The streets of Ho Chi Minh City are vastly different to what they once were. Before, banh mi stalls littered the streets and diners sat on stools by the side of the road. Now, restaurants owned by non-Vietnamese people serving non-Vietnamese cuisine are becoming more popular with the locals and tourists alike.
Hong Cao, a tour guide from Vietnam Travel Consultants, deals primarily with showing tourists the food scene of Ho Chi Minh City and has watched her city change.
“In the past 10 years, there has been more Western food coming and more restaurants. Most of the owners are foreigners and they bring their cuisine here,” she said.
“The Saigonese really like that. They like the new food.”
Chris Donnellan, the former head chef of Gingerboy in Melbourne, grew up in Australia but fell in love with Vietnam and decided to make his holiday location a permanent home three years ago. He now owns The Racha Room, a Thai restaurant, and has recently opened Relish & Sons, a burger bar, and has a steak house due to open in the next two months.
When asked if he thinks the food culture of Ho Chi Minh City is developing along with the new restaurants, Chris said ‘Big time. Big time, yeah!’
“I’ve seen a massive change in the way the Vietnamese eat. When I got here it was very simple. Where I was working it was steak, three veg and sauce. That was what nearly everybody ordered.
“Now there are a lot of restaurants opening up, chefs from around the world are starting to come here. The diversity is starting to grow and their palates are developing.”
This development of palates has seen Racha Room, which serves Thai cuisine alongside matched cocktails, be repeatedly named as one of the best dining venues in Vietnam’s biggest city.
With 70% of his clientele Vietnamese, Chris is devoted to giving the locals something different to what they’re used to.
“Vietnamese is my favourite cuisine,” he said.
“But it’s also very simple. It’s fresh but it’s simple. A lot of the stuff tastes very similar whereas Thai food has a lot more depth of flavour, with aromatic spices, it’s just got a lot more oomph and I think they really like that.”
This depth of flavour is certainly clear in dishes such as their whole wok fried fish with a rich coriander and mint salsa that is simply oozing with flavour or their salmon cured in coconut with coriander and cucumber.
Hong fully appreciates this growing diversity of food in Vietnam.
“Vietnamese cuisine is nice but there is not a lot of variety of food,” she said.
“They make so many types of noodles but it’s either noodles with soup or noodles without soup.
“It’s just noodles.”
Not only are the locals looking for more depth of flavour, but the quality of ingredients is also becoming more important.
Tony Fox, an Englishman born and bred, now owns three restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City, focusing on Italian and Mediterranean cuisine.
Ciao Bello, a New York style Italian restaurant, imports a long list of artisanal and gourmet items such as buffalo mozzarella, olive oil and cured meats. The popularity of their steak tenderloin was also noted by Tony.
“We only use imported steak, whereas the local steak is very tough,” Tony said.
With the latest trend in Vietnam’s food scene being American style BBQ, this increased interest in steak is also being seen in The Racha Room.
“You buy a meat dish and it’s dirt cheap. It’s got MSG in it. It’s thin, it’s overcooked,” Chris said.
“So the Vietnamese now like a nice piece of beef.”
Although this call for better produce results in higher prices, Hong says the locals are happy to pay.
“The feeling right now is one of change. People not only care about the food but they also care about other things; the atmosphere of the restaurant, nicer presentation, and the service,” she said.
“It tastes different. It’s a little bit more expensive but people still want to come and try the new flavours”.
This nicer presentation and service is paramount to Ciao Bello’s success.
“My employees are very outgoing, they’re personable, they’re different and that helps,” he said.
The Vietnamese must match the Westerners in terms of friendly service, an ambient atmosphere and delicious food in order to keep up and stay competitive and this in turn is inspiring a new generation of Vietnamese chefs.
“I think it is leading to new opportunities, if they grasp it,” said Chris.
“Maybe in the next three years you’ll start to see a lot more chefs, a lot more Vietnamese starting to become a little bit more creative and open their own places.
“Most of the guys that I work with in my kitchen, they’re starting to go to culinary school now as well whereas three or four years ago you’d just get guys who were cooking with their mum.”
Hong has embraced the competitive edge that Western owned restaurants bring to her city.
“I still prefer that foreigners come and open a restaurant so that the Vietnamese restaurants think that they have to do something; they have to make a better service and improve the flavour of their dishes,” she said.
“The ideas come from the competition. They must make the menu nicer and have more food choices for the customer.
“I think the taste of Vietnam is getting better.”