Hoi An attracts millions of visitors every year to its centuries-old relics, nights that are magically lit up by hand-made lanterns, and gentle activities like cruising on the Hoai River that flows through it.
This old town in the central province of Quang Nam is also known for its people’s honesty and hospitality.
But Hoi An’s attractiveness also lies in its vast cuisine with foods that are cheap — not more than VND50,000 (US$2.3) for a dish — but delicious. Moreover, food of decent quality can be found even in street stalls and small eateries.
If you plan to make a food tour in Hoi An, it is highly recommended to start at around 3 p.m., when motorbikes are restricted, leaving streets free to pedestrians and a few bicycles and tricycles.
It is also the peak time for street food vendors.
And remember to add the following foods to your list.
1. Mi Quang
Literally translated as Quang (Quang Nam)-styled noodles, mi Quang is popular around the country, even among foreigners.
It is recognizable with its thin, flat rice noodles glazed with a mixture of peanut oil fried with onion and usually yellow broth.
Traditionally, its main ingredients are shrimp and pork, which are also used to cook the broth and as toppings together with peanuts and rice crackers. But the dish has gradually become diverse with more toppings like chicken, fish, squid, eggs, snails, and even frogs.
Many Vietnamese foodies prefer Hai, a small eatery at 6A Truong Minh Luong Street.
They also recommend a street stall on Nguyen Hue Street, saying it sells the dish in its original version known as mi Quang Phu Chiem. The dish is named after a Quang Nam village believed to be its birthplace.
2. Cao lau
Cao lau is a rice noodle believed to have been invented in Hoi An. It is equally delicious but, for some reason, less popular than mi Quang.
In a way it has some things in common with Chinese and Japanese noodles. Its al dente noodles, for instance, look raw and thick like Japanese udon. Its toppings include slices of pork that look like char siu or Chinese barbecued pork.
Cao lau is eaten with lots of herbs and vegetables which greatly enhance its flavors.
One of the best places for cao lau is a food stall named Ba Be in a market opposite Ong Temple.
Trung Bac Restaurant at 87 Tran Phu is also said to sell original cao lau.
3. Com ga
Com ga, or chicken rice, is not exclusive to Hoi An, but locals have successfully improved on it, making it one of their signature dishes.
A dish of chicken rice is mouth-watering with its pleasantly yellowed rice topped with hand-shredded chicken and herbs. It is served with a small bowl of soup containing some chicken giblets like heart and liver.
It is said that to make the famous com ga, Hoi An people carefully choose rice and chicken of top quality. They season the rice before cooking it with chicken broth and pandan leaves on wood-fired clay ovens.
The most highly recommended com ga eateries are Ba Buoi at 22 Phan Chu Trinh Street and its next-door neighbor Ty. A street stall on Le Loi Street, named Huong, is also said to be good.
4. Banh bao – banh vac
The famous dish actually consists of two kinds of steamed rice dumplings.
Banh vac is filled with ground shrimp, garlic, spring onion, lemon grass, and spices. Banh bao, on the other hand, has minced pork and mushrooms as the main fillings.
They are known –somewhat poetically — as white roses among English speakers, though only one of the two dishes lives up to the name; the other looks more like Chinese jiaozi or pot stickers.
The dish is served with a dipping sauce made from shrimp broth.
For the best dumplings, you have to visit Bong Hong Trang (White Rose) on Nhi Trung Street, where you can also see how the trademark dish is made.
5. Banh dap
Literally translated as cracked/smashed rice pancakes, banh dap is perhaps one of the simplest foods in Hoi An’s cuisine, but its contradictory textures easily makes the biggest impression on foreigners.
Banh dap is actually a combination of two kinds of rice papers, one white, thin and kind of sticky and the other, dry, crispy and brittle.
Even though the dish looks very simple, you have to learn some rules to eat it in a right way.
First, you place a wet pancake on a crispy one. Then apply some mung bean paste and place some fried chopped shallots and shredded spring onion. Lastly, add another dry pancake before breaking the sandwich with the hand.
You have to crack the sandwich once again, this time into two, and dip it into a sauce whose ingredient is mam cai — a kind of fermented and salted fish paste that is native to the central region.
A good eatery to check out the special pancake is Ba Gia, which is located in Hamlet 1, Cam Nam Commune.