Propagating the Food

A message for the hungry.

As if she hadn’t done enough already for the hungry of Ho Chi Minh City, bistro queen Noelle Carr-Ellison last month rolled out yet another restaurant – this time right next door to Au Parc, the venue that started it all back in 2002. Propaganda (21 Han Thuyen, D1) is perhaps a kitschy spin-off from Hoa Tuc – but while it does follow the same formula of serving high- quality Vietnamese food to a mixed crowd of well-to-do locals and curious expats, Propaganda’s dishes aren’t exactly your traditional local fare.

“Don’t go near us with the word ‘fusion,’” warns Noelle, leaning conspiratorially over one of the tables at her sunny new venue. “I think it’s not really that different from Vietnamese food. We use 100 percent Vietnamese ingredients; it’s just that no one’s ever done, say, a spring roll with an omelet and avocado in it. I don’t know why, because they eat omelet, and they eat avocado, and they eat brown rice, and they eat rolls – but nobody’s ever put that combination together before. So it’s not really ‘not doing Vietnamese food,’ it’s more like taking the chefs and shaking them a bit, and saying, ‘You know, you’ve been doing the same thing for a hundred years, can we have something new please?’”


If ‘fusion’ isn’t the correct term, then perhaps ‘remix’ best describes the cuisine here. True fans of Vietnamese national dishes will find the menu both familiar and surprising, while those who’ve never quite managed to acquire a taste for the pho and the fish sauce will find themselves unexpectedly drawn to these fresh, rebooted versions of old classics in new contexts.

The rolls are very much a case in point. We took Noelle’s advice and tried her own personal innovation, the fresh spring rolls with omelet, avocado, brown rice, and soya sauce (VND70,000). Served cut into slices, they look more like sushi than they do rolls – which only makes one wonder why this isn’t more common, as they’re far easier to dip and eat this way. She’s right about the taste – the egg and avocado serve to soften the crunchy vegetables and chewy wrap, and the rice lends an earthy warmth absent from the standard white rice versions.


The use of brown rice is actually one of the restaurant’s drawcards, and several dishes are brought into sharper definition by trading out white for brown. The signature noodle dish, Propaganda noodles with tofu, puffed brown rice and chili-peanut-shallot crunch (also VND70,000) is reminiscent of many local bun dishes stirred through with sauce and herbs, but without the tartness and pungency they’re usually associated with. That’s not to say it isn’t flavorsome – the puffed rice and rich tofu are almost chocolatey in combination. The same goes for the crunchy tri-colored rice with seafood and vegetables (VND125,000), served in a clay pot – far, far less oil than you’d expect for this kind of dish, and a particularly delicious option for the kids.

The desserts are similarly outstanding. The sticky coconut rice with fresh mango and coconut cream (VND70,000) is as full- bodied as a creamy gateau, and the soursop and palm sugar homemade ice cream with its whole mouthfuls of blended fresh fruit is as much a clever reinterpretation of a very common dessert as the Vietnamese dishes are of theirs.


Kitsch Dining
Like all the bistro-style restaurants opened under Noelle’s wing, the venue itself is airy, classy, and very consciously styled to its theme – in this case, the propaganda art of wartime Vietnam, which has since acquired a kitsch status not unlike the pop oeuvre of Andy Warhol. It’s a bold move for a French national to broach a political motif, but Noelle doesn’t believe she’s being particularly cheeky in borrowing the iconography for the restaurant.

“I think the art form is really meaningful,” she says. “I want to show people that this art is actually pretty cool.” The huge mural that dominates the ground floor area is a new work in the war-era style that Noelle had commissioned herself, which conscientiously avoids sensitive themes. The inspiring slogan translates as “every day I choose a different dish,” a play on a Trinh Cong Son lyric rather than a call to arms.


But that’s not to say Propaganda doesn’t tout its own agenda; albeit one more nutritional than political. French manager Cindy Kawak, who coaches informally on healthy living and plans to run a course on the subject in the event space above the restaurant, sees the venue as an opportunity to popularize good eating. “There’s an empty space upstairs, so we can play with that. Yoga [or] an art show.”

Cindy was also instrumental in a group effort to match international wines with Vietnamese cuisine, resulting in a special dinner set menu allowing guests to sample a range of wines with complementary local dishes.


Come early to try the venue’s extraordinary homemade banh mi breakfasts, the fresh bread somehow channeling the essence of the baguette back into the local loaves it originally inspired. Drop in between 5pm and 8pm after work to try the Apéro menu, featuring free appetizers based on local street food with any bottle of wine over VND380,000. Chances are you’re very likely to succumb to Propaganda’s party line.

Images by Ngoc Tran

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