Travel: French connection - More than just a case of `Bonjour Vietnam'

If the joy of noodles with everything and warm beer is starting to fade, there's a cafe in Hoi An that does a great `bifteck'...

At midday, the cluttered streets of Hoi An undergo a transformation: the pea-green French shutters are closed, the crackle of mopeds trails away and, like their former colonial rulers 50 years ago, the locals discreetly withdraw into the relative cool of their ramshackle houses.

The traveller is left with an uncomfortable choice: to return to an airless hotel room with a rickety fan, or to wander the streets on a seemingly futile quest for shade and resuscitation. T-shirts become sodden with sweat, legs grow weary.

This is when you should make for the Tam Tam Cafe. Here the "whoop whoop whoop" of the first effective fan I have encountered in two weeks of travelling dries the sweat off my back. My freshly squeezed lime juice and soda brims with ice. The peanuts are dry roasted. The sofa is soft and deep. I am never ever, ever, going to leave this place.

"Once in a while, everybody needs to feel at home when they're travelling. If they say they don't then they are lying," says Christophe Brasseur, the French proprietor of this sanctuary.

Three years ago, this lanky 32- year-old sold his windsurf business in Normandy, bought a motorbike and rode to Vietnam. Within a year, he had arrived at the ancient town of Hoi An. Gently sprawling along the banks of the Thu Bon river, just two miles from the South China Sea, Hoi An has relinquished its position as a major seaport to the more savvy South Vietnamese.

Today it beguiles tourists - just as it did 20 years ago when both the Americans and North Vietnamese, obligingly, left it well alone. Its narrow streets and crumbling verandas give the town a French charm. There is a local delicacy, a meaty noodle called cao lau, which is famous throughout Vietnam. But the main attraction is its sleepiness: Hoi An is a backwater, ignoring the clamour that has gripped the rest of the country, feverishly trying to catch up with its Asian neighbours.

Brasseur discovered another key ingredient. Hoi An is equidistant to Ho Chi Minh in the south and Hanoi to the north. Whichever city travellers fly into, they almost always gravitate towards Hoi An. Brasseur reckons that most people tend to arrive here after 10 days in the country. "Sure, we all want to eat noodles and drink warm beer. But, come on! After a while, you have to have a change. You want to get away from the noise and you want to eat food you understand."

He started trying to persuade his girlfriend, Natalie, to stay and help just as Vietnam was waking up from its Communist torpor. Initially, the small-town politics were baffling. His reception by local officials was polite but unproductive. When he pushed, he met with prevarication and cups of green tea.

What he needed, he discovered, was a local sponsor. He was introduced to a powerful Chinese family that had lived in Hoi An for generations. The patriarch became his translator and secured a building in the centre of town. The three-storey house was in dire need of renovation.

"The local builders were superb, very skilled. But they have a different mentality. Like, I wanted a lavatory that was comfortable. That people could sit on. How many times can you do that in Vietnam, eh?"

"But they make this tiny 'ole. I tell them, `This is ridiculous. One hundred and fifty people every night using this tiny 'ole? Crazy!'.

"Three times we try before they understand. Then they make me a wonderful 'ole."

It is a wonderful 'ole. There is a seat. It is clean and white. There is soft loo paper. There are individual towels at the basin.

As I drift back to the bar after my heavenly lavatorial experience, a young Mancunian who I had met a few days earlier hails me.

"Alright, mate? What d'ya reckon to this place then, eh?"

"I think it's brilliant."

"Do ya? No, it's dead here, mate."

He has missed the point. Tam Tam Cafe is not here to set the world alight. This is the place we dream up on the back of an envelope on a wet Wednesday morning on the Northern line, when the strain of metropolitan life makes us yearn for an alternative. The floors are dark wood, the bar is mahogany. Rattan tables hold copies of ParisMatch and chess sets. There's a billiard table. At the bar, Glenfiddich and Wild Turkey compete for space with Scrabble sets.

At the front of this vast open space is the restaurant. The Frenchman avoided any local antagonism by opting for a western menu. There is steak from Australia and claret from Europe. Homemade lasagne, avocado salads and lemon tart with thick cream. This luxury is not cheap. Dinner here will set you back $20-$30, a small fortune for Third World travellers. Brasseur is unrepentant. He does, after all, have to import everything.

There is genuine pleasure sinking one's teeth into a steak after two weeks of noodles, but it is at dinner that we discover the Tam Tam's weak point. My companion's pasta is stodgy and the puddings are bland. Brasseur says he has spent the last two weeks in the kitchen of a friend's restaurant in Hanoi, picking up tips for his local staff.

"We are not there yet, but the cooks are working hard and get better every day, and my supply lines are running more smoothly."

It is easy to forget that he is working more than 400 miles from a major city, in a country that admitted outsiders just six years ago. He and Natalie are the only westerners in town.

"It is lonely sometimes. But I love the Vietnamese. It is why I am here. Not only to make money."

Despite his obvious love for the country and the success of the cafe - Brasseur employs 18 local staff and his bar is rarely less than full - the Frenchman's future is uncertain. Nothing is written on paper to say either that he lives in Hoi An or runs a restaurant. He's been refused permission to buy a house and he and Natalie still live in the old state- run hotel on the edge of town.

"I know that they could stop this at any time. Just walk up the stairs and say `Goodbye'. That's fine as long as you know that your business hangs on a thread. You make it last as long as you can and, when you leave, you have no regrets. This is Vietnam. Not Paris."

Fact File

Red Tape

Application forms for tourist visas are available in person or by post from the Vietnamese Embassy, 12 Victoria Road, London W8 5RD (0171-937 1912). If applying by post, include a stamped, self-addressed envelope.

The office is open from 9am-12 noon and 2-6pm, Monday to Friday. A one- month visa costs pounds 40, payable in cash or by cheque, and takes at least a week to obtain. You need two photographs.

Getting There

Fares to Ho Chi Minh are very competitive at present. Flightbookers (0171- 757 3000) quotes a price of pounds 460 return from Heathrow on Thai Airways International via Bangkok in November, while Quest Worldwide (0181-547 3322) is offering a fare of pounds 582 on Air France from various UK airports via Paris.

Other carriers to Vietnam include Lauda Air (via Vienna), and Cathay Pacific (via Hong Kong).

Cheaper flights may be available on Aeroflot (via Moscow) through discount agents.


No vaccinations are compulsory, but precautions are recommended against tetanus, polio, cholera, typhoid, hepatitis and malaria. If you are staying in cheap hotels, a mosquito net will considerably enhance your prospects of sleep and reduce the risk of mosquito-borne diseases.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing