Nguyen Qui Duc, whose salon became a Hanoi hub, dies at 65

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Nguyen Qui Duc, whose salon became a Hanoi hub, dies at 65
Tadioto, a whisky bar owned by Nguyen Qui Duc, who found success as a radio commentator in the United States before returning to Vietnam in 2006 to make a new life there, in the French Quarter of Hanoi on Feb. 27, 2019. Duc, the proprietor of a salon and exhibition space that became a Hanoi landmark, where both Vietnamese and foreigners gathered for music, poetry and long nights of drinks and sushi, died on Nov. 22, 2023 in a hospital in Hanoi. He was 65. (Justin Mott/The New York Times)

by Seth Mydans

NEW YORK, NY.- Nguyen Qui Duc, the proprietor of a salon and exhibition space that became a Hanoi landmark, where both Vietnamese and foreigners gathered for music, poetry and long nights of drinks and sushi, died Nov. 22 in a hospital in Hanoi. He was 65.

The cause was lung cancer, said his sister and sole survivor, Dieu-Ha Nguyen.

A war refugee as a teenager, Duc found success as a radio commentator in the United States before returning to Vietnam in 2006 to make a new life there. His magnetic personality drew a diverse clientele to the salon, from underground artists to ambassadors.

The salon “provided shelter and camaraderie for new creative voices in Vietnam that blossomed after the trauma of war,” Tom Miller, an American lawyer and longtime friend, wrote in an email.

The experimental art installations that Duc displayed tested official limits in the communist-run country, but in what Miller called a cat-and-mouse game with the authorities, much like that of the artist Ai Weiwei in China, Duc found ways to continue.

He gave his salon a whimsical name drawn from Vietnamese schoolbooks: Tadioto, which means “we go by car.”

“It’s the first thing baby Duc learned to read,” said T.T. Nhu, a relative, “and when he returned to Vietnam, it was like learning to read again.”

Duc once described Tadioto as “a gallery, an event space, a meeting point for creative and unorthodox people and a comfort space for expats.”

As a refuge from the chaos of fast-modernizing Hanoi, Tadioto, complete with sushi-ramen and whiskey bars, was a mellow version of Rick’s Cafe Americain in the movie “Casablanca,” without its hard edge of hustle and intrigue.

Tadioto became an obligatory stop for journalists, diplomats and high-profile travelers, including celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, whom Duc escorted around Hanoi, and singer Tom Waits, who performed there informally.

Tadioto embodied the two sides of a man who, like many refugees, continued to search for an identity long after being uprooted.

“I no longer have a single identity,” he wrote in a 2008 essay titled “America Inside the Vietnamese Soul,” published on the website of the PBS documentary series “Frontline.”

“I’m split in two — parts of me still deeply Vietnamese, parts of me thoroughly American. There are times I can hardly explain myself to myself.”

In a Facebook tribute, Kim Ninh, a fellow former refugee who for many years represented the Asia Foundation in Hanoi, wrote of their shared sense of dislocation.

“Human pain and suffering colored his life,” she wrote, “part of​ the family history, part of the national history, part of the world he tried to make sense of. Or at least, to document. Until the end, we talked about our joint endeavor to find ‘home.’ We knew it was a futile effort, but it permeates everything: Duc’s work as a journalist and as a writer; his travels, that extraordinary sense of aesthetics where the love of shadows was always present.”

In addition to his work in radio — he was an announcer on KALW and KQED in San Francisco, contributed to NPR and then had his own NPR program, “Pacific Time” — Duc published poems and stories in a variety of magazines, including City Lights Review in San Francisco; wrote a play; produced a television documentary; and translated Vietnamese poetry and fiction for publication in English.

“Duc was a Renaissance man, made art, made robots, made sculptures, designed houses, designed everything,” Nhu said. “His quicksilver mind was always on to the next thing.”

But his life amounted to more than the sum of its parts; as a friend, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen, wrote on Facebook, “I think of his life as his most important work of art.”

Nguyen Qui Duc (pronounced nwin-kwee-dook) was born in Dalat, South Vietnam, on Sept. 16, 1958, to aristocratic parents. His father, Nguyen Van Dai, was the civilian governor of Hue City, and his mother, born Nguyen-Khoa Dieu-Lieu, was a school principal who lost her job after the communist victory in 1975; she was reduced to selling noodles to support herself.

Duc tells the family’s story of separation and endurance in an intimate 2009 memoir, “Where the Ashes Are: The Odyssey of a Vietnamese Family.”

He was 10 years old when the North Vietnamese captured his father during a military campaign in 1968 known as the Tet offensive and imprisoned him for more than a decade. When the war ended, Duc, at 17, managed to flee on his own by ship to the United States and then made his way to Ohio, where he joined a brother and sister who had already relocated there.

His mother remained in Vietnam with another sister, Nguyen Thi Dieu-Quynh, who died of kidney failure in 1979 after a lifelong struggle with mental illness.

Duc completed his high school education in Virginia and became a United States citizen in 1981. He then spent a year in Indonesia working in a refugee camp helping the so-called Vietnamese boat people who had landed there.

In 1984, after his father’s release, he was reunited with his parents in San Francisco, where he had already begun his radio career as a reporter and commentator.

For a man of uncertain identity, Duc said he found radio an ideal medium. “I like the fact that you’re faceless, almost nameless, and are just a voice,” he told an online magazine, And of Other Things, in 2015. “You can get intimate, authoritative, friendly, heard but not seen … a nameless, faceless voice allows people an imagination.”

While in San Francisco, he married a British woman, but they divorced amicably shortly afterward.

Duc returned to Vietnam for the first time in 1989 to record a report for National Public Radio. While he was there he recovered his sister’s ashes from a Buddhist temple and surreptitiously carried them back to San Francisco, symbolically reuniting his family.

He moved permanently to Vietnam in 2006, bringing with him his widowed mother (his father died in 2000), who had dementia, and settling her in a retreat outside Hanoi until her death in 2011.

He decided to stay, he told NPR in 2015, to “finish the man that I was meant to be,” having been “disrupted, interrupted to go to America and become somebody else.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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