Le Saigon: Hanoi in Dhaka
Another day, another Thursday. The Lounge Lizards, a certain trio, or Imran with his band, would sing for a blasé Dhaka crowd suffering from acute fatigue stemming from the chronic boredom of dull weekends. But not anymore. Some of the humdrum has been shaken up by the new presence of Le Saigon – Dhaka’s first authentic Vietnamese restaurant, the latest addition to the culinary options offered on Gulshan Avenue, the ‘Sukhumvit of Dhaka’. Le Saigon’s owner came up with the idea of setting up Dhaka’s first Vietnamese restaurant during a 2004 appointment to the Vietnamese embassy in Dhaka. At that time, an embassy official had asked him to promote Vietnamese tourism, and to help out with some tour packages being offered by a few local operators. The official also asked the visitors if they would be interested in setting up a restaurant. One of the visitors, named Shammu, was moved to make a trip to Vietnam. The name ‘Le Saigon’ was chosen due to Shammu’s fascination with drama-laden Vietnam-related movies – the last days of Saigon, the way then-South Vietnam lost the war, the scenes of the American embassy staff fleeing by helicopter. ‘Le’, meanwhile, references the French influence on Vietnamese culture, an effect felt particularly in Saigon, with its wide avenues, boulevards, sidewalks bustling with cafes, art galleries, silk markets and pastry shops. So the work began. Within eight months, a dilapidated house on Gulshan Avenue was turned into an authentic Vietnamese restaurant. All of the restaurant’s partners flew to Hanoi in November 2004, and over a period of four days they interviewed nearly 30 chefs. Along with a couple of Vietnamese cooks, they brought back a load of antiques with which to decorate the new establishment. Then the kitchen went to work. Two of the chefs selected in Hanoi introduced the new cuisine to Dhaka’s connoisseurs on 1 June 2005. Among the top favourites have been the rice-flour pancakes stuffed with crab meat, shrimp mousse on sugarcane, sautéed beef with onions and black-pepper sauce, oven-baked snapper with herbs and root vegetables, catfish stewed in caramel sauce, fish soup with turmeric and fruits, seafood lau (hot pot), and beef-roll stuffed with melted cheese. And today? Dhaka-wallas love both the food and the restaurant itself – swinging along to the weekend music, remaining indifferent to the tight seating. But much of Le Saigon’s popularity is due to what it offers beyond its menu and décor – an attempt to offer a warmth to its clients that differs slightly from the everyday Bengali heat. It is the warmth of the Mekong Delta, imported to the Ganga Brahmaputra Delta.