Meet the Expert: Sakal Phoeung of Le Corto

By: Zoe Osborne

To renowned French Chef Sakal Phoeung, the most important factor in opening and maintaining a successful restaurant anywhere in the world is the right balance of hardware and software. In other words, the right people to work in the right space. With its market for Western cuisine rapidly growing, pushing competition and increasing the need for quality food and service, this was never more applicable to Vietnam’s economic hub Saigon. We spoke to Sakal Phoeung about his experience in Asia as one of the top, executive Chefs in the region for over 15 years to gain some insight into the key to success in Ho Chi Minh City’s ever-greater market for fine, international cuisine.

Photo: goldenspoonawards.com

What brought you to Southeast Asia?

I have been in Asia since 2000, first coming to Vietnam in 2000 with 5-star hotel chain Sofitel as the Executive Chef for their Saigon hotel. Between 2000 and 2012 I moved around the region working for Sofitel, first in China (Beijjing) for two-and-a-half years and back to Southeast Asia in 2010 to open a new branch for the brand in Phnom Penh. I came back to Saigon in 2012 and worked there until early March 2016 when I realised that I wanted something more. I had always dreamed to be an executive chef in a 5-star hotel, and now that I had done it for so long I wanted a new challenge. So I left, and I opened my own restaurant here in Saigon called Le Corto.

You have a lot of experience working in some of the best restaurants in Asia. What do you think is the key to opening and maintaining a successful restaurant here?

You have to think of the software. The staff. People who open a restaurant here invest so much in creating a beautiful decor, but they don’t think as much about investing in good staff. You cannot deliver low quality food in HCMC anymore because the people know what fine food is, so it is so important to get a good manager and chef. No matter what your restaurant looks like, without a good manager and chef you cannot be successful!

So staff is very important. What is the key to finding good, quality staff for your restaurant?

There are schools in this city that turn out good quality staff, such as Vattel, but really the most valuable thing to look for is experience. I started work at 18, but my first position as a chef was at 30. You cannot hire a youngster and expect a wise man’s work. Owners here often hire younger, less experienced staff because they are cheaper, but at the end of the day it costs them more! Another option is to hire someone who is totally new to the job and train him. About 10 years ago a young guy came to me to ask for a job. He was a security guard at Ben Thanh Market at the time! Anyway, I trained him and he worked hard, he learned quickly, and now he is the Assistant Chef at the Caravelle Saigon.

Photo: www.lecorto.com

In general, what are the main challenges in working with VN cooking staff?

The main challenge is language - communication. But actually in the kitchen we speak a limited number of words - about technique, ingredients, etc - so eventually everyone understands. In France the workers are workers and the chefs are chefs, but here in Vietnam chefs are more like teachers with students. And the Vietnamese are great students - they want to learn, are ambitious, and eager to participate. When I worked in China the attitude of my staff was not motivated - they had everything at home, mum and dad cooked for them and looked after them, so why should they work? And in Cambodia my staff lacked discipline. But the Vietnamese have something.

How do you retain your staff long-term?

I give them a dream. Of course my staff always wants to learn new skills, so I teach them and I give them opportunities to move up and improve, because if you show someone that he can do something if he works, he will be inspired to work hard. As a chef I never hide my experience, my recipes, my knowledge - I like to share it and help others to learn.

Can you break down the average salaries for respective positions in a high quality, Western restaurant in Saigon?

The basic starting salary is about VND 5 million per month, and Chef De Partie can earn about VND 10 million. It takes a minimum of four years to really progress from beginner to Chef De Partie, if you want to do your job well, and to become a Chef it can take up to 10 years. The Chef here earns between VND 40-50 million per month, and as quality Pastry Chefs or Bakers are hard to find they can also earn up to VND 50 million. An experienced English speaking waiter can earn between VND 6-10 million per month, plus tips.

How do you make sure quality is maintained in the products you use to make your food?

Well there are official government-set standards for hygiene and quality of food - of course! But the difficulty is in enforcing them. They come to inspect kitchens often, especially in 5-star hotels, but they never look at our processes, products, working environment, etc. 100%, from the supplier to the kitchen. Actually I remember one time I was on my way to work and I followed a guy on a motorbike with a big crate of frozen vegetables on the back, melting, wet, and I bet you by the time that food got to its destination it was warm. When I worked in Sofitel we imported our bread and honestly it was hard to get it to arrive at the restaurant above 15 degrees.

Photo: www.lecorto.com

Is it hard to find some of the essential elements in the food you cook here?

