Behind Secret Garden: How to Make a Hit Restaurant in Saigon

food - Saigon/HCMC: Nov. 22, 2017

You would never guess that 34-year-old restaurateur Tran Dinh Huy is from the countryside of the northern Nam Dinh Province. Clad in a colourful Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses as he sips on a fresh juice at his newest restaurant, Secret House, Huy looks at home with the zen atmosphere he created on the small alleyway off Le Thi Hong Gam, nestled at the bottom of District 1.

“All of my restaurants aren’t on big streets,” he said. “I made them tucked away in alleys, so you can get away from the noisy things.”

Huy is the innovative mind behind some of the most popular Vietnamese restaurants in the city, among them local and tourist favourites Secret Garden, Mountain Retreat and the Hue House, enjoyed almost universally by customers who want family-style food in a beautifully curated ambience.

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His foray into the F&B industry began six years ago, and when he decided to invest in a Hanoi-style bun dao restaurant with friends, he was hooked.

Authenticity is Key

Huy currently has six successful restaurants, and he’s looking forward to opening a seventh in a month-and-a-half. (“It’s going to be near Bitexco, and I want it to be like Saigon before 1975.”)

His restaurants are all individual, but also similar. The Hue House, for example, draws upon the architectural style and royal feel of the country’s ancient capital; Mountain Retreat, with its five flights of stairs and no elevators, mimics the journey into the Central Highlands; and Secret House evokes the feelings of a Hoi An countryside house. The food, however, is similarly traditional and home-styled—something Huy insisted upon when he developed the menus.

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“The countryside is in my blood,” he said. “I missed it when I moved here 20 years ago. And I think a lot of people miss it too.”

“I just want to bring the countryside culture to Saigon,” he said. Walk into one of his restaurants, and it doesn’t look like the countryside, with its exposed bricks, customised furniture and casual herb gardens, accompanied by tranquil instrumental music. It looks like a peaceful wonderland, almost otherworldly in its calm.

World-Wide Plans

As a business model, this was worked well, and this is what he wants to bring to the world. As part of an investment group that has opened Somtum Der Thai restaurants in world capitals like Beijing, New York City and, of course, Ho Chi Minh City, he has seen the effects of exportable cuisine. His next mission: exporting Vietnamese. Traditional Vietnamese, not modern takes.

“A lot of people don’t know [Vietnamese food], and that’s why I want to keep it traditional,” he said.

foodImage source: Trang Hua

“It’s not like Japanese food or Thai food or Italian food. Everybody in the world knows about it, and they can do something new. I have to introduce the authentic food first, and then if Vietnamese cuisine becomes more popular, maybe I’ll think about doing something different.”

Huy said that he routinely gets offers to franchise and export his restaurant concepts to other countries, and he’s likely to accept one such offer in San Jose, California. The trick for Huy will be selling traditional Vietnamese food to an increasingly modern American palate.

Banner image source: Trang Hua