Van Tran works about twice as hard as the average Yukoner.
He can’t stop giggling about it.
Tran, who with his wife Lan Tang owns Pho Lien Vietnamese Cuisine, Whitehorse’s first Vietnamese noodle joint, wakes early in the morning to take his 10-year-old daughter Michelle to school, then goes to his restaurant to help prepare for the day.
At 3 p.m. he goes to his second job as a janitor.
“Sometime after dinner, I finish at 11:30 p.m. and I come over here,” says Tran, 54, somehow smiling about the situation.
“The first few weeks I stay to 4 o’clock in the morning.”
Tran is a jolly man; he smiles and giggles because his family is finally realizing its dream — creating a successful business where their hard work enhances their prosperity in Canada.
He hasn’t taken a vacation in a long time because he’s been saving money to open the restaurant, he says.
His wife also takes on janitor duties when she’s not working as the restaurant’s head cook.
His daughter Caroline works as a waiter, and even dug into her own savings to help open the business, he says proudly.
His son Paul works at the restaurant, too.
And, in the evenings, young Michelle can be seen sitting at a restaurant table quietly colouring in a book, wearing a paper tiara.
The rest of Tran’s family is either in the kitchen, taking orders or running food to tables.
There’s no one to babysit her at home.
“Lots of people more work hard,” says Tran of the family’s dizzying work ethic. “We are still young now. It will be OK to do that kind of job.”
Tran came to Canada in 1979.
He and his family moved to Whitehorse in 1999 from Courtney, on Vancouver Island.
Since then, they have been saving to open a business, trying their luck as they went.
“I came to Whitehorse, I try lots of business but couldn’t make it,” says Tran, once again adding a laugh.
He opened a tailor shop that made parkas but it didn’t survive, he explains.
With his family’s noodle restaurant, however, the only problem is finding enough people to help out.
“Right now very hard to find a prep (cook),” he says. “Even the dishwasher. Now in town, not too many people. Very hard to find the labour.”
Three of the people who work for Tran are not members of his family.
Business is calming somewhat since the early days of Pho Lien — which many people know as Chez Noodle — when lineups were out the door at lunch and dinner.
These days, Tran only stays to 1:30 or 2 a.m. before getting a few hours of sleep.
“It’s very good, I hope the Yukon like it, just help me out; everything be nice,” he says of the restaurant.
The business is successful because Vietnamese food is viewed as a healthy alternative, he says.
“Right now, you know, most people from diet and everything, and I think in Whitehorse we are only noodle soup in town yet, and I think it’s OK to do it,” he says.
The most popular dish at Pho Lien is, unsurprisingly, “beef noodle soup, yeah, pho,” he says.
Like so many things in Vietnam, the proliferation of noodle soup restaurants is a by-product of the post-colonial period that saw France leave the country split in two in the 1950s, only for it to be reunited after the communist North defeated the US-backed South in 1979.
Tran, who grew up in Vinh Long, a village outside Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh City) saw the explosion of noodle shops in the city after an influx of northern Vietnamese.
“They all do noodle. That’s why I think ‘Maybe it will go,’” he says of Pho Lien.
If you were to write “pho” phonetically it would be spelled something like “fuuhh.” Say it as if you were asking a question.
Aside from dozens of variations of pho, Pho Lien offers salad rolls, spring rolls, grilled chicken and grilled fish, stews and vermicelli noodle dishes.
Delicious, strong Vietnamese “milk coffee,” either hot or iced, is also offered.
Trust me, if you like sweet condensed milk, just try it.
Tran hopes to tailor the menu more toward Yukon tastes, he says.
And every Saturday or Sunday he offers a unique special that’s a bit edgier.
But for most of us, including myself, the best thing about Pho Lien is, well, pho.
During a recent trip to Vietnam, I ate pho for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
And in a shop in Hanoi, Vietnam’s northern capital, I found the goddess of pho.
The shop, no larger than your typical North American walk-in closet, had four tables filled with about a dozen slurping diners, sitting on plastic chairs that rose just a few centimeters off the floor.
A woman with a frown sat on a stool behind piles of basil, bean sprouts and raw beef slices, stoking a cauldron full of broth that sent smells of cinnamon and star anise to the nose.
Though she scowled at everyone, we took the abuse. She was selling bowls of the most delicious pho for 50 cents a bowl.
For anyone in Whitehorse with such a fond culinary memory burned into their brain, Pho Lien can provide a reliable fix.
And like Tran, customers at Pho Lien are upbeat, he says.
“They’re very happy and like it,” he says.
“They use chopsticks more better than me!”