Although she’s now a successful restaurateur, Meyung Robson spent many years based in Bangkok working as an FBI special agent
Born in Vietnam, Meyung Robson was crowned Miss Saigon in 1970 at the age of 20, but was forced to leave her home country a few years later. Her father, a South Vietnamese army general, understood the gravity of the situation and the day before Saigon fell to the North, the family jumped on a ship to the USA—with the clothes on their backs and not much more.
Robson eventually began working as a government translator, and soon applied to work with the FBI as a special agent. On February 4, 1984, she was sworn in as the first Vietnamese-born (and 3rd Asian female) special agent of the FBI. She and her two small children traveled the world, usually working undercover on a variety of cases. Later on, she was transferred to the US embassy in Thailand.
When Robson retired in 2004 she took up cooking, opening the original Xuan Mai on Sukhumvit 55. However, she closed that location down and has now re-opened closer to her home. She also revealed that she is in the process of writing her memoirs.
Can you tell us about your days as an FBI special agent?
Back then, being the only female FBI special agent gave me quite a lot of latitude in picking out the kind of work I wanted to do. The times I spent going undercover were the most memorable. There was not one suspect in our investigations who would have dreamt that the poor woman they saw, carrying a baby, would one day testify against them. I had a lot of fun play acting in those days. When I was given the chance to move to Thailand and work in a two-person office at the American Embassy, bearing responsibility over FBI matters in eleven countries in Asia, I went full circle—having left Vietnam in 1975, and returning twenty years later to serve as the bridge of cooperation between the FBI and the Vietnamese Police. I am most proud of this achievement, and along the way, I was instrumental in the apprehension of two of the FBI’s Top 10 most wanted fugitives.
What was it like as a woman working in the FBI back then? Did you have to work harder to prove yourself?
When I joined the FBI, I was fortunate enough to pretty much check all the requirement boxes—by being a female, minority, professional, language expert, etc. Then when I actually started the job, I realized that there was no precedent, no examples for me to follow, and so I just had to walk my own path and set the model for the ones who would succeed me. There were moments that I regret, times that I thought I could have done better, but on the whole I treasure the memories, the camaraderie, and the unique opportunity I was given.
Why did you decide to retire in 2004?
When I moved my young children to Bangkok in 1999, I had to struggle raising them in a foreign land, and doing a very challenging job all alone at the same time. Two years later, I went through a bad divorce and so in July 2004, as soon as I qualified for retirement, I wanted to start over and once again prove to myself that I could do it all on my own. Looking back, it was the best decision to become a chef. Being my own boss is the most satisfying job of all.
Why (and when) did you close down the Sukhumvit Soi 55 location?
I had operated Xuan Mai in Bangkok for over 10 years—doing all the shopping, cooking, serving, and hardest of all, having to commute daily from my home in the suburbs of the city. In late 2013, when the political situation became dicey, the street demonstrations affected the business life more than I could bear. So I decided to move my operation to where I live instead. I live in a wonderful enclave in Pakkret, Nonthaburi, and a month or so after I closed my restaurant in Bangkok, I decided to start my Vietnamese food delivery within the compound. That, and the customers’ enthusiastic response, led to my running a ‘Chef Table’ (by reservation only).
What are some of your restaurant’s popular specialties?
I have a limited menu available for delivery, and offer several signature dishes that have long been on the request list of many frequent patrons, such as passion fruit crème brulee, avocado salad, eggplant crostinis, and special Vietnamese dishes that are not easy to find outside the country.
Do you still travel to Vietnam to get extra fresh ingredients?
Yes. It is extremely important for me to be close to the source of supply. Luckily, Thailand also grows certain common herbs like mint, holy basil, dill weeds, etc. But nothing compares to a steaming bowl of Phở Bò topped with a generous handful of shredded, fragrant hành lá, rau mùi, húng chó, and chanh, hand-carried from their point of origin. My customers will gladly attest to this.