For nearly 20 years, Mrs. Nguyen Thi Thanh ran her small restaurant on the sidewalk of the Nguyen Dinh Chieu apartment block on Hoang Sa Street, Da Kao Ward, District 1, HCM City. Suddenly, one day she was known throughout the world.
Many foreign newspapers wrote about the portrait and Vietnamese dishes processed by this woman. Thanh’s sidewalk restaurant, called "Lunch Lady" has become a must-come destination of the majority number of foreign visitors to HCM City.
At noon, in the fierce heat of Saigon, the sidewalk restaurant of Mrs. Thanh had dozens of foreign customers who were sweating but still very eager to eat.
The restaurant’s owner - Mrs. Nguyen Thi Thanh, 47, was very hurried to serve customers’ orders. Holding a palm-leaf conical hat in one hand, the other hand wiping away drops of sweat on her face, Thanh laughed breezily, saying "that’s my job!”
The restaurant has a western name but its service style and dishes are pure Vietnamese. Especially, the owner is very simple, also unassumingly and funny.
Looking at her sidewalk restaurant, many people do not think that Thanh’s restaurant is famous throughout the world. Most of foreign backpackers to HCM City find the way to this restaurant to taste a bowl of vermicelli or hu tieu ...
Every day she opens the restaurant at 11am and closes it at 1pm. In just two hours but Thanh works very hard to serve her customers. Somedays, she sold out everything within only one hour. Many foreign visitors, after finished their lunch, asking to take a photo with Mrs. Thanh, to prove that they were in HCM City and tasted Vietnamese food at this famous sidewalk restaurant.
When Mrs. Thanh sold out her food, she could have a conversation with us. Thanh said the name of the restaurant is in English because it is named by Anthony Michael Tony Bourdain, a famous chef and host of the Travel Chanel, who hosts the world famous show “Anthony Bourdain - No Reservations and The Layover.”
Thanh said her hometown is the central province of Binh Tri Thien but she was born and grew up is Saigon. She is the youngest child in a family of seven brothers and sisters.
In her childhood, her mother taught her and her sisters how to cook. At the age of 20, she went to Germany to work. From the simple meals that Thanh cooked after work, her cooking talent was discovered by her colleagues. Thanh was invited to cook at all parties of the Vietnamese community in Germany.
At that time, Thanh did not think that one day she would open a restaurant. She met and got married with her current husband in Germany. After her contact was expired, she returned to Vietnam.
The early days after returning home, Thanh followed her husband to the southern province of Ben Tre to open a coconut oil enterprise. After a short period of time, she was pregnant so she returned to Saigon.
After giving birth to the first daughter, she decided to do small business to earn some extra money. She sold bread for local people. After that, she opened a sidewalk restaurant, selling various dishes like beef, fish and Thai vermicelli, beef and duck noodle, etc. The restaurant has been maintained until now.
After nearly 20 years of operation, the restaurant is still small and a true sidewalk restaurant. It is located under the shadow of a tropical almond tree of an apartment block. The restaurant has a glass box containing bowls and plates, several sets of plastic chairs and tables but it has a lot of customers, including many foreigners.
The dishes that Thanh offers is not special compared with those of other restaurants in Saigon but the restaurant is attractive for good food and the hospitable and cheerful owner.
Talking about her secret, Mrs. Thanh said: "Initially, I had to go to other restaurants to see the way they process food and the flavor of their dishes to learn experience for myself. I also asked my customers whether they were satisfied with my cuisines and their suggestions. Because listening to customers, I have had many more customers."
Especially, Thanh has a customer’s opinion book, which has comments in many languages. At the end of the day, she opens it to reach the comments or asks her daughter to translate the comments for her.
Serving foreign customers, her Pidgin English has been improved. Now she can talk to customers from many countries in the world.
Talking about the unexpected meeting that makes her famous around the world, Thanh said once a writer of the AsiaLife magazine dropped by her restaurant to eat, then he talked and took photos of her and her restaurant.
Then, this magazine published an article introducing the restaurant of "madam" Thanh in Saigon. Reading that article, Anthony Michael Tony Bourdain took his crew to Vietnam to shoot a film about this sidewalk restaurant in Saigon. He also named the restaurant as “Lunch Lady.”
After that many newspapers in the world such as New York Times, The Sydney Morning Herald, Asialife ... also wrote about this restaurant. Just like that the restaurant becomes famous among foreign visitors.
Thanh said she often gets up at 6am to go to market to buy materials, cook until 11am then opens her restaurant. She closes the restaurant at 1pm, then cleans up, washes bowls to end a working day. Thanh does everything at the restaurant but the smile is always on her mouth and she always talks with customers like her relatives.
There were days when Saigon was scorching hot, foreign customers were sweating but they still devoted themselves to bowls of vermicelli and noodles. There were days that rain suddenly came, foreign customers had to hold their bowls to hide themselves under the canopy of the almond tree or under the eaves of the nearby apartment building...
Foreign visitors said that coming to Vietnam without tasting madam Thanh’s cuisines is not really going to Vietnam.