Tucked down Doan Van Bo alley in the heart of District Four is one of Ho Chi Minh City’s oldest food stalls. A nominee in Urban Adventures’ first ever global street food awards in 2019, Corrine Redfern tracks down the family behind it.
Stand behind Vo Thi Ngoc Nhung’s food cart, Amen, and you’ll experience nothing short of chaos.
In one hand, the dark-haired chef is clutching her 13-month-old niece, bouncing the toddler up and down on her hip and wiping her teary eyes with the corner of a tissue. Her three dogs, Nau, Bo and Tony, are running in circles underfoot, as if on a mission to see who can trip their owner up first. Meanwhile, her 12-year-old nephew stands by her side, inhaling a bowl of fried rice and tugging on his auntie’s blue pyjama top, determined to get her attention.
Vo smiles at him patiently while stirring a steaming vat of fragrant pork broth with her one free hand. Just watching the scene feels stressful, but she doesn’t appear to break a sweat. “Our food is all about family,” she tells me, just as her sister-in-law Truong Thi Phuong materializes out of nowhere to take the (now-screaming) baby from her arms and gently shoo the puppies out onto the street. “This food stall is our home. Homes aren’t quiet or neat and tidy, but everyone is welcome.”
She pauses to serve a customer who’s pulled up on his motorbike, ladling three spoonfuls of boiling broth over a handful of fresh rice noodles, pork wontons, boiled beef and fat, pink peeled shrimp—the staple ingredients for hu tieu nam vang (noodle soup), the family’s specialty. I ask for the recipe, and Vo literally laughs in my face. “People come from all over the world and ask us that,” she says. “But we’re never going to tell. It’s our family secret.”
Whatever it is, it seems to be working. “I’ve been coming here for three years, and this is the best food in Ho Chi Minh City,” says my Urban Adventures guide, Queenie, who assures me she’s tried all the other stalls lined up down the street. “But you have to know what you’re looking for, or you’d never find it.”
“If someone wants to recommend us, they just can say, ‘It’s the stall on the corner of Hiem 178 Doan Van Bd and Doan Van Bo’. We’re always in the same place.”
Vo Thi Ngoc Nhung
Most traditional food carts and restaurants in the city won’t even have menus, she adds. Instead, locals see what they’re cooking and instantly know how to adapt it to their preferences. “Like, I’ll eat hu tieu nam vang with kidneys and liver as well as the shrimp and pork wontons. Some people prefer it without.” I glance at the shining metal tabletops arranged behind the stall. Queenie’s right: There isn’t a menu in sight.
Prices fall into the same category. “You just have to ask,” she says. “They can always show you on a calculator if they don’t know English.” (As a heads up, a bowl of hu tieu nam vang at Amen is approximately 50 Vietnamese Dong—or $2.50 per serving.)
Vo nods when she turns back to us, passing over cold-to-the-touch tankards of sweet and nutty iced tea, which she seems to have conjured up out of thin air. “We cater to locals because we don’t get many tourists here,” she says. “It’s not that we don’t want them, but even in high season, they don’t know how to find us.”
She gestures at the road outside, and I see what she means. On a busy street lined with identikit metal food carts, Amen easily blends into the background. “It doesn’t help that another family saw how well we were doing and decided to name their business after ours, so that they could pick up some of our customers,” says Vo, now shaking her head. “It confused so many people.”
The family briefly thought about adding a location on Google, but opted against it in the end. “If someone wants to recommend us, they just can say, ‘It’s the stall on the corner of Hiem 178 Doan Van Bd and Doan Van Bo’. We’re always in the same place.”
As marketing goes, it’s a little laidback, but popularity isn’t something the family worries about. In the absence of many tourists, the family primarily caters to hungry students on their way home from school, or night-shift workers who finish their shifts long after every other restaurant has closed its doors.
Aware of the middle-of-the-night needs of their regulars, the relatives take turns behind the stove. Vo starts service at eight in the morning, before Truong—the eldest daughter and ergo chief food cart chef—shuts the stall down at midnight, as the last of the wontons are cleared from the pot. “Then we’re up again first thing the next day,” Vo adds, stifling a small yawn. “Sometimes I feel tired standing up all day. But I’ve been doing this every day for 20 years, so my feet are used to it.”
Vo’s own grandfather-in-law was one of the gangsters. Buying the food stall was his way to escape a life of crime and provide a safe future for his children.
Unlike her sister-in-law, who began selling shrimp and noodles at the age of 11, Vo didn’t grow up planning to work in catering. “I went to school until I was 17, studying subjects like history and literature,” she remembers. “My family lived in District Eight, and only my mum did the cooking. Every day we’d eat soup and rice or stir-fried vegetables. We never ate hu tieu nam vang unless we went to a restaurant. I had no idea how you made it.”
One day, when she was 19 years old, she came to Amen with a group of friends. “We sat in a corner, eating our soup with chopsticks and stirring in spoonfuls of fresh garlic and chili paste to make it spicier. When the owner’s son came over and started talking to us, all I could think was, ‘You’re so handsome’.”
They were married later that year, and Vo moved into her husband’s family home—a tall brick building next to their food stall. “There wasn’t much for me to do during the day, so I started spending time with Truong at Amen,” Vo says. “It was just the two of us back then. I started off cutting the vegetables and preparing the shrimp, then later I was allowed to mix the ingredients together and serve the customers.” These days, Truong’s 38-year-old daughter, Phuong, also helps out, and they’ve employed two girls from the neighborhood to clean the tables. “But they’re not allowed to cook,” Vo clarifies. “The recipe has to stay among family members only.”
It’s getting dark outside as we talk, and a steady stream of motorbikes and scooters light up the street as they careen past the streetside stall.
“This area used to be known as the gangster quarter,” Queenie tells me, as Vo turns back to her customers. “There would be fights in the middle of the road, and it was so dangerous that it was only people who lived here who’d come to the food stalls—nobody else would take the risk.” Vo’s own grandfather-in-law was one of the gangsters, she adds. Buying the food stall was his way to escape a life of crime and provide a safe future for his children.
“Well, at first it wasn’t a food stall,” Truong interjects. At 60 years old and heavily made-up with thick black eyeliner and red lipstick, she may be in charge of the family business, but her presence does little to calm the children or still the chaos. “It was a little wooden wagon,” she says, “which I used to pull up and down the street selling noodles. We could only afford to buy the stall and set up permanently when I was 23.”
Using the secret recipe cooked up by their grandfather, word of their broth quickly spread. “The timing was perfect,” Truong says. “The area was being cleaned up and becoming safe again, so customers started telling their friends in other districts about us, and queues started forming down the street.”
Determined to make the most of it, Truong bought seven metal tables and 24 metal stools. “Now we’ve been open for 37 years, and some of our customers have been coming to see us for all that time. They tell us that this is the best hu tieu nam vang of their lives.”
Vo laughs at her sister-in-law’s boast. “It’s true,” she confirms. “But we’re not trying to be famous. All we want is to earn enough money to send the children to school and have a stable life. We don’t want our sons and daughters to follow in our footsteps. People might like the food we make, but we’re still hoping we won’t have to make it forever.”
Amen was a nominee for Urban Adventures’ #streetfood50—the world’s first street food awards in 2019. See the 2020 list of nominees here.