Hoi An is a charming city, even with its hoards of tourists. The car-free old town makes a welcome change from the relentless honking everywhere else in Vietnam. If you can try to ignore the swarms of selfie sticks, its pastel yellow buildings lining the lanes lit up by a multitude of lanterns feels quite special, and this feeling leads us to discover the many unique dishes that keep the city fuelled.
Before we get into our top picks of Hoi An’s food offerings, let us introduce Mr. Ba Lo Le. His life is a simple one. He is the keeper of the Ba Le Well, one of over 80 ancient wells that scatter the town of Hoi An. Every morning he collects the mystical water and hand delivers it by foot to restaurants, food vendors and poorer families around town. After we met him at the well, we later saw him sitting a the side of the road, with two big buckets of water offering ladles to passing thirsty motorists.
Locals will say that he is over 10,000 years old and accredits his longevity to the water that he tends to. But why is this water so famous? The well was dug by the Cham people around the 8th-9th century and is said to supply the only suitable water for making local dishes – tap or bottled water just doesn’t cut it! It’s also said to have medicinal properties and is used by locals on many auspicious occasions.
With that all in mind, remember that if you order a Cau Lau, Xi Ma or Ban Bao Vac outside of Hoi An then you simply aren’t eating the genuine item!
Here are our top 8 food picks in Hoi An, with a location map below. Enjoy!
1. ONG TY CAU LAU
Cau Lau is the signature dish of Hoi An, with its unique taste and texture owing to the famous water. The simple dish is built around a thick and chewy rice flour noodle, with a variation of greens, some thin slices of roasted pork, bean shoots, crispy pork rind or rice crackers all sitting on a spoonful of rich pork broth.
There’s no intense bursts of flavour, but with a dollop of the local chilli jam that is adorned on every table in the city, and a vigorous stir this turns into a tasty and cheap meal that you won’t find anywhere else.
Recipes and ingredients vary throughout town, but the key is the noodles. Using rice flour, they are mixed with ash sourced from the surrounding Cham Islands, as well as the famous water. The Chinese bought this method of making noodles to Hoi An, and their influence is also noted in the addition of the Xa Xiu (Cha Siu) pork.
With so many options, our pick goes to Mr. Ty. His little pop-up opens from 3pm and has a solid constant trade of predominantly locals.
2. WHITE ROSE RESTAURANT
Ban Bao Vac
These translucent dumplings are a Hoi An delicacy and the secret 3rd generation recipe is produced by this one restaurant that pumps out over 5000 a day. It, then, shuttles them off to all the other restaurants around town. To master the art of creating these rose-shaped treats takes over 3 years of training, and to chat and watch the ladies in the back of the restaurant making them is as enjoyable as it is fascinating.
Again, owing to the Ba Le water, the pastry is made from filtering said sacred water up to 20 times, mixing with rice flour followed by copious amounts of kneading, then forming 2” disks of rice paper. The rice paper is then filled with a shrimp mixture and steamed causing the edges to curl up resembling a rose – hence the name White Rose which was given by a French colonialist who was fascinated by them.
They are served with a handful of fried shallots, alongside a dipping sauce of shrimp broth, fresh chilli, lemon and sugar. The texture is what sets them apart to other dumplings we’ve tried. The pastry is quite chewy and has a unique flavour that we can’t quite put a finger on. Maybe its the water. To visit Hoi An and not to try these is said to not have experienced Hoi An at all!
3. ONG HAI
Mi Quang may come across as just another bowl of noodles and its similarities to Cau Lau are strong, but there are a few key differences. Whole prawns, marinated quails eggs, peanuts and the richest of pork broths, makes this dish our pick of the two mainstays in Hoi An.
Accompanied by the standard bowl of greens and herbs (Cau Lau typically omits the mint), you can personalise this dish to your exact tastes. The heavily reduced pork broth is the standout here, and with eggs that are scrambled through adding another texture, it won us over with the first mouthful.
The rich flavours and spices of the broth were unique and didn’t seem very Vietnamese to us. It almost came across as Malay or Indonesian. The king of Mi Quang in Hoi An, Hr Hai, is tucked down a lane to the east of the Old Town. A very welcome change, and definitely a bowl that we will remember and crave going forward.
4. BA THUẬN
This staple originates from the wartime when the need for a simple and easy dish, made with readily available produce, was introduced to save families during the famine. Simply put, it’s chicken with rice. Nothing fancy here, but an iconic symbol of resilience. The chickens were always used when they stopped laying eggs, and the rice was sourced from the leftover ‘broken’ grains.
Fast forward 30-odd years and the dish hasn’t changed much at all, but with the addition of a bowl of broth, some of the lovely chilli jam, a squeeze of fresh lime and a sprinkling of fresh herbs it evolves into an effective and tasty meal that even the fussiest of eaters won’t turn their nose up at.
