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Journeys Culinary Capitals: Ho Chi Minh’s Dining Scene Is Not What You Remember

Culinary Capitals: Ho Chi Minh’s Dining Scene Is Not What You Remember

Octo Tapas Restobar is inspired by the owner’s favourite Spanish restaurant in London
Octo Tapas Restobar, Saigon
By Dan Q Dao
April 06, 2021
As Vietnam explodes onto the global economic stage, its cultural capital and largest city is on the verge of a culinary revolution

I first experienced “new Vietnamese” cuisine in 2017 at Ănăn, a buzzy, dimly-lit restaurant set in a time-honoured wet market in Ho Chi Minh City. Previously at the helm of Hong Kong’s lauded Chom Chom, the chef Peter Cuong Franklin earned headlines for his clever interpretations of Vietnam’s staple dishes—from bánh xèo rice crepes playfully reformatted as crunchy pork “tacos” to classic phở slow-simmered for 24 hours, then finished like French consommé.

Though more polished Vietnamese restaurants had always existed in HCMC, referred to colloquially as Saigon, they catered to businesspeople, expats and tourists. Ănăn may well be one of the first concepts to reimagine Vietnamese food while still appealing to discerning locals. Sure, a dish of caviar served atop a congee-inspired molecular “rice foam” might read, on paper,  as elevated for the sake of elevation, but Franklin’s use of local fish eggs and fresh herbs reveal an intimately Vietnamese profile.

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Ănăn's Peter Cuong Franklin
Ănăn's Peter Cuong Franklin

“We wanted people from all over the world, whether they’re New Yorkers or Europeans, to have access to Vietnamese cuisine while at the same time making Vietnamese people more open-minded about seeing their food portrayed in a global context,” Franklin proudly asserts. The novelty of Ănăn’s menu is reflected in the fact that it was Franklin who popularised the term cuisine mới or “new cuisine” to refer to his freewheeling approach. But the chef’s continued success speaks to a broader cultural appetite fuelled by Vietnam’s “miracle” economic boom: the country’s GDP has increased tenfold since 1990; and its two largest cities, Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, now regularly rank among Asia’s top tourist destinations. 

Long celebrated for its world-famous street food culture, Ho Chi Minh City may soon be regarded in equal measure for its chef-driven restaurants, both Vietnamese and otherwise. It’s this nuanced dialogue between tradition and innovation that separates an old-world “food” destination from a true 21st century dining capital. With a strong culinary foundation, an international diaspora, and a young population eager to participate in global taste-making, the city has all the ingredients to become one of the world’s most exciting places to eat and drink. 

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Cha Ca Hanoi Banh Xeo Tacos
Cha Ca Hanoi Banh Xeo Tacos

FIRST GOLD RUSH

In the earliest days of social media, when travel and food content was not so ubiquitous as it is today, it was the late chef-turned-journalist Anthony Bourdain who waxed romantically of Vietnamese food to an American audience that more commonly associated Vietnam as a failed war rather than a thousand-year civilisation. Bourdain would film his travel documentary series No Reservations and Parts Unknown in Vietnam on numerous occasions between 2005 and 2014—inspiring new conversations about Vietnamese cuisine and fast-tracking its international recognition.

Concurrently, Vietnam’s increasingly free market-oriented government realised the potential of the 4.5 million-strong Vietnamese diaspora—residing largely in developed nations like the United States and Australia. After the turn of the millennia, Hanoi began legislating visa exemptions, provisions for property ownership, and tax incentives in a bid to attract more of these Viet Kieus “or Vietnamese sojourners” to return to their motherland.

Beyond contributing some US$15 billion in annual remittances, an estimated half million Viet Kieus have returned to Vietnam, bringing social and technological capital. In the early 2010s, the first big wave of these diaspora Vietnamese opened some of Saigon’s first rooftop bars, Third Wave coffee shops, and craft breweries. Among these pioneers were Loc Truong, a California-based beer executive who launched East West Brewing; Jap Hoang, French-Canadian founder of boutique lifestyle chain L’Usine; and Vietnamese-Australian celebrity chef and prolific cookbook author Luke Nguyen of Vietnam House in Saigon and Red Lantern in Sydney.

