“Is this a restaurant or somebody’s home?” I asked a stranger inside as I stood at the apartment doorway. He looked at me oddly and replied that it indeed was somebody’s home. From the sounds of the conversations echoing from inside, deep down, I was really hoping that it would be a home restaurant that I had always heard of, but never managed to discover. Instead, feeling a little dispirited, I scurried off to find some street food for lunch elsewhere.
A couple of weeks passed and I would find myself in the same building again, at the same door that I stumbled upon the previous time. Again, it was open, but this time, I wasn’t going to let embarrassment stand in the way, and I was determined to find out what was inside. So I slipped out of my Havaianas and poked my head inside to see how long it would take to be yelled at and chased out from the apartment.
A woman, who looked in her early sixties, greeted me with a welcoming smile, and pulled me inside by the arm. I asked her if it was her home, to which she replied, “Yes, come in and sit down”. She introduced herself as Mrs Hanh, and this was her home in which she has lived with her husband for the past fifteen or so years. However, it has been the past few years that she’s opened her home to guests and caters lunch for hungry inner city workers, who crave some home cooking.
I ask her how much it cost to eat. Instead, Mr Hahn interrupts and tells me not to worry, and to order whatever I fancied from the selection of food. I scan the array of dishes that occupied one table, and soon realize that there is another table across the room with even more plates of pre-cooked food: caramelized fish fillets, fish cutlets, fish soup, chicken soup, Chinese style sausage, grilled marinated pork steaks, stir fried prawns in their shells, and braised tofu stuffed with pork. It was a feast for all of the senses. Unsure of what and how much to choose, I ask for the grilled pork skewers and the omelette and find a place on the smallest table in the corner, as to not take up too much room being a solo diner.
What I’ve learnt while living in Saigon, is that many of the unique and interesting experiences can occur in the most unassuming buildings – Mrs Hanh’s place is no exception. Her place is located in what can be mistaken for an uninviting building in district one, among a concentration of Japanese retailers, restaurants and ex-pats. Chances are, there is no way that you could ever find it without reading or being told about it; even a random discovery would be improbable. The only reason why I came across was that it was opposite Bang Khuang Cafe, one of the many local cafes in Saigon that I would frequent for a daily hit of iced coffee and free WiFi.
Located on the top level, the apartment is probably no larger than 80 square meters, and like most Vietnamese homes, additional space is added by constructing another level, to accommodate additional sleeping areas, usually for the children. The home itself is clean, with most of the inside space cleared to the side against the brightly painted green walls, making room for the low riding plastic tables and stools that are ubiquitous with Vietnamese street food vendors.
A couple of minutes pass and Mr Hanh arrives with the grilled pork and omelette. Along with it, is a bucket of steamed rice, bottle of iced tea, cabbage and beetroot infused soup (which surprisingly works well together) and a side of boiled cabbage and water spinach occupy the entire table. After a brief chat, he pulls out a magazine from inside the coffee table and proudly shows off an article that a Japanese travel magazine had written about Mrs Hanh.
As more customers arrive, Mr Hanh hurries off with much enthusiasm to greet them, and in what seems like a game of tag, Mrs Hanh sits down for a chat. She’s more inquisitive this time as to what brought me to her place. I try my best to explain in broken Vietnamese, that I was traveling and in Saigon to eat and discover Vietnamese food. Like many others before, she was a little confused as to why traveled so much, and wondered why somebody at my age was not married and settled with children.
I managed to turn the topic of conversation around and back onto her. She used to work at the local power company and had now been retired for some time now. In order to keep up with the expenses, she decided to open up her doors and feed the public for a few hours each day during the working week.
From the way the way she speaks, it’s quite evident that she genuinely loves what she does. Like any Vietnamese mother, who wants nothing more than to feed her family and friends, and with such generosity, it’s not difficult to feel a little attached to Mrs Hahn and her intimate space in Saigon.
The food is simple, yet tasty and from observing the inner city workers, casually streaming in, I could tell that they were regulars. In a neighborhood where the number of western chains and up market Japanese restaurants are increasing, it’s warming to know that there are others who still enjoy home cooked meals. It reminds me of the times where as a kid, my family would attend some epic meal times at one of our family friends place that would involve numerous courses and hours of eating.
Half an hour later, with a well satisfied belly, I adjust my belt, pay $2.50 for the generous meal and thank my welcoming hosts, knowing that it wouldn’t be the last time that I visit. To Mrs Hanh, it may have seemed like a perfectly normal day, but it’s those discoveries and connection through food that prove to be the reason as to why I travel. That moment was one of the many reasons as to why I loved Saigon and Vietnam.
Mrs Hanh’s establishment can be found at: 2nd floor, 9 Thai Van Lung street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Opening times are Mon-Fri 1030am-1:30pm