There is a lot to eat on the streets of Vietnam but one can’t eat standing up or on the sidewalk and in alleyways for every meal of the day. When I’m traveling in Vietnam, I need the occasional restaurant meal. That’s to say, in an establishment with printed menus and a trained wait staff. Customers usually have to walk through an actual door. There’s likely air conditioning and the furniture is not all plastic tables and baby chairs or stools. (If I had my druthers, I’d eat home cooked meals while traveling too, but that is a random occurrence. )
Gail emailed asking for restaurant and cafe recommendations from my October trip to Vietnam. Her brother is visiting next month so I thought I’d share my experiences not just with Gail and her brother, but also with you. Perhaps you’ll add your restaurant or cafe recommendation(s) too?
Let’s start with Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh City), the city where I was born.
Nguoi Saigon (9 Thái Văn Lung, Quận 1, TP. HCM) is on a low-key, tidy street in district 1, walking distance from the Hyatt but world’s away. Saigon-based writer Connla Stokes took Karen and me to the cafe because he thought I’d appreciate its ambiance and retro sensibilities. We did. It’s lovely, pleasant, and bucolic.
Proprietress My Uyen Hoang is a stylish, modern woman who cares about preserving Saigon’s heritage. Nguoi Saigon means Saigon people/locals in Vietnamese. The cafe is one of the businesses that she owns, aside from her professional role as a financial adviser. She’s also a single mom.
My Uyen, only in her early thirties, is proud of her city and roots. Her ingredients are sustainably sourced from farmers. “I don’t want to serve food here that I wouldn’t serve my own family,” she said. “I go directly to farmers and other people and ask them to grow or make things for the cafe. In turn, those families have good businesses and incomes of their own.”
Parts of Saigon are being torn down for new buildings and My Uyen and her friends are working to hold on to some of the charms of the city’s past. She finds mid-century furniture to use in her cafe ,and on a weekly basis, there’s open-mic nights or bands that perform old school, drama-filled Vietnamese music. Check it out or keep up with My Uyen on her very popular Facebook page.
When I told My Uyen about my pho book research, she suggested we go to Ru Pho Bar (27E Trần Nhật Duật, Tân Định). Along with the traditional pho joints, I wanted to see what someone was doing on a restaurant level. Ru Pho Bar is down a driveway of sorts, in a sweet building that’s tastefully decorated by its artist-chef owner, Chuong Dang.
Like My Uyen, Chuong is into capturing old, pre-1975 Saigon in terms of the restaurant’s elegant ambiance. His menu is filled with healthy options, including brown rice noodles. The pickled eggplants in the above photo were made in house. Delicious. The little crispy bits of pork fat on the rice tasted like what I would make myself. Seriously. What’s MSG-free, brown-rice laden food like? Really good. Connla, Karen and I were happily surprised.
My Uyen was happy that we approved. She’s a genuine booster for Saigon. “My friends and I don’t always want to eat street food,” she said. “We enjoy and appreciate having good food in a nice atmosphere.”
Pictured at the top of this article is, Cau Ba Quan by Nickie Tran. The gem of a restaurant was another wonderful surprise in Saigon. Nickie and I met on Phu Quoc island. We’d both been invited there by Red Boat Fish Sauce owner Cuong Pham. Nickie was born in Vietnam but lived in America for about 15 years. She attended George Mason University.
Nickie returned to Vietnam after a hard break up, and decided to open a restaurant. When the chef didn’t show up, she had to step in. She’s very creative, cooking with no MSG and a minimum of sugar. She prefers honey and fresh tropical fruit juice as her sweeteners. Nickie likes to showcase the natural flavors of her country’s bounty. "Vietnam has wonderful ingredients. Our seafood and fruit are terrific," she loves to argue. "We should show them off."
While on Phu Quoc, Karen and I were impressed with Nickie’s on-the-fly cooking (she made a crudo of fish we caught one afternoon on a boat). When we returned to Saigon, we ate at her restaurant twice before leaving the country for home. It was fun. Nickie calls her cooking street food but it’s not regular street food. She has an indoor, open kitchen and low tables that her staff set on the sidewalk. It’s more like dining al fresco.
She plays a lot with flavors, such as her take on Viet-American crawfish, in which she features freshly delivered giant prawns from Phu Quoc island. Composed salads combine fruit with slightly briny fried shrimp or fish. Raw salmon and parmesan with fermented fish turn out to be super good friends.
Like other restaurateurs I met in Vietnam, Nickie also relies on social media to spread the word. She posts daily recipes on Facebook, and customers come in and tell her that they want something she created that day. It’s hilarious to watch people order from their smart phones. Her community is genuine. I met a woman who said to me, “Oh, I saw your name mentioned on Nickie’s Facebook. You are the author.”
“My food is very simple,” Nickie humbly says. But it’s really not. Karen and I were in the kitchen with Nickie, and for a young chef-owner, she trains her staff well, runs a spotless kitchen. Customers are well-heeled professionals and college students. All are food savvy.
Cau Ba Quan has two locations. We went to her second location on Hoang Sa. To reach her somewhat tricky location, tell the cabbie to take you to “góc Nguyễn Văn Thủ và Hoàng Sa” and he’ll take you to a corner by a river. Get out of the car, turn right and walk about 50 feet and you’ll hit Nickie’s restaurant at the corner.
Women like Nickie and My Uyen are shaping modern Vietnam for the good. It’s not easy to run restaurants in Vietnam because government and so-called government thugs can and do harass you. They can shut you down or give you problems. There are payoffs involved but these are business owners doing work that they obviously love.
Two restaurants that I didn’t get a chance to try and have on my list for next time include Red Door and Chef Vo Quoc’s new Mon Ngon Vietnam restaurant and cooking school, which will open on November 27; the address is in the above Facebook screen grab. Quoc is a talented friend, magazine publisher, and and one of Vietnam’s food ambassadors. Like with My Uyen and Nickie, I keep up with him on Facebook and Instagram. Hello Vietnam in the 21st century.
It’s always good to leave the table a little hungry so I look forward to the next trip to Saigon. Next time, I’ll write about restaurants I tried in Hanoi and Danang. Stay tuned and do add your insights so we have restaurant tips in Saigon.
Related post: Tips for finding good banh mi in Vietnam