I’ve always loved Vietnamese food. The freshness of the herbs, the tang of the lime, the kick of the chilli; such big flavours combining to deliver something so seemingly simple. But these meals are anything but. These meals are perfectly balanced flavours, well-considered textures and eye-catching colours, working harmoniously to offer something far better than you could have imagined.
You’ll find dishes like these all over Vietnam but in my opinion the best can be found in the beautiful little city of Hoi An. Luckily, like most things in Vietnam, these dishes are extremely inexpensive, meaning your first bite of that crunchy bành mì or slurp of that flavour-packed cao lau are some of the best mouthfuls of value you’ll find.
Take a walk with me down the lantern-lit lanes of Hoi An, and discover what this little culinary gem has to offer.
It’s funny that something as simple as a Vietnamese sandwhich can have so many little variables, so much so that it feels like no single bành mì is the same. It seems like everyone you meet has their own favourite place; from the dodgy-looking street stands and hole-in-the-wall eateries to the hip upmarket restaurants offering a more contemporary spin. As a self-confessed bành mì enthusiast myself I’ve tried my fair share over the years, both back home and whilst travelling. There were weeks in Ho Chi Minh where I’d be eating one or two a day, but one of the best I’ve found would have to be from the legendary “Banh Mi Queen” in Hoi An.
I’d read a lot about Madam Khan or the “Banh Mi Queen” before arriving in Hoi An, so visiting was at the top of my list. Madam Khan has occupied her shopfront for over 30 years but has been selling street food for 50; her perfectly crafted Vietnamese-style baguettes a testament to that. Her bành mìs are constructed using a fresh and crunchy baguette, pork liver patè, handmade mayonnaise, grilled pork, char siu, sliced omelette, pickled daikon and carrot, cucumber and firey chilli, then topped with her legendary wood ear mushroom and tomato sauce. Although not as light as some others I’ve come across it’s very much guaranteed to satisfy – your first bite being all the reassurance you’ll need.
115 Tran Cao Van Street, Hoi An
Cao lau is a regional dish with a supposedly secret recipe known only by a few families in Hoi An. There are rumours that it’s unique flavour is achieved by the water used, collected from the century-old Ba Le Well in town. All I know for sure is that it’s wonderfully full-flavoured with a winning combination of fresh greens, chewy noodles, meaty pork and crunchy croutons.
Sitting in a slighty salty shallow broth and served with a wedge of lime and/or smear of chilli jam, you can pick up a steaming bowl for around 20,000VND. It’s a great way to start your day – and how I started almost every one of mine.
Hoanh Thanh Chien
Originating in China then adapted into a local specialty, these crispy wontons are a lot like tostadas: Viet-style. Stuffed with a combination of pork, prawns and spices, these thin rice-flower dumplings are fried until crispy, then topped with a salsa-like sweet and sour vegetable mix. They’re a great little starter and even better washed down with a glass of ice-cold bia hoi (but we’ll get to that).
Banh Bao Vac
Suitably named “white rose dumplings” by the French, these shrimp-filled morsels are as delicious tasting as they are beautiful sounding. Supposedly only made by one family in Hoi An, these delicate dumplings are garnished with crispy-fried garlic shavings and a few slices of red chilli, and paired with a dipping sauce that’s all the right levels of sweet, salty, sour and zing.
I really wish this dish had a more beautiful name because “chicken rice” hardly does it justice. Hoi An’s style of com ga is easily distinguishable by it’s tumeric-yellow rice, shredded chicken, thinly sliced onions and fresh herbs.
I’d heard that Com Ga Ba Buoi served up the best in Hoi An, so after waiting patiently at the crowded restaurant we were finally seated at a table’s edge and permitted to order. The com ga here is accompanied by pickled papaya and carrot plus a steaming bowl of chicken broth but even then is still a little light for the price. In saying that the flavours are outstanding so still very much worth a try. Hey, if you’re still hungry then why not grab a another com ga from one of the many red-stool restaurants scattered through the streets of town.
Com Ga Ba Buoi
22 Phan Chu Trinh, Tp. Hoi An
Ok, so not technically food, but you must try at least one bia hoi while in Hoi An. Translating to “beer gas”, this ultra-light draught beer is brewed daily and left to mature for only a short amount of time before serving straight from the barrel.
The cheapest we’d found was at Cafe 43 at an incredible 3,000VND a glass, meaning a lazy half-dozen would cost you around 1.50USD! They also have fairly-priced plates of the majority of specialties listed above, so it’s certainly worth flicking through the menu while there.
43 Trần Cao Vân, Sơn Phong, Hoi An
Vietnamese Ice Coffee
If you haven’t yet heard of Vietnamese ice coffee then you’ve been missing out. The ultra-strong hit of dark roast is served on a handful of ice but be warned: it’s also excessively sweet. If you usually have sugar then I’d suggest only requesting a little. If you have milk then I’d request no sugar at all, because the sweetened condensed milk used creates a lovely but very sweet caramel flavour.
The following should help you with your order, or completely screw it up, for which I can’t be accountable.
- Cà phê đá (cah-fey-dah) – Black w/ ice
- Cà phê sữa đá (cah-fey-sooah-dah) – Black w/ sweetened condensed milk
- Ít đường (it-doong) – Little sugar
- Không đường (koong-doong) – No sugar
Sure, Hoi An may offer a more concentrated selection of superb foods but certainly not all of them. Which Vietnamese dish has you frothing at the mouth?