Hidden Hanoi in southern metro

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The outdoor dining area where patrons can sit under the tree or on the porch

Tuan & Tu's sits modestly down an alley not far from Ho Chi Minh City's center.

In stark contrast to the fancy office blocks and fancier coffee shops that abound in the area, the restaurant looks more like a house, and one that can easily pass unnoticed.

But if we are looking for it, we will find it near the end of the lane, hidden behind an old wooden gate with a roof of red tiles, a typical style of entrance in northern Vietnam.

The yellow signboard on the gate reads "Tuan & Tu's", and it too is small, simple and easy to miss.

"It is a restaurant, but you are not welcomed in when you arrive because the gate is always locked from inside. You have to wait for somebody to open it and let you in," a friend had once told me when recommending the place.

And it was true for me too.

 
 Two women ring the bell at Tuan & Tu's

A man was ringing the bell when I got there. "When I came here the first time, I thought the place was closed. I couldn't imagine a restaurant with a locked gate," he said to me.

But it's easy enough to get used to, and Tuan & Tu's is a popular eatery for fans of northern cuisine.

Indeed, the closed gate somehow makes visitors feel like they are returning home to enjoy a family meal, rather than going to a restaurant. At least, that's what many of the regulars say.

Most of the diners at lunch and in the evening are regulars who know the procedure. They usually book in advance as Tuan & Tu's can get quite crowded at mealtimes.

When the restaurant is full and there are no spare tables, those who ring the bell are answered through a small hole in the gate that they should come back another time.

The small courtyard right behind the gate fits four tables for outdoor dining: two under the balcony and two near the tall and impressive jackfruit tree that shades and cools the whole courtyard. 

Along with the smaller trees and the birds that flit among them, the jackfruit tree makes the yard look pastoral and reminiscent of the northern countryside.

A young member of staff explained the locked gate. "We lock the gate so that the guests sitting in the front yard can enjoy themselves without being disturbed by the noise of traffic and the scene outside," he said.

"It makes them feel like they are eating at home. And those who want to come in the middle of their meal have to ring the bell, not just open the door and step in."

The dining room with its dark yellow walls and black wooden chairs and tables is not large but it is well-appointed and warmly lit.

Tuan & Tu's Restaurant

28/38B, Tran Cao Van Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City

Reminders of Hanoi are scattered around the room: photos of the capital, a few twigs of lotus and, in one corner, some jars of the famous Hanoi beverages sấu (dracontomelon) and (apricot) in syrup, made by the restaurant owner herself.

Foodwise, Tuan & Tu's is as authentic as any other northern eatery in Saigon.

The menu contains traditional and familiar dishes such as boiled chicken with muối tiêu chanh (a mixture of black pepper, salt and lime) along with lime leaves, jute vegetable crab soup with cà pháo muối (salted egg-plant) and mắm tôm (shrimp paste), boiled half fat and half lean pork (thịt ba rọi) with mắm tép (salted tiny shrimp), and frozen pork with dưa muối (pickled vegetables).

One of the favorites at Tuan & Tu's is chả rươi, whose main ingredient is the sea worm known as rươi, commonly called ragworm or clamworm, that's best eaten in cold weather.

And of course, all of the dishes come with rice in a pot.
To make the restaurant seem like a genuine tiny corner of the north, melodious songs of and about Hanoi play softly in the background as the perfect accompaniment to any northern meal.

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