Thai Nguyen, 37-year-old creative director and restaurateur, feeds our curiosity for bun, baguettes, and “afternoon bars” in Ho Chi Minh City.
Brief bio, occupation:
Thai Nguyen is creative director and principal of Spark Studio, a branding/marketing agency in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. With a Vietnamese feature film under his belt and a new Vietnamese restaurant opening in New York City (see below), Thai’s got it going on.
How long you’ve lived in your city: Seven years
EAT & DRINK
Favorite high-end restaurant:
Tib, 187 Hai Ba Trung Street, Ward 6, District 3, HCMC.
High-end Vietnamese restaurant designed in the imperial style of dynastic Hue. Good, traditional Hue food; order the soft-shell crab and all of the rice rolls.
Best after-hour restaurant:
A Buu Quan, 17 Bui Thi Xuan Street, Ben Thanh Ward, District 1, HCMC.
Post-midnight hangout for local hipsters. Bring earplugs—the music is loud. Must-order items: deep fried baby squid, oyster congee, deep fried tofu, duck egg.
Best local food franchise:
Tib Express, multiple locations across the city, HCMC.
The best bun bo hue in town, right next to Ben Thanh Market. Great for a beer break from sightseeing.
Best street food:
Ben Thanh Market, downtown, Ward 1, HCMC.
The largest market in HCMC has great street food: bun rieu, banh canh, snails, and bun moc. At nighttime: Come night, park yourself on a stool, have a beer, and people-watch.
The best French restaurant:
Camargue, 16 Cao Ba Quat Street, District 1, HCMC.
Eat outdoors and under the stars at the best French restaurant in town.
Favorite high-end fusion restaurant:
Cepage, Landcaster Building, Ground Floor, 22 Le Thanh Ton Street, District 1, HCMC.
The best steak in town, in one of the most modern restaurants. The bar and lounge are great for cocktails before a night out.
La Fenetre Soleil, 1/F 135 Le Thanh Ton Street, District 1, HCMC.
Fashionable locals and Japanese tourists lounge among scattered cushions, sofas, and a four-poster bed. Entrance discreetly located on Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street.
Best Afternoon Bar:
6B-6th floor, 6B Tham ngoc Thac.
“Afternoon bars” run from noon to 6pm, fueled by loud trance or house and tons of whisky. Great way to spend a Saturday afternoon.
Best shopping area:
Saigon Square, 39 Le Duan, District 1, HCMC.
Once called the “Russian Market,” sells everything from iPods to clothing to DVDs. Bargaining possible.
Best touristy thing to do:
Reunification Palace, 106 Nguyen Du Street, District 1, HCMC.
My favorite museum in HCMC. Modern architecture, a ‘60s look, and a kitschy feel.
Favorite outdoor space:
The Deck, 38 Nguyen U Di, An Phu, District 2, HCMC.
Get away from the hustle and bustle just 20 minutes outside of the city, in a suburb called An Phu. Great place to see the sunset and chill out with a glass of wine.
How would you spend a day off in your city?
Start with a coffee at Ben Thanh Market. Ride around on the scooter. Have lunch at Tib Express. Take a dip in the pool. Ride to An Phu and have a bottle of wine at The Deck.
Best website for local info:
http://www.asialifehcmc.com, the Vietnamese version of Time Out. Discover new restaurants, openings, and events.
Anything else you want to mention?
The streets of work-hard-play-hard HCMC are filled with restaurants, cafes, food stalls, and bars. “Nhau” is a local term for eating & drinking, but it’s about eating light and drinking hardcore!
An Choi, the most recent addition to New York’s new landscape of Vietnamese cuisine, is a casual restaurant concept that brings the flavors of the bustling streets of Ho Chi Minh City to a quiet corner of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Nguyen and his partners, former Pastis bar host Tuan Bui, architect Huy Bui, and the fashion photographer Sebastian Kim hope to serve authentic Vietnamese street food like phở (thin cuts of beef in a noodle soup) and bánh mì (sandwich served on a baguette with pickled vegetables, pork, pate, and/or ham) in a welcoming environment. The partners hopes for their new restaurant are embedded in the name—ăn chơi sounds like “enjoy!”, can mean small dishes/appetizers, and another translation is “eat and play.” Playing with your food might not be the right sentiment but indulging in all of life’s little pleasures, food included, hits the nail on the head. —85 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, New York City