Nhà Hàng Hương Xưa, Restaurant, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
While writing this review, I am expecting protest. I had the turtle! Yes! It is taboo and forbidden in many regions of the world. Actually, it depends on the species of turtle – certain types are strictly protected; for others it seems that eating them is allowed. Like many other countries, Vietnam has implemented official protection and prevention programs due to the fact that authorities, left to their own, don’t enforce their own laws strongly enough. Poaching is also certainly an issue in Vietnam in particular, since there is such a great demand in China for forbidden and really exotic animals.
This said, my hosts appeased me by explaining that the animal we were about to eat was not on any list of protected species. I can hear the voices of all those who would now ask: how can you eat such a sweet animal? Some of my friends even have turtles at home and spend a hell of a lot of time and money taking care of them. In this case, I’d like to remind everyone to look into the big eyes of a beautiful cow before you eat your next steak or to remember the beauty of a yellowtail fish before you get your next sushi. Eating animals requires killing animate beings.
If you are traveling to Ho Chi Minh City as a tourist, it’s not likely that you would end up in this particular restaurant. It is not fancy or stylish. It is not furnished in the style of many of the more modern and newer locations in Saigon. Our host belongs to the state establishment of Vietnam – officials but creatives – so the place is very un-modern Vietnamese, with excellent cooking. If you’re interested in sociological studies of the Vietnamese establishment then perhaps it’s a good location.
All of the dishes we had at Nhà Hàng Hương Xưa were very good. It is classic Vietnamese cuisine on a high level – no street food but also nothing inspired by new trends – straightforward: fresh, delicious, perfect ingredients, served exactly at the right moment! Moreover, with respect to the turtle – an amazing combination of tastes.
Turtle meat has a totally unique flavor, so I cannot compare it with anything else. I’m always asked the question: does it taste like…? No, it has its own taste. Interestingly, the meat is quite red and bloody. It is very soft and tender; bones and gristle are not removed so you have some work to do in your mouth, which, by the way, delivers even more taste. The chef added ginger chips to the turtle dish. At first, I thought that they would be made of potatoes because of the strong yellow color. The typical flavor of ginger – a little bit bitter but also sweet – is a fantastic and very convincing addition to the rather intensive taste of the meat.
The other highlight was a small boiled aubergine filled with peanuts, herbs, and different greens. The “meat” of aubergine was not watery or overly soft, it still had some bite.
The interior of the restaurant is what you might call Asian rustic. It has many back rooms (without windows – this is horrifying), which offer privacy for political talks, drinking sessions or just for a friendly unobserved “turtle” lunch on the occasion of a German Vietnamese Masterclass of Film.
Very beautiful waitresses are dressed a little bit like nurses in dirty men’s fantasies: tight skirts, high heels and short blouses – actually weird considering that they serve food and also because they are incredibly polite.
You may not consider such an eating experience normal or usual. For Europeans or Americans it might not be. However, in some ways it reminded me of my experience at “Michael’s” in New York (Michael’s Restaurant, New York) – audience-wise. Officials, politicians, financial industry people etc. – only in that case they were Americans.
Would I eat turtle again? If it is permitted I probably would – although I’d say that the meat is great – but nothing so outstanding that I would need to eat it again. But if YOU want to try turtle once, go ahead and enjoy it.