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 whispered repeatedly with the esteem typically afforded a deity: Madam Khahn, The Báhn Mì Queen.
Rumors 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 a day. The first is 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 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 only between those deemed worthy. “And, 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 BÁHN MÌ QUEEN.
There she was, a tiny women with a pink scarf tying up her long white hair, sitting behind the stand and 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. I sat, and another woman came up to me. I started to say “I’d like to try the –” but she cut me off. “BÁHN MÌ!” she shouted out at Madam Khanh, 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 looked around the little room. The walls were adorned with photos of her serving the people of and visitors to Hoi An. There were letters, plastered like wallpaper, from diners who had written to her to thank her for her sandwiches.
Street food runs in Madam Khanh’s blood. At 20, 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 the 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 Khanh nodded at scooters buzzing by on the street, locals came by for their regular order, and sandwich after sandwich was handed out as customers came and went. And then it arrived. A fresh bánh mì 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 I had heard it would be and more. A meal that had been perfected over 30 years, and now living in the memories and hearts of those who had sampled it, as it soon would be in mine. I couldn’t hide my pure joy 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. When I had finished, I walked out under the awning and turned back to catch Madam Khanh’s eye. “Thank you,” I said, nodding to 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 focused on the next order.
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