Vietnamese couple serving their culture’s food in rural P.E.I. ‘were meant to live here’

Once people tried the marinated meat and traditional broth, minds and orders changed

A woman behind a cash smiles as she takes money out of a till. A woman on the other side of the cash holding a takeout bag waits for her change.

Mia Pham and her husband moved to P.E.I. in 2018 and took over a convenience store and restaurant in the small community of Freeland. (Victoria Walton/CBC)

Moving to P.E.I. was an easy choice for Mia Pham and Mike Do. They wanted to be close to their daughter who had decided to study at the University of Prince Edward Island, and they wanted to own their own business.

But it was only by chance that they ended up in the small community of Freeland.

“We chose this place because it’s very affordable,” said Mia Pham. “We can operate the business downstairs and we can live upstairs, and we’re lucky that we live in a very nice community.”

Freeland is situated in the western part of the Island, about 20 minutes outside O’Leary and 10 minutes past Tyne Valley. There’s a population of about 600 people, and as far as Pham knows, they’re the only Vietnamese family.

“Previously [this was] a gas station, convenience store, and a small diner for just Canadian food, fast food,” she said. “The previous owner teach me how to cook the local food.”

When Freeland Bistro began serving Vietnamese food, it wasn’t very popular. To many locals, ingredients like fish sauce or oyster sauce were foreign.

A man places a plate of noodles with vegetables on a table. There is cooking equipment in the background
Mike Do cooks most of the Vietnamese dishes on the menu, while his wife Mia Pham handles the deep fryer and Canadian food like Western sandwiches and burgers. (Victoria Walton/CBC News)

But it didn’t take long for that to change.

“Day by day I added up Vietnamese food,” she said. “We love to introduce our traditional food to the community.”

Now, five years after opening the restaurant in August 2018, the Vietnamese part of the menu is just as popular – if not more popular – than the Canadian food.

“I think the diet from the Canadian change, that I can see around this community. A couple weeks ago we did catering and there were 31 meals, but we serve 23 Vietnamese meals,” Pham said. “Two years ago, we cannot sell Vietnamese food with the good ratio like that.”

“It’s just good”

On a typical afternoon at the bistro, the phone rings regularly for take-out. Pham knows most customers by name, and asks how their families are when they come to pick up their orders.

“It’s just good. The way they cook is different,” said Randy McFadyen, a regular customer who lives just down the road. “I like Chinese food and they make it different here, so I like this better.”

They just fit into the community. It was a Canadian breakfast [today] but we are going to come back and have the Vietnamese food — my sister said it’s awesome too.— Sharon Oatway Brown

Others in the community have memories of when the bistro used to be something else. Seeing it in a new light, with new owners, brings some nostalgia.

“My mom used to actually work here when I was little,” said Sharon Oatway Brown, who grew up in O’Leary and now lives in Regina. She was at the bistro for breakfast while visiting her sister on the Island.

“They just fit into the community. It was a Canadian breakfast [today] but we are going to come back and have the Vietnamese food — my sister said it’s awesome too.”

The frame is filled with a white-and-grey building, with many windows at the top and a door in the front centre. In the foreground a sign reads "Freeland Bistro Vietnamese Canadian Cuisine"
Freeland Bistro is not just a restaurant but also a place for community members to chat with each other and foster friendships. (Victoria Walton/CBC)

One of the locals who has helped the bistro succeed is Scott Smith. He’s the community navigator for Western P.E.I. and lives in Freeland himself.

“Mia and Mike were meant to live here,” Smith said, sitting at a table in the bistro. “They’ve made friends with so many different people. They’re just such an integral part of our community.”

Smith calls the couple “pioneers” for diversity in Western P.E.I.

“It is a very white town. And so for a Vietnamese restaurant to open up, it’s very foreign to everybody,” he explained. “Sometimes new foods, people don’t want to try it. And I think Mia herself has told me when she first started here, the Canadian menu was so much more popular. People were leery.”

But once people tried the marinated meat and carefully simmered broth, minds and orders changed.

“They used to get their hot hamburgers, they used to get their fish and chips, they used to get their fries with the works,” Smith said. “And then all of a sudden people stopped getting those other Canadian dishes, and now they literally come for the Vietnamese.”

A woman with dark hair answers the phone behind a counter, and writes an order on a notepad.
When the restaurant first opened, it was selling more Canadian food than Vietnamese food. But now dishes like wonton soup and stir-fried noodles are some of the most popular on the menu. (Victoria Walton/CBC)

Pham and Do are so well-known in Freeland that not many folks in Freeland call the bistro by its official name anymore. It’s just “Mia and Mike’s.”

“You come in here at lunchtime, you’re going to meet some locals, you’re going to strike up some conversations. You’re going to hear some history of the area. You’re going to get to meet some new friends,” said Smith. “That’s what it’s all about, right?”

No pressure, no stress

Pham and Do knew how small P.E.I. was before they moved here. But that’s just what they wanted.

“We need that because it’s quiet and it’s not very much competitive,” Pham said. “We don’t have any pressure or any stress.”

But now, people drive from as far as Summerside, Charlottetown and West Point for the Vietnamese food at Freeland Bistro.

“It’s awesome because I come from the city and I missed that diversity of restaurants and stuff,” said Jerry White, who works at nearby Moth Lane Brewing and stops by almost daily. “They’re good friends. I I love them to pieces.”

They bring me this, bring me that for a welcome gift. Even fishermen when they go fishing, they feed me this and that.— Mia Pham

Pham shows off a small carved wooden owl that she received as a gift on opening day. For her, having the support from the community is one of the biggest signs of success.

“The first day I came here, lots of customers come to say hello and say, like, anything they can help they will help,” she said. “They bring me this, bring me that for a welcome gift. Even fishermen when they go fishing, they feed me this and that.”

And every time someone orders a Vietnamese meal from the menu, it’s a chance for Pham and Do to show off their own hospitality, on an Island that’s known for just that.

“They’re very pleased. We [are] very proud of what we contribute and what we deliver,” said Pham. “And we believe that the good things will come with good benefits. If we do a good job, people will come back.”