In Orange County, California, there’s no shortage of restaurants selling bánh mì, that delicious Vietnamese sandwich featuring a crunchy baguette filled with grilled meat, pate, fresh and pickled vegetables. The OC’s Little Saigon is home to the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam. But go to the town of Westminster and you can see a pop star behind the counter, a woman known as the Vietnamese Madonna.
Lynda Trang Dai is the most glamorous proprietor of a sandwich shop I’ve ever seen. She sports stiletto heels, a short skirt, and perfect make-up — including false eyelashes. She’s also a bit of a diva. She makes me wait two hours to interview her! Yet in between texts messages and phone calls she’s the one running to the kitchen — checking an industrial mixer as it churns a special sauce for the sandwiches. She’s the only one who knows the recipe.
Her shop, Lynda Sandwich, sits in the middle of a parking lot in a strip mall. Inside, though, it feels like a posh living room, with lush plants, brightly-painted murals of her idols like Michael Jackson and Marilyn Monroe, and a wide-screen TV playing the Food Network. There’s also a wall of fame, with framed images of Vietnamese-American singers, but Lynda Trang Dai might be more famous than any of them.
“I used to like watch her in videos with my parents when I was a kid growing up. So, she’s pretty famous among the Vietnamese community,” says customer Patrick Pham, adding sheepishly, “I never met her, personally,” even though she’s actually at a table just a few feet away. He’s clearly star-struck, but he insists he comes for the bánh mì. “They have really good food here. Yeah, it’s really simple, you know what I mean? I think the whole baguette came from like France, when they colonized us for 100 years.”
Another customer, Javier Alcala, works at the local community college. He’s eating his favorite cha tom, a slightly unconventional bánh mì with shrimp cake. Alcala first came in out of curiosity. For years he’d seen posters around town, announcing the singer’s concerts, so he wanted to come in and try the food made by the Madonna of Little Saigon.
Lynda Trang Dai’s life-story is pretty extraordinary, but as she talks even about her earliest days, in the ‘70s in Central Vietnam, it’s clear that food has always been central. “I remember sitting on this wooden table, my grandmother taught me how to make bánh bèo, dough with shrimp on it,” a dish she still loves. After the war, her family went from well-off to poor, and she remembers, “I would buy fruit, a whole big watermelon, cut it up, and sell it and make money.
Then, in 1979, her father got tipped off that the government was going to investigate him on suspicion of aiding the CIA during the war. They escaped at two in the morning, family members split between tiny boats. “We had to be quiet, so quiet,” Lynda remembers. “It was scary. If we got caught, we’d go to jail.” They went through storms and ran out of food, and finally found some refuge on a Chinese island, where she says they were fed rice with sugar. “It’s strange to eat rice with sugar but it was so good at the time.”
They got back on the water, headed for Hong Kong, and then saw the large British ship that would save them.They all started waving. “I could never forget, it was just unbelievable, the most amazing moment,” Lynda remembers, choking up. “When we got up for them to rescue us into land they gave us croissants. That was like going from hell to heaven.”
But when her family got to the US, she developed another passion, and found her first career. She always loved to sing, the first to volunteer in elementary school, she says. As a high school student, she started performing in tiny venues around Little Saigon putting up her own fliers. And then one night she was discovered singing at a club. She was invited to film her first spot in a variety show called Paris By Night — a hugely popular video series — so she missed her high school graduation and flew to France.
She became a star, dressing provocatively, singing in both English and Vietnamese, a draw for young Vietnamese Americans. In the 90s in any home throughout the Vietnamese diaspora, you’d probably find a VHS tape featuring Lynda Trang Dai. The videos even made it back to Vietnam in a kind of grey market. “Back then, it’s illegal to watch,” Lynda explains, adding that if people got caught they could go to jail. But an estimated 72 million people in Vietnam did watch.
Lynda started touring Vietnamese communities around the US and the world but her obsession with Vietnamese food remained constant. She says, the first time she went to Australia, she brought food on the plane with her, including bánh bèo and a noodle soup which she asked the flight attendant to heat up. “All the other Vietnamese singers would look at me, like, ‘You are so weird.’” But she found good Vietnamese food all over the world, and started a kind of ritual wherever she touched down. “In any city I’d go to I’d just check in on the hotel, throw all my luggage down and go and find a Vietnamese restaurant, that’s it.”
She still tours a lot, but when I visit, she’s performing in Westminster with her contemporaries, in a banquet hall, just a few hundred feet away from her bánh mì shop. People in the crowd are dressed to the 9s, including sisters Hang and Juliette Nguyen. They came from LA to see this show. “These were the big Vietnamese stars when we were younger. We used to watch them on videos, and go to their concerts whenever they did come down south.” The sisters say there weren’t a lot of Vietnamese people in Alabama in the 80s. Tonight, the singer is dressed in a barely-there strappy outfit. It fits the image the sisters remember: the sex symbol among Vietnamese singers. She was the Madonna, “The Vietnamese Madonna,” they say, in unison.
That comparison thrills Lynda, but she says she worked hard to communicate to the larger community that that was just her on-stage persona. “When I’m off stage I’m like 100% completely different, a total Vietnamese traditional girl who takes care of their family, food on the table, everything.”
Case in point: she started her sandwich shop as a business with her family, and though a small staff does most of the food prep and sales, Lynda Trang Dai is still is the only one to make the special Lynda Sauce. “Sometimes when I travel to Australia to sing on a tour, or to Europe, I would be up all night here making sauce, and just sleep on the plane if I have to.” Anything, she says, for a great meal.