Nothing signals that a city is a destination for gourmands quite like having a Michelin Guide. And in June this year, the first edition devoted to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam was published.
The guide features 103 restaurants, including four with one Michelin star and 29 with Bib Gourmand recommendations for good value.
Before this, it was the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain who put many restaurants in Vietnam on the map - the best known being Bun Cha Huong Lien in Hanoi.
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The humble noodle shop rose to fame after Bourdain dined there with Barack Obama - then president of the United States - in 2016. The table where the two men ate bun cha (grilled pork and rice noodles) and drank cold beer has been preserved behind a glass case like a museum exhibit.
But the advent of the Michelin Guide, and the awarding of stars, marks a sea change in Vietnam's dining scene and signals there is more to it than just noodles and banh mi sandwiches.
Vietnam-born chef Peter Cuong Franklin, who previously worked in Hong Kong, leading restaurants Viet Kitchen and Chom Chom, returned to his home country in 2017 to open Anan Saigon. The restaurant was one of four to be bestowed with a star in Michelin's first guide to Vietnam.
Franklin says he has witnessed a shift in Ho Chi Minh City's dining scene in the past several years.
"When I returned to Vietnam, the dining scene was still very stuck in the Bourdain world view with street food and local eateries as the main draw," he says. "But I think the recognition from 50 Best and Michelin is starting to change the dynamics and old perceptions."
Franklin feels that Vietnam's culinary scene is at a historic turning point, moving towards an exciting, more sustainable future that could see it rival the dining experiences of Asian destinations such as Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong.
Given Vietnam's French colonial past, French cuisine tends to dominate when it comes to fine dining. But even that is something Franklin feels is changing.
"French cuisine remains important but the dining scene in Vietnam is becoming more global and more diverse, with restaurants such as Dim Tu Tac for dim sum and Da Vittorio Saigon for Italian," he says.
The latter opened in October 2022, and is Da Vittorio's second branch outside Italy, the other being in Shanghai.
Da Vittorio Saigon's executive chef, Matteo Fontana, who was recently in Hong Kong for a four-hands collaboration with Testina's executive chef, Marco Xodo, says that, when the restaurant opened, the fine-dining scene in Ho Chi Minh City was still in its infancy.
"When we opened Da Vittorio Saigon eight months ago, we were the first Italian fine- dining restaurant in the city," he says.
"Except [for] a handful of other French restaurants and Vietnamese modern dining, the rest were basically casual concepts."
Being the first restaurant of its kind in the city came with teething problems: it took Fontana four to five months to find reliable suppliers. "It would be easier to source your ingredients if you're a French restaurant, but produce such as preserved tomatoes, anchovies and certain types of pasta I had to get from Italy," he says.
Da Vittorio Saigon serves classic Italian dishes that stay true to the original restaurant in Brusaporto, northern Italy. Our favourites at the collaboration dinner in Hong Kong included raw tuna spaghetti with bagna cauda sauce and pistachio crumble, and Egg A La Egg with Oscietra caviar.
More recently, Sam Aisbett, the Australian chef who earned a Michelin star for Whitegrass restaurant in Singapore, relocated to Vietnam. In July, he launched Akuna, a contemporary restaurant showcasing Vietnamese ingredients, in the Le Meridien Saigon hotel in Ho Chi Minh City.
"Vietnam is magical and manic. It has opened my eyes to toying with familiarity and allowed me to put a spin on things. I want the world to see the culinary possibilities I see in Vietnam," Aisbett says.
The menu at Akura is peppered with Aisbett's creative experimentation with local ingredients, such as a dish of shaved saltwater crocodile with steamed garlic custard and rose heart radish, in which locally farmed saltwater crocodile tongue is the main ingredient.
Franklin sees the arrival of new chefs and interest in Vietnamese ingredients as just the beginning of a new movement in the country.
"I think [international recognition] will inspire a new generation of young chefs and local restaurants in Vietnam," he says. "I predict that we will see big growth and development for Vietnam's hospitality industry, especially fine-dining restaurants and craft cocktail bars over the coming years."
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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
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