This is Part 3 of a 5-part series on eating our way through Vietnam. We spent three weeks in Vietnam, starting with Hanoi in the north, making our way down over 1,000 miles to Ho Chi Minh City in the south. See Part 1: Introduction and Part 2: Hanoi.
After leaving Hanoi (Hà Nội) on an 18-hour overnight train along the coast, we arrived in Danang (Đà Nẵng) and took a taxi the 30km to our home-stay in Hoi An (Hội An). The warm weather (high of 26C, or 80F) was a welcome change from chilly Hanoi. The temperature wasn’t the only difference we noticed; Hoi An is a small town offering a break from the inescapable chaotic traffic in major cities. We were able to ride bikes around without fear of getting run over. The ancient town’s quaint streets are pleasant for pedestrians to take a stroll through and admire the lanterns, lit each night, along the river.
Due to its size, there isn’t as much of an abundance of street food in Hoi An as we found in Hanoi. Thanks to recommendations from our host and a little of our own research, we still enjoyed the town’s specialties.
Notice how we never talked about bánh mì in Hanoi? That’s because you should really save that for lands further south. People (and the Internet) will tell you where to find the best bánh mì in Hanoi – except, it really doesn’t exist.
In Hoi An, Bánh mì Phượng gets a lot of attention from locals as well as visitors. The latter, probably because of Anthony Bourdain’s endorsement. We found it to be good, but the bánh mìs, and the atmosphere, at Madam Khanh stole our hearts. Walk past the bánh mì making station in the entrance and grab a seat in the small room that feels like someone’s home and place your order with Madam Khanh’s granddaughter without ever looking at a menu. We always got the “everything”. It’s not the chili oil, or the omelette, or the earthy kick from the pâté; it’s simply the masterful blend of ingredients carefully stuffed (and I mean that; Madam Khanh tweaks the filling using her chopsticks so it’s compact and doesn’t spill out when you take a bite) in a fresh baguette. The sandwich is given a final toasting over warm coals before being delivered to your table. If a sandwich seems extra oily, they will serve it in a plastic bag in order to catch the excess oil as you eat.
Madam Khanh - "The Banh My Queen", 115 Trần Cao Vân, tp. Hội An, Quảng Nam, Vietnam
Bánh mì Phượng, 2B Phan Châu Trinh, tp. Hội An, Quảng Nam, Vietnam
Cao lầu is a regional dish made using noodles, pork and local greens that you will only find in Hoi An. Local legend has it that these noodles can only be made here because the water is sourced from a specific Cham well in town. The greens come straight from Tra Que Vegetable Village, just outside of town.
The lye-kneaded noodles have the texture of udon. It’s unclear to me if the noodles are made with rice flour or wheat.
The first time we had this dish was on our first night at our lovely homestay. As part of the celebrations during the week of Tết, all guests were invited to a home-cooked meal of cao lầu.
Cao lầu highlights the exceptional quality of the local greens grown in this region. We also had very good cao lầu at Mr. Hai’s restaurant.
Mì Quảng is a popular breakfast dish in Quảng Nam Province. The noodles are often (but not always) stained yellow from turmeric and swim in a light amount of, but intense, broth with a protein; one time it came with shrimp, another, pork. The bowl is typically garnished with coriander greens, sesame rice crackers (bánh tráng mè) and crushed peanuts.
For your Mì Quảng fix, go early; most places sell out pretty quickly. We ate Mì Quảng at an alley close to our homestay. You can also find it all day at Mr. Hai.
Bánh bao bánh vạc (or White Rose Dumplings)
Bánh bao bánh vạc, or White Rose dumplings, are another Hoi An specialty. These are shrimp dumplings wrapped in translucent dough, bunched together to resemble a rose. Ours came topped with fried shallots in a mild dipping sauce faintly resembling nước chấm.
We enjoyed White Rose at the Central Market, where you’ll also find all the other Hoi An suspects. Vendors here can be very pushy (many of them are selling the same dishes).
Hoi An Market, Trần Quý Cáp, tp. Hội An, Quảng Nam, Vietnam
Rice Paper Rolls
Mai, the owner, used to be a very popular street food vendor. She now serves her food at her very own brick-and-mortar restaurant, Bale Well.
Bale Well serves bánh tráng (rice paper) rolls. Filling options include bánh xèo (rice cake), nem nướng (grilled sausage) and nem rán (fried spring roll), but you are likely to get a meal that includes all of those – unlimited. Your feast includes an assortment of garnishes: sliced cucumbers, fresh herbs, garlic, chillies and a peanut-based dipping sauce. Go hungry!
One of the servers will help you wrap your first roll and, if you ask, more.
It’s a little tricky finding the place, tucked in an alley, but keep your eyes peeled for the sign.
Tra Que Vegetable Village
Làng rau Trà Quế, literally Tra Que Vegetable Village, is a short 3km bike ride from the city center. The village employs several households in organically growing over 20 kinds of leafy vegetables and herbs. Many of these herbs form the basis for Hoi An classics like cao lầu.
The village supplies herbs to restaurants and households in town, which explains the incredibly flavorful, high quality of greens we experienced pretty much everywhere in this city.
Sampling the herbs right from the earth is a great way to familiarize yourself with Vietnamese herbs like giấp cá (fish mint), kinh giới (Vietnamese Balm), rau răm (Vietnamese coriander), tía tô (red perilla) and húng quế (Thai basil).
See all of these locations, and more, on our Hoi An Google map