Located in an area of Chicago West Loop that includes various restaurants and several fitness venues, VietFive (1116 W. Madison St.; www.vietfive.com ) certainly stands outfor all the right reasons.
According to owner Tuan Huynh, VietFive is the only spot in the city that makes authentic Vietnamese-style coffee. However, the place offers much morefrom a laid-back vibe to events with artists (like American Idol's Manny Torres) to items such as ube latte (which pretty much tastes like cereal milk) to Chicago hot-dog empanadas.
Huynh has led an eventful life, to say the least. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, his family was displaced from Danang City to the rural central highlands of Vietnam. (The family continues to live in Vietnam's Dak Lak province.) He later fled to the United States and grew up in the Midwest, having to deal with incarceration and eventually taking a job at Chicago's Leo Burnett office. Huynh left that job last year to start VietFive.
Windy City Times: First, you've mentioned different events VietFive has hosted. Are you doing anything from Pride Month?
Tuan Huynh: Not yetbut I'm totally down to support. I'd love to do something. But also, I don't just want to be an ally for Pride Month. I'd love to partner with someone for the whole year. I just don't want to ride the coattails of a movement and turn a profit.
WCT: Where did the name 'VietFive' come from?
TH: "Five" is a direct translation of the "nam" in "Vietnam." If you count from one to five"mot," "hai," "ba," "bon" and "nam"it means "five." And it's an [homage] to the five siblings. [Points to photo on a wall] That's our first photo in America; my mom was pregnant with my little brother at the time. There were 55 people on a 45-by-15[-foot] boat we escaped on and I was the youngest, at 3. We ended up in a Malaysian refugee camp for five months prior to coming to the U.S.
In numerology, five symbolizes choices and change. In the Biblical context, it means grace. That symbolizes my journey and the coffee's journeycoming from obscurity, in a sense, but so well-known. It's not just condensed milk; it's coffee grown in Vietnam. It's not the proper representation to just say "Vietnamese coffee." When people think of Colombian or Ethiopian coffee, they'll give credit to where it's from; people don't attach Vietnamese coffee to its home.
WCT: Is it also a style of brewing?
TH: Yesbut it's also the style of serving. People in the Western world have become accustomed to consuming Vietnamese coffee over ice with condensed milk. Any coffee can be put in there with condensed milk and be called Vietnamese coffee. But [true] Vietnamese coffee is about where the coffee is from as wellon red volcanic soil on our family's farm. And we import here right here, and we make it every dayand in a way that people get the full impact of the coffee, seven days a week. I want to give authenticity to our coffee.
And we have much more than coffee. For example, our empanadas have traditional Vietnamese items as well unique culinary approaches, but they're put into an empanada. It translates to "grab and go."
WCT: When the pastry chef approached you about a Chicago hot-dog empanada, what did you say?
TH: I trust Michael. There has to be a level of trust there.
WCT: You have a pretty cool menu. Do you see that changing?
TH: I'm sure we'll adapt, adjust and refine it. We have ice cream, pastries and other thingsbut we'll keep the [wall menu] short.
WCT: Switching gears, I've noticed that you also try to help the community.
TH: Yes. I'm with Chicago Peace [which aims to bring positive, collaborative and sustainable change to Chicago neighborhoods in need of revitalization, according to its website]. I want to impact the city, but I'm not a politician. I want to bring about change with the work I do outside of VietFivebut, even here, we create opportunity, access and a sense of community, and have community-centered events. There are no barriers in what we want to create. I want this place to be welcoming and for everyone to feel accepted. Also, I use agency [Leo Burnett] connections to provide opportunities for others.
I know the blessings I've received, and I want to pass things on to others. I want to leave a legacy my family can be proud of.
Also, there's this very negative concept about Chicago. I know this sounds audacious, but imagine Chicago being the safest place to live in America.
WCT: You have said that you don't believe in equality, but you believe in equity.
TH: Yes; they're not the same thing. There's always fighting when you talk about equality. Why is it that liberation is still in question? It took two months to pass the "Stop Asian Hate" bill but it took years to pass the [Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill]. Do you think that's equality? No, it isn't. Equality doesn't exist. The best thing to do [to even things] is through ownership. You can't slay a dragon with a turtle. There's a lot of hypocrisy out there.
And respect is very important. Love thy neighbor as thyself. For me, there are no barriers to love; I love all my brothers and sistersand I need to keep up with what's news [regarding non-binary people]. Sometimes I'll say, "What's up, man?"but I don't mean anything by it. If I realize I made a mistake, I'll immediately say, "I'm sorry." You have to be aware of the culture.
WCT: With everything that's happened since 2020, what have you learned about yourself?
TH: [Smiles] That's a deep question.
I think what I've learned about myself is that I still have a lot of room to grow. I've lost a lot of my adult life; June 21 will mark my 11th year of freedom [since being incarcerated in Kansas]. That was a moment of discovery for me, because quarantine is nothing compared to [jail time]. For the longest time, I was trying to play catch-upbut I realized, in the last year, that I'm tired of playing that. I'm present and accepting; that's why I've become more comfortable in telling my story.
WCT: What do you want customers to take away from VietFive?
TH: Goodness. [Editor's note: "Five" also means goodness, in the Biblical context.] I want people to get goodness from the vibes we put out, the items they buy and the relationships we establish.