I had mentioned before that during our Vietnamese holiday Ant and I decided to set forth and have as much street food as we could and we found that the best place we did this was in Hoi An (about 3 hours south of Hue – Vietnam’s central city). Throughout our Vietnamese holiday, we didn’t really want to go to any of the restaurants because street food will always be much better, cheaper and it’ll be something definitely we’ll miss out on once we return back home.
Most western foreigners travelling to South-East Asian countries like Vietnam are normally afraid of eating street food. The only thing you’d need to keep mind of is to make sure that there are a lot of people eating at the food stall (to ensure food turnover is quick) and that the food is cooked in front of you, and with that you should be fine!
I guess what I loved the most about having street food was the simplicity of the dishes, the fact that I could actually talk to the food vendors about the food they are making for us and to just appreciate all the hard work that these food vendors (which are most likely family-run) do to serve up the best dish they possibly can to make a living – most of which have been working at the same spot everyday of the year (except the Vietnamese New Year holidays) for most of their lives!
By the time we arrived in Hoi An, we had worked up quite an appetite so we decided to venture into the Old Town to grab something to eat and explore. It was a bit before 2pm, so lunch time was just about over, we walked through a street and got called over by a lady who had set up her food stall amongst other ladies. I saw the words “Cao Lầu” and thought, what is this dish? and because I didn’t know what it was I thought it was a more than enough reason for me to want to try it. So we sat down directly in front of the lady and watched her prepare our lunch.
Cao Lầu is a specialty dish of Hoi An which comprises of the signature cao lầu noodles, slices of barbecue pork, pork crackling, bean sprouts, lettuce and herbs, it is then finished with a spoonful of stock. The noodles are simply made from rice and water. However, what makes these noodles special is that there is no where else in Vietnam that can make them as good as the ones you’d find in Hoi An. This is because the water used to make these noodles has a unique flavour and could only be sourced from wells around Hoi An; the most famous well is from the Ba Le Village, Quang Nam Province. This water is then mixed with ashes from certain trees, to give it its particular yellow tinge and slightly firm texture.
We were ordered to combine the contents of the dish before eating as it was presented to us unmixed. Throughout the meal, I asked the lady what the stock was made from and she told me it was the stock used to cook the delicious barbecue pork; this stock does not make the dish wet (like phở) instead it serves to coat the contents of the dish (like a dressing would to a salad). There were many different textures going on in this dish, you had the slightly chewy texture of the noodles and the crunch of the pork crackling, lettuce and bean sprouts; all smothered by a aromatic and silky broth and flavoursome pork.
Possibly hands down the best dish we’ve had on our holiday and it’s definitely a dish we’ve constantly been craving for ever since we’ve been back!
Cnr of Trân Phú & Hoàng Diệu Street (across Mermaid Restaurant – 2 Trân Phú St)
Opening hours: 6am – 2pm
Cao Lầu is 20000 vnd (AU$1)/dish
After lunch, we had not walked more than 100m and bumped into a food cart selling donuts, fried banana fritters and buns filled with various fillings such as coconut, mung bean etc So I decided to stop to get some banana fritters (not pictured) which were prepared fresh by coating 3 thin slices of banana with some batter, overlapping them over one another to form a triangle and fried. I found it a little too oily for my liking as I’ve always preferred banana fritters to be whole instead of sliced up like this. Ant got the coconut bun which was soft and topped with toasted sesame seeds, the filling was a little dry but had a nice custard flavour to it.
I really loved walking through the Old Town of Hoi An, which has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999. The city definitely has a beautiful charm to it because of all the lanterns. I was bummed that I missed out on the monthly Lantern Festival, which occurs on the 14th day of the luna month. This is the time where all the lights and electric goods are turned off by the residents in the Old Town and the streets are lit up with lanterns and candles, and kids help float some lanterns with candles down the river. Such a romantic scenery this would have been..
After more walking we stumble upon a little dessert stall (something which I’ve been trying to find throughout Vietnam). Earlier in the day, we walked pass another mobile dessert cart where we saw alot of locals digging into something black. I didn’t know what it was at the time but when I had walked pass this second stall it clicked to me that this black gruel looking thing was actually chè mè đen (black sesame pudding). But that didn’t catch my eye at first, I was drawn to the chè bắp (sweet corn pudding).
