Resisting Selling Out – Moto-San Uber Noodle’s Nguyen Qui Duc

Nguyễn Quí Đức

Nguyen Qui Duc pictured with HOT TABLE‘s Gerry Flynn.

“Perhaps in the end I’ve become this eccentric old man walking around the neighbourhood doing crazy things,” Nguyen Qui Duc chuckles to himself. “I’ve opened a lot of businesses in the last ten years and people say ‘Oh you should open on West Lake and make a lot of money’ but that’s not the point, is it?”

Sat before me is the quixotic owner of Moto-San Uber Noodle and Tadioto, a Vietnamese polymath who’s turned his hand to innumerate artistic outlets over the years. An author, poet, journalist, painter, architect and curator – Nguyen is the consummate artist and applies this vigour and passion to all of his projects. “I do a bit of everything, I’m not focused, but I want Moto-San and Tadioto to be focused so the staff can really concentrate on one thing and do it well.”

Nguyen is affable as he reclines in his chair, a beer sat before him in the luscious serenity of Tadioto – it’s no coincidence that his cocktail bar is located just around the corner from Moto-San, “I’ve rented this space for four or five years now, but the landlord had a space around the corner that was so small, nobody knew what to do with it, but I thought it would be perfect for a noodle bar.”

Nguyễn Quí Đức

“I like that street, it’s still quiet – it’s still civilised,” Nguyen smiles a little wistfully as he explains how the curative element that is present in all of his projects is often lost on the Vietnamese. “Sometimes they don’t understand why there’s a sushi bar in Tadioto – a cocktail bar, but you see, a pub serves food, we send our sushi over to Moto-San, they send their noodles over here, it works. It means both kitchens remain focused.”

Moto-San Uber Noodle

Moto-San Uber Noodle.

For those who don’t know, Moto-San Uber Noodle – one of Nguyen’s most recent projects – is a restaurant just one and a half metres wide situated on 4 Ly Dao Thanh serving up a limited menu of Japanese inspired noodles and Vietnamese banh mi. “I’m enamoured and I’m fond of the way the Japanese manage small space, so I rented it three and a half years ago and learned how to make noodles.” With a capacity for about ten customers, Moto-San provides an intimate setting to indulge in authentic Japanese style cuisine, but with a Vietnamese twist. “The sandwich is one my grandma used to make – she stewed the pork in fish sauce, instead of the Chinese style soy sauce and it was always comfort food to me, I’d make it when I was living in the States, in London, wherever I lived.”

Moto-San Uber NoodleMoto-San Uber Noodle

Having lived most of his life as a journalist, Nguyen was drawn back to Vietnam, but has been forced to concede that things are different. “The country’s changed so much – it’s another country now.” It was in light of these revelations that Nguyen set out to alter the direction of the changes sweeping the nation in his own fashion. “I’m hoping to do something that retains the local characters of these places, otherwise the Hanoi money-people or the Westerners come in and there’s no local life anymore and that’s sad.”

His ideals are reflected or perhaps embodied by his staff, who Nguyen generally hires from rural areas on Vietnam, “They still carry with them values and traditions from the old days and I love being with them.” The communal elements of both Tadioto and Moto-San are at the core of what Nguyen is trying to achieve in the face of what he perceives to be a rising tide of materialism and commercialism. “That’s the part of the business that excites me, having a group of people that I like, that I can work with.”

Moto-San Uber Noodle

This artisanal approach, while producing a well-honed and lovingly crafted range of projects, appears to have cost Nguyen financially, but this doesn’t deter him – far from it, he seems generally unfazed by the value of his work. “I’m not a good businessman, I look at the amount of money I lose each month and what I can accept rather than profits,” he gives a wry smile as he laments the possibility of Moto-San becoming the next Cong Caphe, “I get business proposals all the time, people want me to open more Tadiotos, more Moto-Sans – they tell me ‘You’ve proven your concept’ but I just think, what are you talking about? These are one-of-a-kind places, I can’t replicate it, it can’t be uniformed.”

Tadioto

Tadioto.

Nguyen’s attention to detail is evident across both Tadioto and Moto-San and neither could be said to be too similar, but small things such as the dumb waiter at Moto-San that he built to spare his staff running up the narrow staircase with hot bowls of noodles, the multicultural decor that Nguyen picked out for Tadioto – these things are done purposefully, “I do these things because I want people to have different ideas.” He swears he’s not a perfectionist, but admits that compromise isn’t possible on certain issues.

Both Tadioto and Moto-San belie the bohemian attitude with which Nguyen has lived and their continued success is a representation of his will to preserve the character of his homeland. “Tourism will develop and destroy things – you can’t live without it, but what I’m trying to do is develop it in way that preserves the culture and add to it where I can, but without destroying it.” The jack of all trades admits he doesn’t advertise for his bars or restaurants due to a fear that tour buses would alter the atmosphere of what he’s strived to create. “I think there’s a way to do it, if you can do it small enough then you don’t change things completely, I think that way is OK.”

Topioto

© HOT TABLE Photography by Mi Nguyen.

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