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Interview: The Fall of Saigon & the Rise of an American Dream

Lee Pham
July 22, 2016
October 25, 2021

Today, on April 30, 1975, the city of Saigon fell. After a violent and devastating battle, it was invaded by communist North Vietnamese troops, and the Vietnam War was lost.

Just forty-eight hours before The Fall, a young family fled for their lives along with thousands of their countrymen. They were rushed aboard an America-bound cargo ship by U.S. Military service members.

Danielle and Binh Pham had once owned and operated a hair salon in Saigon. Now, huddled aboard a boat bound for a strange land, was their young son Lee, their toddler daughter Thu, and their tiny infant son Bao.

Their home, their business, and many of their loved ones, were left behind as the city they’d known all their lives was bombarded by artillery fire.

While hope was ahead of them, the journey to a new life was very dangerous and frightening. Food on the cargo ship was scarce, and conditions were filthy and overcrowded.

At one point, Danielle went so long without food or water, that her body stopped producing breast milk. Fearing their baby would starve, Binh gathered scraps of bread, mashed them with a little water into a thin gruel, and Danielle fed it to her baby Bao with the tip of her finger.

Fast forward 40 years.

Following in his parent’s footsteps, Lee Pham is now the proud owner of Visage Salon & Day Spa in North Houston. Thu and Bao are both very successful stylists at Visage, and their mother, Danielle, has more children, and even more grandchildren.

Their father, Binh, passed away earlier this year, but his legacy – the American dream he sparked for his family four decades ago when he loaded them onto a cargo ship to escape a communist regime – has been realized and is still very much alive and blossoming.

“If it was not for the bravery and sacrifice of American servicemen and women,” Thu told The Houston Chronicle during a September, 2013 interview, “my family would not be living in the greatest nation in the world. Life as we know it would not exist.”

We recently sat down with Lee Pham at Pho Ton Vietnamese Restaurant, which coincidentally is right next door to Visage Salon.

Today, Lee is a handsome and fashion-savvy artist, overflowing with ideas for how to build and improve his business. He has a passionate love for family, and his hometown of Northwest Houston.

Q. What lead you to start a hair salon here in North Houston?

A. “After cosmetology school, I realized I wanted to specialize in something that was really essential,” Lee recalls. “To be a successful makeup artist, you almost have to move to New York City or Los Angeles, but I wanted to stay right here in the Houston area. I also didn’t want to be dependent upon other people’s whims, or whatever happened to come into style. I decided it would be smart to do something – not just that everyone wanted – but that everyone needed;to offer a service that people had to have. I was looking for something that was fashionable, but also a necessity. That’s how I came to work with hair.”

Q. Obviously, you love fashion. I can tell you’re an artist just by looking at you!

A. “Yes! People sometimes ask me if I’m a rock star because of my artistic clothes. They sometimes also ask me, ‘Why do you grow your hair long? Why do you style it?’ And it’s because I’m an artist. Hair and cosmetics are my mediums. I’m always experimenting and trying new things that make me stand out in a crowd, so I usually look creative depending on what new styles and fashions I’ve been studying or imagining.”

Q. How did you come up with the concept of Visage Salon?

A. “Once Visage became established as a hair salon, I began building onto that model and adding services like massages, facials, manicures, pedicures, and other things. So now, Visage isn’t just a hair salon, but a one-stop-shop for beauty.”

Q. What would you say makes you successful as an entrepreneur and business owner?

A. “To be a successful entrepreneur or business owner, your work needs to be about more than just making money. Money is a good thing and it can be a great motivator, but in order to really succeed and set yourself apart, you have to have that passion – a sincere love – for what you’re doing and what you’re building.”

Q. What advice would you give an aspiring entrepreneur or new business owner?

A. “It’s important to know how to see the steps that will build upon each other to ultimately take you to where you want to go. You take those steps one at a time and you stick with it. If you can stay inspired and keep progressing toward your goal, then you will be successful.”

Q. What advice would you give to kids who are still in school? Maybe your nieces and nephews?

A. “Well, as I get older, I realize more and more how important high quality communication is in the modern world. As a kid, English was my second language, and teachers and grown ups would encourage me to read more and learn to speak and write more fluently, and I didn’t take them seriously, because I didn’t understand. Now, with platforms like Facebook, phone apps, websites, and technology – because that’s where everything is going – the ability to communicate, not just verbally, but through good writing and clear grammar, is very important. That’s what I tell my nephews and nieces. Learn to be an effective communicator because that is how the modern world, entrepreneurship, and the future works.”

The Pham family’s incredible story of escaping from The Fall of Saigon, and immigrating to Houston where they’ve successfully launched businesses and raised happy families, is one that has been covered several times by the media. Without a doubt, we would love to see it someday recorded as a book.