A piping hot bowl of the corn pudding with freshly grated coconut flesh was given to us; it was silky, sweet and bursting with shavings of young corn. Just what I needed! As I had ordered one and Ant didn’t mind the dessert, I gave the bowl to him to finish so I could try the black sesame pudding. Like the corn pudding, it came out piping hot. Yes, it looks kind of like smooth cement but it was deliciously nutty. I can’t believed I’ve never come across this dessert in my life!
We crossed the other side of the river to explore the not-so-touristy part of Hoi An; here we felt we were amongst the locals. As we walked down a deserted street I saw I guy pushing a cart on a bicycle, when we passed I asked what he was selling. I was utterly amazed and all giddy when he told me that he was selling ice cream!! “OMG Ant, we HAVE to get some ice cream!” “Brother, how much?” “2000vnd (10¢)” That got me even more giddy.. So we got one each (so should have gotten more but it was a warm day and would have melted but I guess I had the option of following him too I guess…); Ant chose chocolate whilst I went for milk.
My eyes were fixed on the ice cream compartment when he open the lid; there had to be at least more than 100 tubes of ice cream in it. I found it so fascinating that he was able to store all these ice creams without the need of an electrical freezer and how they all didn’t melt without one. The ice creams were nice and creamy and one of the best ones we’ve had in Vietnam so far (as most of the ones we had tasted like the leftover melted ice cream at the bottom of the ice cream container – you know that stringy, sticky mess?)! Ahhh… The best things in life are
free almost close to nothing!
Another stroll later, we smelt wonderful barbecue aromas floating in the air so we followed our noses and found a small street set up with possibly the tiniest stools ever and no tables! Once again, I was jumping for joy as soon as I saw what was cooking. I think we both sat down immediately before even asking each other if we wanted to also eat here.. HA! To me, this is the stuff street food dreams are made of.
We had a choice of pork, chicken and beef skewers and go for the former. At 30000 vnd (AU$1.50)/3 sticks, we were told we could have as many as we want until we got full. These skewers were served with sheets of fresh rice paper, slithers of cucumber and green figs, lettuce, various herbs and a chilli satay dipping sauce; they had a hint of lemongrass, garlic, sesame seeds and chilli. Absolutely delicious! As I was talking to the girls, one of them urged me to buy a bowl of tàu hũ (tofu pudding) (10000vnd (50¢)) from one of her friends who conveniently was sitting right near us. She scooped the tofu pudding thinly and drizzled a decent amount of ginger syrup over the top. I found the tofu very silky and soft but the ginger syrup was too spicy for my liking.
This little snack was Dinner #1 (of 3 that night, but the last one was at a crappy restaurant along the river so we won’t count it).
The sun starts to set and we start to see beautiful hues stretch across the sky and the streets being lit by colourful lantern; there’s a sense of magic in the air. By night time the streets are buzzing with families, locals trying to sell lanterns to float on the river and glowing things that you throw up in the air, wait staff are trying to call you in to eat and places are set up for Bài Chòi (Vietnamese Bingo)! If you haven’t heard of it, then maybe you should check out the short video below or search for more youtube videos. Basically, it is bingo BUT the numbers are sung to you in Vietnamese and the lyrics don’t make any sense at all!
As we were walking along the river, we noticed that there was an influx of tables and chairs that have been set up. We could have sworn that they weren’t there about an hour ago.. These make-shift street stalls were pretty much all selling Cao Lầu, we were on the search for something different so I told someone that and they sat us down at another place. We had no idea what we were having at the time but I found out later that it was bánh đập (rice crackers with fresh rice paper) 10000 vnd (50¢) which was served with a chilli pasta and garlic oil. There was nice crunch to it, but we were left still hungry and confused after that ordeal so we set forth for Dinner #2 and just considered this was an appetiser.
We stumbled upon another place selling another Hoi An specialty dish I was not familiar with; Mì Quảng. Mì Quảng comprised of rice noodles, slices of pork, pork crackling, prawns, quail eggs and crushed peanuts. Once again, spoonful of broth is poured in the bowl but only enough to coat the noodles. This dish is similar to Cao Lầu but no way near as good!
So there we have it, the epic feasting that we did in less than a day. Stay tuned for the fabulous cooking class we did in Hoi An and other Vietnamese food highlights.
This is my entry to the Delicious Vietnam May 2011 blogging event, founded by A Food Lover’s Journey and Ravenous Couple and hosted by Jing from My Fusion Kitchen. This monthly blogging event celebrates Vietnamese cuisine by Vietnamese food lovers around the world.