Hoi An, Vietnam, is a food lover's utopia. In a country renowned for its excellent cuisine, this picturesque riverside town offers something a little special to its visitors. This Unesco World Heritage Site is the jewel of central Vietnam. While the north-south railway line bypasses the town, you can get off at Da Nang and catch one of the frequent buses that travel to Hoi An in a little under an hour. This popular tourist town is renowned for its relaxed pace, fine tailors, and some of the best food in Asia.
The most famous local speciality is Cao Lau. A bowl of fat noodles in a thick, dark broth, mixed with bean shoots and greens, and topped with pork slices and thin croutons. It is available in restaurants all over town, but is best sampled at a hawker's market, where Vietnamese chefs stand patiently behind a row of identical looking cooking booths, hoping you choose a seat at their table.
Cao Lau is prepared fresh, and served hot. You take your chopsticks and spin the ingredients in the bowl to ensure a good coating with the broth. Then you eat. It is difficult to explain what happens when you first taste Cao Lau. That first mouthful inspires an unforgettable taste explosion in your mouth. You pause, you think, you try to rationalize, and then you just give in to the wonderful experience of this delicious meal.
It is also at this very moment that anyone who is not part of a guided tour makes the wise decision to extend their stay in Hoi An, from the standard two days, to at least five.
Wash it down with a glass of ice tea infused with aromatic flowers, and absorb the ambience of a town steeped in history, but relaxed in its current guise as a tourist town. A key ingredient of the dish is the water used to make the broth. Real Cao Lau is only made with water from ancient wells dotted around the town and neighbouring villages. Any Cao Lau found in Saigon restaurants is merely an imitation.
Hoi An has a couple of other culinary specialities that are unique to the town. White Rose is a dish of steamed shrimp dumplings. They look like flower blossoms, and taste like heaven.
These are usually sold at the same stalls, and make a perfect accompaniment to Cao Lau.
Hoi An Wantons
Another dish not to be missed is a plate of Hoi An Wantons. These are large pork and shrimp dumplings, deep fried and served with a fragrant tomato salsa. They work perfectly as an appetizer, or an afternoon snack.
These three dishes constitute the obligatory dining experiences of visitors to Hoi An, and should not be missed.
More culinary surprises in Hoi An, Vietnam
Beyond these local specialities, Hoi An just keeps on giving. On one lovely evening, when I was feeling particularly peckish, I crossed the road from my hotel to a nearby bakery. I was immediately drawn to the chocolate cheescake on offer. To this day, it is still the best cheesecake I have ever tasted. And on my final day, I sat down for a meal of chicken and rice. But this was no ordinary chicken and rice dish. This was Hoi An chicken and rice. With just a single mouthful, I was already re-considering my decision to leave this enchanting place.
Hoi An Attractions
Hoi An is filled with unexpected treats. By day, you can take a bike ride to nearby Cua Dai beach, one of Vietnam's finest. Or venture a little further north to the legendary China Beach, an enormous stretch of sand that runs all the way up the coastline to Da Nang and beyond.
No cars travel along the maze-like streets of the old town, which makes for a peaceful walk along the cobbled streets, where you can lazily gaze at the old buildings of this former trading town. Most of the buildings are decorated in a distinctive yellow wash of paint (what is it with the Vietnamese and their pastel colors?) The most famous site in town is the old covered Japanese bridge. Don't miss the Buddhist temple attached to one side.
Plan your trip in advance, as Hoi An is prone to flooding during the monsoon season that hits the latter months of the year. During these times the bicycles and motorbikes that parade the narrow streets are replaced with small boats that ferry people around town. Tourism doesn't stop when the floods arrive. As only part of the town sits below the flood-plain, the hotels and restaurants on the Western side of town are largely unaffected. The locals have developed a seasonal tourist industry of boat cruises around the flooded old town. Kind of an eastern Venice.
I have travelled extensively around south-east Asia, but Hoi An will always have a special place in my heart. I left with incredible memories of a wonderful place, and with the knowledge that one day, I will return, and eat my fill once more in Hoi An, Vietnam. If you are planning a culinary tour of south-east Asia, or just looking for a relaxing stop-over between north and south Vietnam, Hoi An is a place not to be missed.