Come to the centre of Ho Chi Minh City and walk down spacious Nguyen Hue Street which runs from the People’s Committee Building to the Saigon River. It is 60 meters wide and 900 meters long and is totally dedicated to pedestrians.
This may not seem remarkable unless you have travelled to Vietnam and attempted walking in the city. Footpaths or sidewalks are generally wide but are invariably cluttered with parked motorbikes and cars, street stalls, red plastic chairs, miniature pop up restaurants with small carts and barbecues, basketware and roosters in cages, parked or moving bicycles, laundry drying, the contents of shops, people sipping tea or playing cards, motor cycle repairs, renovating materials, broken bricks and uneven surfaces, making it necessary to walk along the road instead.
But then who walks in Vietnam? It is rare to see a pedestrian, other than the occasional loony tourist. The only other walkers are poor female vendors with long bamboo carrying poles full of fruit or other goods to sell, or an ancient shuffling grandmother.
Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon- the city still happily goes by both names- is a surprisingly advanced city, a modern Asian Tiger. Wide boulevards, generous public spaces, landscaping, cleanliness and well designed buildings feature prominently in District 1, the central and oldest quarter of HCMC. It’s a relief to find wide footpaths that are pedestrian friendly, one way streets, traffic lights, at least in District 1, which makes walking a pleasure.
The restaurant scene here is undergoing a renaissance. Many expensive restaurants offer refined versions of Vietnamese cuisine, alongside the usual internationally acclaimed restaurants you would expect to find in a modern Asian capital city. Leading the way, in terms of modernising Vietnamese classic cuisine at an affordable price, is the restaurant Quán Bụi. The goal of the owner, Danh Tran, is to provide casual dining ,offering high quality Vietnamese food, with daily sourced healthy ingredients, in a stylish environment. Quán Bụi opened in 2011 and now has four branches around the city. We lunched at the relatively new branch at 39 Ly Tu Tong, district 1. It is situated on the second floor and is a little tricky to find.
a corner table at Quan Bui
Goi (salad) is a popular starter in Vietnamese cuisine. Goi generally consists of one main ingredient such as cabbage or morning glory and is topped by fried onions or peanuts then mixed with meat or seafood and herb leaves. The composition is then gently tossed with a dressing made from vinegar, sugar, spice and seasoning, as well as the all important ingredient, fish sauce, the ‘invisible enhancer’. Fish sauce is either incorporated in the dressing or comes as a side dish.
We begin with a mango and dried shrimp salad, a huge serve and a little different from the Thai version. The mango was grated, as in Thai papaya salad, but the fruit was riper, then tossed with rehydrated dried prawns, mint, nuts and jellied fish, the latter an intriguing element.
An unusual version of deep fried tofu arrives topped with crispy fried fresh coconut. The overall flavour is sweet, an unusual sensation in a main course, providing a counterbalance to the other bitter or spicy dishes. Mr T shoved some fresh chilli in the middle of his tofu cubes, a habit he picked up in Java, Indonesia.
The eggplant dish was described as chargrilled, and I was hoping for a smokier flavour in this dish, similar to the Thai version. Stripped of skin, the young green eggplants were grilled, then topped with fried nuts, herbs and dressing.
White or brown steamed rice are offered as an accompaniment. Washed down with a few beers, five Saigon beers to be precise, the total came to around VND 500,000/ AU$30. Expect to pay more for fish or meat based meals. Wine is by the glass or bottle and is imported. The serves are generous and the setting is stylish with enough ombra to suggest a hint of Graham Greene.
The chef is Thanh Cuong who won the Masterchef Vietnam series in 2015. I hope to try at least two more branches of Quan Bai before leaving Vietnam. This food is clean, beautifully presented and traditional with a modern twist.