Madam Khanh: The Bánh Mí Queen

by Amy Maiden (Australia)

Making a local connection Vietnam


Every city has its tales of legends and heroes. Those who are talked of in hushed tones with religious reverence. I hadn’t been in Hoi An long before I heard a name repeatedly whispered in the esteem of a deity: Madam Khahn, The Bahn Mi Queen. Rumours swirled and stories were told of a 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, chilli sauce, soy sauce, and the magic ingredient, Madam Khanh’s secret sauce. All served in a hot fresh, crusty on the outside, soft on the inside French roll. “She’s not easy to find” people told me, her exact location shared between those deemed worthy. “But be careful” they warned. “Madam Khanh serves one thing and one thing only. Don’t try to order anything else. Be polite, be respectful, if you offend her, she won’t serve you.” Diligently following the directions scribbled onto a napkin by a German backpacker the night before, I rounded the final corner and saw it, a small stand with an awning above that proudly read “MADAM KHANH THE BANH MI QUEEN.” There she was. A tiny women with a pink scarf tying up her long white hair, sitting behind the stand, rubbing her hands to stay warm. She looked up at me as I took a step forward. “Madam Khanh?” I asked. She looked me up and down. “You. Sit.” She nodded towards the little table and chairs inside. Another woman came up to me as 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 toppings, heating the french roll in a makeshift oven and cooking eggs on a single burner stove. I look around the little room. The walls are adorned with photos of herself serving the people and visitors of Hoi An. There are letters plastered like wall paper from tourists who have written to her to thank her for her sandwiches. 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 waited for my breakfast, I watched her work. Madam Kahn nodded at scooters buzzing by on the street, locals came by for their regular order, she knew what everyone wanted before they ordered it and sandwich after sandwich was handed out as customers came and went. And then it arrived. A fresh Bahn Mi was delivered to my table and while Madam Khahn remained busy at the front, I caught her watching me out of the corner of her eye. I took a bite. Sweet, salty, spicy, crunchy and creamy. It was everything they said it would be and more. A meal that had been perfected over 30 years and now lived in the memories and hearts of those who’s sampled it, as it soon would do mine. I couldn’t hide the pure joy on my face as I took bite after bite and while she remained as busy as ever at her cart, I saw a smile of satisfaction creep across Madam Khanh’s face as I finished my breakfast. I walked out under the awning and turned back to catch Madam Khanh’s eye. “Thank you” I said and nodded towards her. For a minute I thought I’d connected with her, a once in a lifetime bond formed over pork char sui. But Madam Khahn just grunted at me and turned back to her hot plate, rightly focussed on the next order.