We speak to Vietnam’s best known streetfood vendor, 49-year-old Nguyen Thi Thanh, also known as The Lunch Lady. Photo by Francis Xavier

 

I got the name Lunch Lady from... Anthony Bourdain in 2008 when he was here to make a TV show about me. After the trip, he came back home and gave me the name.

 

I started serving different dishes every day... when I moved to this location. I used to live around Dakao market. The area was cleared and I got moved here.

 

Meeting Anthony Bourdain was... so interesting. I didn’t know he was so well-known. Some people sent by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to arrange a TV show for me with Anthony Bourdain in December, 2008. They said he was an important man and liked me, wanted to have a day-long show with me, starting in the early morning when I went to the market.

 

After his show aired... some people who worked with [Anthony Bourdain] came to my place and gave me a CD. They said, “Anthony has a gift for you. He will call your place ‘The Lunch Lady’.” Before that, people just called my stand the “two sea-almond tree place” — you can see the two sea-almond trees over there.

 

I got the new sign after... the show aired. At that time, I didn’t want to change the sign but foreign customers just came and asked if I was The Lunch Lady. So I decided to get the new sign.

 

Before Anthony Bourdain, the people who came were... Vietnamese office staff who were working around this area.

 

When I want to eat someone else’s food, I go to... other provinces to try their specialities so I can improve and perfect my cuisine. Saigon doesn’t have authentic food, food in Saigon has a neutral flavour.

 

My favourite meal growing up was... hu tieu. My mum used to work as a chef for a health protection association and cooked hu tieu and pho for breakfast for doctors and nurses there. As a little girl I used to follow her around in order to learn and I ate her soup. It was so delicious.

 

The next thing I’ll put on the menu will be... bun cha ca and bun moc. I think I will put them on the menu every Tuesday.

 

People like my soups because... they are authentic and use the correct flavouring.

 

Being a tourist attraction is... exciting. Although this is just a street food place, many people including big company managers and owners come here. I feel like I’m a representative of Vietnamese food.

 

In the future… I will make some renovations — maybe just buy new, nice and more comfortable chairs and tables. But I will still keep the place like this with its street style. Many Viet Kieu come back here again and again because it reminds them of their childhood when they lived in Saigon.

 

You can find The Lunch Lady on the alley just next to 23 Hoang Sa, Q1, HCMC

 

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