In 2016, Nielsen Holdings estimated that Vietnam’s middle class will boom to reach a population of 44 million by 2020 and 95 million by the year 2030, one of the fastest growth rates in Southeast Asia. Consequently, the desire for luxury goods has also risen starkly and this shift can be seen outside of the retail sector as well. There has been a rapid influx of F&B establishments catering to higher income individuals seeking the finer things in life, such as imported food products, wines and international service standards.
Street food and “family-style” cuisine will always be a part of the local food scene in Vietnam, especially since a lot of them are must visit unique restaurants in Saigon, but now, there is also a market for gastronomic eateries, foodie concepts and gourmet restaurants that adhere to European culinary arts standards. We sat down with Chef Thierry Mounon of La Villa French Restaurant to understand more about how contemporary demands for fine dining have transformed Saigon.
Spoilt For Choice
“[There are] definitely more choices now,'' Chef Thierry said. When he opened La Villa French Restaurant in District 2 in 2010, there was not the same level of competition. Over the last several years, along with La Villa French Restaurant and Le Bordeaux, one of the founders of French fine dining in HCMC, other establishments such as L'Escale by Thierry Drapeau, Jardin du Sens by the Pourcel brothers and Le Corto run by Chef Sakal Phoeung, and other new restaurants in Saigon, have helped solidify the presence of French gastronomy in Saigon. Other European establishments such as R&J Italian Lounge and Restaurant, and Asian haute cuisine options like L’Aura de Nam Ky (Vietnamese) and Sushi Rei (Japanese) have also rounded out the scene. 5-star hotels such as Hotel des Arts Saigon have also contributed to the trend with culinary events at their F&B venues featuring world-class chefs.
There’s More to Fine Dining than Michelin
Chef Thierry Mounon spent his formative years working at Michelin-starred restaurants in southern France, London and Bora Bora. Although other top chefs in Saigon also have worked in two or three-star kitchens , the Michelin inspectors have yet to add any restaurant in Ho Chi Minh to their hallowed list. It is quite an undertaking to get the army of Michelin food inspectors into a host country for reviews; however, it is worth noting that excellence in cuisine can be attained without an entry in the guide, especially when chefs come to Vietnam with a star already on their CV.
“Many places are run by Michelin starred chefs now. There is more choice and more competition,” Chef Thierry said. “I like competition; it keeps me warm. People go to another place to try something new and return to me later.”
Part of what makes clients return to La Villa French Restaurant, in Chef Thierry’s opinion, is identity. “We define ourselves [at La Villa] as classic, yet sophisticated. I cook what I love. My tastes were moulded by my childhood in the south of France. The key is in the techniques, the flavours, and pushing the borders of gastronomy without losing identity.” Chef Thierry even has a favourite hashtag to this effect: #classicforareason.
True Fine Dining
In true fine dining, the codes are important—the plating, the presentation of the courses, the ambience, and the training of staff. While a gastropub concept can be distinct and excellent in its own right, it is not characterized as fine dining per se, but just like the food scene in Saigon, this definition may be expanding. Saigon, as a culinary destination, is certainly going beyond the street food experience. Soon enough, foodies may be choosing from tiny plastic stools streetside or sitting in a Michelin starred restaurant-gourmet paradise. There’s room for a little bit of everything in this thriving foodtropolis.
Image source: La Villa French Restaurant
An Interview with Executive Chef Javier Gomez at Shri Saigon
Sitting down to speak with Javier Gomez, the highly talented Executive Chef at Shri Restaurant & Lounge in central Saigon, the passion, curiosity and dedication that have driven his success ring loud and clear.
These factors have defined Gomez's journey as a chef, starting from his familial roots growing up in Valencia, Spain, all the way through to his current position responsible for producing outstanding Spanish and Mediterranean-inspired cuisine at one of the best restaurants in Saigon (and now also Phu Quoc) and Vietnam.
City Pass Guide: Javier, tell us about where and when your initial love for good food developed.
Javier Gomez:Well, as a child living in Valencia, I used to go with my mother to the local market every day. I would watch her buy beautiful fresh ingredients and then learn how to cook them at home. You know, she used to teach me about selecting the best fish, meat, vegetables, and fruit, so that every meal would be just right. She would say “this is how you test the watermelon” or “that tomato is good and that one not so good”, and that is how I learned.
