I have visited Hoi An umpteen times but I never tire of going. The Old Town might be increasingly busy due to the constant stream of tourists but I am from Hanoi. I don’t label Hoi An as busy. Popular, yes, but ultimately it’s still a relaxing destination filled with wonderful architecture, great food and cool café-bars.
The town is extremely popular with domestic tourists as well as backpackers, flash-packers and high-end travelers from overseas as Hoi An has broad appeal. You can enjoy a day at the seaside, order a whole new set of clothes at a tailor’s, stroll around and examine the various cultural attractions, or take a river trip.
Whatever you get up to during your days, just make sure you work up an appetite. Hoi An is a town where feasting is a window into the local culture. The town’s rich cultural heritage extends to the kitchen. In a small simply-decorated restaurant on Tran Phu street we browse a simple menu. We opt for a bowl of cao lau, a dry noodle dish and one of the town’s most famous delicacies.
The 67-year old chef-slash-waitress explains that the thick, yellow noodles are made from rice flour that has been soaked in ash water and cooked by firewood three times. On the cao lau noodles there are slivers of pork, a handful of bean sprouts and some fresh herbs and lettuce.
Famously, the noodles are made with water from a specific local well, making it impossible to replicate the noodles elsewhere in Vietnam. “My family has been making cao lau for three generations,” says the chef. “But honestly around Hoi An, the quality of cao lau has gone down.”
Elsewhere, on the pavements roving hucksters roll trolleys down the road and set up shop on the kerb. One is selling a half-hatched egg, or trung vit lon in Vietnamese, and a Swedish tourist hesitates.
“They look terrible but I will try one,” she says.
She watches nervously as the huckster prepares the egg, which has a partially-developed embryo. It’s been boiled and is safe to eat. The Swede is nervous but she’s told to wait as the egg is added to a small bowl with some spices, pepper, ginger and other herbs.
“You think that I will like it now?” laughs the tourist. “I can see the blood vessels on the embryo and there are also some black parts – oh my god, is that the duck’s hair!?”
Eventually she takes a spoonful with her eyes closed. In the end she is pleasantly surprised.
“It tastes quite good. It is like when you are eating liver pâte,” she says. “But I dislike the egg’s soft bones and the hair!”
Across the road, a Finnish tourist by the name of Flemming, is ordering a sandwich from a vendor selling banh my (Vietnamese baguettes). He has already sampled a roll and is back for seconds.
“It is because the bread has so many fillings,” he says, “I can not keep myself away from this stall.”
When the vendor asks what he wants, he instructs her to put in “everything”. “I have already eaten bread in Hanoi, but this banh my is the best I have tried. In general the food in Hoi An is very good,” he says while enjoying the dish with a glass of local fruit juice.
Later that night on the pavement of Nguyen Truong To street an elderly man trundles down the street, crying out that he’s selling “chi ma phu”, a dish originating from China that is said to be medicinal.
The vendor implores us to try the dish so he can earn some money before returning home. We quickly concede.
He explains the dish is made from ground black sesame seeds mixed with sugar, vegetable juice and ‘thanh dia’ – a kind of Chinese medicinal herb. The mixture is boiled into a pudding. The dish is served in small bowls for VND5,000 a pop.
“This dish is a tonic able to help you recover from illness,” says the 78-year old vendor, whose name is Trieu Thanh Tu. He says has been making and selling this dish for 50 years.
“My wife died 40 years ago,” says Tu. “I would have retired a long time ago, but my family is very poor. My kids can’t afford to take care of me, so I have to keep working.
“This is the most precious thing in my life,” he adds patting the side of his food trolley. After our midnight snack we walk through the quiet streets to our hotel. Suddenly rain starts to fall. As we enter the hotel door we can hear the old man in the distance, crying out “Who wants to eat hot chi ma phu?”, in the hope of using the good luck he got from us.