Thanh Ha: pure Vietnamese cuisine born in a multicultural housing estate in Yokohama


An ethnic cuisine address not to be missed

the pho, a typical Vietnamese soup with beef and noodles from which emerges a white cloud, arrives at my table. I added a lot of coriander before tasting the broth which turned out to be so rich while being delicate… And at the first bite of meat, my chopsticks never stopped. I was sweating and my whole body was begging for more.

According to Thanh Ha, after whom the restaurant is named, it is the broth that makes the pho. It is by simmering beef, pork, chicken and vegetables over low heat for ten hours that she manages to obtain this original taste of her hometown, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City today). The combination of the crunchiness of coriander and bean sprouts with soft pasta delights the taste buds.

With the growing ethnic diversity of today’s Japan, the number of friendly restaurants offering cuisines from elsewhere has increased enormously. Thanh Ha is a perfect example. One only has to open the sliding door to have the impression of being in Vietnam, despite the irasshai! (welcome!) scratched from the owner. The aroma of coriander, so representative of Vietnamese cuisine, fills the nostrils, and the shelves along the walls filled with Vietnamese food products provide an added charm.

Thanh Ha is both a restaurant and a Vietnamese grocery store.  (© Fuchi Takayuki)
Thanh Ha is both a restaurant and a Vietnamese grocery store. (© Fuchi Takayuki)

The clientele is very diverse. Apart from the Vietnamese guests, I also see Japanese who are fond of ethnic cuisine, as well as an American accompanied by a Filipina, probably a sailor from the American naval base and his girlfriend. They don’t hesitate to open the refrigerator and help themselves to Vietnamese Saigon beer. They are probably regulars.

These days, Vietnamese restaurants are no longer rare in Japan, but few can boast such genuine hospitality as Thanh Ha, which is tied to its location. The restaurant is located in the heart of Ichō, Japan’s most multi-ethnic public housing complex.

Complicated “living together” in a working-class city

The first foreigners arrived in Ichô in the 80s. The area is huge with its 80 towers stretching from the Izumi district of Yokohama city to Yamato city. A center for the promotion of permanent residents was set up in Minami Rinkan, Yamato City, in 1980 to support residency applications for refugees from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and other Southeast Asian countries fleeing wars. civil and political crises in their country. Many of them settled in Ichô and foreigners, coming from ten different countries, now represent 20% of the population of the complex. In a way, Ichô paved the way for the internationalization of Japan.

The Ichô HLM complex opened its doors in 1971. It is the largest residential complex in Kanagawa prefecture, and the most multicultural in the whole country.  Multilingual signs proliferate across the city.  (© Fuchi Takayuki)
The Ichô HLM complex opened its doors in 1971. It is the largest residential complex in Kanagawa prefecture, and the most multicultural in the whole country. Multilingual signs proliferate across the city. (© Fuchi Takayuki)

Endô Takeo has lived in the complex since 1973 and was in the past the president of the tenants’ association. It has worked for many years to promote good understanding between Japanese residents and foreigners there.

“I had a lot of contact with American soldiers after the war and I’m curious about foreign cultures, so I started talking to foreign residents without anyone asking me. It all started with the Vietnamese football team. »

In 2006, the city’s Vietnamese football team qualified for the Japanese Vietnamese Football League qualifiers, which were to be held in Ichô. Vietnamese teams from all over Japan landed there. By playing « at home », the Ichô team won, and the young people made it clear by celebrating in the rice fields near the complex… Police cars quickly arrived on the spot following the complaints from tenants.

It was Endô who helped young footballers in these difficult times. He says: “I took pity on them and offered to use the meeting room. They were delighted and that’s how our exchanges began. »

At the time, there were quite a few arguments between the city’s Japanese residents and foreigners who made too much noise taking out the trash or putting meat out to dry on their balconies. And when there were complaints, it was towards Endo that we went, because he could easily serve as a mediator. One day, however, he nearly took a beating from a Japanese resident who accused him of siding with foreigners. It was the intervention of one of them that saved him that day.

Endō Takeo helped many foreigners living in the Ichō compound.  He says that it is now the aging of the population that is problematic.  (© Kumazaki Takashi)
Endō Takeo helped many foreigners living in the Ichō compound. He says that it is now the aging of the population that is problematic. (© Kumazaki Takashi)

Endô Takeo thought that the best way to bridge the huge cultural gap between Japanese and foreigners would be through food.

