If there was one place in Vietnam that I yearned to go back to it had to be this. Hoi An. First time around, almost twenty years ago, it captured me with its magical beauty; even over the few gloomy days of incessant downpour that caused the river to burst its banks right up to the shopfronts. This time around it was clear skies and hot weather for the duration of our stay.
As soon as we landed from our very short flight from Nha Trang we were driven to our beachside hotel for a brief chillax and didn’t waste too much time in heading into town to reimmerse ourselves in this unique UNESCO listed town. Not even five minutes had passed before I dragged us into the first place I saw selling white roses (30K). Not the flower, but a local specialty I was keen to try. Bánh bao vac, as it’s referred to locally, is a type of shrimp dumpling made using two round sheets of rice paper. A bit like ravioli, really.
It was the French that nicknamed these dumplings white roses and it’s just one place in town that makes them (find it at 533 Hai Ba Trung Street) before being distributed to various restaurants about town. Secret recipe, you see, now three generations old.
The flavour of the shrimp filling is subtle and with it comes a sweet dipping sauce plus a generous sprinkling of fried garlic. A few white roses, a couple of cold brews and a small plate of delicious cha gio hoi an (fried local spring rolls 34K) and we were ready to hit the streets along-side all the other tourists.
The preservation of the buildings in Hoi An’s old town has been done tastefully enough to not make everything feel like a theme park; stunning old buildings dating back to the trade port it once was. The bulk of these buildings sell wares geared mainly for the tourist. Ceramics, tailors, art and silk lanterns colour up the narrow, car-free streets while old ladies tout clay whistles and boat agents vie for your dong for a river cruise.
One thing that captivates any Hoi An visitor has to be the locals. Perpetually smiling and patient, the residents are a warm-hearted and friendly lot that are just as intrigued by you as you are of them. Some shy away from the camera yet others are all about toothy and gummy smiles.
Hundreds of years ago a tradition was started in Hoi An. A tradition to light up the old town with a multitude of colourful lanterns in dedication to the lunar month where all artificial lights are switched off.
Hoi An full moon night falls on the 14th of every month, starting at 5.30 pm and ending at 10pm. Virtually all the lights go out in the old town centre, transforming the laneways and riverfront into a fairyland of colour with music and song filling the main thoroughfares.
It’s the central riverfront and bridge that are lit up the most and there’s nothing better than to pull up a stool to sit, watch and be mesmerised by the reflected colours dancing on the river surface.
The appetite got the better of us so it was dinner at a place I really wanted to try. Local chef and restaurateur Trinh Diem Vy owns a string of eating houses around town and this one, Morning Glory, is a must visit as far as I’m concerned.
Housed in an old colonial building, this two-story restaurant specialises in local favourites as well as the stuff you can pick up on the street, just in a more comfortable setting.
Two kitchens feed the hoards, one of which is located in the middle of the downstairs front room, creating a buzzing atmosphere in the very warm and non-air-conditioned space.
On arrival we discovered a full restaurant but I asked if we could sit at the lone table in the atrium near the rear bar. Much cooler out there, quieter and the lighting (for me) was better for photo’s.
Local beers gets us started, of course, and a procession of food like roll-your-own bánh uot thit nuong (75K), barbecued pork with rice paper. As delicious as the pork was, I was also in love with the delicate flavours of the bánh cuon (65K) – rice flour pancakes filled with ground shrimp, pork, bean sprouts, mushroom and carrot.
White roses (65K) just had to be ordered and the most incredible stuffed squid either of us has ever encountered. Muc nhoi tom thit (165K) is a traditional dish with a wonderful mix of flavours and textures like shrimp and pork mince, mung bean vermicelli, chilli and wood ear mushrooms. The tender squid tubes required very little tooth action and neither of us wanted it to end. I wasn’t as in love with the cinnamon beef stew (155K). Yes the meat was slow-cooked and beautifully tender but I thought it lacked some punchy flavours that would have complemented the sweet chunks of carrot.
There was much more on the menu we were keen to try so another visit just had to occur. Ca nuong gnhe (fresh mackerel in banana leaf 156K) is a parcel of cubed fish with chopped wood ear mushrooms, glass noodles, chilli, turmeric and spring onion. There’s saltiness from fish sauce and a little too much oil but overall it’s damn tasty. Ram tam huu (three best friend spring rolls 75K) is a special occasion dish created by farmers. The delicate spring roll contains a trio of sliced and marinated pork, baby river shrimp and spring onion. Sheets of rice paper are used to wrap the accompanying rice noodles and herbs with the spring roll, before dunking into some dipping sauce.
Bun cha (95K) is another classic favourite – meatballs loaded with lemongrass and other tidbits, some fresh herbs and cold rice noodles. I adored the tom rim nuoc dua (195K), a hearty meal of sautéed prawns, wood ear mushroom and vermicelli in a mild coconut cream curry. One of the best bits is scraping the young coconut flesh from the coconut in which it’s served.
Windows and bikes just scream to be photographed in Hoi An. And why would you not?
