind of life that awaited her and her family. She had yet to learn Tagalog and was unfamiliar with Filipino culture. But she eventually consented to her husband’s wishes.“Matapang asawa ko e,” she says in her heavily inflected Vietnamese accent.
The Martins came to the Philippines with 3,000 US dollars, most of which they spent to build their home. With very little money left, Mrs. Phuong decided to put matters into her own hands. She started making spring roll wrappers and sold them to her Vietnamese kababayans.
Making the wrappers was a pretty laborious task but proved to yield a high profit margin. To further augment the family income, she and her husband started an herb garden. At one point, they supplied Thai basil, coriander and other herbs to popular Vietnamese restaurant Pho Hoa.
Mrs. Phuong knew her way around the kitchen, thanks to a grandmother who was a great cook. When Mrs. Phuong had the chance to sell Vietnamese food at a UPLB fair, this earned encouraging feedback from customers. “Sabi nila, magbukas ako ng restaurant kahit maliit lang,” she remembers them saying.
And so she put up a small operation. With an initial capital of P50,000—her accumulated earnings from selling lumpia wrapper—she rented a small space beside the Agrix moviehouse and started Phuong Vietnamese Restaurant. It stayed in that spot for about two decades before moving to its current location at F.O. Santos St. in 2007.
Since the restaurant is near UP and IRRI, it became a go-to for workers, students, and residents in the area. “Kahit nadestino na sila sa ibang lugar, bumabalik pa din sila dito para kumain. Yung iba galing Manila, Batangas, minsan galing abroad,” says Mrs. Phuong’s daughter-in-law Connie, who now helps to run the restaurant and herb garden. The matriarch’s son and husband had passed on in 2004 and 2005, respectively.
Through ups and downs, Mrs. Phuong continued to run her small eatery. “Kahit mahina, kahit malakas,” she says, adding that cooking makes her happy.
At first, Joana would collect the orders from her officemates at IRRI and have them delivered during lunch. “Marami umoorder kasi kilala nila si Nanay. They love her Vietnamese food. But when the pandemic happened, that’s when I was driven to create their Facebook page,” she says.
This turned out to be a good move because old customers started to rediscover Mrs. Phuong’s food. “Marami palang nag-akala na wala na ang restaurant or bumalik na si Mrs. Phuong sa Vietnam,” she says. “Hindi sila aware na lumipat lang ng location.” Eventually, as Covid restrictions eased, Mrs. Phuong decided to respond to this renewed interest and came up with her specials—which has kept her patrons tuned in to Phuong Vietnamese Restaurant updates.
After four decades, Mrs. Phuong continues to cook with a joyful heart, always grateful for every diner who likes her food. Asked if she still has dreams of making her business bigger, the lady smiles and says she’d rather keep her operation the way it is. “Baka hanapin ako ng mga suki ko dito,” she says, her eyes brightening. “Gusto ko, pagpunta nila, andito pa din ako.”