Living in Hanoi, I had no idea of the hummus culture out there. For the resident expats who had comfortably made Hanoi their home, the streets in districts like Tay Ho and Ba Dinh, were always bustling with deliveries to customers and (little did I know) convenience stores of home comforts like falafel and hummus. It was only after a friend recommended I go to her ‘hummus lady’ that I found out about Elvira and her deliciously homemade vegan foods at Xin Free. I ordered how all things are ordered in Vietnam and that’s through sending a quick message on Facebook. I was also delighted to find out that Elvira was from the U.K. too and started this business from scratch. If you’re still living out in Hanoi and reading this, you’ll know she is also at many food festivals showcasing her incredible recipes of vegan cheese too! Before I left Hanoi to fly home, I had to speak to Elvira and share her ‘how to’ story of owning a vegan catering business in Vietnam…
Hello Elvira or as you’re professionally known, Xin Free. How has your day been or should I saw week (please can you tell me about your vacation)?
Hello! Well I’ve just come back from probably the best vacation of my life as I got engaged! I went to a lovely resort close to Vung Tao in the South with my parents and my now fiancé. It was magical and a nice break from hummus, but now I’m excited to get back to it. I always feel a bit anxious if I’m away from my business for too long.
That sounds incredible! I’m so happy for you! Congratulations.
I was first introduced to you by a friend of mine, when did you first come up with the idea to start your own business?
It kind of happened by accident. I made some lunch for my friend once about a year ago and I had just bought a blender so I made some tomato hummus for us. She thought it was wonderful and said I should sell it as it’s hard to get a hold of that kind of thing here. So I followed her suggestion and posted on Hanoi Beautiful, the women’s facebook page here in Hanoi, asking if anyone would be interested in buying my hummus. I was inundated with responses and from there it grew. I made an official page, got a logo, started finding wholesale products, improving my systems and eventually hired staff. But it was all a very gradual process and there was a lot of trial and error involved.
Just from the large handful of people I know, they’ve told me about their hummus ladies and where to find them. Do you think there a big community of hummus lovers here in Hanoi?
Absolutely, I think hummus has become popular everywhere in the west now, along with the growth of veganism and being more health and environmentally conscious. So hummus is perfect as it fits into all those categories and is delicious. That means most of my customers are foreigners living here in Hanoi, but there’s also an increasing amount of Vietnamese customers interested in trying healthy new foods who also buy my products.
How have you found business here in Hanoi and how long did it take you to gather enough customers to be a sustainable business?
Starting a business in Hanoi is incredibly easy. The best thing about Hanoi is that the market is not yet saturated with products. The amount of foreigners has increased rapidly in the past 10, even 5 years and with that comes a huge demand for products and services. The Vietnamese middle class is also expanding quickly so I think any business owner will tell you that Hanoi is an excellent place to be right now. I was lucky in that I had a lot of customers from day one. About 6 months in I was able to quit my other job to focus more on my business. Now I have about 1,000 followers on facebook and that is enough to sustain myself.
Do you have a best seller?
It’s difficult to narrow it down to just one! But I would say caramelised onion and pesto hummus are the big favourites.
Xin Free is also completely vegan, do you think it’s an important thing for catering businesses and restaurants to offer vegan options here in Vietnam?
Yes absolutely. There’s definitely a ‘hippy’ vibe among the travellers here and with that comes a lot of vegans. There’s also a lot of buddhists in Vietnam who are of course vegan. It’s great to see vegan options growing here and being the vegan option is also really helpful for me as it means I stand out if I have a stall at a food market.
You also offer hearty salads like your yummy cashew aioli potato salad and curly kale and zoodles salad, which is your personal favourite?
The cashew aioli potato salad is my favourite. I love the creamy texture you can get from the cashew aioli without having to eat an unhealthy mayonnaise.
I spotted a ‘marbled crepe’ on your menu, can you talk me through its creation and can we expect any more interesting additions to your ‘dippers’ section?
The marbled crepe was born from a happy accident haha. I used to make buckwheat flour crepes (which is a darker colour) and one day I ran out of that flour so I made some normal wheat flour ones too. I was using the same ladle to dip in each batter and then realised how beautiful it could look with a bit of each mixture to create a marbled effect. I also have pita bread on the menu, made by a local bakery. When I finally have some free time I will definitely look at adding some healthy baked breads to the menu, like a chia seed bread or a dragon fruit bread (it’s pink!).
Do you have any future aspirations for Xin Free? (maybe expansion etc)
God! I have so many, I wish I had the time and capacity to make it all happen. For a long time I was obsessed with opening a café but I have put that on the back burner for now, as it’s very demanding and to really create my vision I need a massive start-up budget! I love catering parties and events and I have done some fun collaborations with UNIS (United Nations International School). In the future I would love to be the vegan supplier for all the big international schools, and to see my hummus stocked in more shops – currently I’m in just two.