With a population of 90,000 it had just 4000 visitors in 1994 but by 2008 over 500,000 tourists stayed for one night or more and another million came just for the day, which gives you an idea of the way things are going, and it’s set to increase even more.
It’s still worth going to see its UNESCO world heritage architecture (ancient houses with Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese influences) and…
…because it has a reputation for good food, though opinion is divided on whether it’s any better than elsewhere in the country. One of my culinary heroes, the American chef and food writer Anthony Bourdain, has set up home nearby so it must have something going for it. Personally I ate well most if not all the time. The highlights for me were the fantastic market and the cooking class I went to.
After these perhaps the most famous dish is Cao Lau (a dish of long rectangular Cao Lau noodles served with deep fried croutons made of the same dough, slices of roast pork, herbs and a little watery sauce. Apparently it has Chinese, Japanese and French influences; however the water for the stock sauce must come from a particular local well for it to be authentic Cao Lau.
I ate this three times and found the best (B+), and worst (C-), to be from the small stalls around the sides of the market (very cheap places to eat by the way and probably more satisfying than most restaurants).
Other local specialities include Mi Quang (Quang Nam noodles with vegetables and pork), Bun Gao Phuc Kien (Fujien Chinese fried noodles), Hoanh Thanh Quang Dong (Cantnonese wontons), Bahn Trang Dap Cam Nam Cam Nam wet rice paper ‘sandwiches’) and Banh Xeo Ba Le (fried rice pancakes) although I could only find and try the last of these.
Cua Dai Hotel (Intermediate B), 544 Duong Cua Dai St, Tel: (84) 510 386 2231 or 4604 Email: info@ cudai-hoian.com Website: http://www.cudai-hoian.com
A friendly boutique style hotel with a small pool and comfortable rooms with wi-fi, A/C and ceiling fans. It’s well placed between the centre of town (20 mins walk) and the beach (40 mins). I got a room in November for $34 a night. It’s owned by the famous restaurateur Ms Vy (pronounced ‘Vee’) who owns four restaurants in town, including a patisserie and a cooking school. Info for all her places is on the website which has a handy map of the town too.
The hotel didn’t have its own kitchen at the time of writing so food was delivered from the excellent Mermaid Cafe below. The breakfast is ok with the highlight being the excellent Pho (A)…
…and the Hoi An Banh Cuon, a steamed rice flour crepe filled with vegetables and herbs (B+),
If the Cua Dai is full you could try the slightly cheaper and the apparently very friendly Hai Au Hotel just up the road at 576 Cau Dai St which gets very favourable reviews on Trip Advisor. Their number is 510 391 4577
The Mermaid Cafe (Elementary B+), 2 Tran Phu St, Tel: 386 1527 opposite the cloth market entrance, near the food market.
Although a plain and simple place, the Mermaid is probably the best and most famous sit-down restaurant in town, due to being featured in many guides and other media, and I think I would agree with the accolades. My first takeaway lunch was wonderful; White Rose Dumplings (Banh Bao and Banh Vat) a local speciality which in this case featured two different shapes of dumplings, a small flower shaped one and a second larger half moon variety, both filled with ground shrimp and vegetables and topped with caramelised dried fried shallots (B+).
Also Banana Flower and Chicken Salad (Goi Hoa Chuoi Ga Hoach Tom) shredded chicken, carrot, banana flower and white noodles with mint, caramelised shallots and roasted peanuts (B+).
Also another dish erroneously or seasonally described in the menu as Stir Fried Green Mustards with Mushroom (Cai Xanh Xao Nam) but which I would describe as pak choi with shitake, garlic and ginger in oyster sauce (A), perhaps my favourite dish that I had in VN.
Just to make sure (totally in pig mode here) I had Hoi An Style Chicken Fried Rice (Com Ga Hoi An) which involved shredded chicken, carrot, kohlrabi or turnip with mint and turmeric tinted rice (B) .
However I didn’t think much of the rice papads which were cold, bland and tasteless (C). All this was washed down with the first of many bottles of Biere Larue, the half decent local beer (B).
On another day when I came for lunch I had another famous local delicacy Fried Wonton (Hoanh Thanh Chien) a deep-fried wonton containing crab meat and topped with tomato and onion, which was delicious (A).
Also Spicy Noodle Soup (Sup Mi Hai San) squid, shrimp, white tuna, thin white noodles, the chopped stalk of a lotus-like plant called Bac Ha, tomato, okra and topped with pineapple, coriander and minced garlic and chilli; sheer bliss (A).
A few evenings later I had Ca Thu Nurong Nghe or Grilled Mackerel with Fresh Turmeric in the menu, which was chunks of fish formed into a square cake with short glass noodles, minced red pepper, shitake, garlic and spring onion which is then wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled. It was pretty good but not worth all the effort it would take to make I’d say (B-).