This is a place we ducked into to take a break from walking in the blistering sun. A few steps up, into and through the gate house leads into a central courtyard strewn with pot plants with a small temple building at the rear. Either side of the courtyard are twin buildings that look to be some sort of assembly spaces with tables, benches and photographs on the walls. Not a great deal going on at all but a welcoming respite from the sun.
Barely a minutes walk around the corner from the temple is a well-hidden restaurant that has been going strong for a couple of decades. Bale Well Restaurant gets its name from a nearby well that’s believed to have the coolest and sweetest water in town. Finding it can be a little tricky but if you can get to the narrow laneway on Phan Chau Trinh (between Le Loi and Nguyen Hue), you’re in for a great local food experience that’s off the well-trodden tourist path. Just after the laneway bends to the left slightly you’ll see it on the right.
The Bale Well menu is printed on the napkin packet and is a set meal of nem nuong (grilled pork satay), banh xeo (rice pancakes), ram cuon (spring rolls) and thit nuong (grilled pork). Assuming you need help in constructing your meal, the friendly and very cheeky owner insists on showing you how to roll each component in the provided rice paper. There’s a method to each one and it must be done right otherwise she’ll come back and show you again. A great meal made even better with the homely service.
Down by the river on the Old Town side, street food vendors set up shop as the afternoon winds down and the sun nears setting. Small wooden stools and tables cluster along the waterfront either side of the canal that leads to the Japanese Bridge; a perfect possie to catch the last rays of sunshine and some welcoming cool breezes off the Thu Bon River.
We took a seat at one of the banh can trung (15K) vendors, cracked open a warm-ish 333 beer and tucked into a plate of the crunchy little rice pancakes topped with egg and served up with shredded pickled vegies. Not the finest little specimens thanks to them being oil-logged but hey, who can gripe when a beer and plate of food costs $1.60. Not to mention sitting on the banks of the river watching the sunset.
On the other side of the river restaurants sit side-by-side offering local food and the lure of half price drinks at one of them, Mango.Mango was hard to ignore. It’s an ideal possie overlooking the river and Japanese Bridge. Boys play soccer on the footpath, the occasional tout wanders past selling fruit, postcards or sweets and some delicious drinks kept us lubricated.
Passion in love (12oK) became an instant favourite and just too easy to drink. Vodka, passionfruit and watermelon. A winning combination. In the west you often get salted nuts or crackers with your drinks. Here it was a complimentary plate of tempura vegetables; some delicious carrot, eggplant and pumpkin flower.
If the free nibbles were that good we had to find out what the rest of the food was like. The menu at Mango.Mango has a Vietnamese flavour about it but the approach is led by a modern hand. Most dishes and drinks have playful names like “chasing the chick”, “as good as it gets” and “lord of the squid rings” and on this particular visit passionfruit and mango featured quite heavily through the entire menu.
A geisha tempura fish (110K), or ca lan bot, was delicious. A Japanese/Vietnamese-style red snapper in a very light batter tossed with onion, pepper, garlic and sesame seeds. Equally delicious was the Miss Saigon (160K), or bun thit nuong. Crispy spring rolls with grilled pork served over vermicelli noodles with mango, bean sprouts, herbs, peanuts and fish sauce.
The most delectable king prawns featured in Keeping flower Ly (490K), grilled and deglazed with a white wine, passionfruit and butter sauce. There was an unconventional touch of dark chocolate in there as well, but not enough to make it prominent. I adored the Peekin’ duckling (360K), an incredibly rich confit of 5-spice duck with cashews, apple, raisins and rosemary. You can see how succulent the meat is and the thin and slightly sweet potato pancake on the side was dunked into the juices with vigour.
Yup, everywhere you look there’s a photo opportunity.
The Cargo Club was a nice little place for a pit stop of caffeine and surprisingly good apple strudel (45K). The place is all about Western and local food as well as being a boulangerie and patisserie, feeding the tourists and providing a loungey atmosphere in a beautiful colonial building. It’s owned by the same lady that runs Morning Glory.
Several doors away is Hai Cafe Restaurant where you can fill up on local food at an time of the day. There’s a nightly barbecue and cooking class but we just settled on a quiet dinner in the front room. Some pretty ordinary pork and vegetable ram chien (spring rolls 60K) were overshadowed by bo nuong la lot (65K) – char-grilled beef wrapped in la lot leaves, heavy in lemongrass.
Without the lemon pepper and mayo the tom nuong (grilled tiger prawns 185K) teetered on the bland side and the ca tim kho to (eggplant in clay pot 50K) wasn’t all that flavour-grabbing either. The best plate of food that night was the com ga (80K), a Hoi An specialty of shredded chicken breast, julienned carrot & red onion, basil and mint on a bed of rice that was slightly crispy from being pan-fried.
Hot weather during the day meant many stops were made for cold refreshments. The riverside Cafe 96 is a cool little place to take a load off and sip on fresh watermelon juice (25K) and ca phe sua da (30K) while watching the world go by. Quirky bits and pieces dot the decaying walls and hand-scribed lines mark the levels of bygone floods. They do their own cooking classes and in retrospect, I wish we tried the food. When’s my next trip to Hoi An?