We Chat With The Sister Duo Behind Sneinton's Boulangerie De Saigon

Words: Julia Head
Photos: Dani Bacon
Friday 18 August 2023
reading time: min, words

Last month, we underwent a gruelling ten-second trek from the office to visit our neighbours in the newly opened Boulangerie de Saigon, a small Vietnamese eatery in the hustle and bustle of Sneinton Avenues. After being hooked on the egg coffee (more on that later), we returned to try one of the most delicious Vietnamese sandwiches to grace Nottingham - oh, and to have a chat with sisters Aivi and Milly Nguyen - both from St Ann’s, who opened the boulangerie (bakery) in April…


First of all, we love the name of your café and the blend of French and Vietnamese. What's that all about?
As we know, ‘Saigon’ is an old term for what is now officially known as ‘Hoi Chi Minh’ city, due to the civil war. Before migrating to the UK, the old capital city was once home and dear to my family, and even to this day we still call it Saigon. It was vital for the name of our shop to be personal and more importantly, honour our heritage. The history of the bánh mì (the aforementioned delicious sandwich/baguette that is very popular in Vietnamese cuisine) stems from French colonialism in Vietnam, around the mid-1950s, hence the amalgamation in our name. Our ancestors took what they knew of the baguette and twisted the techniques and ingredients that were available to them to form the classic bánh mì. Additionally, it is against the French law to name one’s business a ‘Boulangerie’ if your baked goods are not prepared freshly on site - which is perfect for us!

Can you tell us a bit about how you came to open up your own café? You're both quite young, is this what you've always wanted to do?
Aivi: I’ve always been a creative individual which led me to have studied fashion design at Nottingham Trent University. It was not until Covid-19 had happened that I really fell in love with cooking! The first lockdown was in place whilst I was finalising my degree, and I found myself choosing to cook rather than doing design work - this was my initial awakening to open an eatery, and it took three years in the making to get me here today.
Milly: The kitchen has always been my home and spreading the joy of sweets has always been a vivid dream for me. So, when my sister proposed to open a café together, I was extremely ecstatic. Our youth has contributed to our efforts and labour, to which we are both grateful for.

Why Vietnamese food in Nottingham? What does it mean to you?
We grew up eating traditional Vietnamese food for dinner every day. Being Nottingham born and bred, it has been a pleasure to offer a bit of our motherland to our city. Food plays a massive part in our culture - no matter what social background you’re from, everyone takes the time to pause from the hustle and bustle to eat delectably - it is food that brings communities together.

Cooking dinner was a labour of love for our mum - she has always cooked from scratch using fresh and quality ingredients. This is something I only appreciated recently. Every evening, mum would often serve multiple hearty dishes per sitting to share around the table to enjoy as a family (quite like a tapas-style dinner), we’d all flock around to relish and share about our day. The beauty of Vietnamese cuisine is that there are fundamental flavours to balance, to create a harmoniously delicious dish: sour, spicy, salty, sweet, and bitter; a rule that applies across all Vietnamese recipes. Instinctively, Vietnamese people tend to try utilise everything they’ve got to avoid any waste - (mainly due to rationing from the war). Particularly in cooking, we’ve been taught to employ every part of a single ingredient in as many uses as possible, which can be an art in itself!

We love that. Can you tell us who inspires you?
Our inspiration has been our late grandmother, who ran a much-adored food stall back in her hometown in Vietnam. She was an effortlessly talented cook, who our mother has taken after. She was also a strong survivor and miraculously lived through such hardships from the war. She completely dedicated her life to her family, and the best way she demonstrated her love was through food.

Grandmother was very known at the Victoria Market; nothing stopped her from regularly loading up her trolley to the brim with fresh vegetables, meat, and fish. She was gifted in the kitchen - you would never find any cookbooks or written recipes lying around, as they were perfectly memorised off by heart! She never worked by quantities, it was all done through scent, taste and feeling. She was a feeder, through and through. From the good times to the bad, she would always be there offering a bowl which always felt like the warmest hug. 

No matter what social background you’re from, everyone takes the time to pause from the hustle and bustle to eat delectably - it is food that brings communities together

Your grandmother sounds like she was an amazing woman who made incredible food. Did she teach you how to cook, and why did you decide on bánh mì as the main focus of your menu? 
We give credit to our fantastic parents for all that we know. They have always owned a takeaway, so we’ve been fortunate enough to have shadowed them in the kitchen since we were young. Bánh mì is a delicious staple across Vietnam - we had this for breakfast, lunch and dinner during most of our last visit. However, we’ve found it really hard to come by a decent bánh mì across the UK, never mind Nottingham! So, we thought we’d fill that gap in the market.

What makes you different from the other Vietnamese cafés?
We aimed for our family-run place to be calm and inviting to everybody without being pretentious, or trying too hard to convince others that we are Vietnamese. Instead, we wanted our food and drinks to speak for itself. Our menu is kept small and curated to keep things fresh, exciting, and made with love. We took the long way around and make nearly all our goods across the menu from scratch! We make up a really small team so it’s definitely more demanding and more labour involved, but absolutely more worth it in the end. We’re really proud of what we’ve come up with.

I've never had an egg coffee before but it's a huge hit over at the LeftLion HQ. Is this common in Vietnam, are people grabbing one of these on their way to work?
It’s more of a laid-back and social drink back in Vietnam. Again, another item on our menu that’s a slice of history. Ca phê trứng (egg coffee) was created during a time of desperation in Hanoi, Vietnam: the shortage of fresh milk at the time led innovative minds to create a substitute, which was whipped egg and condensed milk!

What's it like working together as sisters? Is it war or peace? Be honest…
Aivi: They say never do business with family! But luckily, our personalities are similar and our goals align so that makes it easier. Family has and always will be a blessing. This was ingrained within us from young. For over a decade, I’ve witnessed Milly teaching herself how to bake, which has been trailed by many kitchen nightmares along with many sweet triumphs. There were hundreds of attempts before she had finally mastered her macaron recipe, which was literally backed by blood, sweat and tears! 

It’s been endearing to watch her flourish and I have every faith in her skills because she is fuelled by pure passion. What’s really wonderful about working together is that we have total familiarity and understanding towards each other, so it feels quite seamless. We are each other’s biggest support and critic in the kitchen, which has been really helpful for us to do better.

What do you love about Nottingham, and have you found it to be supportive of the new café?
One of the things that make Nottingham so special is the plethora of small independent businesses dotted all around - I think that is the very soul and core of what makes a city. We have so many offerings and talent from bakers, musicians, tailors, hairdressers, artists, and so much more. Nottingham has always been our nest, so to receive the positive response that we had has been wholesomely overwhelming. We are so appreciative of our lovely customers. It’s so wonderful to hear everybody’s stories and to be part of their everyday lives. 

We couldn’t agree more! Any exciting plans for the future?
Milly is saving up for culinary school, but we haven’t thought too far ahead yet as we’re still trying to grasp that this café has come finally to fruition. Three years ago, we most certainly did not see this coming, so who knows what the next three years will bring!

Sneinton Market, 11 Freckingham St, Nottingham NG1 1DQ

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