Peter Cornish talks with Chris Owen about this fantastic food destination. Photos by Vinh Dao.
In a previous life Chris Owen was a senior project manager delivering high tech projects in London. The UK was in recession, life was hard, the rewards were slim. Then a series of very small events that he calls “joining the dots” turned his world upside down.
The strange series of “sliding doors” eventually put him into Mui Ne with a Vietnamese girlfriend who owned a small hotel. The hotel reviews were great, but they all said, “bad location, nowhere to eat”. So, Chris’s girlfriend rented some land and built some bamboo huts. Together, they decided to call it Đông Vui; roughly translated as “crowded and fun”.
After 18 months, Đông Vui was dirty, broken, and losing money. Chris thought he could just spend an hour or two each day making it better so he agreed to buy it. He brought in some new cooks, did some basic fixing and cleaning, and set up a new bar. Slowly the number of customers increased. Then suddenly, in July 2016, a wave of customers streamed into the food court and they were swamped. They desperately tried to keep up, and barely made it.
The food court’s infrastructure was designed for a few VN street-food stalls, and could not handle the demands of 12 hardworking high output kitchens. Every day brought new problems; inadequate water supply, melting electricity cables, and a very high attrition of tables and chairs. With hard work and dedication, they made it through high season by the skin of the teeth.
In early 2017 a new directive from the local government focussed on wastewater from resorts and restaurants. Just a few days before Tet they were faced with a stark choice; build a major wastewater processing system, or close down. With nowhere to put the water tanks, he was forced to rent the neighbouring land. And now that he had the land, it seemed sensible to use it. A plan was hatched, and building work began.
“I was once told ‘you build this place more Vietnamese than the Vietnamese’, and that’s the style we want; bamboo, wood, coconut leaf. We look like a village from the past, but underneath we have some modern kitchens with modern cooks. Every cook is asked to develop a theme, and they are not permitted to cook the same thing as another cook” Chris explained.
By mid-July they completed the building work. The main bar opened on 10 July, the new cocktail bar on 12 July and the Taste of India kitchen doubled its size. Soon to be added are Turkish, Greek and Lebanese food, and some young Vietnamese cooks will bring a menu more at place in a 5-star resort, but priced at under VND100,000.
Đông Vui has a garden look-and-feel, with shaded dining areas and coconut leaf roofs providing cover. Think of a figure 8, with a narrow waistline between two bars. Above and below there are two coco-leaf roofs surrounded by more tables and chairs of varying and slightly haphazard styles. Trees and plants provide shade from the heat of the sun, yet give a feeling of open air dining at night. Lighting is subdued, creating a cosy environment yet bright enough to see what is happening.
“We intend to be a place where you can try a wide range of foods, meet new friends, and drink beer, wine and cocktails as good as in your home country. The new bar offers Phat Rooster craft beer at 39,000 a glass, served at a frosty 0 degrees C.” Chris told me. They also have a great range of wines from France and Chile, as well as local Vietnamese wines and some excellent sparkling wines.
“Last year, I said that “if people start saying that you must visit Đông Vui when you visit Mui Ne, then I will be happy”. Well, we achieved that some time ago. But now we have expanded, the real challenge is to avoid breaking the success that we had” Chris shared.
Đông Vui has some outstanding cooks, mostly young and without the financial ability to set up a locale of their own, or to compete with Mui Ne’s large number of established and fiercely competitive restaurants. Đông Vui’s unique concept and low costs enable these inspiring culinary entrepreneurs to manage a kitchen and offer their food to a wide customer base.
There are many stories to tell about the people who have helped make Đông Vui Food Court the number one Trip Advisor listing. There’s Nga, or Lucy Liu, who sells international food for people who need a break from hot chilli, and Huong selling arguably the best doner kebab in town. Thu offers Vietnamese delights such as pho and ‘on the table’ BBQ beef and Mr No is selling Vietnamese hot-pots and classic VN food.
Here are just some of the people who help make Đông Vui such a great foodie experience:
Piri Piri is one of the front-line kitchens, selling a range or Portuguese style foods and managed by Jean (a Mancunian Frenchman) and Kee, his French wife. Jean is joined by 4 Vietnamese staff, including the ever smiling Be Ba who acts as under-manager. Jean and Kee came to Vietnam for a lifestyle change and to avoid ‘wasting time’. Taking a place at the food court has allowed them to build their brand with an immediate supply of customers.
Surfing Bird’s Wok is managed by Goga and his sister Vera from Russia. They are training 2 young Vietnamese men who, if they learn well, will be set up for the rest of their lives.
Goga originally came to Vietnam for a six-month break but, like many before him, enjoyed the lifestyle and decided to stay. Đông Vui has provided him with an opportunity for independence and to do things the way he feels they should be done.
El Café is owned by Kayjus, a young Indian yoga tour guide. He arrived in Vietnam as his wife had a job in Mui Ne and he then started selling samosas and Indian tea direct from his backpack. As a vegetarian and practicing Buddhist, Kayjus struggled with the local food so decided to set up shop in Đông Vui, inspired by the ethos and spirit of community.
“In Đông Vui you must understand the ethos. This is a community. If you contribute you will win, but if you only serve yourself you will fail.” Kayjus shared. He is one of the court’s most successful chefs.
We asked Chris what makes Đông Vui such a special place. His answer was simple: “It’s my favourite place to eat. It’s a lifestyle, a community, and daily routine that provides meaning to many people’s lives, and a place to get some of the best food and drink at the best prices in Mui Ne.” We tend to agree.