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The International Writers Magazine: John M. Edwards discovers a restaurant in Hoi An, Vietnam, that is not mentioned at all in his guidebook, with no menu and no time to argue about the bill

A Hunger Artist in Hoi An (Vietnam):
• John M. Edwards

"No Cock, no Cock, only Fanta Orange!"
I thought the hawker with umlaut eyes was making fun of me.

Des Amis

Unlike other backpacking meccas in Southeast Asia, such as Thailand and Indonesia, Vietnam takes the fun out of haggling. If you show even the merest hint of interest you are customarily indebted to do business. Thus, my secluded spot on Hoi An’s lovely beach was suddenly surrounded by manic vendors with fierce faces who were not going to take no for an answer.

I pointed instead to an attractive woman holding folded-up parchments. I then showed some passing moribund interest in some “original painting” by local artists sold by this lithe woman in an ao dai, real “Indochine.” Since Hoi An is a town where everyone is an artist, I found the price mind-bogglingly low: only a dollar each if I paid in US dollars, not dong. There was another use for my dong, which I might intentionally fail to answer.

After several weeks traveling in Vietnam on a Larium buzz, I found Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999, to be an absolutely necessary sanctuary from the confusing melee of a newly capitalist country still run by hardline communists, where commerce is connected to graft rather than gratefulness. But since the Old Town didn’t allow any motorized traffic, I was at least free of the ubiquitous daredevil moped drivers and bag snatchers plaguing the cobblestone streets of other Southeast Asian cities.

The Old Town is caught in time, a dragonfly in amber, it’s intense medley of French, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, and Japanese architectural styles a Freemason’s feast. The serene city was an important trading post from the 15th to 19th centuries, when it was a de rigeur destination for the Spice Trade. Now it is an up-and-coming backpacker favorite. With its Wild West Chinatown feel, anyone could expect this to become a future movie set for Quentin Tarantino’s Django films.

The Chinese-style abodes give way to such sights as the Japanese Bridge, Than Xuan Hotel (Long Life Hotel), and Quong Long Temple (1653) on Tran Phu Street. But admission to this museum city is not free; a ten-dollar ticket allows for visits to five museums, each a respite from the mass of tourists who at times seem to outnumber the over 80,000 locals. But my favorite sight was the sky itself, whose pagan chthonic clouds withered and wisped into demonic water puppets.

Enter restaurant hell.

As if on purpose I was usually handed a menu not in English. Which meant it was difficult, in other regions of the country at least, to know what you were eating. A friend of mine ordering blindly ended up with a plate full of whole steamed sparrows with the feathers still on. Plus, I wasn’t keen on trying fried scorpions or baked rat or embalmed snake (usually used as decorations on the bamboo bars.) It was a mistake, we think, that locals ever ate any of these delicacies. Throw in “weasel coffee”--a concoction made from the bowel movements of wild civets (a kind of feral cat)—and you have a mouthful of misfortune to recommend to your least favorite friends.

Throughout Vietnam I instead relied on a local dish to stay alive: “cau lai” noodles. What I left alone the most was the Vietnamese national dish—“pho.” Which is basically a bowl of hot water in which strange vegetables like nuclear baby corns and mystery meat resembling cannibalism are dropped, along with a little cilantro or mint. Yick.

So you can imagine my surprise when I actually found a good restaurant. To paraphrase from Franz Kafka's short story "The Hunger Artist," I wasn't starving because I couldn't find food but because I couldn't find food that I liked. Until now, at least.

Right on the banks of the Thu Bon River, I landed like an outer-space alien to a place almost supernaturally yummy. A kind of Neverending Story, the “Café Des Amis” is art itself. The chef Mr. Kim has no menus. He decides on a set menu each day, and opens when he feels like it. And best of all, it is POP (Pay One Price). If you feel like it you can keep eating until you burst, because the plates never stop coming: fried shrimp wontons, fresh broiled fish, delightfully seared scallops, overstuffed calamaris. . . .

No menu, no worries.

Mr. Kim is more than happy to discuss the plates as they keep piling like luggage magically spinning on an airport carousel. At last, I had found the Indochinese grand prix of the prix fixe.

The only problem now was to find a new hotel for the next day, one in which the French windows (and maybe the doors, too) lock from the outside not the inside, giving the impression that here you are not only more than an honored guest but also kind of a hapless prisoner to hospitality. . . .

(CAFÉ DES AMIS”: 52 Bach Cong Street, Hoi An, tel. 0510 386-1616: $120,000 dong (prix fixe).

© John M. Edwards August 2013

P.S. I just won 5 NATJA Awards for 2012. (Last year I won 4 NATJAs.) I also won 2 Transitions Abroad Narrative Essay Contest Awards (2010 and 2012), as well as 2 Notable Essays nods in The Best American Essays (2011 and 2012).

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