Jean Tran Honors Family Through Food at Ha Long Bay

Jean Tran Honors Family Through Food at Ha Long Bay

Ever since Jean Tran was a young girl growing up in Laos, food has been an important part of her life. It serves her well as chef and co-owner, along with her husband, Chris, of , a popular Thai/Vietnamese/Laotian bistro on Williamson Street. And it’s particularly evident during holidays. “Here, holidays are about decoration, but at home, they are about food. There has to be more than enough food,” she says.

But there were times in Tran’s life when there wasn’t enough food. “My parents were from North Vietnam. In 1954, during the First Indochina War they fled to northern Laos, where I was born.” Soon, Communists took over, drastically changing Tran’s life. “We lived in a city, we [had] a nice home, a maid, a nanny. Suddenly my family [had to move] to countryside and do rice farming,” she says. Half the rice went to the government to support the army, leaving her family with barely enough to survive.

When Tran was seven years old, her family escaped to southern Laos, enduring a dangerous journey through the jungle, eating spoiled food and hiding from patrols. “You cannot make a sound,” she recalls. “If they find you, they kill you.” Her eyes tear up, this story still painful. “We were lucky. We all made it.” 

In 1975, communists took over all of Laos. Her family was uprooted once again, crossing the Mekong River into Thailand to live in a refugee camp for nine months before coming to the U.S. “We were running from the war many, many times. It was not easy.”

Tran’s cooking embraces the northern Vietnamese heritage of her parents and her time spent in Laos and Thailand. It also reflects her affection for her Madison community, often using locally sourced meats and produce. “The local community was a very big support to us. So I support it back,” she says. 

Two days a year—Thanksgiving and Christmas—Tran takes a break from cooking at the restaurant to cook at home. “I love cooking for the holidays. Everyone comes to my house. Everyone brings food. We make some American foods, ham and turkey, but we still make Laotian food, grilled chicken, red curry noodle soup, papaya salad,” she says.  

The other 363 days a year, Tran’s husband, sisters, brother-in-law, nieces and nephews help out at the restaurant. “We argue sometimes but at the end of the night we are fine,” she says. “We’re family.”

Otehlia Cassidy writes about food for Madison Magazine.