At 20 years old, Huong Le left Vietnam and everything she had ever known to come to the United States. She traveled 8,000 miles across continents, oceans and time zones to – of all the unlikely places – Portland, Maine.

She arrived at the Jetport on a cold day in December 1990 with her mother, her toddler son, a few dollars in her pocket and hopes for a better life.

Huong Le spoke no English. She’d had very little schooling. While awaiting resettlement in America, she’d spent six months sharing a minuscule living space with another Vietnamese family at a big refugee processing center in the Philippines. The daughter of a Vietnamese mother and an American soldier, like other Amerasian children, Huong Le had faced prejudice and poverty in Vietnam.

She would go on to have three more children in Portland (and now two granddaughters, as well); to help them get the education she never could; to work long hours in odd jobs to support her family; to open Huong’s, the city’s first sit-down Vietnamese restaurant, and run it for almost two decades; and to see two of her girls open Vietnamese eateries of their own. As her daughter Tuyet “Snow” Thi Le posted on Instagram earlier this spring, “She never stopped working to give her kids a better life the ‘American dream.’ ”

In just a few weeks, 32 years after she first arrived in Maine, Huong Le will get her American citizenship.

“She is very happy,” said her daughter Trinh Le-Tran, 26, who, with her sister, Snow, 31, translated for their mother during interviews at Banh Appetit, Snow Thi Le’s cheerful banh mi takeout restaurant on Cumberland Avenue in Portland. Huong Le understands English now, but is still shy to speak it. Her daughters move so fluidly between Vietnamese and English, you barely notice when they’ve switched.


“All of her kids, my grandmother, my brother, we all had our citizenship, and my mom …” Trinh Le-Tran paused to think about how to say this. “This is her family. This is her home. Now that she has it, she feels she is home.”

Huong Le prepares the meat for banh mis at her daughter Snow Thi Le’s restaurant Banh Appetit. As a young woman, Snow helped her mother at her restaurant. Now their roles are reversed. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer


Huong Le was born in Vietnam in August 1968, just 13 months before Americans began to withdraw from a war that was disastrous for Vietnam and, in very different ways, for the United States. She doesn’t remember her father, although she says her parents were engaged and as a small child she once came to the United States with her mother to be with him. She isn’t sure how long they stayed. She remembers eating Cheerios. And when she returned to the United States with a child of her own some 15 years later, she instantly recognized the smell of American bakeries. Trinh Le-Tran and Snow Thi Le say their mother and grandmother returned to Vietnam because their grandmother missed home. In the chaos of war, they say their grandparents “lost communication.” Whatever happened, that was the last time Huong Le saw or heard from her father.

As the Americans withdrew, mothers were terrified the North Vietnamese Communist government would murder their Amerasian children, Huong Le explained, many rubbing coal into the children’s hair to try to make these boys and girls look wholly Vietnamese. The situation did not improve for the children. In the aftermath of the war, many led desperate lives, abandoned by their mothers; taunted as half-breeds and children of the enemy by schoolmates; isolated in the countryside; forced to survive, barely, on the streets by begging. In Vietnam, Amerasian children were known as “children of dirt,” while on the other side of the world, their American fathers mostly didn’t want them – or even know they existed.

Though Huong Le had a mother, and an extended family, she was subject to cruel and relentless bullying at school, shunned by both her classmates and her teachers. At just 6 years old, or maybe it was 7, she isn’t sure, she stopped going to school. Instead, the tiny girl went to work. Huong Le helped to care for her younger cousins, who’d lost their mother. She cleaned people’s houses. She washed floors and tables at restaurants. She lived crowded in with her extended family – aunts, uncles and cousins – in Saigon. They were so poor, even the contributions of such a small girl helped. At home, she had no shoes and not enough to eat. “What we think of as necessities, Mom didn’t have,” Trinh Le-Tran said. But at work, Huong Le quietly observed the restaurant cooks. Over time, she learned how to cook herself and found that she had a talent for it.