For me, this was normal and part of growing up in Valencia, so I didn’t see it as anything special or different at that time. Every neighbourhood had its own market and great family food was central to Mediterranean life. It was all about using the freshest ingredients, not so many spices, some garlic, rosemary, and always olive oil - never butter, of course. My mum was always crazy about never using butter! And those Mediterranean influences have stayed with me throughout my career as a chef.
CPG: When did you make the decision to become a chef and how did you go about that?
JG: When I was 20 years old, I decided to be a chef and I left Valencia to move to San Sebastian in the Basque region of Spain. Some of the best restaurants in the world are in San Sebastian and it was the best place I could go at that time to train as a chef. It was a real challenge and a huge change in my life, but I felt that if I really wanted to be a chef, I just had to go!
It was definitely a great decision for my career as a chef - gastronomy flows through San Sebastian - a small town but with more than a dozen Michelin stars in its restaurants. And everyone is thinking about food all the time - if you overhear a conversation between two old men, they’re talking about the quality of anchovies or mushrooms in their lunch from the day before.
I learned so many new things about food, because everything was so different from Valencia and the Mediterranean style. The use of butter was totally new for me, and the meat, fish, vegetables were all different - it was like living in another country! I studied in the famous gastronomic school in San Sebastian and worked in really high level restaurants there, which opened my eyes to amazing techniques and methods of cooking. In particular, I discovered the new generation of tapas, combining traditional ideas with modern innovations - what people often refer to now as ‘sexy tapas’.
CPG: What was next for you after San Sebastian?
JG: After three years in San Sebastian, I worked in other parts of Spain, I really wanted to discover the full variety of cuisine in the country. I worked in Madrid, Sevilla, the Canary Islands, back to Valencia also - I really got a wide breadth of knowledge which has stuck with me to this day. I also went to Colombia and opened a Spanish restaurant there in Santa Marta.
After that, I moved to the UK - I wanted to learn English and also get new culinary perspectives and experience. There, I worked in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and all other areas in Scotland. For one year in Edinburgh, I was at a luxury restaurant owned by a Scottish-Indian celebrity chef, Tony Singh, and there I learned a lot about Indian food, too. In fact, Tony was my connection to come to Vietnam and to work here as executive chef at Shri.
I have to say that British food doesn’t exactly have the best reputation in the rest of Europe, as you probably already know! However, during my time in the UK, I worked with really top chefs, had access to incredibly high quality ingredients and learned a lot about creating international standard food. It was definitely an influential time in my career.
CPG: It’s clear that you have gained a fantastic range of experience in various countries throughout your time as a chef - we would love to find out more about how you found yourself in Vietnam.
JG: Funnily enough, I never imagined that I would be living in Asia - there’s no particular reason for that, it just didn’t enter my mind! When it happened, it was a really nice surprise! Tony Singh, whom I mentioned I worked for in Edinburgh, introduced me to a contact of his at Shri. He told me that Shri was already one of the best bars and restaurants in Saigon but needed a captain for the kitchen, so of course that was interesting!
In fact, Shri were looking for an experienced and passionate chef who would not be tainted by previous working in Saigon, which is why Tony recommended me. So I came to Vietnam for one week at the beginning, met the team and started to make tasting menus to see how we could work together. I loved the idea of this job, not just to work with a great venue, but also because I love to travel and it was an amazing chance to explore a new culture and food scene.
The first time I went to the local markets in Saigon, it was quite an incredible experience, quite nerve-wracking. I was a little surprised by how different some of the ingredients were. For example, the salt wasn’t ‘salty’ as I was used to, or the sugar wasn’t the sugar that I knew. So that definitely presented quite a unique challenge for me and I definitely felt like I was on the other side of the world!
CPG: Apart from the obvious difficulties of moving to a new country, were there any particular obstacles that you had to overcome when you started your work with Shri in Vietnam?
JG: In the months before I joined three years ago, Shri didn’t have an executive chef, so the kitchen team had become used to not having a leader to teach and inspire them. They were used to serving the same plates for quite a long time, working with the same routine, and following the same habits without question. So for me, this was one reason the job was the biggest test of my career. Another reason was the big responsibility to live up to Shri’s reputation as the best rooftop restaurant in Saigon.
