Several shops in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City have begun offering diverse, inviting snack buffets for a cheap price – merely two or three dollars per person – in the past year or so.
More people in the two cities now frequent shops which offer mouth-watering snack buffets at prices ranging from a mere VND48,000 to 65,000 (US$2.3 to $3.1) per person.
They are entitled to as many as 50 dishes for such a small amount of money. The dishes, including main courses, are much-loved specialties from around the country.
Thi Buffet Shop, located in Phu Nhuan District of Ho Chi Minh City, has décor and rustic dishes arranged just like a traditional snack stall in the countryside. Its brick walls are not covered with plaster, while its food is contained in earthen and porcelain kitchenware.
Amidst the rustic, cozy environs, diners walk to and fro between the shelves, scooping up their favorite food and chatting merrily to one another or the staffers.
Vu Huy Bao, 32, who opened the shop over half a year ago, said his place is open from 11:00 am to 9:00 pm every day and is usually packed at noon and late in the afternoon.
On weekends, customers more often than not have to wait before they can be seated, he added.
Huynh Ngoc Yen – a 27-year-old office worker – and her friends stop by Thi Buffet once or twice a week.
“Previously, before such shops offering snack buffets had opened up, we could enjoy only a few snacks at one time, and found it quite awkward to relish street food in office uniforms,” Yen said.
Van Anh, one of Yen’s friends, said buffet shops offer them an assortment of 20 to 30 goodies typical of the country’s northern, central and southern regions, thus saving them trouble, time and money in moving from place to place to enjoy several dishes in one go.
“At Thi Buffet Shop, we can relish our favorite dishes, including main courses, chat and unwind at the same time,” she said.
Unlike Thi Buffet, the snack buffet section at Furin Cafe in the city’s District 1 appeals to clients with its modern décor and eye-catching food.
The café manager said the section, which has run from 2:00 pm to 8:00 pm only on Saturdays and Sundays for the past six months, offers portions of 10 dishes or more for an average of VND65,000 ($3.1) per person.
The buffet’s patrons are not limited to office workers and students but also couples and family members.
At 6:00 pm, the two floors dedicated to the snack buffet section of District 5’s Rainbow Restaurant are fully packed. Over 40 dishes are offered for a mere VND48,000 ($2.3) there.
Some extended families of up to 20 members choose the restaurant as their regular get-together spots.
“The junk food here is good and cheap and it’s great reveling in both the food and the atmosphere. My wife and kids really love this place and we go there once a week. My father joins us today,” said Ly Thanh Kiet, 45.
Though located in the Giang Vo apartment building in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh District, Buffet Vat Hanoi, the first of its kind in the city, is always full of clients, particularly at midday and late in the evening.
Its customers come from all walks of life and age groups but the majority are teens and students.
The shop offers 50 common Hanoi snacks to choose from for only VND65,000 ($3.1).
Shop owners’ difficulties
At first glance, the snacks offered at the buffet shops seem easy to prepare, as they look just like common street food.
However, the owners have invested a great deal of their energy and time in launching and running their shops.
Inspired by a childhood game of selling imaginary junk food, Bao took around one month to prepare for the launch of Thi Buffet Shop.
He also went to great lengths to select the bricks and earthen and porcelain kitchenware to give clients a rustic feel.
Most shop owners find preparing the food the greatest challenge.
Nguyen Ngoc Dung, the manager of Rainbow Restaurant, revealed that the multiple-dish menu requires considerable attention and energy to make sure each dish retains its own distinctive features which make it stand out from the others.
Bao currently has more than 30 dishes on his menu and prepares 25 each day, which range from various kinds of noodles and traditional cakes to steamed glutinous rice and refreshments.
“Of course each of our dishes can’t be as delectable as those offered in restaurants specializing in particular dishes. We’re just unrivalled in a few certain foods. However, we aim at diversity, food quality and hygiene and are always keen on client feedback to make adjustments,” he said.
Most owners experienced tough times following the launch of their shops. Clients were also doubtful about enjoying 20 to 30 dishes for just a few dollars.
Dung recalled his restaurant served less than 300 clients a week during the initial months.
Doing the dishes is also a daunting task in most shops, as around half of the staffers are tasked with cleaning and arranging the dishes and bowls so that clients have clean silverware to use all the time.
The low prices offered are usually the result of the owners’ partnership with online groupon websites, such as cungmua.com and hotdeal.com.
Clients buy the vouchers from these websites and use them at the shops to get the cheapest deals.
According to shop owners, the few clients who buy vouchers directly at the shops usually pay up to double the price compared to those bought online.
“We rely on the websites for our main source of clients and can hardly make profits or find regular clientele through direct transactions at the price of VND48,000 per person. Our restaurant, just like some others, opens only a few days a week to ensure profitability,” Dung said.
Several shop owners hang boards which remind clients to eat all the food on their plates.
Some even impose penalties of VND10,000-20,000 (less than $1) per person depending on how much they do not finish.
Dung said his restaurant has reluctantly imposed penalties on a few clients, as it appears to be the only way to prevent the waste of food and drink.
Similarly, few customers came to Buffet Vat Hanoi during its initial months.
Some years ago, 27-year-old Nguyen Phuong Mai, the shop owner, switched from working as a journalist – which she was no longer interested in – to doing business.
After several failed attempts, Mai eventually came up with the innovative idea of opening the snack buffet shop.
There were few customers on the first few days but things quickly improved then.
Mai’s shop now receives roughly 300 customers a day and people often have to wait for a table to become available when they get there.
Inspired by Mai’s success, less than four months later, several similar shops were opened, including Ngon Vat, Buffet Tam and Buffet Vat, each of which is popular for its own specialties.
Located near Mai’s shop, Buffet Vat, owned by Bui Tien Luong, 30, offers helpings for VND59,000 ($3) each.
“I think snack buffet shops have great development potential, as demand for eating out, particularly at snack buffets, is endless,” Bao said.
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