At 19, Huong Le married Huy, another Amerasian. Around that time, the United States finally took notice of the Amerasian children – some, like Huong Le, now adults – that it had abandoned more than a decade earlier. Congress passed the Amerasian Homecoming Act, which gave the Vietnamese children of American soldiers, as well as their immediate relatives, preferential immigration status. Under that program, some 77,000 Vietnamese immigrated to the United States, and presumably, this is how Huong Le’s husband came to Maine, and 1½ years later, Huong Le herself, her little boy and her mother.


“It’s a funny story,” Snow Thi Le said, meaning peculiar. She said that for years after her mother arrived in Maine, like other Amerasian children, she sent money back to her family in Vietnam, who were still very poor. “When she came to America, she was really, really happy because she was always picked on in Vietnam. Most half-American kids in Vietnam were not treated very well and didn’t get opportunities to go to school. But now, here in America, they are the breadwinners of the family.”


It could not have been easy for the family as they built a life for themselves in Maine. Huong Le worked at factories processing sea urchins and lobsters, or “anywhere that would hire her,” Snow Thi Le said. She made Vietnamese food at home, like baos (dumplings) and rice plates, which she brought to work to sell to her co-workers.

“She would leave at like 5 a.m. and not be home until about 6 p.m. She would be out aaaaaaall day,” said Snow Thi Le, dragging out the word for emphasis, perhaps sounding a bit like the little girl she’d once been who wanted her mommy at home.

Trinh Le-Tran holds her phone to show a photo of her mom, Huong Le, and three of her four children, including Snow Thi Le, left, and Trinh Le-Tran, center. The girls were born in Maine; their mother and brother were born in Vietnam. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Huong Le’s mother worked as a supervisor at Barber Foods, while her husband worked processing fish on the wharves in Portland. The couple soon had a daughter, Snow Thi Le (born during a snowstorm. Her Vietnamese name, Tuyet, literally means Snow) and then another, Trinh Le-Tran, and then a third, Thao, their youngest. (Now 20, Thao doesn’t yet know what she wants to do with her life, but she knows what she doesn’t want to do: run a restaurant.)

The growing family didn’t have a lot of money. Snow Thi Le remembers moving a lot, shuffling from one apartment or house to another, in Kennedy Park, on Alder Street, on Munjoy Hill, and near Maine Medical Center in Portland, then in South Portland for a time, too. Still, when asked about those years, Huong Le didn’t wait for her daughters to translate, and it wasn’t hard times she wanted to talk about. “Happy,” she said in heavily accented English of her new start in Maine. “I work and have money. Help my family.”


“It may not have been name brands,” Trinh Le-Tran said, “but she wanted to make sure we had everything we needed – clothing, shoes, school – and that we were happy.”

Eventually, all four children graduated from high school. The oldest, Hoang, went on to college and got a degree in economics; he now lives and works in London. In high school, Trinh Le-Tran found joy and success as a competitive cheerleader, while Snow Thi Le learned to play flute. Their mother encouraged her children to try whatever interested them, and to put their hearts into whatever they tried. (Trinh Le-Tran and Snow Thi Le said they now share these goals for their own daughters, Lillian, 3, and Amelia, 4, respectively.)

“Education was really important for her because she didn’t get to finish her education,” Trinh Le-Tran said, translating for her mom. “When we all finished high school, she was very happy. She wanted to have us reach for the stars.”

The story Huong Le likes to relate from her early years in Maine is about a day she was walking in the pouring rain, heavily pregnant with Snow Thi Le and pushing her son in a stroller. A couple pulled up in their car. Could they help? Could they take her somewhere? Could they rescue her from the downpour? Huong Le declined, replying with an English word she’d learned, “near, near, near,” to try to convey that she was near her home. Her daughters have heard about these compassionate long-ago strangers many times. Just as many times, they’ve seen their mother tear up while telling the tale.

