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Eat: Hoi An

With its Japanese, Chinese and French influences, the former Vietnamese spice port is pure gastro heaven — and cheap as chips. Get in line for cau lao noodles, com ga chicken rice and the world’s best banh mi baguettes

Eat: Hoi An
One of the many cafes in Hoi An, Vietnam. Image: AWL Images

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Crabs are tied in vines. Fish are kept alive in basins fitted with intricate watering systems. There are noodles drying in bamboo baskets, pots of freshly-picked pulses, jackfruit removed from its ugly skin, banana blossoms released from their pods and herbs picked from the field just an hour or two ago. There’s peppermint, Vietnamese mint, lemon basil, aniseed basil, Chinese coriander, watercress, bitter melon, morning glory — the aroma truly takes your breath away.

This is the ‘wet’ market in Hoi An, a wonderful, compact collection of different retail sections selling meat, fish, fresh fruit and vegetables, kitchen paraphernalia and street food. Cho Hoi An (Hoi An market) sits on the banks of the Thu Bon river and by simply watching its daily rhythms, you can become a little more familiar with this fabulous gastronomic town in central Vietnam. It’s a real beauty of a place with mustard-hued buildings, Japanese, Chinese and French-influenced architecture, and streets hung with colourful lanterns.

Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage Site where cars are banned and scooter use is restricted, and it’s fast becoming a must-do on the gastronomic map of the world, home of cau lao noodles, com ga (chicken rice) and, allegedly, the world’s best banh mi (baguette sandwich).

Laid out in the market, you’ll spot the ingredients that give song to the yin and yang of sweet and savoury, underlying every Vietnamese dish. Ms Vy of Taste Vietnam — aka chef Trinh Diem Vy who is to Hoi An what Rick Stein is to Padstow — tells me the most highly-paid member of her staff is the person who shops at the market.

I’m at her class in the Market Restaurant and Cooking School, one of five culinary businesses that she owns. She’s teaching me to make ‘present soup’, a clear broth with cabbage and shrimp dumplings traditionally cooked by a bride-to-be for her prospective mother-in-law. I shape quenelles of shrimp mousse before rolling them in blanched cabbage leaves and tying them with spring onion and laying them in the broth.

“For me cooking is not about recipes. Cooking should come from your heart,” she says. “The ingredients, using the right heat and making it with love are the most important things.”

The following day, I cycle out past rice paddy fields and shrimp farms to Tra Que Vegetable Village, a few kilometres north east of Hoi An, with Quyng, a guide for Experience Travel Group. Picking my way across fields of salad leaves and herbs, I watch as workers in conical hats maneouvre two watering cans, hung from a pole held across their shoulders, spinning around to spray the plants. Lying between the de Vong river and an algae pond used to fertilise the crops, Tra Que herbs are some of the most revered in the country because of their intense flavour. Almost every dish I taste in Hoi An will have an ingredient grown here.

I meet Lanh, whose elderly father and mother own a smallholding on the collective, and he shows me how to make banh xeo pancakes, by sizzling pork and shrimp before adding turmeric-scented rice flour and flipping the sizzling, crunchy disc. He guides me in assembling the simple and stunning tam huu, just two mint leaves, a piece of pork and a shrimp tied with spring onion — it’s a taste revelation of such freshness I could weep.

We pedal for a quick look at busy but beautiful An Bang beach before heading to Quan So, a little riverfront restaurant in Cam Nam, a village just outside Hoi An. Quyen orders banh dap, a soft rice flour pancake topped with a crisp rice cracker. ‘Dap’ means ‘smash’ and the idea is you use your hands to smash the two textures together — crunchy and silky — before dipping ribbons in a fish sauce made from anchovies mixed with salt and left in a clay pot for three months then stirred with fried garlic, chilli, oil and sugar. It’s one of the best things I taste in Vietnam and costs just 31p.

Before the Thuy Bon silted over, Hoi An was a prosperous trading port with traders from China, Japan and Europe leaving their influence: black peppercorns, cinnamon and other spices absent from the more subtle dishes in the north of the country. Hanoi pho (the meaty, noodley broth with herbs) is not the same as Hoi An pho (more spicy, peppery, herby and with a semi-dry noodle).