I also joined at the busiest time of the year, I was new to the whole team and had only one guy who spoke English in the kitchen to help translate. So you can see that it wasn’t at all a walk in the park! However, the support of the owner and my Vietnamese colleagues was so important to me, they really helped me to adapt to a totally new world and environment.
Once I got to know the team and after making my own changes, I saw a big difference. Getting close to the team, understanding their personalities, and enabling good communication was crucial and we are now like family. I also put into place that every kitchen member has to train on each station in the kitchen and this has helped them to gain new skills and knowledge and cover for each other where necessary.
It was a big help to me that young Vietnamese people are so hungry to learn - I love to see this and I feel proud to see all the new recipes they have learned in my first three years with Shri. I truly feel like I’m a teacher here. Of course, I have also learned from them about the ways of Vietnamese food and culture and I am very grateful for that.
CPG: Tell us about how you created the fantastic menus at Shri. What are you proud of in terms of the dishes that you offer and what food-related challenges have there been?
JG: On a culinary level, the main challenge was creating menus that were suitable to Shri’s wide range of customers. We serve high quality cuisine to businessmen from within and outside of Ho Chi Minh City, well-off Vietnamese people as well as more middle-class Vietnamese who come for a special occasion, plus expat customers in the city looking for excellent food. For me, I want to make everyone happy, which is why we have lots of variety in our menus from Spanish, French, and Italian to Vietnamese, Indian, and other Asian styles.
In particular, I’m very proud of adding the Spanish elements to Shri’s menus - of course I want to represent where I’m from and it’s something I know I’m pretty good at! I’m happy now that people in Saigon know me, especially in the Spanish community - they know I’m from Valencia and they know the quality of the paella and other dishes that I make. Also, the Bar 23 tapas menu that I created has gained a good reputation - it’s traditional food that you can find in a real Spanish bar, but right here in Saigon. That recognition is definitely a big positive for me and tells me I’m doing something right!
Actually, the idea of introducing a new cuisine to a city, as we are doing with Spanish food in Saigon, is very challenging. Local people are totally used to their own way of preparing rice dishes for example, so when we show them our best paella, it can still be quite difficult for Vietnamese to enjoy it at first. Connecting Vietnamese flavours with traditional Spanish and Mediterranean flavours presented a definite obstacle early on.
To deal with this, I have had to learn as much as possible about Vietnam and its food culture. I have also tried to educate local people on our cooking methods, on how and why they work. I have made a big effort to go to customer’s tables and have constructive conversations to help this process. Our Vietnamese customers usually really appreciate me coming to speak with them, although occasionally it can be a little intimidating for them! But I feel that, over time, the people of Saigon have come to understand more why we cook the way we do.
Having said that, one thing I really love about cooking in Vietnam is the incredible range of products and ingredients you can buy here. There is so much to find in Vietnamese markets that can replace and even improve upon foreign products that are not easily available and this is a joy for me.
I love the creativity that Vietnam has inspired in my cooking. Living here has pushed me to combine local flavours with Spanish and Western profiles. In fact, I am launching a new culinary book that is based on 42 recipes we have developed, using only Vietnamese ingredients and plenty of Western techniques, so I’m really excited about that!
CPG: What else is happening now and coming soon with Shri that you can tell us about?
JG: I’m now working on a new menu that combines traditional Spanish elements with tastes that are more familiar here in Vietnam. In contrast to the recipes in my book, this menu will incorporate more products from Spanish and foreign markets, products which suppliers are able to bring over more easily now. I just want to make great food in Saigon, Spanish or otherwise, that is really enjoyable for as many people as possible, whether they are from Spain, Vietnam, or elsewhere - that is my aim.
We also have a very exciting new restaurant and beach club in Phu Quoc island, simply called Shri Phu Quoc. The menu style at Shri Phu Quoc is more casual and heavily based on fresh seafood. The location is fantastic, with gorgeous beach and sunset views. I’m loving the experience!
Personally and professionally, I look forward to continue introducing the best Spanish and Western food to the people of Saigon (and Phu Quoc), and to keep on learning about Vietnamese ways and cultures. At Shri Saigon, we have lots of fun events and menus planned in the coming months. In particular, our monthly Spanish parties, combining great Spanish food, drinks, music and a wonderful rooftop atmosphere above Saigon. They have been a huge hit so far!