Snow Thi Le, right, and her sister Trinh Le-Tran together at Snow’s restaurant Banh Appetit. The girls are very close and sometimes finish each other’s sentences. Trinh Le-Tran recently closed her own food stall, Pho Huong, in the Public Market and plans to work part-time with her sister and spend more time with her own daughter, Lillian, who is 3. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer


By 2000, Huong Le had saved enough money to open her own restaurant, Huong’s Vietnamese Food, on Cumberland Avenue, a small place with just five tables in the space that’s now Schulte & Herr.


“She had us running around in there, and it was her running the restaurant, so she had a lot of people come in and just love it because it was family run,” Snow Thi-Le recalled, adding that today, people still stop for sandwiches at Banh Appetit and recognize her and her mom from those days.

At the food stall Pho Huong in the Public Market, which Trinh Le-Tran ran for four years until closing it a few weeks ago, she had similar experiences: customers who recognized her from the little girl she was then, playacting at waitressing – in her mother’s high heels – at Huong’s Vietnamese Food. Holding her mother’s cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee in one hand and a notepad in the other, little Trinh Le-Tran would approach customers: “What can I get for you?”

Snow Thi Le and Trinh Le-Tran trace their own love of cooking to those days. As girls, they helped their mother cook, ticking off items they watched her make: peanut sauce, fish sauce, egg rolls and – argh! – those wontons. Trinh Le-Tran made a face remembering them.

“The wontons! Tedious!” Snow Thi Le exclaimed.

“The egg rolls are just a roll like that,” Trinh Le-Tran said, making an easy motion with her hands. “But with wontons, you filled it, you have to roll it a certain way, then you have to twist it, then you have to tie it a certain way.” Her fingers worked furiously to show the complicated motions.

Imagine! As a 6-year-old! Snow Thi Le chimed in. Eventually, Trinh Le-Tran mastered the skill. She used to make wontons at Pho Huong. Snow Thi Le? Not so much. “I do wontons once in a blue moon,” she said.


For a time, Huong Le also ran a bar, Bottoms Up, at the foot of Munjoy Hill. The local Vietnamese community sought a place to gather and relax, according to her daughters, and their mother obliged. But running both a restaurant and a bar while raising four children proved too much even for her, and after about six years, Huong Le closed the bar. In 2014, she moved Huong’s Vietnamese Food to a larger space on St. John Street.

It’s still there, under different ownership. Huong Le sold it in 2018. Her daughters say they considered taking it over, but they didn’t feel ready to run a sit-down restaurant. “We kind of wanted to do our own thing first and see where it goes,” Snow Thi Le said. As Snow Thi Le once helped her mother at Huong’s Vietnamese Food, now her mother helps her at Banh Appetit.

With the restaurant sold and her children grown, Huong Le had time to do something she’d long put off – study to become an American citizen.

Huong Le hands her daughter, Snow Thi Le, two orders of spring rolls. As the child of a Vietnamese mother and an American soldier, Huong Le had a very difficult childhood. She came to the United States at age 19, and over three decades, she raised four children and ran a popular Vietnamese restaurant. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer


The three Le girls were born in Maine, which made them automatic citizens of the United States. Their older brother was born in Vietnam, as was their grandmother, who helped raise them. Both brother and grandmother got their American citizenship sometime around 2010. Trinh Le-Tran and Snow Thi Le say they weren’t surprised their grandmother beat their mom to it. Of the two, their grandmother strikes them as more American, they said, which they attribute, with a laugh, to her longstanding devotion to bingo at John Roberts Hall in South Portland. (Among the “random things” their grandmother brought home over the years, a toaster, a blender, “and do you remember the pizza cooker?” Trinh Le-Tran said. “I loved that pizza cooker. It was the coolest thing ever!”)

Huong Le had long since divorced her husband, the father of her children, and remarried; her second husband also has one American and one Vietnamese parent. And at this point, she’d lived in the United States a dozen years longer than she had in her native land. But that didn’t stop her from being nervous about the citizenship test. She has never been confident in her English or in herself, her daughters say.


“But we had so much confidence in this woman!” Snow Thi Le said.

