A tale of two restaurants.

Arriving in Hoi An late in the afternoon heat Ailsa and I let Julie and Síle explore the city a little while we explored the hotel pool, or at least that part of it not threatened by loose tiles on the roof, after which we had little energy for anything other than heading 100m down the road to Café 43, a very pleasant, good value small restaurant on the same quiet street as our hotel.

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A quiet Hoi An street.

We went to Café 43 because it was recommended by a number of guidebooks, and it is a recommendation that I can heartily endorse: for the most part the food was excellent – the exception being the girls’ pizzas that I strongly suspected of being ordered in – the service good and the ambience extremely pleasant. It is also excellent value in a country where eating out is generally cheap but the quality varies widely.

But such listings, especially when as in this case there seems to be a chain of guides that follow each other in recommending a particular restaurant, do not always represent good news for the neighbours . Café 43 was busy: not overflowing but with a constant stream of both drinkers and diners that kept them occupied. In the meantime, several other restaurants in the same street, offering similar menus at similar prices, languished empty, suffocated in effect by the same reviews that breathe life into Café 43.

So the following night we decided to take our custom across the road, to the Sun Shine restaurant.

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The Sun Shine restaurant.

We sat at the table nearest the entrance in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to encourage others to follow our example. There was a small family crisis when the menu came out, there was no spaghetti bolognaise (only spaghetti with beef and tomato sauce :(  ) and this was just too important an omission for one child to overlook, but a promise from Hoi (owner, chef and waitress) to provide a cooking demonstration and the discovery of pizza bolognaise (definitely ordered in this time: it was served by a girl wearing a scooter helmet who then disappeared as quickly as she’d arrived) eventually calmed the situation and we ordered.

Very nice food it was too, washed down with a few glasses of the local beer at 3000 dong a glass (that is about 12 cent). Hoi cooks the Vietnamese meals from scratch on a two ring stove using all fresh ingredients, many of the vegetables grown by her husband on his plot. Even the chips were proper chips, cut from a potato and fried on the spot. If the presentation lacked a little compared to their neighbours – who again had a nearly full house while we were Hoi’s only customers – then that may have as much to do with the fact that they can afford the extra staff as anything else. Hoi and her husband were charming and welcoming hosts, happy to invite us into their kitchen and show us how to prepare the food – we left not only well fed but also with a daughter promising to cook chicken with chilli and lemongrass at the first opportunity she gets, which seems an excellent investment.

Hoi is probably typical of many Vietnamese struggling to make a living on the edge of the tourist boom. Honest, hard-working and kind, she is putting two children through university in the hope that they will have a better future. It is difficult to make ends meet, and she is hopes daily for that lucky break that will see her too mentioned in one of these books and the steady trickle of tourists might turn their heads to her side of the road. She deserves it.

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