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Food for the Soul
A visit to a tiny restaurant in Vietnam becomes a family affair

Blast Vietnam Bureau

"I want to take you to my city so you can see the real deal beyond Indochine," my father told me as we drive through twisting cliffs looking over sky-blue water on the way to Hué. I rolled the windows down to smell the salty air and take in the beautiful scenery. In Vietnam, you can see more shades of green than you thought existed. We head to the former imperial capital of Vietnam, which served as the setting for the famous Regis Wargnier film. My father grew up in this mythic city, and I realized in his statement that he wanted to show me the Vietnam he fondly remembers, something beyond the western movies about Vietnam I watched growing up in America.

When we reached the Perfume River and slowly crossed the Tran Tieng bridge amid the evening traffic of cycles and bicycles, my father spoke in disbelief. "Fifteen years, it's been 15 years since I've been here," he sighed. In those fifteen years, I often heard anecdotes and praises related to Hué. Traditionally, the city has been one of Vietnam's cultural, religious and educational centers. Emperors, empresses, concubines and mandarins once roamed inside its famous Citadel, living decadently in the Forbidden Purple City (Tu Cam Thanh) and then dying gloriously through elaborate funerals. The emperors even made sure they died in style by planning the design and site of their mausoleums in their spare time.

I marveled at this intriguing past as we approach Hué and the once-forbidden Citadel. My father directed our driver Nam, a chain-smoking, wisecracking young man, toward a restaurant behind one of the Citadel's gate. We stopped in front of Lac Thanh restaurant and a thin man, immediately recognizing my father, ran to us. He hugged my father and beamed the most joyful smile I've ever seen.

It was Lac Thanh, the restaurant owner himself, and he was in disbelief to see his cousin back in the country. He quickly steered us into his restaurant and brought four bottles of beer, and copious servings of banh khoai, the local specialty, to our table.

"Go ahead, try the food, it's delicious!" my father said as he nudged my elbow. I took one bite of the food, sipped the beer, looked around the room and felt at ease. Hué was welcoming me with warm open arms, great food and a friendly smile. I fell in love immediately.

In the days that followed, I caught a glimpse of the real Hué, one that my father grew up knowing by spending time at the Lac Thanh restaurant. It is famous in Hué for its banh khoai -- a kind of crispy salty crépe made of eggs and rice flour, filled generously with bean sprouts, pork and shrimp and dipped in a special sauce.

The food is so good it won praise from the Lonely Planet guidebook, which simply had this to say about the place: "The food is awesome!"It turned out that this hole-in-the-wall joint is also a fashionable gathering spot for travelers. In our first meal there, while nibbling on the fine crépes, we heard French, English, German and Japanese buzzing around the room.

What attracts travelers to this little haunt isn't just the great food and cheap prices but the family that runs the place. Lac Thanh, his mother, siblings and children run the business silently, moving about by gesturing hand signals in the air. "My aunt is deaf, and six of her seven children are deaf and mute," my father explained.

This strange twist of genetic fate, and the family's courageous determination to lead a normal life at the restaurant, draws curious folk. The walls abound with countless newspaper articles, letters, and comments from travelers around the world. The authors all mention their delight in meeting the family and admiration for their efforts. "Even if they are mute and deaf, they speak and understand the universal language of love and the pleasure of good food and friends," one traveler wrote on the wall.

Beyond favorable reviews, it's the restaurant's ambiance, its soul, that was attracting everyone near and far to this place. Watching the family interact with customers is pure street theater. In their attempts to communicate with the family, customers throw their hands in the air, gesturing for a cold beer, or smile and nod for no apparent reason, other than perhaps to exercise a facial muscle. For those who don't know how order food, Lac Thanh provides a book with entries from other travelers who recommend what and, more importantly, how to order. They may point at an item on the menu or attempt to use some simple sign language. Lac Thanh and his siblings always smile at customers, making it comfortable for anyone to try sign language there.

Speaking Vietnamese is not a requirement. Furthermore, their teenage children speak English well. They can give useful tips on making cheap and fun excursions or the locations of good bike rental places for tourists. (One person wrote in Lonely Planet that Lac took him on his motorcycle to the DMZ one day and proved to be the best mute guide he has ever had).

Lac's mother, a cheerful lady in her seventies who is really the matron around there, keeps an eye on the restaurant's meticulous operation. She collects money, delivers food to tables, and prepares the banh khoai on a charcoal stove that gives off so much smoke it must be cooked on the sidewalk. Through all these duties that she does with such flair, the doyenne smokes a fat brown cigar that she rolls herself. The cigar hangs by the right corner of her mouth, and the smoke lingers for hours. And unlike the children who all have nice pearly white teeth, her teeth are completely black due to years of chewing betelnut.

In a crowded room, I imagine her smile would capture everyone's attention. When she gets extra-friendly, she takes you by the hand and gives a tour of the kitchen and the family's living quarters upstairs. The tour leads up to four levels and ends on the rooftop where you can catch a decent view of the river. At times when the main dining area gets crowded, customers go upstairs to the family's balcony to eat and the crowd practically spills onto the sidewalk. Travelers meet and swap tales here, slowly enjoying the cheap beer and greasy grub late into the night. The local children, timid in the beginning, would hide behind the restaurant's counters and corners and end up on customers' laps by the end of a meal.

The air is always festive at Lac Thanh, and I couldn't help admiring the friendships forming between customers and the family. The memories made just from one dining experience at the restaurant promises to be pleasant. You somehow recognize right away that the people serving and cooking the food are beautiful, with such pure smiles. I imagined what it would be like to spend days or years around the restaurant, the city, these people and understood my father's deep connection to Hué. Just ask anybody who has eaten at Lac Thanh, and they'll likely tell you the food is awesome and the experience unforgettable.