The Garlic Fried Rice, Com Chien Foi, was pretty ordinary (C) but my favourite Pak Choi dish saved the day. (Cooking note: cut the thick end of the stem in the middle so it lies flatter in the pan).
On my last day I was forced to have another takeaway as the non-stop rain kept me in the hotel. Sadly it was rather disappointing, with another poor Vegetable Rice and mediocre Spare Ribs (both C) but perhaps the latter could have been better if they’d been hot when they arrived. The Mermaid Spring Rolls were ok though (B).
Morning Glory Street Food Restaurant (Intermediate B) and Morning Glory Cooking School (Intermediate A), 106 Nuguyen Thai Hoc St, Tel: (0510) 2241 555 or 556, Email: email@example.com
I came here to eat first, little knowing that I would be learning to make some of my choices the next day. To start I had Banh Uot Thit Nuong (much larger pancakes than the diddy Xeo Cakes I had in Hanoi, and here flavoured with turmeric and wrapped with a sheet of rice paper) which were ok (B-) but rather stingy on most ingredients (a solitary shrimp and not many herbs or slices of pork, star fruit and green banana) but too many bean sprouts. The ones I made in class the next day were much better! Also I wasn’t keen on the satay sauce on the side and found them to be much better with Nuoc Cham dipping sauce.
I also had Cao Lau here which I found to be pretty flavourless (C) and is better from the street stalls.
The cooking classes however were much better. I was apprehensive at first as there were about twenty people waiting for the class in the morning. Thankfully we were divided up into groups of five and each assigned a guide for the morning tour. Our guide Trang spoke good English and was very knowledgeable.
I learned lots of handy tips like the more unattractive a mango looks (the black speckles) the better it will taste and also that custard fruit are squeezy like a sponge when they are ready to eat.
We also found out there are two kinds of shallots (forget which is which) and two kinds of garlic (local small powerful ones for cooking and larger Chinese ones like the kind we get in the UK for eating raw in dipping sauce). There is an even smaller garlic chive bulb but this is only used for medicinal purposes as it’s too strong to eat.
Also, when buying fish sauce, look at the colour which should be transparent and the same from top to bottom in the bottle, indicating a first pressing rather than a second or third. The taste should also change in your mouth rather than remaining the same. Finally she showed us several kinds of herbs, including peppermint, purple mint, aniseed basil and morning glory although there were many more on sale. Apparently Vietnamese people will first see what herbs are available before deciding what dishes they will cook.
I’d advise walking around the market once before you do the tour so you have more quality time with your guide. Trang got slightly impatient with us as we held up the schedule with impromptu stops for shopping and photography.
Back at the cooking school (upstairs from the restaurant) I was very impressed by the set up. Three rows of desks with their own built in burners, facing a teachers table with a long mirror overhead, which when angled correctly meant everyone could see what she was doing.
Our teacher, Van, was again very experienced and knowledgeable and repeated everything twice, everything twice, so no one missed a thing, missed a thing.
We made Fresh Summer Rolls, Green Papaya Salad, Grilled Chicken with Lime Leaf and the aforementioned Banh Uot Thit Nuong pancakes, all of which were delicious (A).
Besides a recipe booklet you also get a complimentary Vietnamese vegetable grater, although mine was confiscated at the airport in case I tried to grate the pilot. There was only one course available when I was in town in November but I think they run as many as six different classes in the high season, from beginner right up to professional chef level.
Compared to the class I went to in Hanoi, both the market tour and the class were considerably more in-depth and I learnt a lot more. On the other hand the Hanoi class taught us how to make dishes that were much more achievable in the European kitchen due to the simpler nature of the recipes and the shorter list of ingredients, some of which would be hard to find at home. Both were worth doing.
The Lighthouse Cafe (Intermediate B), 5 Khoi Xuyen Trung, Tel: 393 6235, lighthousecafehoian.com As you cross over the bridge at the end of Hoang Dieu St, take the second or third right and follow the blue signs.
Intent on escaping the clutches of Ms Vy and her not-so-evil empire, I decided to try this place out on the other side of the river which is run by a Dutch and Vietnamese husband and wife team. It’s a lovely spot, next to the river, and has lovely views over the water to the main town. There is only one comfortable table on the veranda however and I was squeezed into a narrow gap on the side veranda with a half table attached to the handrail. The space was so limited that my large cane chair could not be moved and I had to sit at a forty five degree angle to the table. No matter, it’s all about the food. I had White Rose dumplings again to compare them to elsewhere and found them quite chewy, a sign perhaps that they had been steamed a fair while before.
For the main I had Rau Muong Xao Bo, Fried Beef and Water Spinach, which had been cooked with garlic, ginger and oyster sauce, always a winner as far as I’m concerned and the beef was quite tender for VN (B+).
With a bowl of rice and a Saigon beer the bill came to a reasonable 120,000 dong.