Numerous people told us to head to Ba Thuận for the best in Hoi An. It was another down-an-alley type joint, with half a dozen tables inside and the kitchen out the front. Ingredients were super fresh and the smile emanating from the owner was contagious.
5. TRIEM TAY BAMBOO RESTAURANT
Spring Rolls, Ban Xeo, Chicken and Lemongrass Curry
One day we decided to take our bikes and ride around Cam Kim Island, to the South of town, and it was a delight. With no car access from the Hoi An mainland, it was obvious that the majority of tourists never went there. The bikes were a great way to see the island, stopping at fishing boats unloading and selling their catch, ladies making straw sleeping mats, men carving intricate statues out of wood and the greenest green from the iconic rice paddies.
What we didn’t plan that day was somewhere to eat, but stumbled upon this tiny home, with a newly build bamboo pagoda overlooking the river. It’s called a restaurant, but its primary function is a cooking school so if you do head there on a whim don’t expect a full menu – the offerings are pretty much what she has on-site that day. The owner is just starting out as well, so have some patience as we guarantee it will be worth it.
Now, this is a big call, but the three dishes that the lovely lady offered us amounted in the end to be the best meal we have had in Vietnam so far, possibly even in SE Asia! Yes, the food and drinks took some time to arrive, but the quality, freshness and immense love that these dishes emanated were bang on glorious.
From the first to the last mouthful, everything here was perfect. The food took its time and was presented to us in courses, but it was worth the wait. From the delicate crunch of the perfectly fried spiders-web pastry on the rolls to the millimetre perfect slices of tender banana flower garnishing the ban xeo, the passion that went into the food was mind-blowing.
The owner told us about her cooking class, too, with a pick-up service from the hotel, a stop-over at the market to buy produce, and a short boat ride to the restaurant. It was so tempting, but we had planned to leave the next day and have to regretfully decline her offer. If we were to return to Hoi An, this would be at the top of our to-do list!
6. CO BE BAN CAN
Little pancakes like these are all over Vietnam, although the ingredients and preparation vary greatly depending on the region. The ones we found on this stall near the bus station at Hoi An was a winner. A plate cost 20,000vnd (around $1usd) and had such a stunningly complex combination of simple ingredients that we just had to write about it.
Starting with a batter of rice flour, carrot and spring onion, one of the two friendly ladies ladles a spoonful into her muffin-tray like hot plates. As they start to bubble and crisp up, a quails egg is dropped inside, then scooped out in less than a minute.
They are then plated up on a bed of fresh lettuce and herbs, some shredded green papaya and carrot, then topped with two different sorts of cured pork sausage. As our plate lands on the table, she pops the lid off two containers proudly sitting next to the ubiquitous tub of chopsticks. One is a typical nuoc cham, the other is a sticky, sweet, but quite spicy, chilli jam. A liberal dose of nuoc cham and a drop of chilli of each pancake and we are a couple of happy bunnies.
A mouthful of the crispy pancake, swiftly followed by a bite of sausage then some fresh greens is an amazing combination – simple ingredients, perfectly done.
7. MR SON
Hen Tron, Pumpkin with peanuts, Aubergine with garlic
Mr Son is well known with local expats as a cheap and relaxed place to have quality food. He’s located just far enough away from the main drag as to not be overwhelmed by the masses and, with his wife, push out some lovingly prepared dishes. We came here on our first night, fell in love, and returned again when the city began to overwhelm us.
While all the usual suspects are on the menu, its the basic veggie dishes that highlighted our experience. Juicy pumpkin in a sweet sauce with peanuts and the aubergine with garlic and soy were both spectacular.
One dish that we wanted to try was Hen Tron, but it wasn’t on the menu. We asked Mr Son if he knew where we could find it, and with a smile, he hurried back to the kitchen and came out a few minutes later with a plate for us!
These tiny little clams (there must have been over 100 of them on the plate!) are sautéed with onion, peanuts, garnished with mint and crispy shallots, and served with another local staple – rice crackers. The clams were tender, not too fishy, and extremely tasty with the rice crackers.
8. BANH MI PHUONG
After our sub-par experience of Anthony Bourdain’s recommended Bun Cha restaurant in Hanoi, we were a bit sceptical to try his ‘Best Banh Mi in Vietnam’ in fear of it following the same path of fame getting the better of it. On arriving, it was evident this place was popular – the queue went out into the street and the poor lady next door had been forced to erect a sign warning customers not to queue in front of her establishment.
We’ve seen many Banh Mi stalls lining footpaths but never a two-story restaurant with 12 different options of sandwiches to choose from! We opted for #9 with pork, ham and pate, and #13 with grilled pork. Both were served with the crispiest of baguettes (it’s the genius addition of a touch of rice flour that keeps the bread fresh in humid Vietnam), fully loaded with fresh meats, all the usual trimmings of lettuce, coriander, cucumber, green papaya, carrot, and smothered in some wicked homemade sauces.
We might just have to say that this Banh Mi beats our favourite spot in Hanoi!