Two men have dim sum at Hong Kong-style restaurant Tien Phat (18 Ky Hoa Street, District 5) / PHOTO COURTESY OF TUOI TRE
Yum cha literally means “drink tea” in Cantonese but it usually refers to the practice of both drinking tea and eating dim sum (bite-sized dishes) at tea restaurants in the morning or in the afternoon.
When Chinese people, or rather Hainanese, first immigrated to southern Vietnam centuries ago, they also brought the practice with them.
Thiet, chairman of the Hainanese Society in Ho Chi Minh City, said that after leaving China, where the Hainanese mainly made a living fishing, for Vietnam, his people switched to trading goods and opening tea shops.
Thus, Saigon’s tea shops – mostly concentrated in Cho Lon (“Big Market,” the city’s Chinatown crossing districts 5, 6 and part of 11) – were traditionally run by Hainanese people, and were located close to major intersections in busy business districts, he said.
Although the shops - which served food and were more like restaurants - were mainly located in Cho Lon, they were also available on Tan That Dam Street, District 1. However, the latter sold hu tieu (rice noodles), coffee, and Western style cakes (like sponge cakes) instead of dim sum, he said.
There are almost no Hainanese-owned tea restaurants in HCMC now, according to Thiet.
But, Cho Lon, still has a variety of dim sum restaurants that provide a variety of different offerings.
A restaurant at 259 Hong Bang Street, District 5, serves dim sum in small dishes like the old tea restaurants did. Each dish costs VND27,000 (US$1.3).
Another famous inexpensive restaurant in District 5 is Trung Mai, which is situated in an alley on Phu Dinh Street. With traditionally-made dim sum dishes, the restaurant is favored by many older Chinese people.
Meanwhile, young people prefer Hong Kong-style restaurants, which were introduced in the 1990s, because their dim sum dishes are cooked to order, not in advance like at traditional eateries.
The new restaurants have tens of dishes on their menus (compared to just a few in the past), but they still sport old wooden furniture and their waitresses wear Chinese clothes.
At Tien Phat Restaurant (18 Ky Hoa Street, District 5), a crowded Hong Kong-style eatery, nearly 50 dim sum dishes are available alongside its famous hu tieu suon (rice noodle soup with pork ribs).
Each dish costs VND50,000-100,000 ($2.4-4.7), but tea is free of charge.
Vi, who lives in District 5, said that if you want to experience real Chinese culture during yum cha time, you should visit restaurants like Thuan Kieu (2nd floor, A Building, Thuan Kieu Plaza, 190 Hong Bang Street, District 5) and Cat Tuong (105 Tran Hung Dao Street, District 5).
He said these restaurants boast Chinese opera performances on the weekends.
For those who want to enjoy the atmosphere of an old dim sum restaurant, Vi recommended Tan Lac Vien (1195-1197 Ba Thang Hai Street, Ward 6, District 11).
Opened more than 20 years ago, the restaurant keeps up an old practice that has disappeared at many other restaurants: offering dishes on pushcarts that go around for customers to choose.
For a fancier and more expensive choice, you can visit Ngan Dinh Restaurant at Windsor Plaza Hotel (18 An Duong Vuong Street, District 5).
A Chinese tea restaurant in Cho Lon in the 1960s / PHOTO COURTESY OF LIFE
Tuong Hung Long, located at 190 Hau Giang Street, District 6 (next to the Hau Giang Co.op Mart), is one of the oldest tea restaurants in HCMC.
It was founded more than 60 years ago by a man surnamed Tran, a Chinese hailing from Teochew. His children shared the jobs of cooking and brewing coffee.
When he passed away, the restaurant was rented out, but after some time, it was re-opened and has since maintained its old business hours – from 5 a.m. to 11 a.m. – as well as a traditional menu full of old-style dishes like hu tieu, ha cao (or har gow in Chinese: shrimp dumplings), xiu mai (or shaomai in Chinese: pork and shrimp dumplings), and steamed buns known as banh bao in Vietnamese.
It still serves dishes in small bamboo baskets instead of aluminum. Its interior design is also unchanged, except that wooden tables have been replaced with those made of stainless steel, and the walls have been layered with glazed ceramic tiles.
Although the restaurant is no longer as crowded as it was in the past, it is still frequented by many familiar customers.
Ngoc, a resident in District 6 whose ancestors also hailed from Teochew, said she often buys banh bao at Tuong Hung Long, the same buns with “thin layers and delicious fillings” that her father often bought for her when she was young.
She also said her late uncle-in-law was a familiar patron of the restaurant. Every year for over two decades the family has bought dim sum and a bowl of hu tieu to place on his altar for his death anniversary.
Tu, an 80-year-old resident in District 11 who has been yum cha-ing since he was young, said in the old days, tea restaurants were family-run and cheap and called cha thoi.
Almost everybody could enter a cha thoi, but at the time, patrons were mainly men and children, he said.
Whenever welcoming new customers, the pho ky (waiter) would seat them and bring out a teapot, inviting the customer to drink tea for free. Then another pho ky would come up with a big bamboo basket and lay various dim sum dishes on the table.
Therefore, Tu said, people at the time often dubbed the waiter who served tea as “am tra” (teapot) and the other as “dau lan” (qilin’s head).
He said that because pho ky were not highly educated, they did not write down what customers ordered, but immediately told the cook loudly about the order.
When customers finished their meal, the waiter would calculate the bill and once again turn to the cashier, loudly yelling what the customers looked like and how much they were supposed to pay.
The customers would make their payment at the cashier’s counter.
As time went by, these characteristics of cha thoi as well as the restaurants themselves disappeared from the city.
However, if you happen to be in Cho Lon, do not hesitate to visit a dim sum restaurant and you will see that the yum cha tradition is still going strong in HCMC’s Chinese community.
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