Hands up who loves Vietnamese food! Me! I first visited Vietnam in 2003 and I was blown away by the quality of the cuisine. I was living in Edinburgh at the time – a beautiful city, but not exactly renowned for its eclectic mix of Southeast Asian restaurants. So my first experience of Vietnamese food was when I stepped off the plane in Hanoi with my Lonely Planet World Food Vietnam book clutched in my sweaty hand.
And I didn’t look back. From a piping hot bowl of spicy Pho Bo, laced with fresh herbs, to a plate of crispy crunchy spring rolls, Vietnamese food has become one of my favourite cuisines in the world.
So during a recent trip to Hoi An, we tracked down a local guide to take us on a food tour to find Hoi An’s best local street food and snacks. Below are some of the highlights of our food tour of Hoi An.
Banh Bao Banh Vac (White Rose)
Banh Bao Banh Vac (named by the French as White Rose due to its appearance) is a steamed shrimp dumpling, exclusively found in Hoi An. It is so exclusive that all the White Rose dumplings in Hoi An come from one shop, which supplies all the Banh Bao Banh Vac to all the restaurants in town.
Obviously the recipe is a highly guarded secret, but we do know that the rice flour is sourced from the Mekong Delta, and water to make it must be sourced from the old Ba Le well in Hoi An. You can head to the family restaurant, run by Mr Tran Tuan Ngai, the third generation of his family, at 533 Hai Ba Trung Street in Hoi An, to see the ladies in action who churn out 6,000 of these dumplings every day. We were lucky enough to be invited to join them, and have our own go at making the dumplings – a tricky undertaking, but fun nonetheless. My 4-year old loved it!
Banh Bao Banh Vac is available at many restaurants across Hoi An, but they will all have been sourced from the original restaurant, and therefore re-heated. 533 Hai Ba Trung street is the only place in town to sample the freshly produced dumplings.
Xi Ma (Sweet Soup made from Black Sesame)
From the White Rose restaurant, we wandered around the corner and took a seat on some small plastic stools on the pavement of Nguyen Truong To Street. Here we were served a small bowl of Xi Ma, a warm, sweet soup made from ground black sesame, raw sugar and other secret Chinese Medicine ingredients – surprisingly good for a bowl of black gloop.
The Xi Ma stall on Nguyen Truong To street is the stuff of Hoi An legends. Originally run by Mr Ngo Thieu, who sold bowls of his (secret recipe) Xi Ma for more than 70 years, the stall is now run by his daughter who retired from teaching to carry on the family tradition when her father turned 100.
Banh Mi (Vietnamese Baguette)
Banh Mi Phuong has been serving up banh mi to locals for more than 20 years and has long been known as the go-to place for your banh mi fix. However an encounter with Anthony Bourdain during his No Reservations tour of Vietnam has catapulted this small sandwich shop to international fame and now hoards of tourists and locals alike flock here.
Of course Anthony Bourdain had very reliable sources and the Banh Mi here is to-die-for. Layers of grilled pork, Vietnamese sausage, grilled chicken, pate, salad and a concoction of homemade sauces are piled into freshly baked Vietnamese baguettes to give you one of the most delicious sandwiches you will try in your life.
Ca Phe Da (Vietnamese Coffee)
No trip to Vietnam is complete without sampling their deliciously sweet iced coffee. Made from drip-filtered coffee mixed with condensed milk and poured over ice, for me Vietnamese coffee is the perfect sweet end to any meal – although the Vietnamese prefer to drink it for breakfast.
Cao Lau (Hoi An Noodle Dish)
Of course we couldn’t take a food tour of Hoi An without dropping by the town’s fantastic Central Market. Laden with fresh food and vegetables, this market is an explosion of colours and aromas.
Within the market is a small food hall, featuring several stalls dishing up a variety of local dishes, with the most ubiquitous being Cao Lau. This legendary noodle dish, exclusive to Hoi An, sees thick chewy rice noodles steeped in a little broth, and topped with slices of delicious cha siu pork and an abundance of fresh herbs. Although you may find imitations elsewhere in Vietnam, locals believe true Cao Lau can only be made with water from the ancient Ba Le well in Hoi An.