But here, the most famous noodle dish is cau lao. Everywhere, women will call to you, ‘You want cau lao? You want cau lao?’. I politely decline, having been told that the woman to seek out is Thuy, now moved from a stall in the market where she operated for 25 years to a larger pavement-side affair. I arrive at 1.30pm, just in the nick of time I discover (she packs up at 2pm) and sit on a tiny plastic seat, watching as she assembles the fat, beige-coloured rice noodles of myth — they’re said to be made with water from the local Ba Le well, then cooked over a fire made with ash from the nearby Cham Islands. Thuy ladles pork broth into a bowl, adds the noodles, pork, bean sprouts, leaves and herbs and sprinkles crisp fried squares of cau lao noodle on top. It’s less than £1 and amazing.

From here I head round the corner to join the queue at Tiem Banh Mi Phuong, to try its legendary banh mi. The BBQ pork is prepared at the back of the shop and a thin-crusted baguette is stuffed with pork, pickled daikon (winter radish) and carrot, pate, homemade mayonnaise, chilli sauce and Phuong’s own secret ‘super’ sauce. I end up with dribbles of goodness all over my clothes but I don’t care
— I’d travel all the way to Hoi An for the banh mi alone, wearing my best dress to do it.

Cau lao, Hoi An, Vietnam. Image: Audrey Gillan

Cau lao, Hoi An, Vietnam. Image: Audrey Gillan

Five fast food finds

Banh mi
A light, fluffy, thin-crusted baguette filled with roast pork, pate, raw and pickled vegetable, herbs and sauce. Try Tiem Banh Mi Phoang, 2B Pham Chau Tring St.

Cau lao
A Hoi An speciality, these noodles have real bite and are served in pork broth with pork, vegetable and herbs, topped with crispy squares of noodle.

White rose
Banh bao vac is a delicate, shrimp-filled dumpling nicknamed ‘white rose’ by French colonialists for its flower-like shape.

Com Ga
Another Hoi An dish, turmeric-seasoned jasmine rice is topped with shredded poached chicken, herbs, papaya, carrot and served in a chicken broth with leaves.

Banh xeo
Meaning ‘sizzling cake’, this pancake has turmeric-infused batter that’s fried with shrimp and pork, and topped with beansprouts. It’s rolled in rice paper, ready to dip.

BBQ chicken, Ba Le Well, Hoi An. Image: Audrey Gillan

BBQ chicken, Ba Le Well, Hoi An. Image: Audrey Gillan

Four places for a taste of Hoi An

Morning Glory
Owned by Ms Vy, Morning Glory offers the best white rose in town. A Hoi An speciality, the shrimp dumpling is encased in translucent rice-flour dough bunched up to look like a flower, topped with toasted garlic and served with a dipping sauce. You’ll also find other Vietnamese favourites, while ‘Ms Vy’s creations’ include clam curry and roast duck breast with banana flower salad.
How much: Three course meal from £12 per person.

The Market Restaurant and Cookery School
Downstairs you’ll find street food stalls offering snacks and full meals, but upstairs you can learn to make your own dishes under the tutelage of Ms Vy, a Hoi An culinary celebrity. Learn the art of banh xeo, a crispy rice-flour pancakes with pork and shrimp; ‘present soup’, a cabbage broth with packets of shrimp; spicy chicken kebabs and green papaya salad. The class begins with a market tour of Hoi An market and includes street food samples on offer at The Market Restaurant.
How much: A class costs around £16.50 and includes the lunch you cook.

Cua Bien Quan
Head out of Hoi An on the coastal road to this hangar-like building in Danang, where you select your own live seafood from tanks and choose how you’d like it cooked. Deputy manager Tam speaks fantastic English and will guide you through the vast selection. Try local river clams, flower crab, giant prawns and mantis shrimp, steamed, grilled or spiced with tamarind sauce, plus a side of morning glory and wash it all down with a cold beer.
How much: A vast plate of seafood costs around £12. T: 00 84 511 3913 879.

Ba Le Well
Famous for its spring rolls, meals here also include BBQ pork marinated in curry powder, sugar, garlic and sesame and cooked over charcoal served with a soya bean dipping sauce. You roll the pork with fresh herbs in rice paper wrappers brought to the table. This hidden restaurant is near the site of the Ba Le well, the revered source where water is drawn to make Hoi An’s famous cau lao noodles.
How much: A set menu with banh xeo pancakes, three spring rolls, six pork skewers and mango mousse costs £3.50. T: 00 84 510 3864 443.

How to do it

Experience Travel Group offers a bespoke nine-night Vietnam trip from £2,495 per person, including luxury accommodation, signature tours including cookery class and herb village walk, return non-stop flights from Heathrow with Vietnam Airlines, internal flights, transfers and taxes.

Published in the June 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)