Melbourne’s Little Saigon, Victoria Street Richmond, is a must-do for foodies visiting Melbourne, especially for lovers of Vietnamese food and other Asian cuisines – and fans of phố.
Just a few kilometres east of Melbourne’s city centre and easily reached by tram, Richmond’s busy main drag, Victoria Street, is home to an abundance of affordable, no-frills Asian restaurants – Vietnamese mainly, but also a handful of Thai, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean eateries – as well as Vietnamese bakeries and Asian supermarkets, grocery stores, fishmongers, butchers, discount clothes shops, and gift stores selling Vietnamese lanterns, Cheong Sans, and Chinese slippers that wouldn’t be out of place in any Asian city.
Parallel to Victoria Street, Bridge Road is just a fifteen-minute walk or short tram ride along Church Street, and is lined with cafes, factory outlet shops, interior décor and homeware stores, and, so it seemed, a pub on every corner. Not far away, the area around Swan Street is nightlife central, dotted with dimly lit bars, big old pubs, and grungy live music venues. While they’re worth a look if you’re in the area, it was Victoria Street that kept drawing us back to Richmond.
Melbourne is one of Australia’s most multicultural cities, with a population of some 140 ethnicities, yet it’s been the waves of Chinese, Italian, Greek, and, in recent decades, Vietnamese immigrants who have left the deepest and richest marks on the city and its culture – especially its food culture.
Melbourne’s Vietnamese migrants began to congregate around Victoria Street soon after arriving in 1976 as refugees. Prior to that period, there were just 1,000 Vietnamese in Australia and less than 400 in Victoria – mainly orphans from the Vietnam War, wives of Aussie soldiers, and university students. Over the next three years 53 refugee boats arrived and by 1981 Victoria’s Vietnam-born population was over 12,000. Within a few years that population doubled again after the government changed its policy to allow family reunions.(See the Museum of Victoria and City of Melbourne sites for more on immigration if it interests you.)
It was during the early 1980s that Vietnamese-Australians started to establish small businesses in Richmond, transforming Victoria Street into a bustling eat street and exotic shopping centre. Now, more than 58,000 Victorians are Vietnam-born and, according to the City of Melbourne, the Vietnamese surname Nguyen is actually the second-most listed name in Melbourne’s phone directory after Smith.
If you ignore Richmond Street’s grand building façades dating to the early 1900s, and the leafy side streets with their rows of Victorian brick terrace houses and workers cottages, you might just feel as if you’re on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, Bangkok or Phnom Penh. Prices and items for sale are chalked in Vietnamese on blackboards outside shops, while market stalls outside grocers and supermarkets heave with mountains of fragrant Asian fruits, vegetables and herbs. Inside, the shelves are crammed with jars and bottles of Asian sauces and condiments, packets of dried noodles and sacks of rice.
Elderly Vietnamese women in their patterned pyjamas and conical hats pull bold-coloured vertical shopping carts along the footpath, elbowing anyone out of the way who unknowingly gets between them and a bargain, while young Asian-Australians sip Vietnamese iced coffees at pavement tables outside crowded cafés, while they text their absent friends on their iPhones.
Although both times we visited it was mid-week, Victoria Street was still a hive of activity. Yet we were told Saturdays are when it’s busiest, when everyone is out shopping, and the streets can get as frenetic as they can in Asian cities. Aside from the vibrant atmosphere, the reason to come to Richmond Street is the food – some of Melbourne’s cheapest, most authentic and most scrumptious Asian food. The street is as close as it gets to a budget traveller’s foodie heaven in Melbourne.
Locals queuing outside restaurants is a common sight and they’re mainly lining up for Vietnamese phố. Melburnians swear the city’s best phố is to be found on Victoria Street, so we tried a couple of places that came recommended – Phố Chu The and I Love Phố 264. At Phố Chu The, we stuck to a classic phố with razor thin slices of rare beef, as well as a beef combination soup including brisket and tripe among other tasty bits. It was very good, far better than another Vietnamese noodle place we’d tried in the city called Pho Dzung, where the broth had been insipid and the beef chewy.
But it was at I Love Phố 264, where Terence opted for their special combo beef phố while I went for my favourite, the rich and complex phố bo ko, that we looked at each other and sighed. The broths were as authentic as any we’ve tried in Saigon – clear, pure of flavour and perfectly seasoned (not a single condiment was needed), the noodles were beautifully cooked, and the herbs were fresh and fragrant. It was Vietnam in a bowl! No wonder the Vietnamese converge on Victoria Street, Richmond.
Phố Chu The
270 Victoria Street
I Love Phố 264
264 Victoria Street
You can reach Victoria Street, Richmond on the 109 tram that runs from Port Melbourne though the city centre along Collins Street to Victoria Street. The 78 tram is handy if you’re staying in St Kilda or Prahran, as it runs all the way from St Kilda along Chapel Street, through Windsor and Prahran, terminating at the intersection of Church and Victoria Streets, Richmond, which is a perfect place to start your foodie walk.
If you’re interested in the history of immigration in Melbourne and Victoria, make sure you visit the fascinating Museum of Immigration on Flinders Street in the city.