It was a hot day in Hoi An, Vietnam. A day so hot that I gladly postponed all sight-seeing and stayed in the air-conditioned room in the hostel. But hunger propelled me into the stifling heat. I went in search for food in an alleyway where I saw 2 restaurants one opposite the other. Most of us have seen this or heard of this before: 2 restaurants or cafés selling similar if not identical food next to each other, one is featured in LP, the other isn’t. The one that is in the LP get 100 times more customers than the other.
So I entered the empty Sun Shine restaurant, attracted by a petite woman with a straw hat who stopped to give me a warm smile as she darted in and out of the kitchen. Her name is Hoi. This humble mother of 2 runs the restaurant by herself. She’s the waitress, cook as well as a friend who sits down and talk to the customers when things have slowed down. So, there we sat and chatted.
Q: How long have you been running this restaurant?
H: Since 2008. Before that my sister and I had a tailor shop. It was a good business but the competition was very stiff. So when I bought this house in 1990, I decided to open this restaurant. Because it’s near hotels and there many tourists passing by everyday.
Q: How many people work here?
H: Just me. I wait the tables, I cook and I clean. It’s a small restaurant. There are only 6 tables so I can manage just fine.
Q: Small but really cozy. Does your family help you?
H: Thanks. I try to make my customers feel at home here. I cook what they want so that they could feel that maybe this is their home. My husband works and my 2 children live in different cities, so at the moment I manage everything myself.
Q: What’s your menu like?
H: I cook typical Vietnamese food, like Spring Rolls, Cau Lau (noodles, the specialty of Hoi An), White Rose (dumplings shaped like roses), Hoi An pancakes, etc. I also do western food, like hamburgers, pizzas, spaghetti, scramble eggs, etc. My menu is really flexible, you can order whatever you want and I’ll do my best to make a delicious meal for you.
Q: What’s your most popular dish?
H: Cau Lau is quite popular as it’s the local specialty of Hoi An. (ed: I had the Cau Lau and it was delicious) I sell a lot of fresh beer because it’s cheap (0.15 USD) and it’s refreshing for hot weather.
Q: How did you learn to cook?
H: I learnt from my mother and a teacher in Da Nang. When I was young, my mum taught me how to cook. As I’m the eldest in the family, I had to look after and cook for my younger siblings.
Q: What time do you open and close?
H: I open from 7am to 11pm. But the closing time is flexible; If you need food at 1am, that can be arranged as well.
Q: How’s business?
H: It’s Ok. I don’t make enough money to support my children’s education but I’m hopeful. The restaurant in front is in the Lonelyplanet so it gets many more customers than mine. I don’t advertise, I only approach the people who walk by my shop. I’ve also asked some customers to write down their comments for potential customers to see.
Q: Do you get repeat customers?
H: Yes, most people come back after the first time. I think they like my food.
Q: I think it’s your food as well as your personable nature that make them come back. So where did you learn to speak English? Did you learn it in school?
H: No, I only studied until primary 5. I studied some English when I had my tailor shop, and I learnt it from speaking with my customers.
Q: Was your education cut short by the war?
H: Yes, I was 10 when the Vietnam War started.
Q: What do you remember about that period?
H: At that time, we were living in Da Nang. I remember seeing people with strange clothes came and took girls away. They took old men and women outside and shot them dead. So a lot of children grew up without parents and grandparents. It was a bad time, Vietnam was very poor; no food, no money, no clothes. We ate very little, rice and sweet potatoes were difficult to get, only vegetables. There were days we didn’t have anything to eat. Many people died of starvation. After the war, Vietnam was able to recover thanks to the aid provided by many countries, like Australia and Japan. After that, life got better. We began to have clothes and food. And my children could go to school.
Q: What’s your hope and dream?
H: I hope that this restaurant will be successful. I want my children to have a better life. My son is 25 and he’s studying Architecture in Saigon. My daughter is 22 and she is studying Tourism in Da Nang. I want them to be successful.
If you are in Hoi An, Vietnam. Drop by the Sun Shine Restaurant (46 Tran Cao Van Street, Hoi An. Tel: 0510 3916902. It’s on the same street as Phuoc An Hotel), let Hoi pamper you with her cooking skills and friendly chat.