“I thought that culinary culture would be an effective way to get to know each other, and I set up cooking classes. Imagine, when we announced a preparation course for gyoza (ravioli), 50 Japanese have registered! People who couldn’t join the course were angry! We have a lot of Peruvians living in the resort, and they asked for a soup making class miso. And of course, there was also the Vietnamese cuisine. »

There was a time when residents of the city often complained about the strong smell of Vietnamese cuisine, and there too, Endô was called in to solve the problem. He says with an embarrassed smile that when he visited the Vietnamese, he himself was surprised by the intensity of the scents. « But you end up getting used to it and even appreciate it, but I must admit that the smell of coriander remains complicated for me… »

Vietnamese cuisine eventually became one of the resort’s local cuisines. When I dined at Thanh Ha, the flagship Vietnamese restaurant in the area, I followed the pho with beef from a bi cuon and of banh mi.

the bi cuon is a fresh spring roll with pork rind. The peculiarity of its taste comes from the mixture of crispy pork rind and the sweet flavor of peanut miso. And then there is the banh mi, a Vietnamese-style sandwich that is becoming increasingly popular in Tokyo. In Thanh Ha, the owner bakes her own baguettes which she fills with vegetables and pork. It is a dish that is particularly appreciated by women.

The young waitress recommended the bi cuon which costs 600 yen (4 euros).  The dish goes well with beer.  (© Fuchi Takayuki)
The young waitress recommended the bi cuon which costs 600 yen (4 euros). The dish goes well with beer. (© Fuchi Takayuki)

While enjoying his delicious dishes, I listen to Thanh Ha tell me about his somewhat tumultuous life. “I came to Japan 30 years ago,” she says. “Everything changed in Vietnam after the war. The people of Saigon had no choice but to leave. »

Thanh Ha was one of the “boat people”

Here is what she explained to me.

In the 1970s, following civil wars, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia all became socialist countries. Those with ties to previous regimes no longer felt safe and sought refuge elsewhere. They were called the “boat people”. Thanh Ha was one such person and ended up in the Philippines. Many foreigners who live in Ichô have had a similar journey.

“I went to visit my younger brother and my younger sister who were in the United States, but this country scared me. Americans all have guns. Besides that, Japan seemed much safer to me. And then the Japanese are not tall, and they have black hair, like the Vietnamese. I felt comfortable here.

Once her request for asylum in Japan was accepted, she settled in the working-class city of Ichô, and began to work hard. She started out as a hostess in a karaoke. She also cleaned the toilets in the stations and did the potato chore in a factory. All this hard work allowed him to save money and open his restaurant 19 years ago. She had two children after arriving in Japan, who were well educated and went to college.

“But neither of them speak Vietnamese. I was always far too busy to take the time to teach them. »

The restaurant to which she gave her name is the most precious to her after her children. It has become a real refuge for his compatriots who have left their country to settle in Japan.

Thanh Ha came from Vietnam 30 years ago.  She is now 68 years old.  (© Fuchi Takayuki)
Thanh Ha came from Vietnam 30 years ago. She is now 68 years old. (© Fuchi Takayuki)

Keeping spirits up despite the pandemic

The pandemic has cast a shadow over the entire Ichô complex. Some Vietnamese who worked in nearby factories have lost their jobs and the many Vietnamese technician trainees are also in difficulty.

“We have fewer Vietnamese customers than before. There is no job because of the Covid. Many people who used to eat here eat at home now. »

“It’s difficult for everyone and our establishment suffers. Almost all my savings went into it, but our Japanese customers support us and I don’t want to let them down. Some people call me to tell me that they will come as soon as they can, and ask me to wait for them. Some even send me flowers! I would like to keep my spirits up and continue for all these people. I can work thanks to my restaurant. I’m lucky. »

This Vietnamese canteen is populated by simple and courageous people.

Vietnamese restaurant Thanh Ha (© Fuchi Takayuki)
Vietnamese restaurant Thanh Ha (© Fuchi Takayuki)

Thanh Ha

  • Address: 3050 Iida-cho, Izumi-ku, Yokohama-shi, Kanagawa
  • 15 minutes on foot from Kôza Shibuya station of the Odakyû Dentetsu Enoshima line
  • Opening hours: Open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Closed on Thursday.

(Title photo: Thanh Ha restaurant’s pho, his most popular dish. It costs 750 yen. © Fuchi Takayuki)

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