Desserts in Vietnam are generally different than most western desserts. Granted, you will find the occasional French baked item taken straight from the patisserie and made Vietnamese here.
However, one set of desserts is inherently Vietnamese: chè. There’s nothing more enjoyable on a hot summer day than eating this chilly, sweet treat.
No, it’s not the famous beret-clad revolutionary whose face is plastered on shirts all over Pham Ngu Lao.
It’s a dessert. In fact, it’s a family of desserts. Chè may be served hot or cold, in bowls, glasses, or over ice. There’s a wide range of flavours, and might contain any amount of different ingredients: beans, tapioca, jellies, glutinous rice and fruit just to start. The options are nearly endless and it is almost impossible to produce a complete list. But we took a poll around the City Pass Guide offices. The result: this list of best chè dishes in Saigon.
Chè thập cẩm - Mixed sweet soup
Chè thập cẩm is the smorgasbord of the chè family, the absolute perfect choice for someone who wants a little bit of everything. This glass of chè has it all: beans, jelly, tapioca, steamed green rice flakes, mashed mung bean, coconut milk and sweet syrup on top. Everything is served in layers and then mixed up when eaten, making a sweet and savoury treat for a light and refreshing snack.
Chè thập cẩm is the best choice for someone who wants a little bit of everything. Image source: toilambep.com
Price: VND 10,000 to 22,000
Where to eat it:
Chè Kỳ Đồng
Address: 16C Ky Dong, D3, HCMC
Opening hours: 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Phone: 090 895 41 66
Chè Kỳ Đồng is a one of the most popular mixed sweet soup shops in Saigon. It’s located in Ky Dong street, a spot it’s held for more than 34 years. The menu is updated every year with more new options for chè lovers, but the soul of this shop will always be mixed sweet soup. Everything is super affordable and the quality of their chè thập cẩm is high. Not too sweet, not to bland, creamy or chewy. All you need to do is to mix everything and enjoy.
Sâm bổ lượng (Ching bo leung Sweet Soup)
If you don’t want coconut milk in your sweet soup, you better check out sâm bổ lượng. This chè is a revered herbal remedy as well as a dessert.
A glass of sâm bổ lượng generally contains dried red jujube, dried longan, peanuts, lotus seeds, one to two slices of lotus roots and thinly shredded seaweed with sugar syrup, and crushed ice. Some of the ingredients are believed to aid the cardiovascular system and help the body function better. There’s nothing more enjoyable on a hot summer day than eating this chilly, savoury treat.
Different from other Vietnamese sweet soups, sâm bổ lượng syrup does not have coconut milk in it. Image source: media.cooky.vn
Price: VND10,000 to 33,000
Where to eat it:
Chè Sâm Bổ Lượng
Address: 339/14 Nguyen Dinh Chieu, D3, HCMC
Opening hours: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Chè Thái (Thai Sweet soup)
If you don’t mind durian, have yourself a flavourful glass of chè Thái. A version of Thailand’s tub tim grob, the Vietnamese version is less sweet and uses a variety of fruits. You can actually find a rainbow in Thai sweet soup: the yellow of jackfruit, the red of faux pomegranate seeds, the green of Vietnamese jellos and the white of lychees and longans. All are served in a tall glass with condensed milk and a scoop of durian.
Chè Thái is served in a tall glass with condensed milk and a scoop of durian. Image source: sendo.vn
Price: VND 18,000 to 33,000
Where to eat it:
Chè Thái Ý Phương
Address: 380 Nguyen Tri Phuong, D10, HCMC
Opening hours: 10 a.m. to 12 a.m.
There are not only one or two chè shops in District 10’s Nguyen Tri Phuong Street – it’s an entire Thai sweet soup street! Around 7 p.m., the whole area featuring Thai sweet soup is lit up with neon lights, making you feel as if you are on a busy central street in Hong Kong. Customers, from teenagers to college students, from young couples to families with kids, sit on plastic chairs and tables overlooking the busy street and wait for their desserts to be served. You can jump into any shop you like, but we highly recommend Chè Thái Ý Phương, a nearly 20-year-old dessert shop. You won’t be disappointed.
Chè Khúc bạch (Khuc Bach sweet gruel)
“Chè khúc bạch” is very familiar to the Southern variety but it first originated in Hanoi. Its perfect balance of lychee, creamy jelly and almonds gives street food lovers a taste of summer.
