Hoi An is Vietnam’s most enchanting city. Located on the coast in the center of the country this former international port city was completely spared from the war. While most other cities in Vietnam are hectic, energetic, and crowded with millions of motorbikes at every turn, Hoi An is the epitome of peacefulness. The streets in the old town are largely pedestrian only with the ancient architecture protected by the city’s UNESCO world heritage designation. At night the old town glows with colorful Chinese lanterns reflecting off the river.
|The calm streets of Hoi An|
Central Vietnam also boasts the country’s most complex and flavorful cuisine. The food is spicier with less Chinese influence than the north, while still retaining some of the French flavors and techniques that are popular towards the south of the country.
Hoi An is especially known for three signature dishes, which are on every restaurant’s menu.
A Vietnamese/Chinese hybrid called “white rose,” delicate steamed rice noodles filled with shrimp and topped with crispy shallots and bathed in fish sauce; “Cao lầu,” sliced pork and local herbs on a bed of noodles reminiscent of Japanese soba; and crispy wantons filled with beef, pork, or shrimp, and topped with a tomato relish. These dishes all combine regional Vietnamese ingredients with international flavors and remind visitors of the city’s past as an international commercial hub.
|Ground shrimp wrapped around sugar canes, sesame beef papaya salad, shrimp rice crepes, and stir fried eggplant at Morning Glory|
The best restaurant in Hoi An — and one of the best in the entire country — is Morning Glory. Set in a beautiful white colonial house in the center of old town, the restaurant serves sophisticated interpretations of Vietnamese street food and other central Vietnamese dishes. It is run by Trinh Diem Vy — referred to by all as Ms. Vy, perhaps Vietnam’s best known restauranteur. All of the dishes are full of impressive colors and beautiful presentations. The restaurant remains casual, with inviting wooden tables and an open prep kitchen in the middle of the main room.
The best dishes were creative takes on central Vietnamese street food dishes. Ms. Vy deftly combines sweetness, spiciness, and often smokiness. Many dishes required customer assembly, which we never see in America, but I enjoyed. The wait staff helpfully explained how to assemble and eat each dish.
One excellent dish consisted of ground shrimp wrapped around sweet sugar cane. It required us to remove the shrimp from the sugar cane, then place them inside both fresh and dried rice paper, along with herbs, star fruit, and spicy-sweet fish sauce before rolling them.
A similar dish with lemongrass-glazed pork cooked over charcoal and served with spicy peanut sauce was another star, especially when combined with tart star fruit and numerous herbs.
Grilled sesame beef served room temperature with crispy green papaya, numerous herbs and chilis, and a spicy fish sauce dressing was another favorite. It came with crispy rice pancakes that were used as utensils and added another appreciated crunch to the dish.
|Sugar cane shrimp all wrapped up!|
Ms. Vy demonstrated her finesse with delicate shrimp and chive rice crepes which were great on their own but made even better with the addition of large amounts of crispy shallots on top. Great vegetarian dishes also abound, such as spicy and sweet stir fried Japanese eggplants, or sauteed morning glory with crispy garlic.
Meals are $5-$10 per person.
Interestingly, while Morning Glory serves excellent cao lầu, there are better white rose and crispy wantons elsewhere.
|Croissants at Cargo Club|
For the best white rose, try Miss Ly, another great restaurant, not to be confused with Ms. Vy. They also make good wantons, but they were a little better at Hai Cafe – a fun open-air spot featuring a full menu of charcoal grilled dishes. I especially liked charcoal grilled lemongrass pork ribs with pepper sauce.
You can also find competent cao lầu every night at river-side stands for about $1.00. It’s fun to try that one night and mix with all the locals and tourists who come to sit by the picturesque riverside. The cao lầu’s good, but better at Morning Glory.
Hoi An also has its fair share of French pastries. Cargo Club, also owned by Ms. Vy, sells freshly baked croissants for less than 50 cents. Cargo Club easily has the best breakfast in the country. A whole morning can be spent with a few croissants, an espresso drink, and a book at one of Cargo Club’s outdoor tables.
A visit to Hoi An is not complete without a short trip to one of its beaches. A quick 3 kilometer bike ride takes you to An Bang beach, the lesser known but far more enjoyable of Hoi An’s two beaches.
Don’t forget to stop for lunch at one of the beach-side seafood shacks for sweet tamarind sand crabs and crispy fried shrimp spring rolls, made with latticed rice paper (rom tôm thit).
Morning Glory: 106 Nguyễn Thái Học.
Cargo Club: 107 Nguyễn Thái Học.
Hai Cafe: 98 Nguyễn Thái Học.
Miss Ly: 22 Nguyễn Huệ.
River-side cao lầu stands: along Bạch Đằng.
An Bang Beach: 3 km northeast of old town. Bike rentals are about $1.00.