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Valrhona chocolate dessert with local Dalat caviar from Ănăn
Valrhona chocolate dessert with local Dalat caviar from Ănăn

NEW VIETNAMESE CUISINE

At Vietnam House, which opened in 2017, Nguyen oversees an upmarket dining experience centred around perfecting Vietnamese staples like papaya salads, homestyle grilled meats, and a standout fried soft shell crab amped up with salted egg and tamarind. There are globalising touches, like a slow-cooked Australian short rib featured on the dinnertime prix-fixe, but the menu skews largely traditional. These are dishes my parents would recognise.

In a quieter part of town, Franklin has taken a decidedly more avant-garde approach. Luckily, in such a fertile, relatively small restaurant landscape, there’s ample room for diverse philosophies. And both have been vital at chipping away at the persistently outdated notion that good Vietnamese food must be cheap.

“It was challenging at first, because a lot of people would complain about the price or the portion size—even when they enjoyed it,” Franklin admits. “In the first six months, we didn’t have many customers. People would compare our food to what they could find on the street. But I had done this kind of food for a couple of years in Hong Kong, so I knew this was a process we had to go through before people accepted our food and got used to paying for the quality of our product.”

In recent years, it’s become far easier to find quality terroir-driven products from Vietnam: think organic coffee, cured meats, and even Vietnamese gin. At Rabbit Hole, one of Ho Chi Minh City’s most promising classic cocktail bars, owner Leon Nguyen sources gin from homegrown distilleries like Song Cai, whose use of foraged Northern Highland botanicals has earned international attention. 

The unmatched diversity of Vietnam’s natural bounty has likewise fascinated many a non-Vietnamese chef since the days of French colonisation. Many French chefs continue to make their mark in the city today—among Laurent and Jacques Pourcel, the three-Michelin-star twin chefs behind classic French fine-dining favourite Jardin Des Sens. Then there’s Julien Perraudin, the Frenchman helming the endlessly talked-about Saigon outpost of Bangkok’s wood-fired Quince Eatery. (The Mediterranean style boasts a great deal of synergy to the Vietnamese char-grilling sensibility). 

It was a Japanese businessman Yosuke Masuko who created the wildly successful 4P’s Pizza, a Japanese expat-owned chain of Italian-inspired pizzerias using madcap Asian ingredients like miso, salmon sashimi and seaweed. In 2011, there was so little local appetite for cheese that Masuko had to open his own factory; today, he’s supplying fresh cheese to over 200 hotels and restaurants across Southeast Asia.

“We were the first restaurant producing cheese, and at that time, not many Vietnamese people would eat cheese—but it’s all changed,” Masuko explains, adding that they sell their cheese directly to Vietnamese consumers now.

FOR THE PEOPLE

As social media accelerates the genre-blurring effects of globalisation, it’s the tech-literate Vietnamese youth who are driving the next chapter of Saigon’s restaurant landscape—and bridging it with the rest of the world. That’s not to say local restaurateurs haven’t been quietly working for years. Just take Ngọc Sương Seafood Restaurant & Bar, a 65-year-old institution recently inherited and revamped by the classically-trained fourth-generation owner, Le Quoc Vinh. Building on the prized seafood experience his family pioneered, the young chef has been mentioned in the same breath as industry leaders like Franklin.

In recent years, many young Vietnamese chefs—schooled internationally at prestigious culinary and hospitality programmes—have also found acclaim at non-Vietnamese restaurants, including Chef Viet Hong of Monkey Gallery, a food-as-art tasting menu experience, and Brian Chu, head chef of the seasonally-oriented French brunch standout Café Marcel. Though he now oversees one of the most popular brunch establishments in town, Chu says he believes Vietnamese chefs still start at a slight disadvantage when cooking Western food.