It was introduced to Saigon long ago, but chè khúc bạch became a hit with Saigon youngsters in 2013. The original Khuc Bach sweet soup contains cheese jelly, lychee jelly, roasted shredded almond seeds and sugar syrup. “Simple” and “savoury” are the two words that best describe the flavour of this dessert.
Original chè khúc bạch contains cheese jelly, lychee jelly, shredded almonds and sugar syrup. Image source: images.sunflower.vn
Saigon’s beloved chè khúc bạch was creatively varied by adding new toppings and novel cheese jelly flavours. Nowadays, chè lovers have more options than ever to enjoy, such as chè khúc bạch with fruits, tofu, cheese, cocoa, green tea, chocolate and so much more.
Saigon shops offer a plentiful array of options for chè khúc bạch lovers. Image source: cdn01.diadiemanuong.com
Chè khúc bạch is best served with some shaved ice. It’s a great option for anytime of the day.
Price: VND 20,000 to 33,000
Where to eat:
Chè Khúc Bạch Thanh
Address: 68/210 Tran Quang Khai St, D1, HCMC
Opening hours: 9:00 a.m. to 9:30 PM
Chè Mâm (Sweet soup “buffet”)
If you can’t decide which Vietnamese sweet soup to try, order a bit of everything. In Saigon, varieties of sweet soups are served in small portions on a tray (“mâm” in Vietnamese); up to 16 options are available. This way, you can curate your own perfect selection of Vietnamese sweet desserts – from chè đậu xanh (mung bean sweet soup) to chè bà ba (a heavy, starchy combination of sweet potato, cassava and taro in a rich coconut milk soup) and so on. This is always a good option if you’re eating with a group of four or more.
Various flavour of sweet soup, all on a tray and ready to go. Image source: facebook.com/saigonsuada
Price: VND 5,000 to 30,000
Where to eat:
Chè Mâm Khánh Vy
Address: 242B Su Van Hanh St., D10, HCMC
Opening hours: 5:00 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Take a tour to this famous shop house through this video:
Video source: RICE
Besides local flavours, Saigon chè also include sweet soups brought over from other countries in the region. Regional flavours are added, making them culturally unique.
Chè Campuchia - Cambodian Style Sweet Soup
Cambodian-style chè is made with shaved ice, coconut milk served with durian sauce, strands of egg noodles, palm fruit, salted egg, mung bean paste and baby tamarind. The key ingredient that gives this treat its special flavour, however, is the pumpkin flan, a delicacy made from egg custard cooked in a hollowed-out pumpkin. These pumpkins are usually imported from Cambodia, which gives the custard a sweeter flavour than pumpkins in Vietnam. Make sure you don’t eat the rind!
The key ingredient here is the pumpkin flan. Image source: media.christinas.vn
Price: VND10,000 to 22,000
Where to eat it:
Chè Cô Huôi - Chợ Hồ Thị Kỷ
Address: 57/21A Ho Thi Ky St, D10, HCMC. (in Ho Thi Ky Market)
Opening hours: 2 p.m. to 10 p.m.PM
Phone: 090 991 87 07
Ho Thi Ky Market, located on the borders of District 10 and District 1, is well known as Ho Chi Minh City’s largest flower market, as well as Saigon’s unofficial Cambodia Town. You can find various Cambodian dishes here, and sweet soup is one of them.
Meet Fresh is a Taiwan-based chain, popular for its herbal jelly, widely adored by Vietnamese youths. A bowl of Meet Fresh contains a combination of herbal grass jelly and taro balls. Some of the common toppings include beans, nuts and fruit, depending on your preference. This Taiwanese Sweet soup is finished off with brown sugar, coconut milk and sugar syrup. For anyone unfamiliar with these ingredients, grass jelly is an Asian dessert, made from the leaves of mesona chinensis, a member of the mint family. Taro balls, the more chewy, mochi-like balls, similar to the Chinese sticky rice balls, are made out of taro.
Eating is one of the top things to do in Saigon. With a glut of tasty dishes to sample, it’s hard to decide what to choose For a short list of the must-try food in the city, you can read below. For more ideas, you can read our review: Top Street Food in HCMC.
