Vietnam packs a plethora of culinary deliciousness 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 a good bet for travellers who don’t have the time (or the guts) to find and try out the most delicious food in the city. Clocking in at four hours, the tour introduces you to at least 10 different types of food, drinks and dessert at street food stalls and restaurants.
Our group of three met tour guide Sinh at Huong Sinh to at Tiger Market. We started off the day with a sinh to thap cam (a delicious hearty mix of avocado, sapodilla, banana, dragon fruit, coconut lychee and roast coconut, served with ice).
Sinh provided some interesting market tips before we ventured into the crowded aisles – for example, visitors shouldn’t touch any goods in the early morning if they don’t intend to buy as it brings bad luck to the vendor for the rest of the working day.
Next stop was a purveyor of banh dap, or ‘smack cake’ – a light morning snack that consists of two rice crackers filled with moist rice paper, and dipped into a slightly acrid but delicious dip of sardine paste, soy sauce, and chilli. Following this, we watched another woman prepare a multitude of hot banh xeo, filled with shrimp, sprouts and other vegetables. We wrapped the piping-hot pancake into rice paper, and dipped it in a mild peanut sauce.
A brief market tour followed, as we wandered through the din of butchers, seafood hawkers, and fruit and vegetable vendors.
Sinh took us next to a che stand, selling many forms of the popular sweet soup and other tofu treats. One of my favourites was the dau hu, or tofu mixed with ginger and sugar. It is delightfully sweet, with the hot tang of the ginger following up nicely on your tongue.
By 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, chilli, and pork sausage) at No Ban Cuon, down Nguyen Truong To, fit in perfectly.
Throughout our tour, Sinh would add some local colour – whether 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. He was knowledgeable and friendly, and very proud of the local cuisine.
Next up was the tar-like substance of xi ma, a healthy dish of Chinese origin that Sinh told us is only made by two families in Hoi An. Although initially sceptical of the grey substance, it turned out to be a wonderful sweet black sesame paste, combined with sweet potato, pennywort, and a bit of sugar.
The next few dishes were larger plates; a curry-inspired vegetable fried wonton at backpacker venerable Minh Hien vegetarian restaurant on Tran Cao Van street, 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 favourite dish on the tour.
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 the tour were at the top of the old town, on Phan Chau Trinh street. Pho Xua served up triangle-shaped vegetable spring rolls that I haven’t seen before, which were crisp and delicious in a fish and sweet chilli sauce.
Our final dish was bun cha, a Hanoi specialty served at Com Linh, a restaurant owned by a Hanoi native and a Hoi An resident. Although this dish is traditionally sweeter the further south you travel, this particular edition 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. We finished off the day at the delightful Le Fe Cafeteria hidden down an alley off of Phan Chau Trinh street. 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 fun, filling and informative day, and even this old street food hand learned a few new things.
Website: Hoi An Food Safari
Price: $55 USD; includes unlimited water, all dishes, transfers from the old town, and thank-you gift; cash only.
Contact: 0918 355 756