Among the classy restaurants, cafes and speciality supermarkets of downtown HCM City’s Le Thanh Ton Street a family run chicken noodle restaurant survives among the fierce competition. I chose this place to take my father and younger brother, over here on a short break from the English winter, to meet Vietnamese friends and enjoy some authentic Vietnamese food with them.
In line with the informality and friendliness of this eatery is its personal name – Thu Hien. It stands at number 15/9, opposite the landmark Lancaster building. A few years ago it was housed three doors down. That building was torn down and a building erected which has ever since remained unoccupied. The present premises has been taken over from a Japanese restaurant which despite offering set lunches at VND99,000 only went out of business.
Since reopening Thu Hien has been giving its neighbours a run for their money. The Hong Kong restaurant two doors down has erected a banner announcing a special price for its Peking duck. Across the road Pho 2000 which sells noodle soup at VND65,000 has seen the number of its customers decrease noticeably.
Our privately run place clearly posts all its main dishes at a uniform price of VND25,000. The choice is pho ga (chicken rice noodle soup), bun (vermicelli) and mien (cellophane noodle) soups, chao (chicken rice porridge) and chicken with xoi (sticky rice).
The five of us gathered at just before 9am at a late breakfast to chat and enjoy the food. I and my early morning class had certainly whetted up an appetite. My students all aged around forty are Mr Hai and Mr Trieu, businessmen running their own software companies, and Dr Huy who works at a hospital.
It is a good opportunity for them to practise their English speaking skills with my relatives.
Dad, who is nearing his ninetieth birthday, may owe his longevity to the fact that he only eats two pieces of toast for breakfast. We ordered pho ga and coffee. I like my coffee plain and simple: no sugar, no milk, no MSG! Dad likes it white. I explained to him that in Viet Nam he would not be getting fresh milk but condensed milk. A bemused look came over his face as he got his first taste of the sickly sweet Vietnamese ca phe sua!
The chicken pieces were very tender and the broth very pleasing to the palate. Mr Hai who used to eat here regularly when he had an internet cafe opposite added his local seal of approval.
We are seated at a long table with three Englishmen facing three Vietnamese as if in a language class doing paired oral work. There was plenty to talk about. Firstly my students were amazed at the fitness of my father who is totally mobile and mentally alert. They were amazed to learn that he lives alone although my two brothers live nearby and he still drives a car.
“There is no one like you in Viet Nam,” exclaims Mr Hai, adding, “Looking at you and it gives me great hope that I can still be enjoying an active life fifty or more years from now.”
What is the secret to the success of this restaurant? Firstly they work all day to cover the overheads and then keep open in the evening to make a profit.
The kitchen is behind a glass casing in front of the restaurant. You can see how hard the family works. Secondly, they have found a market niche.
This street primarily feeds foreign mouths but has plenty of Vietnamese working in it. Many are willing to pay at a little more than they would to pavement vendors seated on uncomfortable plastic stools. Then the idea is simple: just chicken based meals.
They buy the fowl in bulk, use different parts in different dishes and pass on the savings to the customer. Finally the service is good. They make you feel part of the family.
So my father and brother had their holiday enriched by meeting three interesting locals with no communication problems. Graham had his first experience of how Vietnamese people have their breakfast. My students got a little extra conversation practice and Anglo-Vietnamese friendships were forged.
Thu Hien provided five happy stomachs with their energy boost for the day ahead at an amazingly cheap price, and my father got to know that globally speaking there is more to white coffee than just fresh cow’s milk. May the great traditional Vietnamese breakfast live long and continue to thrive!
by Pip de Rouvray