HOI AN FOOD SAFARI
Vietnam packs a plethora of culinary delights into its north-to-south-stretch. Each region has its own unique tastes and specialties, and this is true of Hoi An and Quang Nam province as well.
The rows and rows of street food stalls, carts, and restaurants can be intimidating to visitors, especially since Vietnam is known for its more exotic street food, which can include insects and dog.
An outfit such as Hoi An Food Safari is really exceptional value and one of the best tours in Hoi An for newcomers. It’s especially handy for travelers who don’t have the time (or the guts) to explore for themselves.
Clocking in at four hours, Hoi An Food Safari introduces you to at least 10 different types of food, drinks and dessert at street food stalls and restaurants and you learn a great deal along the way.
Around the Market
Our group of three kicked off with sinh to thap cam (a delicious hearty mix of avocado, sapodilla, banana, dragon fruit, coconut lychee and roast coconut, served with ice) just by Tiger Market.
Did you know visitors shouldn’t touch any goods in the market early morning if they don’t intend to buy bacause it brings bad luck to the vendor? Sinh offered this along with many other intriguing tips and cultural insights as we ventured along the crowded aisles.
Banh dap, or ‘smack cake’, the next treat – a light morning snack of two rice crackers filled with moist rice paper that is dipped into a slightly acrid but delicious mix of sardine paste, soy sauce, and chili – was a prelude to hot banh xeo (pancakes), filled with shrimp, sprouts and other vegetables (dipped it in a mild peanut sauce).
After wandering through the din of butchers, seafood hawkers, and fruit and vegetable vendors Hoi An Food Safari took us to a che stand, selling many forms of the popular sweet soup and other tofu treats. One of my favorites was the dau hu, or tofu mixed with ginger and sugar – delightfully sweet to start with the hot tang of the ginger following.
Street Stalls and Stories
At this point, I was still hungry, and the next dish of banh cuon (rice paper rolls filled with mushroom, served in a light fish sauce, with herbs, chili, and pork sausage) at No Ban Cuon, down Nguyen Truong To, fit in perfectly.
By telling us about the tragic legend of the betel nut, the history of Ba Le Well, or showing us the inner workings of a tailor, Sinh continually added local color with intriguing stories. He was knowledgeable and friendly, and very proud of the local cuisine.
Next up was the spooky tar-like substance known as xi ma, a healthy dish of Chinese origin that is only made by two families in Hoi An. Although initially skeptical of the dark grey substance, it turned out to be a wonderful sweet black sesame paste, combined with sweet potato, penny wort, and a bit of sugar.
The next few dishes on this Hoi An Food Safari were larger plates; a curry-inspired vegetable fried wonton at the venerable Minh Hien vegetarian restaurant on Tran Cao Van, followed by a delicious bowl of Hoi An specialty cao lau (thick noodles, deep fried crackers, vegetable and pork in a savoury broth) at Café 43 across the street. Its version came with the thickest and most savoury slices of pork I have ever had in Hoi An.
Sinh told us that the secret to the soup is that the noodles are soaked in the ash of a secret tree, known only to the few families in Hoi An who make ‘proper’ cau lau. Whether that is true or not, this was my favorite dish on the tour.
Sit Down Affairs
While our bellies protested that this must be the end, Sinh still had three more stops for our tasting pleasure. We tried out the pork and fried egg banh mi at Banh Mi Queen, further down Tran Cao Van. One of the more famous banh mi restaurants in the city, Banh Mi Queen is quieter than its competitor Banh Mi Phuong and still puts out a tasty sandwich for a decent price.
The last two stops on Hoi An Food Safari were on the edge of the Old Town, on Phan Chau Trinh street. Pho Xua served up triangle-shaped vegetable spring rolls that I haven’t seen before, that were crisp and delicious in a fish and sweet chili sauce.
Our final dish was bun cha, a Hanoi specialty served at Com Linh, a restaurant owned by a Hanoi native. Although this dish is traditionally sweeter the further south you travel, ours was more savoury than most, with tender pork, radish, carrot, green papaya, and herbs served in a broth and eaten with vermicelli noodles.
We were definitely full by this stage, and turned down the offer of another dish of vegetable fried rice. The delightful Le Fe Cafeteria hidden down an alley off Phan Chau Trinh was the final stop. As we sipped our café sua das, Sinh presented us with a thank-you gift of a phin coffee filter, as well as traditional Vietnamese sesame, coconut, and peanut candies. He also mapped out each one of our stops and made recommendations of other places to try.
All in all, Hoi An Food Safari provided a very entertaining, filling and informative day, and even this old street food hand learned a few new things.