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Summer Tales from a Vietnamese Sandwich Shop

Kate S May 17, 20165 Responses


     Sitting at a table in a house-cum-restaurant in Hoi An, my biggest contemplation of the day was deciding where next to go in Vietnam.  The cool of the morning was burning off and the stifling heat of the noon sun was baking in.  Upon finishing my banh mi (Vietnamese sandwich), I realized I had left my wallet back at the hotel.  The shop owner Hoa, was trusting enough of me to run back and grab it.  I paid the equivalent of a dollar for my meal and left nonchalantly, not knowing this sandwich shop was going to alter my travel fate.  I promised Hoa I would stop by the following day, so we could trade eyeliner tips and chat.  She also wanted to see my collection of foreign currencies, as she doesn’t have the luxury to backpack Southeast Asia, collecting all the different bills and coins.  While we were giggling and drawing a thin line of aquamarine eye pencil on each other’s eyes, lunch business picked up and quickly turned chaotic.  Without really thinking about it, I jumped up and pitched in to help with the customers.  Hoa didn’t seem too bothered by my helping out.  So there I found myself in Vietnam, taking orders from tourists in both English and basic Korean, for sandwiches and iced coffees.  Vietnamese iced coffee is the stuff caffeine dreams are made of; a thick swirl of sweet condensed milk weaves through deep chocolate like coffee, and settles to the bottom like river sludge.  I could live in this country, for the coffee alone.  Starving from working so hard in the tropical heat, Hoa and I sat down to a late lunch together.  I adored the transition from being yesterday’s customer, to today’s local lunch buddy.  I came back the next day, and the next, soon finding myself renting out a room in the house and staying and helping for ten days.


     Hoa and I would wake up early each morning, preparing all the ingredients both for the three daily household meals, and the restaurant’s lunch and dinner.  All tasks from chopping to washing, are done on the floor, as tiny stool legs hold your balance a few inches above the ground.  Vietnamese pop and love songs would blast from a stereo next door, while concrete was being mixed for a remodel.  A fan whirred on full blast to keep us from melting, as motorbikes zipped by, and the pet bird named Chopsticks kept us entertained with his beautiful song.  To pass the time, we exchanged conversation about life’s similarities and differences.  Hoa explained to me there are three trash cans at the house; one for compost, one for the trash trash, and one for the pig.  “The pig, I asked?  What pig, you guys have a pig, I haven’t seen a pig?”  With all the seriousness in the world, she looked at me and said, “You don’t have pig trash in America?”  I couldn’t help but giggle in amusement; but for her, this is totally normal.


     Hoa and I became fast friends.  After a few days, she helped me work up the nerve to order iced coffees and green teas in Vietnamese from the vendor across the street.  Small victories!  One of my favorite things, was the young teenager who worked at the local bakery, and came around every few hours to deliver baguettes for the banh mi.  He transferred the golden crusty loaves from a plastic basket dangling on his motorbike handles, to an old cardboard box that once held bottles of cooking oil.  After the daily lunch crowd waned, Hoa and I were left with a few hours to zip to the market and get coconut popsicles and tropical fruits, bargain for shorts or scoop up makings for that evening’s dinner.  We would make it back just in time for the sandwich dinner rush, meeting up with her husband, the three of us working really hard until the last customer was served.  Business was done for the evening as soon as the last baguette was sold.  Each evening after we closed up shop, Hoa’s mother-in-law Mae, swung from an indoor hammock, watching her nightly TV dramas, fanning away the humidity.  Her father-in-law Ba was always tinkering with a remote control, or pill packets from the pharmacy, trying to cure me of my cold. Hoa, her husband and I, went around town enjoying refreshing avocado creams, green teas, or flans drizzled in cool coffee; treats to beat that Indochina summer heat.  

Beating that summer heat at the beach! 

     A half year celebration of sorts was also celebrated during the stay with my new family.  For the occasion, we were to prep a special duck soup for lunch.  Driving back from the market we had our chosen duck, minutes earlier fully feathered.  Now it was swinging from our motorbike’s handlebars, shoved in a plastic grocery sack.  I watched in amazement as Hoa picked all the fluff from the duck’s pores, and hacked it up on the chopping block into usable pieces.  However, that wasn’t the most surprising food prep I witnessed.  The most shocking task for the banh mi prep, was churning the homemade pate.  Here’s the set up: a churning machine is set up on the floor of course, and a big mixing bowl holds chunks of pig liver and pig fat.  Not delicate chunks either, but the big meaty kind, where tiny geometric shapes can be seen in the liver skin.  Step one, shovel the liver and fat into the churning machine; the exact sound of macaroni and cheese being stirred.  I propped my foot up on the apparatus, with the same kind of mechanism as a sewing machine pedal.  Hoa shoveled, I churned, and we switched places when our arms were sore; like a well oiled rowboat team.  I was pretty good at this, almost looking like a natural.  Chunks of liver mix would dribble down from the spoon, falling on my shin, or between my toes.  When all the meats were mixed three times, a final round of soggy bread was pushed through, clearing the machine of any meat residue.  It looked like a group of maggots plunging themselves forward into the stainless steel bowl.  


     I was now part of the family dinners, sitting down each evening with Hoa and her husband, and his parents Mae and Ba.  They fed me, not telling me exactly what I was eating, until after I had taken a bite.  I ate it all with gusto, because I didn’t know I had eaten pig’s brain, or a minty, chewy pig ear salad.  Of course I might normally shy away from eating pig ears; but mint, the right sauces and savory oils can conceal and make anything taste good. 

     In a way, I knew how life was lived in Hoi An, before I even got there.  I knew exactly what their house would look like; worn tiles on the most traveled path, the walls a sea foam green color, the same hue as my senior prom dress.  Baskets covered food waiting to be eaten later, a thin layer of sticky milk residue and grease covered all the tables.  In those ten days, the only place I wanted to be was in Hoi An, to help my friends in their sandwich shop.  I felt so comfortable in a house where I didn’t understand a conversation, and a culture I knew little about.  That was home to me.  In a way, it still is.  I found my ultimate travel experience; eating and being as local as possible.  The best part was that I put myself out there; I didn’t use a website, or a friendly recommendation or a home stay.  I just showed up, talked and connected with Hoa, and now I have a new family in a country that has stolen my heart.  This is exactly what I wanted, and more than I could have dreamed of.  I couldn’t have known how any of it was supposed to turn out.  Something just told me I needed to be there.  So I stayed.  Not knowing my life would turn out so different, just from eating a sandwich.

  • Varun
    Varun Chawla

    Very interesting indeed. Chopsticks is a whimsy name. Now, I know what I will name any pet, if I get one.

  • Chathura-Jayasinghe
    Chathura Jayasinghe

    Very interesting !!!!!!!!

  • Cara-Phillips
    Cara Phillips

    What an experience!!!  Share more stories please!

  • gmdietrich771425001463069964

    What a great tale, Kate! I hope you are perfecting your bahn mi culinary skills.

  • Emily-Furrow
    Emily Furrow

    What an experience!  How local you are!  As you mentioned, my favorite part is that you connected the old fashioned way.  Much love dear friend!