Vietnam’s food and beverage sector would collapse without women. Whether it’s a fancy restaurant, a bun cha stand or a café, across the country it’s mostly the fairer sex doing the heavy lifting, from cooking the food and serving it to handling the cash and much, much more.
Living here means you probably interact with these women every day. They make your morning tra da and serve you delicious pho bo. But unfortunately, we often don’t know much about these women, other than their names and where they work.
Bun Cha with Giang
At the corner of Au Co Street and Xuan Dieu Street in Tay Ho District sits my favourite bun cha spot in all of Hanoi. There’s a lot to like about Friends at 53 Au Co. The bun cha is delicious, there’s comfortable outdoor seating and it’s open most of the day. But the biggest draw is Friends’ affable owner.
Giang has been cooking bun cha for a living for the last 20 years, so she’s probably picked up more about grilling pork than you or I will ever know. I come here because of the big smile Giang always gives me when I come in. Oh, and I love her delicious bun cha.
Giang said she uses the exact same recipe her mother does for her bun cha and it’s one that has served the family well, as her mother runs the other eatery in Hoang Mai District, where Giang worked up until a year ago. Though she does have to work hard, Giang said she thought life for women today was better than in years past. However she explained that equality depends on if you get support from your family. Fortunately, Giang feels she has that support from her husband, who pitches in at one of the two bun cha shops or looks after their children when he’s not working his office job.
Nobody Puts Ngat in a Corner
Known simply as ‘Corner Café’ to many expats, Café Thom is one of Tay Ho’s most popular cafes, and the joint at 13 Xuan Dieu Street (on the corner with Tu Hoa Street) is invariably packed with westerners and Vietnamese alike sipping coffees and coconuts on every sunny day.
The woman running the show is Tran Thi Ngat and she’s been working at the corner for the last four or five years. Like many businesses in Hanoi, Café Thom is family-run, as Ngat’s two sisters also work in the café, though only Ngat lives in the house above it.
Ngat’s café originally opened facing onto the main part of Xuan Dieu Street, but she said as the newly-opened Tu Hoa Street becoming a popular spot for cafes a few years ago she switched things up, meaning her café now faces out towards West Lake, making it a picturesque spot.
Though her job like any has its hardships, Ngat is still able to find joy in her work, in large part due to the bond she feels with her regular customers. Ngat explained that many of her customers are living hard lives and she’s able to help them out with free food or drinks and a kind ear. “For some my café is a second home,” she said. “I’ve built genuine friendships with some of my foreign customers, with some even giving me lucky money at Tet.”
I witnessed one vivid example of the bonds Ngat forges through her work during our interview. At one point, a woman came over and gave Ngat some money, explaining she had forgotten to pay her tab from a week ago. The pair laughed and embraced like old friends, not like customer and restaurateur.
When we resumed our interview, Ngat explained that the woman had been coming to the café for years and even though she now lives far away in Long Bien District, she still pops in from time to time. They may have coconuts and coffee in Long Bien, but not Ngat.
Nga – The Bia Hoi Empress
No ode to the women of Hanoi’s F&B sector would be complete without mentioning the heroines who run bia hois, and Le Thi Nga is one of the best in the business. Nga and her family own four bia hois, but she mostly works at Nha Hang Thien Nga on 86 Trang Hung Dao Street, Hoan Kiem district.
Nga’s been in the bia hoi game for 30 years, but she still has an infectious enthusiasm for the job, which is obvious to see as you watch her frantically run around the bia hoi laughing with customers and trying to entice passing pedestrians to sit down for a drink. Despite how busy she was, Nga made time to speak with me and pose for a few photos, though of course she had to reapply her lipstick first!
This affable demeanour is a large part of why Nga’s customers follow her from bia hoi to bia hoi. She previously worked at another of her joints on nearby Ly Thuong Kiet Street and her faithful patrons followed when she rented out a bia hoi next to what is now Nha Hang Thien Nga, but back then was a mobile phone cover shop.
About a year ago the owner of the property decided to stop renting the bia hoi to her. Undeterred, Nga opened up next door when the phone cover shop shut down, and again her loyal customers followed.
Nga’s hard work to build this loyalty among her regulars has certainly paid off, as she explained the money from her bia hoi empire and her husband’s job in Vietnam’s nuclear sector has sent two of their daughters to study abroad, with one having taken economics at the UK’s prestigious Exeter University.
In 1988 before she was a bia hoi mogul, Nga worked with her sisters in the textiles sector until a strike forced her to do something new, and she hasn’t looked back since.
These are just three of the women that make eating and drinking in Hanoi such a treat, there are thousands more across the city and all of Vietnam working just as hard for little recognition. Without them, bun cha, pho and so much would practically be extinct, and who could live in a world like that?