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What's in a name? Madame Nhu featured in Gourmet Traveller

Updated: Oct 28, 2021

Gourmet Traveller talks to Madame Nhu about its controversial name. Below is an excerpt from the article by Yvonne C Lam. Read the full article on Gourmet Traveller

Minh Nguyen regularly receives complaints about Madame Nhu, the clutch of Vietnamese restaurants he co-owns in Sydney. All the complainants, he says, are white people who have never been to the restaurant or had much experience of Vietnam.

The restaurant is named after Tran Le Xuân, also known as Madame Nhu, south Vietnam's de facto "first lady" to President Ngô Đình Diem from 1955 to 1963. She was a firebrand figure during the Vietnam war who took aim at the French, the United States, communists and Buddhists, and who has proven to be a source of fascination and wellspring for disdain by the foreign press and history books.

Within the Vietnamese diaspora in Australia, opinion is mixed. Some regard Nhu as a strong-willed figure who stood up to U.S influence. Others remember her infamous comments about Thích Quang Đuc, where she likened the monk, who self-immolated in protest against Diem's crackdown on Buddhist-led dissent, to a "barbecue".

Nguyen acknowledges there was a "small risk" to naming his restaurant after such a polarising figure. From armchair historians, mainly. "[And] Buddhists would also take issue with the comments she made." But he says her remarks need to be taken in a wider context. "It was more a question of communism and independence and the political disunity that was happening in that country. Her comments were aimed at that disunity."

Madame Nhu has three [five] Sydney locations in Surry Hills in the inner-city, and Chatswood and Hornsby to the north – areas that do not have Vietnamese-dense populations, and are therefore more likely to have diners who find the name benign.

"A Vietnamese restaurant in Surry Hills could get away with a slightly problematic name," says Dr Sukhmani Khorana, a vice-chancellor's senior research fellow at Western Sydney University, and researcher in the fields of migration and food politics. "But they are less likely to attempt that if they were in a part of Sydney that had a significant Vietnamese community, or sections of the community who found the reference to Madame Nhu [the historical figure] objectionable".

Nguyen disagrees. "Yes, Madame Nhu is a divisive figure even within the diaspora. But those who see her in a negative light, in my experience and opinion, are in the minority. Therefore I don't believe that we'll have any issue opening a branch in predominantly Vietnamese suburbs." He points to a 2016 protest by the Vietnamese community against a Brisbane restaurant named after Ho Chi Minh, the north Vietnamese communist leader. "[It] shows that distance is not a barrier for Vietnamese people if they are really passionate about something."

Madame Nhu, he says, is also representative of a time of significant cultural and culinary development in Vietnam, spurred by the migration of people from the north to south, and with it, the popularisation of pho, the beef rice noodle soup that originated in northern Vietnam in the early 1900s.

Ultimately for Nguyen, who fled Vietnam by boat aged five, he says the name choice was his way of setting the record straight about a complex woman whose reputation has been largely shaped by Western media and white historians.

"The question people often ask about a government's legacy is whether the country was left in a better position at the end of its reign than at the beginning. Most old Vietnamese people I know, who actually lived through the war, still retain a certain nostalgia for Diem's Vietnam," says Nguyen. "If that says anything at all, it's that the story of Diem and Madame Nhu are more nuanced and complex than what Wikipedia and Western-centric documentaries would have us believe."

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