We checked TripAdvisor for its restaurant recommendations. It was our first day in the small, heritage-listed town of Hoi An. We had strolled down to the canal, near the Japanese Covered Bridge, and were now looking for somewhere to eat.
The number one rated place was five minutes from our location. It turned out to be a Greek restaurant. We checked TripAdvisor again, but everything seemed too Western and too far (it was too hot to continue walking). The narrow alleyway next to the Greek restaurant, with its yellow-painted fences, colourful lanterns and greenery, beckoned us. We wandered down and that’s when we found An Café.
Chi welcomed us as we sat down in the wooden chairs on the front terrace. The blue window shutters behind us displayed the menu, yet we ordered whatever Chi suggested. She warned that everything was cooked from scratch and apologised in advance for any delay. It was worth the wait. We were rewarded with delicious, fresh, home-cooked cuisine.
The café is run by the family (mostly Chi and her mother cook, but Chi’s girls also help out). They only serve locally produced food. “Drink your food” is written above the counter inside, reminding you to take your time and enjoy the flavours of your food, just as you would sip a drink.
We shared banana and shrimp crispy rolls. Then I had a vegetarian version of banh xeo – a Vietnamese rice crepe. Chi showed me how to eat it. First, you take a sheet of rice paper and then place some of the tofu rice crepe on it, plus a handful of fresh herbs. Then you roll the ingredients up into a tight roll and dip it into the sweet and spicy sauce. The flavours sprung to life and danced around my mouth.
When we finished eating, Chi sat with us and told us her story. She had studied Business in Singapore and had then undertaken an internship in the US. She was originally from Hoi An – the café was, in fact, the house of her childhood. When her father passed away, she had moved back to Hoi An with her children and the café was her way of sharing the family’s recipes with the public.
Her elderly mother topped up our cups of local herbal tea (which she gets from the local market) as we chatted away. Chi told us about the Buddhist public holiday people were celebrating that day – it was the third moon of the new lunar year. Vietnamese use this day to commemorate their ancestors and the spirits. She pointed to the spirit house by the front gate, where they leave offerings to passing, homeless spirits (so they don’t enter the house). Inside, at their shrine, they leave offerings to their ancestors.
She also told us that the Vietnamese think the best food in the country is in Hanoi, the best fashion is in Saigon and the best wives come from Hue. She said that the women there are beautiful and traditional, meaning they are submissive to their husbands.
A day later, we checked out of our guesthouse. It was 39°C outside. With six and a half hours remaining until the departure of our Hanoi-bound train, we decided to return to An Café to spend our time eating and drinking smoothies, and chatting with Chi.
Photo: Banh Xeo at An Café in Hoi An, Vietnam.