Travel: Vietnam – Discovering Hoi An

Hoi An is a small ancient town located in central Vietnam.  It is 30 minutes by car south of the bustling city Danang.  It’s the perfect vacation spot where you can see interesting things, eat delicious food, and also enjoy some beachside R&R.  Upon arrival in Hoi An, it was love at first sight.  It is where I fell in love with Vietnam.

It’s beautiful by day…

and by night.

You are instantly surrounded by enticing smells and vibrant colors.  The people are warm; the food amazing.  It’s so real.  Yes it’s true, the small town has developed a tourist crowd but if you look behind that you’ll see how special this place is.

I admit, initially my journey to Vietnam was somewhat motivated by the search for my favorite sandwich:  the banh mi.  The first time I had it was at Out the Door, a Vietnamese fusion restaurant in San Francisco.  Although their banh mi was a slightly different interpretation of the sandwich, it changed my view on all sandwiches forever.  I needed to know more.  Where did this come from?  Could the original be any better?  It was here in Hoi An where I found truth and discovered what some people call the “best banh mi in the world”.

Behold: A small cart located in the town center, near the eastern entrance of the central market.  I give you Banh Mi Phuong.

I got it with everything.  This banh mi was packed with ham, pork, headcheese, tomatoes, pickled carrots and daikon, fresh cucumbers, green onions, mayonnaise, chili sauce, pork fat and liver pate.  To top it off, fried egg!

How did they make the bread so light and airy and crispy?  Although derived from the French baguette, Vietnamese style bread is different.  It’s less dense and doesn’t sit heavy.  So I’d done it.  That day…Saturday, September 15, 2012 at 4:59 pm on a partly cloudy day I had the best sandwich ever.  I went back everyday I was there to eat another one.

Throughout our trip in Hoi An we visited the central market regularly.  The market has several stalls serving up freshly cooked snacks, street food and local specialties.

Cao lau is one of the town’s specialties.  You can only get this dish here in Hoi An and very difficult to replicate anywhere else.  It’s rumored the use of water from the local well is what contributes to this dish’s special taste.  There is also a lot of history behind this dish as well as some unsolved mystery around its origins.  Hoi An, being the central Japanese trading port in the 17th century and also having been previously controlled by the Chinese, had both backgrounds influence their cuisine and this dish in particular.  With the soba-like texture of the chewy noodles and the use of soy sauce in the dish, there is some debate of where it originated.

We also tried the ban xeo (savory fried pancake with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts) in the market.  This version you wrap up with rice paper.  Really yum!

And then the stall next to it….banh cuon (made from a large thin sheet of rice noodle, filled with seasoned ground pork, wood ear mushrooms and topped with crispy shallots) with a dipping sauce.  We got it to-go for a late night snack since we had eaten too much already.

Although we weren’t able to taste it since it was off season, sugar cane juice and fresh coconut juice are very popular in Hoi An and throughout Vietnam.  We were able to try other exotic local fruits.  They had both white and red dragonfruit and red and yellow watermelon.  So colorful and bright!  Very pretty and sweet!

Aside from the street food, there are also several less-adventurous, tourist-friendly restaurants throughout the town center.  We heard great things about Morning Glory.  Morning Glory specializes in a combination of small street-food style cuisine and offers larger homestyle dishes served in a comfortable sit-down restaurant atmosphere. We had white rose dumplings (another local specialty), Hoi An chicken rice, sweet & sour fish soup, smoky eggplant with minced pork and grilled blue fin tuna with mango sauce.  For dessert we had condensed frozen yogurt which to me tasted like Pinkberry frozen yogurt but possibly better!  The only miss for me was the tuna. Several reviewers raved about this dish online which left us intrigued.  The mango salsa was tasty but the tuna was dry.  I suspect it may have been previously frozen.

We also checked out Miss Ly on another evening.

We ordered cao lau, grilled pork spring rolls, fried rice with roast pork, onion, carrot, bean, garlic & egg, grilled fish steak wrapped in banana leaf, morning glory and a very French style banana crepe with condensed milk topping for dessert.  Everything we ordered at Miss Ly that evening was really good.

After 3 days in Hoi An, it was time to go home.  I had learned so much here.  All the food was delicious and I am now strangely addicted to fish sauce.  The beach was beautiful and free from solicitors like you see in Thailand.  It’s a place that’s still quiet and not overrun by tourists.  Thanks for stealing my heart Hoi An, I hope to see you again someday.

The Details:

Tiệm Bánh Mi Phương| Hoang Dieu, Hoi An, Vietnam

Central Market | Nguyen Hue and Tran Phu Streets, Hoi An, Vietnam

Morning Glory | 106 Nguyen Thai Hoc St., Hoi An, Vietnam | (84-510) 2241 555

Mis Ly Cafe 22 | 22 Nguyen Hue St., Hoi An, Vietnam | 0(510) 3861 603

One comment

  1. Pingback: Travel: Georgetown, Penang – Malaysia | Street Food Crawl | the hungriest panda

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