Despite what you might think, it has become harder to source ingredients since I came here in 2000. You need a whole load of licenses to sell now, which cost money, so suppliers are often reluctant to work with places unless they will be ordering large enough amounts. But in the end it’s not so much the quantity or availability of the products that is an issue - it is the quality. I import all my meat because the animals here are so skinny, and the quality of their meat is so low. Also, though vegetables are widely available here their flavour is just not as good as in Europe. It’s a hot country, and the produce grows too quickly.

Who are the main players for good food imports to HCMC at the moment?

Well Classic Fine Foods has been here for a long time, and is still a key contender. At the beginning they had very high prices because there was no competition! But now a number of good suppliers have popped up - Annam, New Viet Dairy, etc. There really is a lot of choice, and because of that the prices have dropped.

What is the ideal ratio between rent cost and overall profit for a restaurant in Saigon’s D1?

The cost of rent does depend on where you are, but D1 is generally expensive. You should make sure that costs are not over 8-15% of your overall earnings. So if you rent an expensive property you’ve got to be prepared to generate some pretty amazing business! The general rule of thumb is to allocate 18% of profit for staff salaries, 15% for rent and about 32-35% for food costs. At the end you only make 32% profit - so you’d better make it count.

Competition is rising for quality international cuisines here in HCMC. Because of this, how sustainable is the restaurant business here?

Very - I estimate that we’ve only reached about 40% of the possible capacity that Saigon has for good, international food. We have about 10-15 years more potential for growth. Today no-one can get a two star Michelin rating - they can cook the food, but not to that quality. More people are becoming richer and more globally aware, so the demand goes up. I think that the general attitude here is geared towards even more global integration - people want to learn about foreign ways of life - not like China, for example, where people are less open minded.

Photo: www.lecorto.com

I’ve heard that property owners here in Vietnam often break a lease before the contract ends - Why do they do so? And is there anything you can do to avoid this?

No there is nothing you can do at all - it’s a game, a matter of luck! They have absolutely no law for that kind of thing, I think. In Vietnam people are so business minded - in here it is a systematic thing - if you are doing good business why would they let you do it? Property owners will rent you their space, but as soon as your business is going well they may just kick you out and try to run that business themselves! What they don’t realise is that they are missing the software - the staff - so it rarely ever works. A while back, I opened a bakery here called Bon Appetite and after one year the owner sold the building. I had to move all my equipment - everything - and in the end I didn’t make any profit anymore, so the business ended. It was just bad luck.

In the past there was no VAT, no service tax, but now some places even charge 7-10%! Does this money always go to the workers?

Supposedly, I mean it should. In my experience the Vietnamese owners often don’t give the service charges to their staff members. Maybe they don’t know what the service tax is, or maybe they just don’t want to know. That’s why the staff ask for a good, already quite high salary when they apply for a job - because they can’t guarantee tips. VND 3.7 million is basic salary, after service charge more - sometimes VND 5 million per month. Local staff ask minimum 4-4.5 million. For the hotel it is standard.

You are an expert in a number of cuisines. What is your opinion of Vietnamese food?

Well, though I love the food as a food, it is not yet a gastronomy. The evolution of Vietnam’s food has been slow because they were not integrated into the world early on like Europe and the rest of the West, so no one has developed it as a fine food - it is still unrefined. That being said, Vietnamese food is one of the best in the world - light, a little bit spicy, easy to eat, plenty of herbs and fresh vegetables - it’s not like Chinese food with its heavy, fatty sauces and strange flavours. It can be adapted to any dietary preference or taste. But how to present Vietnamese food as a gastronomy cuisine? It is difficult. Vietnamese chefs have thought about it, but their cuisine is like a garden on a table, lots of herbs, so to condense it into a small, compact dish on the table is very hard. They bring out beautiful products with lovely presentation, but missing flavour. It is a process, you need time.

Do you have a favourite restaurant in HCMC?

I cannot say! I love to eat in the street. My favourite street food is a chicken place near the Bitexco Tower, and I sometimes go to D4 for a really delicious crab dish in one of the alleyways near Hoang Dieu. In Vietnamese food there is a special sauce for each dish. You never see that anywhere else - in Thailand they have chili sauce, in China they have fish sauce - it is so carefully and specifically done. And I would say that the best Vietnamese food is definitely on the street, because they focus on only one product and make it really well.

So is Vietnamese food an essential element of the Vietnamese travel experience?

Absolutely. People come here to visit what? Country, culture, attractions, landscape, yes, but the main thing is the food. They often only come one time, not two, because there aren’t HUGE attractions like the pyramids in Egypt, etc. They come for the food.

