They arrive by the busload in the Philadelphia neighborhood with the narrowest of streets.
But somehow the buses, nearly as tall as rowhouses, manage to squeeze in between the parked cars and the defunct trolley tracks to deliver dozens of hungry Vietnamese tourists to Wing Phat Plaza, a shopping center at 11th Street that’s part of the city’s Vietnamese strip.
They’ve come from Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, which many still call Saigon. It’s usually their first time in the United States.
But here in Philly, a pit stop between Washington and New York, they’re always in and out in two hours, maybe less. Their schedule is simple and ruthlessly efficient: Liberty Bell, carriage ride ... and lunch at Nam Phuong.
White tablecloths, Yuenglings, and ‘triple delight’
They started coming to Nam Phuong a decade ago, said Christie Kong, who bought the restaurant from its previous owners in the mid-2000s. Kong, 51, moved to the United States from Saigon when she was 14. All the big Vietnamese tour companies send their people here, she said, chalking it up to word of mouth and the internet. The tour guides come with groups of 20 to 50 people throughout the warmer months, and especially on weekends.
It’s a nod to Philadelphia’s large Vietnamese community — nearly 16,000 living in Philly in 2017, according to census estimates, the third-biggest Asian community in the city behind Chinese and Indian — and the business corridor they’ve developed along Washington Avenue since the ’90s. But as the neighborhoods around the strip become gentrified, there are signs that the shopping centers might disappear: The city’s first Vietnamese shopping center, Hoa Binh Plaza at 16th Street, is slated for demolition to make room for new homes.
For now, Nam Phuong still welcomes dozens of tourists every week.
“We want to discover some secret of America,” said a retired hydrological engineer from Hanoi named Thú'c, which he noted meant “wake up."
By now, Kong’s staff knows the drill: The tour companies call ahead, sometimes a week or just a few days, and order a set, family-style menu that includes such traditional Vietnamese dishes as fish stewed in a clay pot, sauteed water spinach with garlic, and ba vị, anglicized as “triple delight,” a make-your-own rice paper wrap with shrimp on sugarcane, meatballs, and beef in grape leaves. Sometimes the wealthier tourists request such fancier food as lobster, Kong said.
Timing is most important. The tour groups are on a strict schedule and need to be in and out within the hour. That means that before they walk through the door, the white tablecloths — a touch reserved for these special guests — are already set. Bowls of rice, glasses of water, Yuenglings all come out immediately. On a recent spring day, though, one tour group spared a little time to sing and eat birthday cake for one of their tour group members.
‘If they eat all American food, it will be a nightmare for them’
The tour guides like Nam Phuong because it’s spacious, the prices are affordable, and the food, they say, is authentic.
“This restaurant,” said tour guide Kent Luu, “is very famous in Vietnam to travel agents.”
Luu, who works for a Vietnamese company called Perfect Tour, has been a tour guide for more than a decade. He used to work around Asia but “entered the U.S. market” three years ago. Nam Phuong, he says, serves food that is more purely Vietnamese, which he prefers to the Chinese-Vietnamese fusion that he said is common at other Vietnamese restaurants he’s tried in Philadelphia.
(Other Vietnamese restaurants along Washington Avenue, such as Huong Tram in Hoa Binh Plaza and Pho & Cafe Viet Huong in Wing Phat Plaza, said they see tour groups sporadically, about once a month or less. Sometimes, Huong Tram also gets buses full of Vietnamese tourists who live a few hours away, such as in Virginia.)
Nguyen Ngoc Quynh, a Hanoi-based tour guide with Viet Travel, agrees: He’s been coming to Nam Phuong for almost 10 years after a friend recommended it. He called it the best Vietnamese restaurant in Philadelphia, citing the authenticity of its food and its cleanliness.
As the Vietnamese economy gets better and Vietnamese people get richer, they increasingly want to travel to the West, Quynh said. They like coming to the United States, he said, because the two countries have a history.
And while tour guides make sure to expose their groups to some American food, meals skew more toward food from home.
“If they eat all American food, it will be a nightmare for them,” Luu said.
Hoa Nguyen, who was on an 11-day tour of the country with her husband and two daughters for Vietnam’s labor day holiday, said she liked trying Vietnamese food abroad. It felt like coming home, she said. Last year, for the holiday, the 44-year-old took her family to Paris, Holland, and Belgium.
She called Philadelphia a “beautiful and peaceful city.”
Thú'c, the hydrological engineer who hoped to discover the secret of America, said he found the food at Nam Phuong a bit too sweet for his taste, saying that’s more southern Vietnamese. He’s from the north. Still, he gave it a “9 out of 10."
Eat like a Vietnamese tourist
Here’s what Vietnamese tourists eat when they go to Nam Phuong, according to tour guide Kent Luu and owner Christie Kong, with menu numbers included for easy ordering. To be extra authentic, eat family style.
124. Ba Vị (Three Delight: Shrimp on Sugar Cane, Beef in Grape Leaves, and Grilled Meat Balls)
220. Canh chua cá (sweet and sour fish soup)
224. Canh Khổ Qua Tôm Thịt (Bitter Melon, Shrimp & Meat in Broth)
280. Bò Lúc Lắc (Country-style beef cubes)
309. Soft Shell Crab Sauteed w/ Salt & Pepper or Black Bean Sauce
310. Cá Kho Tộ (Fish stewed in clay pot)
807. Rau muong loc (Water Spinach Sauteed with Garlic)
Off menu: Half or whole steamed chicken with ginger sauce