It was only a matter of time before the modern renaissance of Vietnamese traditional cuisine takes on “nhau”. On any given evening, whether familiar with the term itself or not, you probably encounter some nhau joints on street corners as you drive home. Yes, it is those men and women sitting around snails, dried shredded squids, peanuts, with bia hoi or rice wine in hand, chatting, laughing, or chanting the infamous Vietnamese cheers.
Drinking and eating in social situations is somewhat a universal concept. In Japan, they call it otsumami. In Spain, tapas was popularised and then exported around the globe. To Peter Cuong Franklin, the award-winning chef who created Hong Kong’s Chom Chom and ANAN Saigon, there’s no reason why nhau, the specifically Vietnamese cultural practice of eating and drinking, shouldn’t get the same treatment.
Nearly two years after transforming Saigon street food in ANAN (which translates as “eat, eat”), Franklin has opened NHAU NHAU (drink, drink). On the menu – which may surprise many – is Vietnam’s ubiquitous bia hoi, which Franklin cites as the original craft beer. “We’re probably the only restaurant in Saigon that offers bia hoi,” he laughs. Instead of the low plastic chairs and the sidewalk, guests are huddled inside a cozy bar designed by Sean Dix, decked out with ceramic tiles and Khanh Ly records next to a Japanese vinyl record player. The self-proclaimed modern pho bar is reminiscent of a downtown Tokyo izakaya with a deep affinity for the swinging sixties.
Those who have sat at a Vietnamese street bar know that pho or banh mi seem almost exotic to the nhau table, but to Franklin, the incorporation seems natural. “We’re trying to transform Vietnamese eating and drinking culture. Including these iconic dishes plays into that.” In the spirit of experimenting with Vietnamese traditional cuisine, there’s duck pho (rare duck breast, confit duck leg, shitake mushrooms, bamboo shoots, noodles and herbs) on the menu. The beloved banh mi is also on offer and is elevated with ingredients like Wagyu beef and foie gras. However, don’t think that these high-end reinventions of Vietnamese street foods are not matched in strides by the drinks.
From all corners of Vietnam, Franklin has sourced most selectively NHAU NHAU’s drinks menu, including the brown rice spirits from Binh Dinh, the acclaimed Son Tinh rice spirit, a Quang Ninh Apricot rice liqueur, and Hue Sochu. An addition Franklin seems most proud of is the Mau Son M8, aged for eight years in oak casks in Lang Son. Atop the bar, these bottles sparkle like they were the gantry’s crowned jewels.
Of course, if you ever wonder what pho would taste like inside a cocktail, NHAU NHAU offers the “Pho Bullshot”, a blend of hot Sriracha sauce with Worcestershire sauce, pho broth and Vietnamese rice spirit. For something more subtle and lighter on the palette, the “Phojito” – as the name suggests, a Vietnamese take on the Cuban mojito using local herbs and rice spirit instead of rum.
NHAU NHAU’s marriage of aesthetics and ideals are exactly what Franklin aimed for. “We want something both modern and traditional, both Vietnamese and international.”
Step back in time and savour some Vietnamese nhau at 89 Ton That Dam, Ben Nghe, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City.