Montana restaurateur recalls harrowing escape from Vietnam

By Tristan Scott
The Missoulian

COLUMBIA FALLS, Mont. (AP) — Tien Pham Windauer epitomizes the American dream, and somehow, he even manages to make it look easy.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

His journey from Communist-controlled Vietnam to Columbia Falls, where Windauer owns Tien’s Place, a popular restaurant specializing in Asian cuisine, began on a moonless night in 1983. Under the cover of dark, Windauer and 49 other refugees fled the war-torn country in his father’s wooden fishing boat, navigating a machine-gun patrolled escape route on the Mekong River and bearing witness to hundreds of dead bodies along the way — a haunting reminder of the peril they faced. He was 13 years old.

“We barely made it,” Windauer said on a recent winter afternoon, sitting in his restaurant surrounded by family. Nearly 30 years later, he still recalls his father’s voice when he said goodbye.

“We thought we would never see each other again,” he said.

Windauer remembers other chilling details about the escape, like draping a heavy woolen blanket over the boat’s motor to muffle its rumbling, and waiting for the Chinese New Year, when the armed river patrols would be distracted, to exit the mouth of the Mekong and cross into the Gulf of Thailand.

“I wake up every morning and I think about how fortunate we are,” he said.

When the Malaysian coast guard discovered Windauer’s crowded boat, the refugees had gone without food for nearly a week, drinking only scavenged rain water. Many members of the group fell desperately ill, but miraculously, they all survived. By the time they arrived at a hospital in Kuala Lumpur, Windauer was so weak that he needed intravenous therapy.

“My body was on the verge of shutting down,” he said.

One widely-cited book estimates that 500,000 of the 2 million Vietnamese “boat people” died during the escape, but Windauer said escaping the oppressive Vietnamese government was worth the risk.

Born in a rice farming village in southern Vietnam, Windauer’s father fought for the United States Army and, after the fall of Saigon, was subsequently labeled a traitor by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The impoverished family was forced to live in miserable conditions in a “re-education camp,” and the young and ambitious Windauer could not bear the thought of so bleak a future.

Once he’d successfully escaped to Malaysia, fortune again befell Windauer when he was selected from among thousands of Vietnamese children as the adopted son of Bob and Judy Windauer, of Columbia Falls. In March of 1984, an unshod Windauer stepped off of a plane in snow-covered Montana and met his new family.

Although he spoke no English and was completely unacquainted with American culture, the 14-year-old Windauer began school in the 6th grade and threw himself at sports with gusto, playing football, soccer, track, and winning a state championship in wrestling. With support from his parents, three siblings, coaches, and teachers, Windauer graduated from Columbia Falls High School in 1990. He traveled around the country, working summers as a firefighter for the Forest Service and developing his foodie chops in a variety of restaurants, before returning to the Flathead Valley in 1996. He worked in masonry and construction before opening Tien’s Place in 2002.

Today, the award-winning restaurant is a fixture in Columbia Falls and beyond. Famous for its delicious, handmade fare, the mix of Asian and American cuisine is a true reflection of Windauer’s roots. Recently, a man from Idaho enlisted the cook to roll 500 egg rolls, so that he could bring them home to his friends and family – a task that Windauer alone undertook, finishing the painstaking work around 1 a.m.

“No one rolls egg rolls but Tien,” he said. “I’m like a military soldier back there.”

Another far-flung patron in Washington orders her tomato-crab bisque by mail, and Windauer happily ships the soup.

Even though Tien’s Place has a staff of 15, some of whom assist with food preparation, Windauer insists on being the lone cook, and he regularly puts in 18- and 20-hour days at the restaurant.

“I don’t sleep very much, but I wake up every morning with so much energy,” he said.

He’s proud to be so involved with his adoptive community, and framed photographs of the town’s championship teams adorn the walls of his restaurant — a state championship earns the entire team a free meal at Tien’s.

The Columbia Falls Chamber of Commerce recently recognized Windauer’s contributions to the community by naming a scholarship donation to the high school’s new academic endowment fund in his honor.

“This is my baby,” he said. “And I love what I do.”

Windauer and his wife, Maureen, have three children — Mailee, 10, Riley, 8, and Bailey, 2 — and Windauer also has a 15-year-old son, Brendan, from a previous marriage. He is extremely proud of his teenage son’s athletic achievements, and coaches Riley in wrestling and flag football. He built a family den in a spacious storage closet at the restaurant, so his children can study at a desk, while he works or relax on a bunk bed.

Through all of his hard effort building a home for himself in Columbia Falls, Tien has maintained a relationship with his family in Vietnam. He returned to his native country in 1990 and again in 2000, and has sent home enough money to help his five younger siblings finish college and launch successful careers. Windauer says he owes so much thanks to so many people that giving back to his family, friends, and his community is the least he can do.

His biological father sacrificed his livelihood, so that Windauer could attempt the escape from Vietnam, and Windauer has since had the fishing boat tattooed across his back. Upon being rescued by the Malaysian coast guard, all 49 of the “boat children” on Windauer’s vessel memorialized the journey with similar tattoos. However, Windauer waited until several years ago to have his done, wanting to first have his father’s permission.

The tattoo is an appropriate representation of Windauer’s tumultuous journey from a tiny bamboo shack outside of Saigon to the mountains of northwestern Montana. He doesn’t intend to slow down anytime soon, but that’s not to say he doesn’t appreciate every precious day.

“I just want to provide for my wife and my kids, so they don’t have to go through what I went through, and that gives me satisfaction,” he said. “Working is the easy part. As long as they are healthy and happy, work comes easy.”  (end)

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