Trì Dư's unconventional path to success led from Vietnam to Montreal

The path that led Trì Dư from a small village in Vietnam to his own successful restaurant in Montreal was far from conventional.

It started when he stole a military boat.

It was 1979, four years after the fall of Saigon. Nineteen-year-old Trì wanted to escape mandatory military service. He was also looking for new opportunities, and was committed to helping his 13 brothers and sisters.

So Trì and four friends stole the vessel. They had no charts for navigation, so every morning they waited for sunrise before starting the boat’s engine and heading east.

Four days later, they arrived in the Philippines.

Like many Vietnamese refugees, Trì’s initial plan was to immigrate to the United States. But a long waiting period led him to opt for Canada instead.

Today, he is the owner of Tri Express, a popular sushi restaurant on Laurier Avenue in Montreal’s fashionable Plateau neighbourhood.

Trì is just one of thousands of Vietnamese refugees who came to Canada in the days before and years following the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.

The 2011 census showed 220,425 people in Canada had Vietnamese origins, 42,480 of them in Quebec.

Trì came to Quebec after connecting with a large family in Normandin, Quebec, who agreed to serve as a foster family.

He helped out on their dairy farm and attended school, learning basic French.

But he struggled in the formal classroom setting. He was also anxious to earn some money to send back to his family in Vietnam.

So after a year and a half, he left, hitchhiking to Montreal.

Au revoir Vietnam, bonjour Quebec

Follow all of C’est la vie’s series on the Vietnamese community in Quebec.

  • Part 1: Au revoir Vietnam, bonjour Quebec

Trì arrived on the Island of Montreal without money or friends.

“At that moment, I was very scared because I had nothing,” he said.

He spent his first few nights sleeping on a park bench.

But after a few days, a morning jogger, a compatriot from Vietnam, noticed him and offered him lodging.

Trì, determined to pay his own way, soon found work as a dishwasher.

But his big break came while washing floors at a café called La Croissanterie.

He seized the opportunity to watch the pastry chef, secretly noting all the ingredients and the steps of preparation. Once he understood the whole process, he surprised the chef by making some of his own pastries.

It was a turning point for Trì. From that point on, he helped the chef with the pastries, and eventually learned to make a whole range of baked goods.

When the owners of La Croissanterie expanded into the sushi business in the 1980s, they recognized Trì’s talent and offered him the chance to learn from the Japanese sushi chef that they had hired.

Trì made it through the rigorous apprenticeship, and went on to establish a reputation as one of Montreal’s finest sushi chefs. He has cooked for the likes of Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté and director Steven Spielberg.

Eight years ago, Trì opened his own sushi restaurant in Montreal.

“I feel so proud, because I never thought that one day I would open a restaurant,” he said.

He is amazed at the path his life has taken, one that has taken him from Vietnam to the Philippines, to Canada, and finally to marrying a Quebec woman and raising a family here.

He says that sometimes he asks himself how he did it.

He still doesn’t know the answer.