No trip to Vietnam is complete without a steaming bowl of pho, the most popular traditional food in Vietnam. Simple yet complex at the same time, pho is served with flat rice noodles in a beef broth that usually takes several hours to prepare. The broth is usually topped with green and white onions, coriander leaves and bean sprouts. Accompanied with the soup is an array of garnishes that consists of gia (bean sprouts), chanh (lime), rau que (basil), hanh (scallions), tuong ot (chili sauce) and ot (sliced chilies). Most pho restaurants will have a wide assortment of meats and trimmings to choose from. Basic selections are either tai (sliced of ground beef ), bo vien (beef meatballs) or nam (beef flank). More adventurous eaters have the option of more exotic fare such as gan (beef tendon), sach (thin sliced stomach lining) or ve don (flank with cartilage). If you want a bit of everything in your bowl, order a pho thap cam.
Pho is not the only soup to eat in Vietnam. To truly experience all the soupy goodness that Saigon has to offer check out this blog. Bun Rieu is a great place to start your culinary voyage.
Local insight: Expect to pay around VND 30,000 – 40,000 for a steaming bowl of Vietnam goodness.
Take a walk anywhere in Saigon and you will eventually run into someone selling banh mi. Tasty, filling and most importantly quick to prepare, these sandwiches are perfect for fast paced Saigon life.
It isn’t banh mi unless it’s on a baguette. The type of baguette will range from each region and baguettes that originate in Saigon are generally lighter yet crustier in texture. Fillings consist of butter, soy sauce, pickled daikon sprouts and carrots, cucumber and coriander. Chilies are optional if you want to spice things up. The meat options are aplenty and a slew of them are listed here: cha ca (fried fish with turmeric and dill), cha lua (steamed pork roll), heo quay (roasted pork belly), pho mai (laughing cow cheese), pa te (pate), xiu mai (meatballs), thit ga (boiled chicken), thit nuong (grilled pork loin), trung op la (fried egg), and xa xiu (chinese barbecued pork)
Local insight: Banh mi is usually sold for about VND 10,000 – 15,000 depending on your choice of filling.
Literally translated as “broken rice”, this hearty dish is served for breakfast, lunch and dinner. This dish started with humble beginnings with Vietnamese farmers serving this rice at home as the “broken” leftovers were not suitable to sell in the market. Nowadays, it is served in Saigon and isn’t just for farmers anymore.
The dish is usually served with many different meat options such as suon nuong (barbecued pork chop), bi (shredded pork skin), cha trung (steamed pork and egg patty) or trung op la (fried egg). Diced green onion in oil is sprinkled on the meat and a side of pickled vegetables and sliced cucumber finish the plate. Served on the side is a bowl of the ubiquitous nuoc cham dipping sauce.
Local insight: Eating on the street will usually cost you VND 20,000 but expect to pay a bit more in a restaurant.
Bun Thit Nuong
Brightly coloured and fresh in flavour, this noodle dish is a great alternative to the heavier pho or com dishes served in Saigon. Unlike most Vietnamese dishes, bun thit nuong is served in one bowl and doesn’t come with additional garnishes. The Saigon version highlights the wealth of fresh vegetables produced in the neighboring Mekong Delta and Dalat regions. Fresh chopped leaf lettuce, sliced cucumber, bean sprouts, pickled daikon and carrot, basil, chopped peanuts, and mint are served with vermicelli rice noodle and topped with grilled pork shoulder.
You can also get the dish with cha gio (eggrolls) or nem nuong (grilled ground pork meatballs). Nuoc cham is served on the side and should be poured into the bowl. Mix it all up and what you have is a taste sensation in your mouth.
Local insight: A bowl of bun thit nuong will put you back around VND 30,000 but expect to pay more if you want some extras.
Though pho is the starlet of Vietnamese cuisine, its humble Saigonese cousin hu tieu is a soup that shouldn’t be overlooked. Named after a noodle made from tapioca, there are countless variations served in restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City. One unifying ingredient is the broth. Lighter in flavour and a touch sweet, the broth is made from pork instead of beef. Though the definitive hu tieu is called hu tieu xuong that consists of pork ribs as the main meat ingredient, each restaurant or stall features their own specialties. Toppings can consist of sliced pork shoulder, a whole pork chop, wonton dumplings, meatballs, shrimp, squid, and/or fish. You can even mix up the hu tieu noodles with some pho or mi (chinese egg noodles) noodles for a bit of textural contrast.
