I was looking around in the Texas Tech Virtual Vietnam Archive when I came across an issue of a magazine called “Life in Vietnam.” This was clearly a magazine that was intended for people in the US military and for American visitors to Vietnam in the 1960s.
The content of the magazine did not impress me all that much, but I did find it interesting to see the various restaurants that were advertised there.
Unsurprisingly, there were plenty of restaurants that advertised French food.
Restaurant Guillaume Tell offered French cuisine in a charming atmosphere.
La Pergola had French cuisine, as well as “Sophisticated Atmosphere” and “Courteous Hostesses.” Yes, that all seems very French – Good food, sophistication, beautiful women. As for “courteous service”. . .
Then of course there was La Dolce Vita. I think every city in the world has an Italian restaurant called La Dolce Vita. Without a La Dolce Vita a city simply cannot be called a city. So Saigon in the 1960s was officially a city, as it had a La Dolce Vita.
With the arrival of Americans, it is not surprising that American tackiness found a place as well, and Kontiki Restaurant Cabaret looks like it must have fit that category.
While all of that is fine, what kind of surprised me was to see how many “Western” restaurants also had Chinese food.
Van Canh, for instance, was the place for “delicious French and Chinese cooking.”
Thien Nam advertised “Famous Italian dishes – Specializing in Chinese cuisine.”
At The Capriccio you could “DINE and DRINK in COMFORT” on delicious European and Chinese cooking.
And finally, Blue Diamond was where one could “come and enjoy excellent American Chinese dishes in air conditioned comfort.” (Interesting how the French restaurants emphasized “atmosphere” and the American-focused ones talked about “air conditioning”. . . )
To be fair, this issue of Life in Vietnam did have an article “about” Vietnamese food.
It just didn’t advertise any restaurants that served Vietnamese food.
Interestingly, I think the phenomenon that we can see from these advertisements from 1960s Saigon is alive and well in places like Hoi An today.
I was recently in Hoi An and was surprised to see how bad a lot of the food was in the main tourist area. The section of the city that is packed with foreign tourists and has countless restaurants in beautifully renovated shophouses is also the home to some really lousy food.
What’s bad about it? It’s bad because it’s not Vietnamese. Instead, it’s exactly like what I’m guessing we would have found in the restaurants above – mixed cuisine that features generic Chinese dishes that just don’t taste good.
Again, to be fair, there is good food in Hoi An if you get away from the tourist area, and Chinese food in Southeast Asia can be delicious too, particularly when it transforms to fit local tastes.
When gongbao jiding (公保雞丁) migrated south from Sichuan and became gai-pad-med-mamuang (ไก่เผ็ดเม็ดมะม่วง) in Thailand, then I think an already delicious dish became even tastier.
But what is served in many tourist restaurants in Hoi An are the “cheapest” forms of Chinese food – things like fried noodles. And my guess would be that this was the case in Saigon in the 1960s as well.
And while perhaps one could argue that Saigon and Hoi An are both places where there were historically a lot of Chinese so it therefore makes sense that Chinese food would be served there, 1) that’s not what the restaurants in Hoi An are advertising and 2) the Chinese food that gets served in these places is not good Chinese food, so if it’s meant to be a statement about cultural heritage, then the culture that is getting celebrated is not very impressive.
Ultimately I think this is all about conservative business calculations. Restaurant owners assume that customers do not want to be challenged in any way, and that they just want to eat what they are already familiar with. So they give them what they already know. And the result is that a lot of lousy food gets produced and consumed in places where there is much better food to be had.
And from the advertisements in Life in Vietnam from the 1960s, it looks like this has been going on for a long time.
(Item Number: 14810103002. Magazine: Life in Vietnam (24 September 1966) (61 pages) [24 September 1966])