Imagine a slice of Vietnam lifted out of its tiny plastic chair and taken around the world. It picks up a taste for wine and some culinary finesse in Paris, it scours the vintage vinyl stores of Brixton, Kingston and Harlem for its tunes, and kicks back over brunch in a trendy Brooklyn diner. This is how I imagine Propaganda was born. By Simon Stanley. Photos by Glen Riley.
Since January 2014, this buzzing joint on Han Thuyen has been serving up superb modern Vietnamese cuisine in a chic yet relaxed urban setting to an old-school soundtrack so cool they could probably do away with the aircon. Frequently packed with locals, tourists and expats, Propaganda is much more than your average foreigner-friendly eatery on the District 1 tourist trail. There are no gimmicks here. With Vietnamese roots entwined with western inspiration, it’s a merging of cultures in just the right balance.
What’s a Vietnamese Bistro Anyway?
“We wanted to revisit Vietnamese cuisine,” explains restaurant manager and French expat Cindy Kawak. “In Vietnam and all around the world, it is always very similar. We wanted to twist it a little bit.”
To understand what she means, check out their lineup of made-to-order fresh spring rolls — served sushi style in bite-sized rows. “If you order fresh rolls in Vietnam,” she says, “you will almost always have shrimp and pork. Here we are using ingredients that Vietnamese people eat every day to innovate the classic recipes.”
Combinations such as omelette and avocado, duck with ginger-infused fish sauce and barbecued squid with vegetables all demonstrate a mastery of local ingredients and flavours, combined with a refreshingly modern approach. Add to this a carefully selected yet surprisingly affordable imported wine list, and you start to get the picture.
And the verdict? It works perfectly. They’re not meddling with what we know and love. The flavour combinations are unexpected yet in many ways comfortingly familiar.
“It’s not fusion,” says Cindy. “We are not putting foie gras in there, for example.”
Along with old friends like pho ga, pho bo and bo luc lac (here served tender and juicy and packed with flavour alongside sweet potato fries), inventive soups, tempting salads and hearty meat and rice dishes are also available. Be sure to investigate the specials board too.
On my visit, for starters I sampled the wild pepper and green mango salad. Topped with moist, grilled chicken breast, it was Vietnam on a plate — the balance of flavours in the dressing was spot on, the salad crunchy and fresh. Nothing is pre-made here.
All Day, Every Day
Propaganda opens for breakfast at 7.30 every morning, with two set menus of homemade banh mi and noodle soups served until 10.45am. For brunch, lunch or dinner, go a la carte or ditch the menu completely and let Cindy and her team choose for you with their food and wine ‘Discovery’ options. Showcasing four of their favourite dishes alongside three glasses of carefully paired wines and rounded off with a pot of organic green tea, at VND450,000 it’s a bargain of a feast.
Propaganda is big on wine, but if grape juice just ain’t your thing, it seems every beer in Saigon has also been rounded up and listed here. Teas, coffees, fruit shakes and juices also firmly establish Propaganda as an all-day hangout you’ll keep returning to.
Finally, a note on their desserts — they are very good, and dangerously affordable. The chia seed custard was light yet decadent, but the Marou dark chocolate ice cream left me speechless in delight.
“It’s homemade,” says Cindy, smiling. “Of course!”
Propaganda is at 21 Han Thuyen, Q1, HCMC. For more info visit propaganda.vn
Published January 2015 – Word Vietnam