Raffles has been privileged to interview some exciting people. But I don’t even know where to begin in introducing the incredible force of nature that is Pauline Nguyen. One of Australia’s most successful entrepreneurs, Pauline’s accomplishments are even more inspirational considering her less than fortunate beginnings.
Pauline Nguyen and her family escaped Vietnam in 1977 via boat and were forced to spend a year in a Thai refugee camp, before eventually settling in Cabramatta in Sydney’s outer west. Her unique life experiences all contributed to a personal store of strength, courage, wisdom and positivity that have seen her become not only become successful in business, but as a sought-after life coach, mentor, and inspirational and transformational speaker.
Along with her brother, Luke, and partner, Mark Jensen, Pauline is the owner and co-founder of Red Lantern, one of the world’s most highly acclaimed Vietnamese restaurants. She has also authored numerous bestsellers, including the incredible award-winning Secrets of The Red Lantern, has won over audiences and critics in theatre performances, and is an ambassador for WorldVentures’ DreamTrips, a global Travel Membership Company offering curated holiday experiences that share her own vision of living with meaningful purpose.
While balancing all of this with a ninja-like dexterity that leaves me in awe, and a calm that is contagious, Pauline Nguyen is raising two delightful children who are destined to shine as bright as their amazing mother.
Despite juggling more balls than most people could count, she still found time to sit down with Raffles to chat about growing up as a refugee in Australia, the importance of a positive attitude, and travelling with DreamTrips.
And in that magical way she does, left him inspired, invigorated and ready to take on the world.
Over to this dynamic duo…
Thanks for your time today, Pauline. I’d love for you to answer some questions for me on growing up as a refugee, having a positive attitude and travelling with DreamTrips.
You came to Australia as a refugee, which must have been so, so hard. You were quite little then, do you remember what that time was like?
I remember coming to Australia. I was only three and a half, going on four, but my father wanted me to go to school straight away so he told everyone I was five. I was a tiny little girl who couldn’t speak English and I remember my very first day and will never ever forget it. The teacher wrote what I knew was the alphabet but I didn’t know how to say it. I was mute. I couldn’t speak the language and she was pointing to what I knew was the letter A, but I couldn’t say it in English. Eventually the teachers called my father and said clearly your daughter isn’t five. I had to repeat kindergarten.
That must have been scary and confusing.
You have worked really, really hard and achieved so much for yourself and for our country, like so many refugees have. Are you very upset with the way our Government’s is treating refugees now?
It is an issue that I know polarises people. I’m not only upset with the way the Government treats refugees, but also at the way the homeless and some of the indigenous people are treated. I think there is unfairness everywhere. It is not just a refugee issue. There is a humanity issue that needs to be addressed. We need to treat each other like humans and be kind.
I think we do need to be much kinder and help people. What do you think we should do to help refugees?
I used to do quite a lot of work for the Asylum Seeker Centre in Surry Hills. You know, we can give out money but there are so many of them who are just lonely. They have come to a new country. They’re missing their family – relatives, children and parents. The most immediate form of assistance and help is to go and hang out with some of them.
I created a program a few years ago called Friend and Kindred Day and it was leading up to Human Rights Day. And I gave the gift of contribution to my team as well. Leading up to the day, asylum seekers would come to Red Lantern and teach my team member how to cook particular dishes that reminded them of home. It became a bit of an event. There was over a hundred asylum seekers, refugees and volunteers and the team cooked all the dishes that reminded them of home and it was a beautiful community day. It was amazing.
What about me? How could a kid like me help out?
Give people the gift of time. The easiest way is to go with an adult and approach the Asylum Seeker Centre and just ask. Obviously as a child there are other considerations but you can read and share stories. Just be. Together. Share energy and share space. They would love it and there are particular social days when are you can just come and listen to their stories.
I would really love to do this and will see if mum can help me.
You grew up in Cabramatta, which is one of my favourite places in Sydney. I love visiting the house temples there and all the food. Where do you like to eat when you’re in Cabramatta?
At the temples! When I go back to Cabramatta I either eat at my friends’ houses or go back for Lunar New Year where I spend a lot of time worshipping and eating at the temples.
I like eating everywhere but there’s a place called Pho Tau Bay I love because the bowls of soup are so big you can swim in them.
Your restaurant, Red Lantern, is one of my favourite restaurants ever.
The restaurant has won a ton of awards, what’s the secret?