Huong Le got a tape that reviewed the citizenship questions and answers in English and Vietnamese. Who was the first president of the United States? Where does the president live? How many stars in the American flag? Who is the vice president? What are the major American holidays? Huong Le listened to the tape in the car. She listened while she did the laundry. She listened when she made dinner. “All day, all day, all day, ” Trinh Le-Tran said.

In late March, on the day of Huong Le’s scheduled citizenship test, she refused to let her daughters drive her to the testing center in South Portland. She insisted on going alone so her children wouldn’t see her fail. That morning, the four children had texted one another: Today’s the day. Pray for mom. As Huong Le finished the exam, she told the examiner that her children were praying for her. “Their prayers worked,” the examiner replied, according to Snow Thi Le. “‘You passed!'” Huong Le, who’d answered every single question correctly, began to cry.

Snow Thi Le had been so confident in her mom, she’d closed down Banh Appetit five hours early that afternoon, bought a vanilla cake and flowers at Hannaford (Huong Le loves flowers; the children always give her them for Mother’s Day), and met her mother at the testing center. Surprise!

On May 25, Huong Le and the family will attend a naturalization ceremony in South Portland to make it official.



Four years ago, Trinh Le-Tran and Snow Thi Le’s parents began to wonder about their missing American fathers. It’s not something either discusses easily, their children said. The four children suggested they try 23andMe, a testing service that can link strangers through their DNA. Eventually, they learned that their maternal grandfather had married, but never had any other children. He was now dead.

Their paternal grandfather was also deceased, they learned. But he’d gone on to have other children, and his daughter, a half-sister of their father, was on 23andMe, too. She reached out to them, “ecstatic,” Snow Thi Le said, to discover she had an entire family she’d had no idea even existed. Like her half-brother, she had four children, and later that year, the cousins traveled from their home in Ohio to Maine to meet the Les. The big, new blended family visited the Maine attractions: Fort Williams Park, Red’s Eats, Peaks Island, Old Orchard Beach. Huong Le cooked a Vietnamese feast for everybody; lobster stir-fry featured prominently.

“We were really comfortable when we met them,” Snow Thi Le said. One of her new cousins, her sister says, is Snow Thi Le’s twin. “We just felt a weird connection. Hey, we’re family!”

This summer, their Ohio cousins are scheduled to return to Maine for another visit. American passport secured, Huong Le has travel plans of her own. First thing, she wants to visit her son in London. Then, she’d like to see France. And next summer, Huong Le and her whole family – mother, children, husband, grandchildren – hope to go to Vietnam together.

Huong Family Spring Rolls

When asked for a recipe that said “home” to them, sisters Tuyet “Snow” Thi Le and Trinh Le-Tran debated between their mom’s curry, which both daughters have featured on the menus of their restaurants, or her spring rolls, which the close-knit family makes together whenever they gather for a special occasion. “That’s a family thing that we do,” Le-Tran said. They don’t need to follow a recipe for spring rolls. For them, the process is second nature, and their recipe is a template, rather than precise measurements. You can find rice noodles and spring roll rice paper at Asian grocers.


Vermicelli rice noodles
Pork belly
Iceberg lettuce
Fresh mint
Spring roll rice paper

Boil the rice noodles for 7-10 minutes, drain the pot, and let the noodles cool.

Cook the shrimp and pork belly in separate pots of boiling water. The shrimp cooks in a matter of minutes; the pork belly can take 20 to 30 minutes, depending on its size. Drain the pots. When the shrimp and pork belly have cooled, slice, then set them aside on a plate.

Prepare the vegetables: Julienne the lettuce and chop the mint. Slice the cucumbers into long thin strips.

When you are ready to roll, set a bowl of warm water to the side to dip your rice paper in.

After dipping a rice paper wrapper, fill it with your desired fillings – the noodles, shrimp, pork, lettuce, mint and cucumbers. Fold both sides in, and then continue to roll up the roll. Repeat until you’ve made as many spring rolls as you’ve ingredients and appetite for.

Serve the spring rolls with peanut or fish sauce, whichever you prefer, or both.

Comments are no longer available on this story