Nov 2011

Life After Bourdain: Reuniting with the Lunch Lady

The Lunch Lady - September 2011

I’ve been thinking a lot about Nguyen Thi Thanh ever since departing from Saigon in the summer of 2008. In the three years since I first sat down to interview her, there’s no doubt that her life has changed. In a corner of the city previously unknown to tourists, she now finds herself dishing up noodles to a steady stream of Anthony Bourdain fans. These days, it seems that a trip to Saigon isn’t complete without bargaining in Ben Thanh Market, flagging down a cyclo for a rusty ride, and sitting on a stumpy stool slurping up a Lunch Lady-made noodle soup.

The Lunch Lady - September 2011

I have often wondered how the Lunch Lady’s livelihood and that of her tight-knit community have been impacted by the fame and influx of foreign dollars made possible by modern travel journalism. Have her prices skyrocketed? Is her cooking watered down? Mostly, I wondered if I messed up something really great by blabbing about it to someone who had access to a global audience.

The Lunch Lady - September 2011

I found the 46-year-old proprietress more or less unchanged since we last met. She was clad from head to toe in a colorful do bo (Vietnamese pajamas) with a well-worn non la (conical hat) atop her head. Her smile was as big as ever. Nearly every table was occupied on this sunny afternoon, which meant that she and her team of workers were up to their ears in orders.

The Lunch Lady - September 2011

The Astronomer and I grabbed an open table and we each ordered a bowl of the day’s special, bun mam, which I remembered her preparing every Thursday. The broth was complex and heady, while the noodles were smooth and slurpable. The bits of pork belly, shrimp, okra, fish cakes, and squid made every bite an event. As far as I could taste, notoriety hadn’t muted the Lunch Lady’s bold flavors at all. Whew.

The Lunch Lady - September 2011

When the crowds began to thin, Nguyen Thi Thanh came over to chat about her life after Bourdain. For starters, she sells a lot more noodles than she used to. Prior to appearing on No Reservations, she averaged about 100 bowls each day. These days, she sells 130 to 140 bowls during service, and even more if a tour bus rolls into her shady courtyard. To accommodate the larger crowds, she has expanded from 10 to 16 tables.

The Lunch Lady’s clientele is a mix of Vietnamese office workers and adventuresome Bourdain fans. During the three occasions that we visited her stall this past September, there was always a table or two filled with tourists. Since there’s only one type of soup served each day, the language barrier and lack of menus isn’t an issue. However, I got the sense that drinks and desserts from nearby vendors were often bestowed upon these happy-go-lucky travelers whether they ordered them or not.

The Lunch Lady - September 2011

The menu has undergone a few minor changes as well. She’s added chicken and beef pho to the rotation at the request of Viet kieu (“overseas” Vietnamese) and other foreigners. She’s also devised a different pricing scheme for locals and tourists. Locals, mostly nearby office workers,  are charged 20,000 VND per bowl, while tourists are charged 25,000 VND and given extra noodles and meat. 5,000 VND is roughly equivalent to 25 cents, which isn’t a big deal for those dealing in dollars.

The Lunch Lady - September 2011

The current menu brings bun Thai on Mondays, bun mam on Thursdays, bun bo Hue on Fridays, banh canh on Saturdays, and hu tieu nam vang on Sundays. Tuesday’s dish varies from week to week, rotating between pho bo, pho ga, bun moc, banh canh, and mi Quang. Wednesday is a lottery as well, with mi ga tiem, bun ca ri, and bun thit nuong cha gio in the mix.

The Lunch Lady - September 2011

Professionally, Nguyen Thi Thanh is on top of her game, but personally, things haven’t changed very much. She, her husband, and her 16 year old daughter are still living with her sister because housing prices in Saigon are currently out of reach. The only splurge she’s allowed herself thus far is a karaoke machine; she likes to belt out the oldies in her free time. And speaking of, she has given herself one day off each week. On Sundays, her older sister prepares and serves the hu tieu nam vang, while she kicks back and relaxes.

The Lunch Lady - September 2011

In this corner of Saigon, things haven’t changed as drastically as I initially feared. Aside from the dozen or so tourists that seek out the Lunch Lady’s stall each day, business continues as usual. Before we parted ways, Nguyen Thi Thanh asked me to publish her email address: lunchlady1012 [at] yahoo [dot] com. To all the tourists that have visited the Lunch Lady and snapped a photo with her, she’d love to see it.

For more Vietnamese food adventures from our summer 2011 trip, check out these posts:

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33 thoughts on “Life After Bourdain: Reuniting with the Lunch Lady

  1. Thanks so much for posting this! After our lunch at the lunch lady’s, my SO and I spent a lot of time discussing the whole experience, like how her life has changed, how neighbours feel about it, etc. While we were sitting there, people did bring us things we didn’t order but we didn’t mind. I will definitely e-mail her some of our photos!

  2. Thanks for this followup! I fondly remember forcing my parents and uncles to eat with the Lunch Lady last year. The banh canh was amazing and not 2 minutes after we left there was a huge downpour. Kind of representative of our time in Vietnam. Glad to hear how she’s doing.

