Vivian Answers the Question “Why NC?”

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Last month, Vivian Howard was a featured speaker at Leadership North Carolina’s annual forum, held in downtown Raleigh. Vivian took the stage with Raleigh restaurateur Van Nolintha to speak about “Why North Carolina? A Rural and Urban Perspective on Hospitality.” Vivian and Van shared their stories about how they came to call North Carolina home — and now both run successful restaurants in different parts of the state. Van and his sister, Vanvisa, own Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana, which was named America’s Best New Restaurant in 2017 by Bon Appetit magazine; the restaurants are located next door to each other on Raleigh’s Moore Square. 

Van was sent to Greensboro, N.C. from Laos by his parents when he was 12-years-old. He came for school and lived with family friends. His sister joined him a year later. Van attended N.C. State University and England’s Trinity College and Vanvisa went to UNC-Greensboro and received a degree in hospitality. After graduating during an economic recession and having few job prospects, Van, who held degrees in design as well as peace and conflict studies, and Vanvisa, decided to open one of the country’s first Laotian restaurants in downtown Raleigh. 

Given that history, Van told the audience: “I had a hard time with the question: ‘Why NC?’ It assumes we get to choose where we are.” Life and circumstances can dictate where people end up as it did for Van and his sister whose parents sent them away for a chance at an education and better life. It is the same for many of their restaurants’ staff who are refugees. Van added: “It wasn’t a choice. It was survival.” 

Bida Manda was possible because of a Laotian tradition to bequeath a piece of land upon your death to your children. At their request, Van and Vinvisa’s parents sold a piece of land in Laos that they were saving for their children’s inheritance to fund Bida Manda. “It’s the same thing as tending the land — it just happens to be in a different place,” Van explained. “It has been so tremendous to be in this neighborhood.”  

Vivian, who grew up in Deep Run, N.C., said her decision to return to the Tar Heel state could not have been predicted after she was so desperate to leave for high school and college. “Part of what has been so profound for me was the opportunity to leave the state and come back and see the state for what it really was,” Vivian told the crowd. 

When she and Ben returned in the 2000s, lured by her family’s promise to help open a restaurant in downtown Kinston, she soon realized she didn’t know as much as she thought she did about where she grew up. That lesson came courtesy of a plastic bag filled with collard kraut, an eastern North Carolina food tradition she had never heard of despite growing up here, going to culinary school and reading a vast number of cookbooks.

“The people in my community had a type of wisdom, a type of knowledge that people in New York City or Raleigh did not. Their wisdom was not less than. Their wisdom was different,” Vivian said. “I started paying more attention to the people all around me. I paid attention to my mom, which is the ultimate. I urge everyone who has ties to a rural community to look deep, ask questions. … I think we will be blown away by everyone in our backyards.”

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