Local insight: Sitting on the street will usually cost you VND 20,000 for hu tieu but expect to pay VND 30,000+ to sit in a restaurant.
The Five Oysters is a pocket of calm on one of Southeast Asia’s busiest tourist strips. The owner, Ho Quang Man, established his now thriving restaurant three years ago this July, and its careful ambience and tasty Vietnamese cuisine attract customers from all walks of life. Tourists, expats and locals fill the Five Oysters every night to soak in the quiet music and relax in the warm light.
How did it start?
We decided to ask the man himself.
When did you start the Five Oysters, and why?
This month I am celebrating three years of running the Five Oysters. Before that, I owned a clothing brand for more than 10 years and I also worked for an international bank in Vietnam.
I was born and grew up in a seaside province near to the city, so I knew all the best seafood suppliers well. I also love cooking, especially Vietnamese food, so I decided to open the Five Oysters after leaving the bank. I made all the arrangements, connected with suppliers, and opened the next day! I knew I would have to learn as I went, and it’s been hard, but I also knew that if I focused on my customers and worked hard to bring them what they enjoy my business would grow quickly. And it did.
Is it easy to start a restaurant in this city?
Maybe not easy, but definitely a good idea! Vietnamese people love eating out a lot. However their taste and eating styles change very fast, and Western taste is also very different. It is difficult to cater to everyone.
What vision did you have for the business when you started it?
To keep improving. Always keep improving. I think I saw the Five Oysters as an opportunity to learn, and customer service was a completely new field to me when I started out. The clothing business is different than hospitality, but one thing that applies to both industries is "love your customers".
Before I was happy to bring my customers a nice costume, and now a cool meal. I also wanted to show people the food of my country, Vietnam. I think it is important to share the real Vietnam with tourists at a good, fair price. It all comes back to “love your customers”.
What is the biggest challenge that you’ve faced since you started the Five Oysters?
The biggest challenge is ongoing - learning to know your customers. It is hard to “love your customers” if you don’t know what they are looking for, and at the Five Oysters we are always learning more.
When I started the Five Oysters I had very little idea about Western taste. I knew what Vietnamese people like to eat, I am Vietnamese! But my restaurant is on a famous tourist street, and what local people love to eat is not always what Westerners can enjoy. Since Five Oysters is located in the backpacking area, we have to learn everyday what foreign tourists love most from a huge range of local cuisine, and adjust our menu and cooking to that. It is a challenge but a rewarding one. The Five Oysters is always a calm, friendly place and I think it’s because we really care about our customers’ experiences.
What advice would you give to someone looking to start a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City?
I don’t think I can advise anyone, since the success of my restaurant is small. Restaurant business is super hard. You have to spend time and money to learn, and the competition is always changing! But I always remind myself everyday to keep fighting.
I think that’s the best advice: be ready to change, always love the customer, always try to know the customer, and above all - keep fighting. Apart from that, make sure that what you’re serving the customers is good.
Who do you employ in the Five Oysters?
I want to serve the most authentic Vietnamese cuisine, so all kitchen staff members are professional Vietnamese cooks. Service staff could be anyone! Almost all the waiters and waitresses at Five Oysters are University students. They are young, active and open minded to learn.
I know that many restaurants in the backpacker area only employ Vietnamese, but I think it is important to be fair to everyone. We have worked with one girl from Cambodia, someone from the Philipines, etc.
What vision do you have for the Five Oysters in the future?
People usually call us "the best Vietnamese restaurant in the backpacking area". We are working hard everyday to deserve it. I have recently bought the building next door and expanded my restaurant to allow more people inside.
For now, I want to focus on building up the Five Oysters as a totally unique place for food, atmosphere and service. I don’t think about opening a chain right now, but maybe in the future, maybe in my favourite city Hoi An. Who knows! For now, let’s focus on Ho Chi Minh City.
In a few words, what is the Five Oysters? Who do you cater to?
Five Oysters is just a name including my favorite number and a kind of seafood popular in Vietnam, a country with a long seacoast.
Actually, over half our menu has nothing to do with fish or oysters. But we are proud of our seafood, and as we have a good supply source and talented local cooks in our kitchen, I am confident to say that the Five Oysters cuisine is 100% Vietnamese.