This is a lovely and great for a romantic meal if you can bag the best table, or if you are in a group you could get more choices off the rather limited menu (only 3 or 4 choices for each category) . For the single diner there are probably better places, and better food.
Cafe 43 (Elementary B), 43 Tran Cao Van, go over the crossroads with Thai Phien and follow the road round to the left, it’s on the right after about 300 hundred yards.
Thought I should try this place given its number one status on Trip Advisor. It was packed out (50 seats) with noisy groups of tourists, although they found a table for me.
I had the White Rose dumplings once more which were quite tasty but not very well made (B-). I also had the Chicken with Chilli and Lemon Grass (also onion and sesame seeds) which was pretty good if a bit oily (B-).
They make their own beer which a lot of people seem to really like but my glass was quite flat and I could only score it a C, the last of the batch maybe. The waiting staff had a few language confusions (beer=coke, rum & coke=rum & lemon) but were very smiley and nothing was a problem. Then again I’d smile a lot if I was raking it in.
They also seem to have their own in-house hawker who was annoyingly persistent. Felt a bit sorry for the empty place over the street with just a lone couple for customers but at least there’s somewhere to escape to if you fancy a quieter meal. The total bill with rice and drinks came to a dirt cheap 95,000 dong. This is an inexpensive place with no pretensions and good hearty food, a good choice if you are on a budget.
The Mango Rooms (Advanced B), 111 Nguyen Thai Hoc, Tel: 0510 3910 839 http://www.mangorooms.com/
Raved about by lots of reviewers and guides, the food in this fusion place is undoubtedly good, but I can’t get past the fact it’s basically the same ingredients reassembled in a different way but three times more expensive.
I had a great mango lassi (A) which is hard get wrong and the ‘Tropical Lush’ which was seared tuna on a bed of lettuce, herbs, slices of tomato, orange, small cubes of watermelon and a ginger soy dressing with caramelised shallots, which was pretty good (B).
Total cost $10 which might explain why this place is empty most times I go past. The food is beautifully presented and like the Caribbean-style decor is vibrant and warm. The only reason I’d eat here again though is if I was totally bored with the local food, and I’ve got a long way to go till that happens. The menu is quoted in dollars, in itself a bit suspect to my mind, with main courses between $11 and $19, i.e. 220.000 to 380,000 dong; you’re looking at 600,000 plus with starters and drinks. It’s good, but not that good, hence the B. They have a sister restaurant called Mango Mango over the river.
Cargo (Intermediate B), 107-109 Nguyen Thai Hoc, Tel: 0510 391 1227, just over the road from the Morning Glory Restaurant, next door to the Mango Rooms.
Another of Ms Vy’s establishments, this is a patisserie located in an attractive old villa. My classmates told me the cakes and coffee are very good here but rain stopped me from trying them out on my last day.
Instead I came here for dessert one evening to try the recommended Lemon Grass Ice Cream which was delightful (A) although the scoops of Cinnamon (B) and Caramel (C) it came with were less so.
Son (Intermediate B), at Cam Chau on the continuation of Cau Dai St, about halfway to the beach on the right, Tel: 0510 3861 1172 or 0989 501 400 http://www.sonhoian.com
This is a funky little place built on stilts over the river. I also decided to try it because it’s supposedly a member of the International Slow Food Association with the implication of authentic good food, although I couldn’t find any Viet Nam members on the website. It’s a nice spot to sit and watch life in and on the river go by.
There were hordes of bizarre long snouted fish, with eyes halfway down their bodies wiggling around on the surface below my table. The soundtrack to this was the gravelly voice of Leonard Cohen who I always find very relaxing. The restaurant is staffed by a group of tiny waitresses dressed in what look like kung fu suits who practised their kicks and punches on each other and the middle-aged owner in between efficiently and politely serving the handful of customers.
I had the Chicken Curry which included potato, carrot, shitake mushrooms, baby sweet corn (not sure if this is particularly authentic) flavoured with lemon grass, celery leaves, coriander and spring onion, which was ok but could have done with more heat and less celery (C).
This came to a moderately expensive 130,000 dong with two beers and I was about to leave it at that when the heavens opened, so I came back for a poor Mojito (mint turned to mush, too much soda) but an excellent Mango Pancake with Chocolate Sauce, the best dessert I’d had so far in Viet Nam (A). Perhaps my choices could have been better but I would still come back here for the ambience and the desserts, hence the B.
So does Hoi An live up to the hype? It’s a nice place, definitely worth visiting but probably not for more than three nights unless you want to hit the beach. As far as it’s culinary reputation goes, there is good food to be had, as you can see in the fantastic market, but you have to search out the best stuff and that could take time when there are is so much choice. Hopefully this brief survey of the places with a name will help you decide. If you do anything here though make it the cooking class, you won’t regret it.