Restaurant Ai Hue 2, a busy Chinese restaurant in the thick of District 5 is a hit with locals who regularly indulge on its dim sum. By Lorcan Lovett. Photos by Vinh Dao.
The history of Saigon’s famous Chinatown, Cholon, has been hectic – much like the streets of the district themselves – but one stable feature of life there is drinking tea and eating dim sum, together known as yum cha.
Perhaps the most popular venues to enjoy this Chinese breakfast favourite are the two Ai Hue restaurants; big, sociable places which often share an overspill of customers.
Young women in traditional dress beckoned us through the doors in the two-floored second restaurant, and we took our seats amid a bustling morning service, soaking up the Chinese characters on the walls, the fish tank and the chattering of businessmen warming up for the deals ahead.
These patrons, along with many online reviewers, have touted the dim sum here as the best in the area. Served until 1pm every day, the steaming baskets of goodness are certainly affordable, more so than similar Chinese eateries in District 1. This gave us the opportunity to order three kinds, each with its own distinct taste and texture.
First up was the steamed pork dumpling garnished with an orange spec of crab roe (VND 50,000 for four), brought to our table by the attentive but non-English speaking staff.
The fatty succulence in the filling was washed down with the house tea. It hit the spot. Not wishing to impose on ourselves a ‘dumpling-only’ policy, we ordered five other dishes and watched the table turn into a Cantonese tea party.
The deep-fried shrimp balls dotted with melon seeds (VND 50,000 for four) were stocky and slightly overshadowed by the pan-fried taro cake (VND 40,000 for three pieces), which, once past the flaky exterior, had delicious mashed meat fillings.
There was also a pile of glutinous fried rice flour with dry shrimp and (not so spicy) XO sauce (VND 50,000), and steamed barbecue pork buns (VND 40,000 for three pieces).
All of these nibbles acted as nice little intervals during the conversation: “oh, that was sweet” or (stabbing a chopstick at the basket) “try that”, allowing the time to fly past. That all changed when the ‘Shang Hai style’ steamed mince pork dumplings arrived (VND 50,000 for four pieces).
Dipped in vinegar with ginger slivers, the dough melted away in my mouth, leaving that tasty, meaty flavour to enjoy.
The steamed fresh prawn dumplings (VND 50,000 for four pieces) confirmed this restaurant deserves its reputation as a dim sum delight, and the sweet, oven-baked sweetened sesame tartlets (VND 40,000 for three pieces) showed it wasn’t a one-trick pony either.
The price for these eight dishes, tea and two coffees was VND 495,000, feeding three of us. Ai Hue 2 is not only reasonably priced but also effortlessly authentic – all the way down to the ashtrays above the urinals. If you’re ever exploring Cholon and feel peckish, it’s worth dropping by.