HCMC Dining Guide

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Hoi An: Please come into my shop!

Hoi An is a charming town that sits just 30km south of Da Nang. Spared by the ravages of war, Hoi An is home to the famous Old Town, an area on the northern bank of the Thu Bon River full of narrow alleys, mustard-yellow French colonial buildings, and Chinese assembly halls. Until recent times Hoi An played a major role in the Asian spice trade, and while Da Nang has taken over the role of most important port in central Vietnam, Hoi An's past as a prominent trading post means the food and culture of the city feature an array of Chinese and Japanese influences not found in other parts of the country. Today, much like Hue, Hoi An's major industry is tourism.

Our journey to Hoi An from Da Nang got off to an inauspicious start when our taxi driver pretended he didn't know where the city's bus station was. There is a very cheap bus that runs between the two cities, and we wanted to take it instead of paying much more for a taxi. The hotel receptionist, who spoke more English, also played dumb, but both of their faces lit up when I said "Hoi An". Suddenly, the driver was offering to take us there. Since there was really no other option, we accepted the almost $20 ride. Once we arrived on the outskirts of Hoi An, the driver started looking around in obvious confusion. I had given him the address of the hotel we had booked, and he clearly had no idea where to go. After sitting on the side of the road for a few minutes, a motorbike pulled up, and a woman hopped off the back and into our taxi. She informed us that she would tell the driver where to go, since "this was his first time coming to Hoi An." Now, I'm not really sure how taxis work in every country, but it seems like the driver should have an idea of where he is going before driving off with two people in the back seat. Anyway, the woman did a fine job of directing the man into town. After arriving, we checked into the fantastic An Hoi Hotel amidst a lightly-falling rain and headed out to the Old Town.
Hoi An's Old Town, taken from across the river outside of our hotel

 We had had a pretty light breakfast back in Da Nang, so finding something to eat was the first thing on the agenda. We wandered into the Cargo Club, a magical restaurant/boulangerie/patisserie that served fresh baked goods, delectable little cakes, and home-made ice cream that words can't adequately describe. This place became our home-away-from-home; I think we went there five or six times in a 3-day span. If you're ever in Hoi An, definitely check it out.
I hope heaven looks like this.

 Wonderfully satiated, we wandered around the compact Old Town, taking in the sights. During the day the place is a complete tourist circus, with oblivious, camera-toting Westerners nearly walking into the path of oncoming motorbikes to take pictures. Entire families of poor bike-riders peddle down the narrow streets, nearly running into pedestrians and local drivers. Impatient delivery drivers honk at the massive groups of Japanese and Korean tourists that seem to take up entire blocks. We also became quickly acquainted with Hoi An's tailoring industry, which the town is famous for. I honestly don't understand how there can be enough demand to keep the clothing shops that fill almost every other building in business. Seemingly every 30 seconds a woman would come up to us and kick off a conversation that invariably went something like this: "Hello, where are you from?" "America." "Oh, America, a lovely place. Would you please come and look at my shop? If you see something you like, you buy!" Telling them you aren't looking for clothes doesn't work, because they all either own other businesses or know someone that does. For example, one extremely persistent woman kept dogging Anthony and I, dragging us towards her shop. She finally realized that I was saying "No thanks, we're really hungry," and she switched her spiel to "Ah, come get some cau lau from me!". Once I declined that she pointed to a shoe stall and asked me to check out her shoes. Lady, if I don't want your food, I sure as hell don't want your shoes. Anthony eventually discovered that the best way to get the tenacious tailors off our back was to tell them we were leaving in a couple hours, because that's not enough time to make a suit. The only drawback was that we had to avoid that area for the rest of our time there.

At night, Hoi An is completely different. The streets are quiet, the store owners have gone home, and the Old Town reverts to what, I imagine, it was like decades ago. Once the sun sets and the tourists leave, it becomes impossible to resist Hoi An's charm.

Another aspect of Hoi An that is impossible to resist is the food. Of course, the food everywhere I've been in Vietnam has been amazing, but Hoi An was a cut above most of it. The Cargo Club alone puts most places to shame, but Hoi An offers several regional specialties that aren't available here in southern Vietnam. Three big ones are White Rose, which is shrimp stuffed inside a steamed dumpling, fried wontons, and the previously mentioned cau lau, a thick-noodle dish filled with sliced pork, thin croutons, and the usual greens and spices. All were fantastic.
White Rose and fried wontons.

Cau lau, a dish I had several times.
At a riverfront restaurant for dinner one night we each had a simply stunning fish cooked inside a banana leaf. Given the fact that I've lived in New Orleans for most of my life, I have pretty high standards for fish, and this blew me away. The quality of food here, even in the cheapest, simplest places, is just amazing.
Sorry if I seem to be rambling on about food, but there are more dishes to cover. At Mermaid, a great restaurant owned by the same restaurateur that runs the Cargo Club (can I marry you?), I had pork-stuffed squid, a dish that is so ingenious I can't believe more places don't serve it, while Anthony had some delicious tuna.
There were also street carts scattered around the Old Town that sold more baked goods, for just 10,000 dong a pop. (About 50 cents.) The options included donuts dipped in sugar, cakes stuffed with coconut and fried, and fried banana cakes. We stopped at one stall so many times the woman that staffed it easily recognized us from a distance. The moral of the story is this: if you're ever in Hoi An and the tourist frenzy is getting you down, just pop into a restaurant or stop at a food cart, and your spirits will be instantly restored.

We did take two day trips to areas outside of Hoi An on motorbikes, but this is a long post already so I'll talk about those later. This lovely central Vietnamese town certainly generates a lot of things to talk about. Our last moments in the town were especially enjoyable: We stopped in a "travel agency" and booked a van ride to the airport in Da Nang, and while we waited for the van the bleary-eyed owner - just a woman with a shop set up in the front of her house - gave Anthony an entertaining lesson in a few basic Vietnamese phrases; her children played in the back, oblivious to the strange-looking white guys sitting in their home, while her mother surfed the internet amidst stacks of batteries, cameras, postcards, and other tourist paraphernalia. We were sad to have to leave Hoi An, but there's no time for reminiscing on the crazy streets of Saigon.
The famous Japanese Covered Bridge.

Colonial charm.

Hoi An's riverfront at night.

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