“As a Vietnamese chef, there are actually a lot more challenges—I must be more organised, follow the right process, and always think about controlling the quality of ingredients,” Chu shares. “But when Western chefs do Vietnamese food, they do it more fun because they have the right mindset for the new Vietnamese cuisine.”

Saigon's seasonally-oriented French brunch standout Café Marcel
Saigon's seasonally-oriented French brunch standout Café Marcel
Easy brunch options at Marcel
Easy brunch options at Café Marcel

Such barriers must be overcome and adapted to, says Linh Dang, the restaurant and bar provocateur behind chic brunch mainstay Godmother Bake & Brunch, Spanish tapas spot Octo Tapas Restobar, high-end sushi den Roka Fella Omakase, and tropical cocktail lounge Bam Bam. With the makings of a small empire under her company, HypeAsia, Dang draws inspiration from both travels abroad and her identity as a young Vietnamese entrepreneur.

“Each concept was conceived from experiences I’ve had: Godmother is brunching with my friends in Australia, Octo is inspired by my favourite Spanish restaurant in London, and Bam Bam is holidays in Bali,” Dang explains. “The wants and needs of Vietnamese people have been elevated and diversified,” she adds, “yet, Vietnam is also traditional. You’ll see elements of our culture embedded in these restaurants to cater to the taste of the Vietnamese—as always, we adapt.”

Read also: Who Eats The Most Chocolate In Southeast Asia?

 

According to restaurateur and bar provocateur Linh Dang, the inspiration for the chic restaurant Godmother Bake & Brunch was her brunch experiences in Australia
According to restaurateur and bar provocateur Linh Dang, the inspiration for the chic restaurant Godmother Bake & Brunch was her brunch experiences in Australia
Octo Tapas Restobar
Octo Tapas Restobar is inspired by the owner’s favourite Spanish restaurant in London

Nowhere are dynamic adaptations of technique and ingredient more on display than at Esta Eatery, the debut project from former Quince head chef Francis Thuan Tran and co-owners Ryan Nguyen and Matt Ton. Hailing from Daklak Province in the Central Highlands, Tran says it’s an affinity for nature— and knowledge of Vietnam’s terroir, plants and seasons—that inspired him to “discover local ingredients and cook simply, with fire.” The menu makes subtle gestures to the chef’s heritage: Vietnamese coriander in a dressing for Japanese whiting; Hoi An chillies in a romesco sauce for the pork secreto.

“We work very closely with local suppliers, farms and fisheries to get the freshest ingredients straight from the source, from the highlands of Da Lat to the seas of Phu Quoc and Nha Trang,” says Nguyen, who worked in startups prior to overseeing Esta’s marketing and finances.

The food at Esta Eatery, the debut  project from former Quince head chef Francis Thuan Tran, can be described as a celebration  of Vietnam’s terroir, plants and seasons,  through dishes cooked simply with fire
The food at Esta Eatery, the debut project from former Quince head chef Francis Thuan Tran, can be described as a celebration of Vietnam’s terroir, plants and seasons, through dishes cooked simply with fire
Dessert at Esta
Dessert at Esta

It’s clear that times are changing Vietnam—with an organised and effective response to the pandemic, Vietnam offers unique stability for new businesses entering the market. “Saigon is now one of the world’s top culinary destinations because it’s accessible for both consumers and business owners,” says Hao Tran, CEO of Vietcetera, a media company that hosts the first-of-its-kind Vietnam Restaurant & Bar Awards spotlighting Saigon’s culinary, bar and brewing talent. “You can have a nice meal on the town without breaking the bank and pioneering small business owners aren’t intimidated by the costs of starting a new venture.”

For Nguyen and the team at Esta, there’s never been a better time to be a diner—or restaurateur—in Saigon. “What’s unique about the scene now is that you can experience an industry in its nascent form, with pioneers still working in the field alongside a new generation of very talented young chefs,” he says, enthusiastically. “It is very fun right now. What a time to join the industry.” 

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