Hoi An, one of Vietnam’s 7 world heritage sites, is home to amazing landscape and cuisine. In the past, Hoi An, Da Nang and Quang Nam used to belong to “Quang Nam – Da Nang” province until 1996 and 2008 when Da Nang and Hoi An became independent cities respectively. As a result, the 3 cities share many original dishes such as mi Quang, banh trang cuon thit heo, bun mam… However, interestingly, there are some dishes that are trademarks of Hoi An only, despite the history as well as close geographic distance between the 3 cities. And this entry is going to introduce just that.
I’ve been wanting to write about Hoi An cuisine for ages but hadn’t got a chance to. Therefore, I eagerly agreed to become a food tour guide for some of my Hanoi friends coming over to visit Da Nang and Hoi An. The challenge was that I introduced as much about Hoi An cuisine as possible within one night and within the limit of our own stomachs. So we set off by car from Danang at 4:30 pm (get to Hoi An by bus), arriving in Hoi An 40 mins later and left Hoi An at 9pm. And somehow we did it: 8 dishes, 1 bar and some quality city discovering in just 4 hours!
Ok, let the food journey begin.
First off, we visited this most well-known shop for banh bao and banh vac – the 2 signature food of Hoi An. Established decades ago, this shop has won numerous awards for the quality of their food. Nowadays it has become a major supplier of banh bao and banh vac all over Hoi An and even in Da Nang. Banh bao (aka white rose) and banh vac are made from the same dough but with different shapes and fillings. My mom who spent her childhood in Hoi An claimed that banh bao and banh vac in the past used to taste much better with more generous fillings than nowadays when they have been commercialised. Although that is obviously true, banh bao and banh vac today are still so good that can easily win over anybody. This shop also sells “hoanh thanh chien” (literally fried wonton) which is often regarded as “Hoi An pizza” due to the look. Great crispy base, great toppings. All in all, the 3 dishes are definitely must-tries.
Bánh bao (white rose) and bánh vạc
Hoành thánh chiên – “Hoi An pizza”
“Bong Hong Trang” is a major supplier of banh bao and banh vac
Next, we marched to the other side of Cam Nam bridge up to Hoai riverside. Here you can find a long row of food shops along the river. They all sell another famous food combo of Hoi An: Hen tron (small clam salad), banh trang dap (crushed rice cracker with anchovy fish sauce) and che bap (corn sweet dessert). As it got quite dark already, I forget which shop we entered; but I think it doesn’t matter much. The shop looked like any typical country-side house with wooden decor and super romantic view over the Hoai river. The 3 dishes are simple and fun snacks. “Hen tron” is made from tiny clams mixed with onion, Vietnamese mint (ram răm), roasted peanuts, fish sauce and spices. Local people like to use small bits of rice cracker as a spoon to eat hen tron, just like how Danang people eat “mit tron“. I have introduced about “banh trang dap” in this entry. Che bap is made from corn shaven off the cobs and tapioca starch, often served warm. I’m not sure how these 3 dishes are always sold together in Hoi An; but somehow they really complement each other.
View over Hoai river
Hến trộn – Small clam salad
Bánh tráng đập – Crushed rice cracker with anchovy fish sauce
Chè bắp – Corn sweet dessert
OMG sooo full already. Time for city discovering. Hoi An looked incredibly charming at night. Walking through the small picturesque roads, listening to voice announcements of night peddlers, feeling the light rain on the shoulder… such a peaceful and amazing feeling. We stopped over at “chùa cầu”, a well-known site of Hoi An, to buy some paper lanterns. Make a wish, then put the lantern on the water and watch it drift away. That’s quite a ‘ritual’ people often do in Hoi An on “ngày rằm” – the 15th day of the lunar month.
After an hour or so walking, there was room again in our stomachs for some more food. We headed to the one end of Tran Phu street for the cannot-be-missed dish: “Cao Lau”. This unique signature dish of Hoi An is made from noodle, char siu, pork rind, stock and greens. To make the noodle, a local rice variety is washed, soaked in Hoi An’s well water and lye solution, ground into thick paste, poured into cotton bags to drain excess water; the paste then becomes dough, is kneaded, briefly steamed, cut into strings and steamed again, then left in open air for its surface to dry (source). Cao lau noodle is thus slightly harder than normal noodles and has more texture. Similar to mi Quang, a pork stock is used to barely soak the noodle. Cao lau is sold in any restaurant in Hoi An, but my favourite place is this street vendor on Tran Phu street. It’s extremely small and dark, and we had to actually sit on tiny chairs on the pavement to eat. But, of course, the place served excellent cao lau (and mi quang as well). It’s kind of funny to look at the big restaurants on the opposite side of the street which are always packed with foreigners, while all the Vietnamese and local people would gather on this dark side eating the same thing but with different price and quality (you know which one tastes better hehe).
We finished our huge dinner off with a truly Hoi An dessert: black sesame sweet soup (chè mè đen/chè xí mà). You can find this dessert along the river on Tran Phu street. Che me den is served hot in small portion; very mild, not too sweet and is claimed to be very good for health. This dessert has existed in Hoi An for many decades and I know, for Hoi An local people, it is attached with their childhood memories.
Feeling totally full and satisfied, we got to our final destination: “Yesterday and now” bar. This Western style bar is very cool and is a hub of westerners (we were the only Vietnamese that night). The walls were decorated with super creative pictures. Staffs were multi-lingual and humorous. There were billiards and football tables for entertainment. By 9pm it was packed with people among which 90%+ were westerners. The bar has this special vibe that I absolutely fell in love with.
So that was it, we had a cannot be more perfect night with the best possible weather in December, tons of good food and laughters. Hoi An is such an amazing place that no matter how many times I’ve been there, I always look forward to coming back.
#1. Hoa Hồng Trắng – 533 Hai Bà Trưng
– Bánh bao
– Bánh vạc
– Hoành thánh chiên
#2. Along Hoai river (other side of Cam Nam bridge)
– Bánh tráng đập
– Hến trộn
– Chè bắp
#3. Hát – Opposite 02 Trần Phú
– Cao lầu
#4. Along Bach Dang Street (along Hoai river)
– Chè xí mà/mè đen
#5. (Xưa và nay) Yesterday and now bar – 51 Lê Lợi
Summer created Danangcuisine.com in 2010 to share her eating experience in her hometown Da Nang and other cities around Viet Nam and Asia. She also runs the Funtastic hostels, Food tour and Cooking class in Danang.