Photos and story by Lara Climaco l FilAm Star Correspondent
PUERTO PRINCESA CITY— At 71 years old, Pham Thi Anh still works full time. Better known as Mommy Anh, she is one of only two remaining Vietnamese working at the Viet Ville Restaurant, a destination famous for authentic Vietnamese cuisine. Mommy Anh describes herself as the assistant chef. The head chef is Mommy Ming, also Vietnamese and older than Mommy Anh. The rest of Viet Ville’s 23 staff are Filipinos, mostly Palawenyos or locals from around the province, who are in their early 20s.
It wasn’t always this way. Up to 2006, the restaurant was fully staffed by Vietnamese locals. After all, Viet Village was set up by the Vicariate of Puerto Princesa so that Vietnamese refugees (“boat people” who fled from the fall of Saigon) could fully integrate into Philippine society rather than being forcibly repatriated to Vietnam. Thus, cooperatives were formed with Vietnamese and Filipino shareholders so that Viet Ville could become a self-sustaining community. Aside from the famous restaurant, Viet Ville boasts a French bread bakery, noodle manufacturing, fish sauce making and meat processing. In its heyday, it even had a guest house system.
Although Mommy Anh is not a refugee herself, she is now one of the longest residents of Viet Village. Her house is just behind the restaurant, where she started working in 2000.
She arrived in Manila in 1978, three years after meeting her Filipino husband in Saigon.
She and her husband, Ruben Villa, have two children who now have their own families and are living in Quezon City. Villa passed away last year.
Mommy Anh considers the Philippines her home. She was 24 when she arrived in Manila with her husband. As of this year, she has spent 40 years of her life in the country. She’s only had two occasions to visit Vietnam, the first time was in 2016 followed by another trip last year when her 100-year-old mother died. She stayed only three days because her vacation leave is only one week per year. Although she has two siblings still living in Vietnam, Mommy Anh plans to stay in the Philippines when she retires.
According to Ailyn Pineda, Viet Ville restaurant manager, Filipinos are now being trained to take over chef duties soon. Owned by the Catholic Church and being managed by the Vicariate of Puerto Princesa, the 13-hectare Viet Village hosts only two families of the original “boat people” who arrived in 1970s. When Mommy Anh arrived on the scene, there were as many as 500 individuals. Anecdotal reports say the original number was around 1,500. Most have relocated to the United States, Canada and Australia, taking advantage of citizenship offered in these countries. Some return every year to give back to the community.
There are plans to elevate Viet Ville into a fuller destination, Pineda said. Since the widening of the national highway will likely claim a portion of the land where the existing restaurant stands, a new building will have to be built. The management sees it as an opportunity to modernize. Aside from a bigger new restaurant, Viet Ville will build two separate structures where visitors can watch how the restaurant’s noodles and bread are made. The modernized version of Viet Ville could rise as soon as late this year or next year.
And most likely, with the Filipino chefs on board. Mommy Anh uttered only one word when asked how her Filipino chef-trainees were doing: “Magaling!”