What is your main piece of advice for a young chef looking for a job in Saigon?

Go to a 5 star hotel first to learn with a good team in a good environment, or a big company. Don’t think about salary. Learn and make your way up the ladder, then when you have experience you can have your pick of the best salaries. If you make the mistake to go to a different restaurant with a higher salary but offering limited experience, what do you learn at the end of it? Money is like water - you use it, and it is gone.


Propaganda: A Clever Twist on Vietnamese Cuisine

By: City Pass Guide

propaganda space

With a name reflecting anti-war campaign posters, Propaganda Saigon marks a different style of Vietnamese cuisine in the heart of Saigon.

Opening at the end of the Dragon Year, Propaganda offers a wide variety of inventive dishes, including incredible spring rolls and a smorgasbord of Vietnamese street food served with creative twists.

We delved into a number of tasty dishes from north, central and south Vietnam, and particularly enjoyed the “Bún chay gạo lức Propaganda”. This dish consisted of:

  • light noodles,
  • perfectly fried tofu,
  • an abundance of typical Vietnamese herbs and vegetables,
  • nutrient-rich puffed brown rice,
  • garnished with chilli, peanuts and shallots,
  • and served with a sweet soy sauce.

Puffed brown rice has recently crept into many Vietnamese recipes, as it is a popular healthy option that gives the texture a boost while adding a subtle mellowing flavor.

Propaganda Roll

For a group of friends, the spring rolls are a must. With a wide selection you can have any meat you might want or vegetarian if the fancy strikes. We went with the chicken and avocado spring rolls and were not disappointed. With the clever twist of adding Western ingredients, they’ve created a brilliant new way to experience a typical Vietnamese dish. It also helps that they were cut into compact bite sized pieces – so much easier to eat.

Last point (because we probably shouldn’t go on about spring rolls forever), the peanut sauce they’re served with is to die for: a thick sweet sauce with the hearty crunch of chopped nuts. We found it hard to stop ourselves licking the bowl – though we did go so far as to use a handy invention, a spoon, to scrape the remnants directly from the dish.

The architecture is modern, clean and simple with French Colonial traces, seen in the old floor tiles and the Art Deco replica marble tables. The hand-drawn propaganda mural on their main wall ties the entire scene together making the restaurant vivid and lively – as one might imagine would have been the attitude of the artists originally making propaganda art years ago.

With multiple floors and a long narrow space to work with (similar to their neighbouring restaurant Au Parc), the smart table layout means people aren’t cramped, even at peak hours. Propaganda lets you gather with friends and family, relax and enjoy well made, modern Vietnamese street food.


Top 5 Chè - Sweet Soups Must Try in Saigon

By: City Pass Guide

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.

sweet soupChè 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.

sweet soupDifferent 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.

sweet soupChè 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.

sweet soupOriginal 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.

sweet soupSaigon 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.

sweet soupVarious 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!

sweet soupThe 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.

Chè Đài Loan Meet Fresh - Taiwan Sweet Soup Meet Fresh

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.

sweet soupMeet Fresh’s signature Herbal Jelly (Mini Taro Ball+Honey Beans+Pearls)
Image source: vuaphache.com

Price: VND 90.000 to 150.000

Where to eat it:

Meet Fresh Ngô Đức Kế

Address: 50 Ngo Duc Ke St, D1, HCMC

Opening hours: 10:00 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.

Learn more about the making of this Trendy Sweet Soup in the video below.

Video source: Meet Fresh Vietnam

Banner Image source: check.com.vn


Top 5 Must Eat Dishes in Saigon

By: Vinh Dao

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.

Pho

Bowl of Pho

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.

Banh Mi

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.

Com Tam

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.

Hu Tieu

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.

If you liked it, you might like:

Top 5 dishes to try in Nha Trang

Top 5 dishes to eat in Hanoi

Top 5 Che-sweet soups must try in Saigon



Startup to Success: Five Oysters

By: Zoe Osborne

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.


Hum Vegetarian Restaurant Interview

By: Patrick Gaveau

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.

Hum vegetarian restaurant in HCMC

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.

saigon hum vegetarian

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.

saigon hum vegetarian

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.

saigon hum vegetarian

CONTACT

- Hum Vegetarian, Café & Restaurant, 32 Vo Van Tan, District 3, HCMC. Tel: (848) 3930 3819

- Hum Vegetarian, Lounge & Restaurant, 2 Thi Sach, District 1, HCMC. Tel: (848) 3823 8920

- contact@hum-vegetarian.vn

- http://www.hum-vegetarian.vn

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