Le Minh Ngoc may be Saigon's most unlikely street food hero
In 2009, Professor Erik Harms of Yale University documented Ho Chi Minh City's conscious migration from the street to the high-end café in an effort to "civilize" its urban space.
Harms conducted his research chiefly around Ho Con Rua (the "turtle lake" in District 3), but what he found applies to the entire city center.
"Instead of looking outward toward the street, patrons now sit indoors in high-end cafés with darkened windows, their gazes directed inwards in a fashion that turns their backs on the street," he wrote in City and Society, an academic journal.
Lost in this turning away, of course, are the women we've all relied on for good, cheap food.
Naturally, many of these women wish they could turn their backs on the street as well. All of them seem determined to spare their children the drudgery of being a street cook. But they don't seem to know what will happen to them as Ho Chi Minh City continues to become more "civilized."
The Duck Deli presents a rather hopeful aside to an otherwise tragic momentum.
From the exterior, it looks like the classic bad guy in the gentrification of Ho Chi Minh City.
The exposed brick dining room features a chalk menu and chic wooden tables. Soft rock hovers between the high walls.
The restaurant's clever branding (the ever-present silhouette of a bow-tie wearing duck) looks like the work of a repatriated San Jose MBA or a Singaporean venture capitalist.
In fact, it was created by Le Minh Ngoc a flamboyant 26-year-old Northerner who somehow juggles the deli, a high-end clothing line called Urbanista and a position as a fashion editor.
Ngoc's celebrity friends gave the place early clout and, for a time, a series of loyal, leggy models volunteered to wait tables in their off hours. After less than a year in business, he has already opened another branch in the original Parkson mall.
On a recent evening, Ngoc sat working through photos on his Macbook Air in a pair of blue linen cargo shorts, a trucker hat and a single pink star earring.
A coterie of pretty young admirers came and went.
I expected some degree of ego from this young princeling. But when asked about the success of his restaurant, he was shy and self-effacing.
He credited the place's success entirely to Pham Thi Thu Phuong, a 48-year-old Saigon native who spent her twenties selling fabric at An Dong Market during the day and sweating on District 1's synchronized aerobics team at night.
When she wasn't working out, Phuong says she was going out. Or swimming.
"When I was young, I didn't want to work for anyone," she said. "I just wanted to have fun."
When she turned 27, Phuong began selling duck dishes on the corner of Mac Thi Buoi and Dong Khoi streets.
"It was hard but I had a lot of endurance and support," she said. "The police would come and bother me, but my customers always supported me."
Eventually, Phuong secured a small space in alley 71 on Mac Thi Buoi Street where business boomed.
Soon the work became more than Phuong could handle. For a whole year, she said, her sister helped her for free.
|Address: 153 Nguyen Thai Binh Street, District 1, HCMC
Cost: VND55,000 for a bowl of duck noodles or rice porridge; VND125,000 for a duck salad that feeds two.
The owners of Khai Silk and Quan An Ngon offered her a spot in their touristy restaurant but she refused.
"I didn't want to work for anyone but myself," she said. "What kind of boss would let me go swimming every night?"
As fate would have it, Ngoc became that boss.
"I'd go and watch all these beautifully dressed women come out to eat her food," he said. "And they'd have to sit on plastic stools and sweat while they ate. I felt bad for them. I wanted to give them somewhere nice to sit. Not fancy, but nice."
After two meetings, Phuong agreed to be his partner. A customs officer from Tan Son Nhat International Airport would handle the police and the paperwork.
Phuong says she joined Ngoc because he had duyên a kind of fated charm that drew her to him.
He has treated her well, rebuffing all online criticism of the food and refusing to ask Phuong to change anything.
"She's already good," he said. "We haven't changed a thing about her menu."
I couldn't think of much that needed changing, either.
The menu offers heads and wings, hearts and livers.
Phuong supervises the preparation of the stock each morning before sending it out to the Parkson location. And her effort shows. Neither the soup nor the porridge is spoiled by tongue-tingling street powders or the salty blandness of a typical sit-down restaurant.
|The mien mang vit at Duck Deli earned its stripes on the sidewalk
A hefty bowl of bun mien mang vit (tapioca noodles, sour bamboo shoots and duck breast) goes for VND50,000. The bowl's deep brown ribbons of duck come with cubes of blood pudding that taste as though they were mined from marrow bones.
When she got some worrisome medical news this week, a pair of pajama clad confidants dutifully arrived to man the stockpot, which Phuong (even in convalescence) still checks every morning.
While the restaurant has certainly changed the nature of her job, it's also given her the freedom to keep swimming every night.
She imagines that the model offered by Duck Deli will provide a space for aging street gourmet chefs like herself.
"It's safer, it's cleaner and it's nicer."
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By Calvin Godfrey, Thanh Nien News (The story can be found in the October 26th issue of our print edition, Vietweek)
Nhan Van contributed to this report