The secret to Red Lantern’s success is always having dreams that far exceed our capacity to achieve them. When we first opened it was just a Vietnamese Restaurant and Luke had these dreams of being a television personality. Mark wanted to be a chef who was passionate about sustainability and the ethics of what we eat. And I wanted to be a writer and a speaker. Those are big, big dreams that were far exceeding our then capacity to achieve them. But when you decide to do something, your mind is already poised to do it so it calls on you to do the things that match your desires. So along with the basics – making sure that the food, the wine and the service is world class and amazing every time – we are always reinventing ourselves.
I’m a huge fan of your brother Luke, and especially love his shows about Vietnam. Do you go back to Vietnam very often?
Yes, I do actually. I’m an international speaker and the last three times I’ve visited I was invited back to speak on stage. While I’m there I visit Luke and his family and visit my friends. I love going back.
I’ve been there once but I don’t remember it well, it was a while ago. All I really remember is having my cheeks pinched a lot.
You would have your cheeks pinched a lot. You’re a very, very handsome young man.
What’s your favourite Vietnamese dish to eat?
My favourite Vietnamese dish to eat is called Bún bò Huế. It’s a spicy beef noodle soup with silken vermicelli noodles … the nice, thick ones. It’s infused with lots of lemongrass and Vietnamese mint, so there’s a bombardment of aroma and chili heat and intense flavours.
Yum. Sounds exactly like what I would like.
Can you tell me about your travels with WorldVentures’ DreamTrips?
Sure, I love DreamTrips. It’s a private holiday club and we helped launch it in Australia in June 2014. I’ve been on five DreamTrips now and I absolutely love it. We get to travel the world VIP and pay a fraction of the cost. I get to go with my friends and take my children to see the world. It is so affordable and the curated experiences are always mixed and diverse. I love being part of it.
What about the DreamTrips local program?
I’m really passionate about it. The DreamTrips local program launched late last year and Red Lantern was the very first restaurant to be a part of it. There are about 25 (participating) restaurants now in Sydney and more in Melbourne and Perth. If you dine with us as part of the club, you get free champagne (at least mum does), free dessert, are treated like a VIP and then, at the end of your meal when you get your bill, you scan your QR Code on the app and get 20% off the bill paid as DreamTrip points towards your next holiday. So you can eat your way to your next holiday.
DreamTrips includes voluntours. How do you ensure these are ethical?
There is huge social proof. We treat non-biodegradable waste and shove it in plastic bottles and use them as bricks to build bottle schools. I think they have built about 70 bottle schools now. As well as schools, we’re also fixing basketball courts and doing up youth centres.
Oprah Winfrey has written about our schools and our voluntours and you know, if it is good enough for Oprah…
Can kids join the voluntours?
Absolutely. I can’t wait to take my children.
I’ll come too … when we travel we like to do more than just see the attractions – we like to help the community.
Good on you.
Do you think it’s important to give back to communities when you travel?
Not only when you travel. Just give back in general. You know I think our biggest purpose on this earth is to evolve and to grow and to find what our true gift is and then to give that gift to other people. At the end of our days we’ll all turn to dust but the question is how many people did you help along the way?
My mum loves your motto ‘live life deliberately and not by default’. Can you explain to me what you mean by this.
As a coach and a mentor I get to assist so many people from all walks of life. So many of them have walked the path that their parents, their friends, their culture and their society have laid out for them and just done what everyone has told them to do. And a lot of them are deeply unhappy because it is not what they want to do, its what everyone else has told them to do. To live life deliberately and not by default is to be in constant search of who you really are, what you really love, what you really want to do, what brings you joy, fulfils you and makes your heart sing. I think as humans it’s our responsibility to find out what that is and go live it, rather than living by default the life someone has passed down to us.
That’s what my mum teaches me. She wants me to be whatever makes me happy, unless that’s being a serial killer or a Trump supporter.
When I grow up I want to be an entrepreneur and speaker like you, or a food and travel show host like your brother, or both. What’s your best advice to becoming successful?
There are so many parts to becoming successful. I think it has a different meaning for everyone. Success for someone might mean living peacefully. For another person it might mean going on lots of holidays. For someone else it might mean lots of money. It depends what it means for you. But I think as an entrepreneur one of the biggest pieces of advice I can give is to really ask the questions to find out who you are and understand yourself and have that sense of self awareness because if you can understand yourself, you can understand other people. And also make sure the people you hang around with and surround yourself with are beautiful, kind, positive people who are always smarter than you.
Because it will rub off right?
Yeah. And you can learn from them. If you are the smartest person in the room, it’s time to get a new room. All my mentors and coaches and teachers are all way smarter than me. And it forces me to rise up to their level. Punch above your own weight!
Thank you so much for your time, Pauline.
Thank you so much Raff, I thoroughly enjoyed it.