Tan M. Pham of La Crosse was 12 when his family fled South Vietnam just before it fell to communist troops.
Today, more than 40 years after the Vietnam War, he takes area residents on his eight-day Cuisine Adventure Tours in Vietnam, with a focus on Vietnamese food and culture.
Tan and his wife, Susan, launched their tour business in 2016. Its fourth and latest tour concluded Nov. 10, and the next one is scheduled for March 2-9.
Tan leads the tours. Susan usually stays behind, as she is director of the Study Away program at Winona State University, for students who study abroad.
The Phams have two children, Laura, who is 21; and Alec, who is 19. Both are students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“We’ve been traveling internationally ever since the kids were 5 and 3,” Tan said, and the family has visited about 43 nations. The family makes at least one international trip a year.
Susan was born in Pennsylvania but raised in La Crosse. She and her husband both graduated from Aquinas High School and both later attended the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. But they didn’t meet until the early 1990s, when both worked at Hawkins Ash Baptie, a certified public accounting firm in La Crosse. They married in 1994.
The Phams thought about starting a business that they could use their skills and backgrounds in, and settled on one that would take people to Vietnam, Susan said. “I’ve been involved in international education the past 13 years,” she said. “I coordinate trips in programs in different countries. And Tan loves food and knows Vietnam. We’ve been traveling internationally for many years.”
Tan has worked for computer software and health care businesses since receiving a bachelor’s degree in computer science from UW-L in 1987. Today, he’s a salesman for a health care business that’s based in Europe.
“The thing I enjoy most when I travel is the food,” Tan said. “I like to experience what people are eating, and taste the local flavors.
“We do a lot more than just eating” during Cuisine Adventure Tours, Tan said. “We do a lot each day and it’s very exciting.” The slogan he and his wife use for their tour business is “Travel with taste.”
“I enjoy showing people who haven’t been to Vietnam the country’s natural beauty, culture and cuisine,” Susan said.
The entire Pham family has made a half-dozen trips to Vietnam together. “The first time (in 2001), we didn’t know what to expect,” Tan said. “It turned out to be a beautiful reunion” with relatives on his mother’s side of the family. And the other people they met also were friendly, he said.
Tan’s father was a firefighter in the South Vietnamese air force. His mother owned a restaurant. The family fled South Vietnam in 1975, three days before it fell. The family settled in Eau Claire and after a year moved to La Crosse.
Each tour begins in Hanoi, the nation’s capital, and ends in the former South Vietnamese capital of Ho Chi Minh City – formerly known as Saigon. Participants spend four days in the Hanoi region, before flying to Ho Chi Minh City for four days in that region. Participants also visit small villages. Food experiences range from restaurants to backyard garden-to-table meals. Participants also visit local markets, museums and historic sites.
Some of the most popular tour highlights include a visit to the mausoleum with the glass sarcophagus that holds the body of Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, a “Good Morning Hanoi Tour” that begins with a visit to a famous huge flower market, a cooking class at a restaurant in the Old Quarter in Hanoi, Mekong Delta river cruise, an underground tunnel network used by communist troops during the Vietnam War and a tour of Ho Chi Minh City on Vespa mopeds (a Vietnamese driver is provided).
Cost is $2,545 per person, which does not include the cost of international flights to and from Vietnam. “Discounts are available for children under age 14,” Tan said.
A professional Vietnamese photographer takes photos for the tour groups.
“We didn’t see a lot of Americans” on the Pham family’s first trip to Vietnam in 2001, Susan said. “But that’s changed,” and now many Americans take vacation trips to Vietnam.
“We’ve been met with open arms during all of our trips,” Susan said. “In small villages, the people might not have ever seen an American. They’re curious and want to interact. They’ll want to try out their English, if they know any.”
“Even if it’s to say ‘Hello” or “How are you?” Tan added.
Four customers participated in Cuisine Adventure Tours’ October trip to Vietnam, and another four were on the November trip.
“The maximum I’d want to have (on any tour) is 10,” Tan said. “I want all of our customers to have a positive experience with the cuisine and culture.
“Our tour company is small and really gives people a chance to understand and ask questions,” he said. Using Vespa mopeds on a tour of Ho Chi Minh City allows people to travel on old narrow streets “where there’s a lot of activity such as vendors selling their wares, vendors cooking and selling food, and really seeing how people live,” Tan said.
Tan plans to lead 10 tours in Vietnam in 2018. He said he and his wife may open an office in a commercial building in the next couple years, depending on how much their tour business grows. For now, they operate from home.