We cater to tourists, locals, expats, anyone.
Why did you buy the building next to the Five Oysters, and expand?
As you know the competition in the tourist area is very high. If you have something good, people will copy you very quickly. At Five Oysters, we do not walk, we run.
Before I renovated, some nights of the week and especially during the weekend, we did not have enough tables for our customers. At that time the business next to us was for sale so we decided to buy it, and make the place bigger. Now we can receive big groups of customers, and also group parties like birthday or anniversary events.
Why do you think your restaurant is rated so highly on Tripadvisor?
For two years continually we received the certificate of Excellence by Tripadvisor. It's really a gift from our customers. Although the reviews can be positive or negative sometimes, we learn a lot from it and always make it our first aim to fix any issues. We never increase our prices on the menu, even though rent on Bui Vien has definitely increased, because we want to keep our food and drink at the low budget range for tourist people, especially backpackers.
The restaurant, which derives its name from the Buddhist mantra “om mani padme hum” or “peace comes from within”, serves health-conscious fare by detailing the nutritious properties of ingredients like lotus, sesame, mushrooms, brown rice, homemade tofu and seaweed.
What’s the story behind the creation of Hum restaurant?
Hum is a concern of Long Thanh, a Vietnamese investment and financial company. The owner, Ms Hong Dang, has always been a big vegetarian food fan and wanted to open a vegetarian restaurant for a long time.
Among the management team, we looked for opportunities and concepts. Our project manager went to Thailand to find a chef, Nguyen Van Ngoc, who used to work in Thailand for many years. Consequently many of our dishes are inspired by Thai cuisine. The restaurant opened on 29 September 2012, in a beautiful, colonial-style villa.
Is the restaurant successful?
Yes! Though, to be honest, it took about 6 months before business really picked up. In the beginning it was a bit slow because we didn’t do a lot of advertising or marketing as we absolutely did not and do not want to run a commercial-style restaurant.
At first we mainly served a Vietnamese clientele, but after a while our healthy food and pleasant ambience started to attract expats and tourists. TripAdvisor now recommends us, so we’re constantly welcoming more guests.
How many seats do you have?
We have 120 seats and we serve breakfast, lunch and dinner 7 days a week. We open at 7 am, close at 10 pm and the last order is at 9:30 pm.
After Tet we’ll launch a new drinks menu that features a lot of cocktails. Indeed, the atmosphere here looks a bit like a lounge. Around 100 people are now working for the restaurant including those in marketing, human resources and accounting, which is directly handled by Long Thanh.
Can you tell us more about the concept?
First and foremost we propose healthy food – this decision is unrelated to any religious concept as we also serve eggs and milk and use garlic and onion – ingredients that are not usually consumed by traditional vegetarians. We serve no ‘faux meat’, like fake sausages, for instance.
Above all we’d like people to begin thinking of vegetarian food as not being boring!
We do not want the restaurant to feel crowded. We pay a lot of attention to the environment, to the architecture and design, and we want our customers to feel good here.
Service is the most important thing we’d like to bring to our customers. We want to make sure that our guests are satisfied.
To prepare healthy food, does Hum use specific ingredients or shop a specific market?
We always use fresh products. We source all ingredients from reliable suppliers that have certificates for the products they sell. For some rare ingredients, we get them from traditional Vietnamese markets and we always try to get the best possible quality.
But in the end, our chef judges the product and has the final word. Fruits, for instance, need to taste good as well as look appetizing to the eye.
Do you have an expansion plan for the brand?
Our objective is to expand, but at the moment Ho Chi Minh City is our key market. We just opened a second restaurant and people have started to recognize the Hum brand. Once we establish a strong foothold in Saigon, we may expand farther.
Finally, what is the meaning of ‘Hum’?
Tibetan Buddhists believe that saying the prayer, ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’, out loud or silently to oneself, invokes the powerful, benevolent attention and blessings of Chenrezig, the deity of compassion.
The final syllable, ‘hum’, represents indivisibility. All six syllables, ‘om mani padme hum’, mean that in dependence on the practice of a path that is an indivisible union of method and wisdom, you can transform your impure body, speech and mind into the pure exalted body, speech and mind of a Buddha.
- Hum Vegetarian, Café & Restaurant, 32 Vo Van Tan, District 3, HCMC. Tel: (848) 3930 3819