I woke with a jolt as thunder bellowed above my little bungalow. It was my last day in Hoi An. I opened the curtains to look outside. It was 5am and rain was pelting down. I furiously checked multiple weather sites in hope of it clearing. No such luck. They all agreed monsoonal rains were setting in for at least 4 days.
The list of “things to do that day” dropped away as I realised none of them were possible without risking life and limb. Cycling tour, no. Wandering the banks of the river, no. Shopping in the old town, no. One by one I let them go. Ah well, I thought, you can’t control the weather. But as I looked down at my little list there was one task I could not let go. One call to adventure that would not go unanswered. It was to find. her. Madam Khanh: The Bánh Mí Queen.
You see, every city has its tales of legends and heroes. Those who are talked of with religious reverence. I wasn’t in Hoi An long before I heard Madam K’s name whispered in the esteem of a religious deity. Rumours swirled of her little stall just outside of Hoi An’s old town, tucked away in a corner behind a corner behind a corner that for 32 years, from 7am to 7pm, has served more than 200 sandwiches every day, the first the same as the last: pâté, pork char siu, sausage, fried egg, homemade pickles, papaya, carrots, parsley, chili sauce, soy sauce, and the magic ingredient…. Madam Khanh’s secret sauce. All served in the freshest, crusty on the outside, soft on the inside French roll the world has ever seen. The result is a world famous, universally worshipped sandwich that’s sweet and salty, spicy but basic, crunchy yet creamy.
“She’s not easy to find” people would say. Her exact location shared between those deemed worthy, like the Ring of Souran. “But be careful” they warned. “Madam Khanh serves one thing and one thing only. Don’t try to order anything else. If you are lucky, you *might* get to choose between chilli or no chilli. Be polite, be respectful, if you offend her she won’t serve you.”
Lighting cracked and thunder rolled low over my little bungalow. The banana tree outside fell over in the wind and water pelted against the window. This was it. This was my destiny. No monsoonal rains were going to stop me. I was going to find Madam Kahn, and shove that crusty breaded goodness into my face.
The cab tooted as it pulled up beside me, it was 7am and water was already starting to flood the streets as rain continued to pelt down. I jumped in then back, already drenched and showed the driver the hastily written notes on my phone, the sacred directions passed on to me from a German backpacker the night before.
The driver looked at me. “You go Madam Khanh?” He laughed. “She no like Americans.” He warned. “I’m not American” I said, putting the full bunyip into my accent. “I’m Australian.” “HA!” He replied. “Worse”
As we rounded the final corner just by the old town I saw it out then rain streaked window. A little stand with a small shop behind it and an awning above that proudly read “MADAM KHANH THE BANH MI QUEEN.”
I stepped out of the taxi and ran under then awning for cover. There she was. A tiny women with a pink scarf tied on her head, sitting behind the stand, rubbing her hands to stay warm. She looked up at me, soaked to the skin and towering over her. I took a step back and nodded toward her. “Madam Khanh?” I asked. She looked me up and down. Looked out at then rain. Looked me up and down again. “You. Sit.” She nodded towards the little table and chairs inside.
Another woman (who I now know was her sister in law) came up to me. I started to say “I’d like to try the-” but she cut me off. “BAHN MI” she shouted out at Madam Khan who shouted something back, already working her magic in her little kitchen moving between the stand with the toppings, heating the french roll in a makeshift oven and cooking eggs on a single burner stove.
I look around the little room. Madam Khanh certainly isn’t modest. The walls are adorned with photos of herself serving the people and visitors of Hoi An. There are letters plastered like wall paper from tourist who have written to her to thank her for her sandwiches. From what I can tell street food runs in Madam Khan’s blood. At 20 years old, she got her first job selling sweet bean soup, during the American war, she was restricted to selling from home, though the conflict steered relatively clear of Hoi An. After the war, she carried her soup around then streets on a bamboo stick with baskets on either side, selling to passers by. And finally, in 1985 she settled at her house and started her bánh mì business.
As I wait for my breakfast, I watch her work. She nods at scooters buzzing by on the street. Locals coming by for their regular order. Her sister-in-law and daughter serve customers that choose to stay, and her husband wanders in and out of the shop with his hands folded behind his back, never saying a word.
And then it arrives. Her daughter delivers the fresh Bahn Mi to my table and while Madam K’s busy at then front, I see her watching me out of then corner of my eye. Looking to see if I enjoy the fruits of her labour.
I take a bite.
Sweet, salty, spic, crunchy, creamy. It’s everything they said it would be and more.
I take another bite. And then another. And then its done. Over all too fast. The Bahn Mi is eaten and Madam K’s sister is standing over me asking to be paid.
I hand over the cash and they hastily shuffle me out the door, making room for the line of people now forming outside.
As I walk out under the awning and back into the rain I turn back and catch Madam Khanh’s eye. “Thank you” I say and nod towards her. For a minute I think I’ve connected with her, formed a bond over pate and pork char sui. But she just grunts at me and goes back to her hot plate, concentrating on the next serving of eggs to go into the bread.