Ms Vy: Hoi An Restaurant Pioneer

A food icon and restaurant pioneer in Hoi An, Ms Vy’s Hoi An restaurants include Cargo, Morning Glory and Vy’s Marketplace, she is credited as having one of the first – if not the first – English language restaurant menus and created the first cooking school in Hoi An, creating an entire industry in her wake.

Today Hoi An is home to a myriad of restaurants catering for a variety of tastes. Local vendors ply their delicious trade on the streets, mid-range eateries offer everything from vegan to Middle Eastern food abound, while local celebrity chefs up the stakes with high end contemporary cuisine.

But not very long ago, travellers to Hoi An were a rarity. Ms Vy, one of Vietnam’s most formidable businesswomen, tapped in to the needs of travellers, and has been instrumental in changing the food culture in Hoi An.

With eight successful restaurants, a cooking school and a hotel to her name, Ms Vy is to be credited for easing nervous tourists in to Vietnam’s taste adventure.

Streets of Hoi An
A lady walks through the yellow streets of Hoi An. Photo: Csabacsury

How did your journey in the food industry begin?

I was introduced to the food industry at a fairly early age, with my parents opening a restaurant when I was 10. I loved everything about it, especially the noise and pressure in the kitchen. But it wasn’t as fun as a teenager, when I had to wake up at 4am! That was the only thing I didn’t like.

My cooking journey started soon after I turned 14. My mum had just had a baby, so my help was needed in the restaurant. In Vietnam, at 14, as a female you’re old enough to take responsibility for the family. I threw myself into it, from the shopping to preparing meals for customers. I made a lot of mistakes, but I also learned a lot.

When I’m in the kitchen, I’m in a zen place.

You opened your first restaurant in 1992. How has your menu and clientele changed since then?

Food for tourists and food for locals is the same. The challenges are for tourists, not for us. Although we have adapted the way we serve food.

Back then, we’d have small, free-range chickens that we’d cut into four pieces which would have the head, tail and feet on. Some customers would send it back, asking for red or white meat. I didn’t know what that was! I told my staff to look at customers faces, to observe if their expressions were happy or disgusted with what we served. That’s how we learned if we were on the right track.

The year I opened my restaurant, Little Mermaid, was the year I served my first foreign customers. At that time, I served ready made food, not made to order. We didn’t even have a menu. This couple came in during the day, looked at what was on offer, and said they’d return for dinner. This was a time when electricity was only available for a few hours a day, and restaurants didn’t stay open at night. So I opened especially for them! When they arrived, my father showed them the ingredients we had, and asked them how they wanted it cooked. They had no preferences so I just did what I normally did. I served them fish prepared with a ginger and lemongrass marinade, alongside other dishes. They helped me to write down the dishes names and that became our first official menu!

Hoi An has a strong trading history with visitors from many countries influencing the food culture. How did travellers inspire your cooking, and how did the menu evolve?

There are big cultural influences in the architecture and cuisine here. Each region has a different cultural influence, most notably from China and France, but also from India and Japan.

Celebratory food often has historical influences. Hoi An’s uniquely famous cao lau is a great example, being a mixture of Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese styles. The texture of the rice noodles are similar to Japan’s udon noodles, while the pork is sliced thin and cooked in the traditional Chinese method known as char siu. The flavour is fully Vietnamese.

Everyone finds a bit of themselves in the food here.

I learnt a lot from visitors to my restaurant. There was an Italian couple who were homesick, so I took them to the market. They saw spinach, and said I could make pasta with it. Vietnam was like Cuba back then, there was no source of outside information, so this was new to me. I made penne using tapioca flour, so it had a sticky texture. The only cheese available was Laughing Cow cheese. They showed me how to make a tomato sauce to go with the pasta, it became the signature dish.

American backpackers taught me how to make a banana and peanut butter shake, while French tourists introduced crepes to the menu. There was no chocolate so I used condensed milk and cacao for the chocolate sauce.

You’ve built up a food empire in Hoi An. How did your business grow?

The business grew because I was greedy (laughs). No, it was out of need. I had younger siblings so I wanted to support them. I had also just got married, so I needed my own income. Little Mermaid became popular with tourists but the space was too small. Tour groups would arrive, and I had to turn them away. One day, it rained, and people were eating outside. They all had to squeeze into the restaurant, people were eating standing up with rain water in their food. I felt terrible, so that is when I decided it was time to opened a second restaurant.

In 1998 I visited Australia. There’s a Vietnamese saying, ‘if you want to make money off someone, you have to know how they spend money’. In Australia I learnt people like coffee shops, so in 2002 I opened Cargo Café, which serves cake and western food. All my restaurants were opened to meet the needs of customers.

It was the same with the cooking classes, they were introduced because I kept getting asked how to make a dish. I want to improve the food culture here. It’s my home town, I find balance here in the lifestyle, and the food. I can close my eyes and walk around the town, I know where everything is.

What was the philosophy behind opening a restaurant that looks like an indoor street market?

I want people to be immersed in Vietnamese cuisine, and showcase our work. My parents’ house was by the market, but we didn’t have money to buy from the vendors. So all the dishes displayed here are also for me. (laughs) It was also important to show the women behind each stall, to showcase their life.

How should travellers approach Vietnamese food?

Vietnamese food is very different to Western or most other types of food. The texture is different. Western food tends to be quite creamy. Travellers either fall in love with our food, or they dislike it, it’s too much for them. But lots of our food is also crispy, a texture that Westerners like.

The first step is immersion, and seeing the beauty of local food.

Start with celebratory food like cau lao, because it’s influenced by other countries. Go for small bites, read up on dishes beforehand, know what to expect.

Hoi An Restaurant Vy's Marketplace
The market style dining area at Vy’s Marketplace Restaurant in Hoi An

Ms Vy’s Hidden Hints for Hoi An:

Eat: Pho, it’s the national dish and in Vietnam’s blood. Everyone loves crispy and fried food so give banh xeo a try.

See: Hoi An is a great town for people watching. Sit somewhere in a little café, and watch people go by. Go to the market, and just observe the comings and goings.

Do: Visit a temple. Be in the moment. I go to Chùa Ông temple across from the Central Market. During the full moon festival, when it’s all lit up and full of incense, my spirit flies.

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