A respite from the street noise and pollution, here you can find home-cooked Vietnamese cuisine, including steamed snakehead. A small garden, potted plants and several trellises holding vines divide the dining area into sections. There might be a caged rooster. The atmosphere is calm, even with the flashing lights of nearby Vincom Center B. Covers of songs from the early 1980s play over the sound system. A koi fish is painted on the wall, and multi-coloured curtains hang by the only portion with a ceiling, where you may want to sit if it looks like rain.
Most of the dishes are a combination of sweet, sour and salty, though some are more balanced than others. The stir-fried corn with green onion and shrimp, and the grilled lemongrass pork rolls are especially good appetisers. Pork bits are mixed with the corn and add a little more saltiness, and the slightly pickled carrots served on the side complement the savoury pork rolls.
Fish is another strength. The pot-braised basa catfish is sweet without being excessively sugary, and the veggies and red snapper hotpot is excellent, especially if you like vegetables. A small hotpot with two or three appetisers serves two nicely, and if you look confused when the hotpot arrives, someone will help, or will just cook the fish and vegetables in the broth for you and dish out the first helping.
Wine and beer are also served, and when I visited, a glass of the December wine-of-the-month Frontera Sauvignon Blanc went well with the dishes.
The penny-wort with soy milk isn’t bad either. It may or may not be as healthy as the internet blogs suggest, but it sure tastes healthy. You might be reminded of a freshly-mowed lawn — it’s earthy and grassy, and it’s served with a side of simple syrup. However, if you drink it along with one of the sweeter dishes, such as the braised chicken with fish sauce, you may not wish to add any syrup at all.
If your sweet tooth still isn’t satisfied after the appetisers and entrees, you can opt for one of the iced desserts. The seaweed and nuts is deceptive as it consists more of grapes and other fruit than nuts, but that probably makes it even better.
On Facebook The Secret Garden is listed as ‘Home-Cooked Vietnamese Restaurant & Tea House’. Just don’t forget to check the weather forecast before you go. — Heather Momyer
The Secret Garden is at 158 bis Pasteur, Q1, Ho Chi Minh City