  3. So the Viet kieu go to/return to Vietnam and ask for pho everywhere? This is interesting. Perhaps living abroad has changed ideas of what is “authentically Vietnamese?”

  4. When Bourdain referred to a bowl of soup/noodles as the center of the universe, I think it perfectly encapsulated everything I love about it. And from the looks and descriptions of what Nguyen Thi Thanh serves on a daily basis, it would easily become mine if I ever had the chance to taste it.

    I’m not Vietnamese, but I have many Vietnamese friends. It would be news to me if Pho wasn’t authentically Vietnamese. It seems to be everywhere, and they talk about it with more reverence than a Chicago native talks about deep dish pizza. Maybe some clarification is in order.

  5. Phil – Pho is 100% Vietnamese. It’s the country’s national dish and far and away the most popular dish found outside of Vietnam. Prior to the influx of Bourdain fans at the stall, the Lunch Lady only served pho once in a blue moon. These days, she serves it more often due to customer demands. I hope that ties everything together for you.

  6. sighing in relief. when i head to Saigon in Jan, i have every intention of checking out her noodles. so glad to see that she has not changed and that you are still a fan of hers.

  7. I think this story is so interesting. Great perspective on the effects of fame in a country like Vietnam. She looks so happy, like she won the lotto, and all she got was a keraoke machine. The same scenario would probably play out so differently here in the states.

  8. Corr…. If I could – WHICH I CAN’T – I’d be booking a seat for Thursdays and Sundays 🙁

    Cheers for that, good – if bloody frustrating from Rwanda – to have a taste of the streets again.

  9. We just ate here today and Thursday. It was better than we had hoped and it made our entire Vietnam trip worth it. We were charged 30,000 VND per bowl though. Not complaining because I would pay a lot more for those noodles.

  10. ugh, the pictures look so great! After reading about her on your blog and watching that episode on Bourdain, I tried to find her when I went back this summer, but couldn’t. Maybe we just weren’t there at the right time? I even followed the map you drew! Guess I’ll try again this summer 🙁

  11. oh just realized, by ‘ugh” I attempted to express my salivating & being jealous of you eating the food. Me + English = not a good combo.

  12. I don’t get all the hoopla. We went earlier today and found the place easy enough. They foisted upon us spring rolls (which we did not order, but which were tasty enough). However, the actual fabled and amazing soup of the day itself was just average and lukewarm at best. I would not recommend it to anyone. We had far superior soup (pho) at Pho 24 the night before.

    And to add insult to injury, my wife has been having stomach ache and twinges since eating there. We may be going to the doctor later tonight.

    Thanks for nothing Bourdain. I used to be a big fan of yours. I would seriously recommend most people avoid it.

  13. i was definitely one of those bourdain fans that sought her out the second time i was visiting saigon. gotta say, i wasn’t really a fan of vietnamese noodle soups and that time (i like saucier/thicker/meatier noodles) but she made me one. thanks for posting her email address! she’s such a nice lady.

  14. Aloha and mahalo for the map. Spent 2 mo. in Saigon in 2010 and 2 mo. in 2011 (Saigon/DaLat) and luv street vendors. Returning soon and will seek out and hope to slurp assorted pho at the LunchLady’s. there at 10:30-11:00am/opening time? Mahalo from Maui.

  15. @Rick, if you like Pho 24, you will never understand what is a good bowl of noodle soup. Sorry, that’s just plain ignorance. What you had a Pho 24 is your average run of the mill pho. The Lunch Lady rarely serves pho. And to blame her soup for your wife’s stomach problem on her is just plain lame.

    I have been a frequent customer of her for the year I lived in Saigon. I have yet to find a better noodle soup place anywhere else. Again, if you like Pho 24 or Pho 2000, you shouldn’t go visit her. Otherwise, her soup is as good as advertised.

  16. @Leo, what is “plain ignorance” is denigrating someone else’s experience simply because it differs from yours. I guess because you had great experiences there, it is impossible for anyone to have any other type of experience.

    For your information, we are both foodies and also well-traveled. If you re-read my original comments, I never said or implied that Pho 24 was the end all of gastronomy. I simply indicated that the soup there was “far superior” to the soup we had with the Lunch Lady.

    You should work on your reading comprehension also as I never called what we ate at the Lunch Lady’s stall as “pho”. I correctly called it “soup”. However, as I stated, it was not bad tasting – just not as amazing as everyone else on this page claims it to be.

    And as for my wife’s stomach issues, it was COMPLETELY because of her soup. One doesn’t have to be a genius to realize that if one starts getting violently ill with stomach cramping and pain shortly after eating her soup, that’s what most likely caused it. You weren’t there. We were and we know the truth. Funny how there were no other issues with any other street food we had throughout the entire country.

    But it is obvious that you cannot allow anyone to express a different experience than yours without you attempting to bully them by using descriptors such as “plain ignorance” and “lame”.

    Now THAT is quite lame.


  17. Pingback: The Lunch Lady |
  18. One of the great bowles of noodles of my life (theres been ALOT) It was fantastic!!!! Ill drop in every time im in town.

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