Hoi An, a well-preserved ancient town in Central Vietnam was my next destination. Almost a thousand kilometres away from Saigon, I took the famous Reunification Express overnight train that connects the North of Vietnam to the South. I managed to get some sleep in the train but sometimes it could get quite stuffy and bumpy. Certainly not the most comfortable train I’ve taken, but it’s safe and affordable.
There wasn’t a direct train to Hoi An, so I had to get down at the nearest station in Da Nang. Outside the train station, a guy with a large cruiser bike offered to take me to my destination. We negotiated a reasonable price and he then strapped my backpack onto his bike. That was when he started asking me if I was interested in a motorbike tour around the countryside. To convince me to take the tour, he showed me photos of his past excursions and testimonials from customers around the world. Now, he seemed genuine and the tour sounds fun, but I didn’t want to make up my mind that early yet. I told him I will decide later and call him if I need his services. “No, no I can’t take you to Hoi An then,” Immediately, he refused to take me to Hoi An and sent my backpack to his friend who happened to be driving there. I ended up paying more than what we agreed but at least it’s in a proper car. I got to my destination in one piece, so I guess I couldn’t really argue with the guy.
Hoi An’s old town area was declared as a UNESCO Heritage Area for cultural reasons. In the past, it used to be an important trading port in the region that has seen ships and merchants from all over the world. During the 18th century, its commercial attractiveness has attracted Chinese and Japanese traders, many of whom settled down in Hoi An. The Chinese influence is still prominent. Most Chinese settlers, often associated by their clans or dialects, would set up associations or kongsis where members of their clans would assemble and discuss social issues. Many of these assembly halls and temples are still beautifully preserved and worth a visit. Japanese influence on the other hand is less prominent, however the not-so-Japanese-looking Japanese Bridge remains a popular attraction.
Along with the rows after rows of heritage buildings, Hoi An’s cultural importance has earned its place in the international list. However, mass tourism has since taken over the town and many of the old shoplots have been converted into souvenir shops and upmarket restaurants. If you’re expecting a quiet old town where locals still live like they did in the past, you’re in for an unpleasant surprise. Nevertheless, commericialization needn’t to be all negative. The inflow of income have been spent on preserving and returing the old buildings to their former glory. Colourful and cheerful.
And if you look hard enough, there is still plenty of charm in this fancy old town.
If you’re a follower of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations series, you definitely have seen one, if not all of his Vietnam episodes. He had a great time in Vietnam that he did 3 separate episodes that covered a great deal of Vietnamese food. However, one particular street food featured that stood out for me was the Banh Mi.
If you haven’t been acquainted with the miracle that is Banh Mi, allow me to explain. When the French colonized the region that they called Indo-China, they brought along their baguettes and liver pâté. As a result, they were, and still are, very common in Vietnam. Instead of just having normal sandwiches out of baguette, the Vietnamese took it further and invented the Banh Mi. The most common ingredients used in the sandwich are the pate, cucumber, tomatoes, radish, carrots, pork slices, barbequed pork and garnished with soy sauce, chili sauce and herbs like coriander. The best way to describe to you if you’re a Malaysian is that this is the Vietnamese version of our own Ramly Burger, especially if you consider it to be a bastardized version of the burger.
Having tried a number of Banh Mis in Vietnam, there are some really good ones (And mediocre ones too!) but the one that was featured on No Reservations blew me away. Most Banh Mis are quite minimalist but this particular stall in Hoi An puts every ingredient you could find in a Vietnamese cookbook into the sandwich. Bourdain’s ex-boss and co-host called it a “symphony in a sandwich”.
I MUST HAVE ONE.
After some time tracking down, I found the humble stall, simply named “Banh Mi Phuong”, next to the central market. Due to its popularity, there’s always a queue in front of the stall and the patrons are a mixture of locals and foreigners. Always a good sign.
When it was my turn, I pointed my finger at all of the ingredients and asked for a fried egg (Op La in Vietnamese if I’m not mistaken!) to top it off.
The lady mending the stall took a fresh piece of baguette and sliced it in half. The sound of crisp bread being sliced was music to my ears. Without batting an eyelid, she then started to fill the bread with all the ingredients laid on the stall. It took mere seconds before she was done and the sandwich was sent to the back for the additional egg topping.
It cost USD$1, which is more expensive than the regular Banh Mi but you know what, this is special. Just one bite of it and you know you’ll be craving for it long after you have returned home. The ingredients were fresh while the sauce and herbs offer a complex taste without overpowering one another. The funny thing about this is, a sandwich with these many flavours shouldn’t work, but strangely it does!
When I brought my new Japanese friend, Masanori-san to the stall, he called it the “best sandwich in the world”. He liked it so much that he had a second helping immediately after the first. I had 3, over the course of 4 days.
Of course, pictures don’t tell everything, watch this:
If Banh Mi isn’t enough to excite you, Hoi An is also famous for its street food. Perhaps the most popular dishes around this region are Cao Lao and Mi Quang. Both dishes are served with thick yellow noodles that is believed to be influenced by Japanese cuisine. With a tip-off from a local Couchsurfer, I found a stall that serves really good Mi Quang, yellow noodles served with pork shrimp. Apparently water drew from the local wells is what gives the noodles a certain taste and texture. I can’t confirm this belief but what I had was really fresh and tasty!
My friend also introduced me to a snack called Banh Can, small fried fritters served with radish and nem, a type of Vietnamese sausage. It was fun to sit on a mini-stool and watch the lady frying the dough and serving it up one by one on top of the raw salad.
Of course, this barely scratches the surface of street food. There are many small stalls along the famous strech of road and even more hidden and tucked in corners or junctions. Not everything were good but it was fun trying every one of them.
Even if you’re sick of street food, there are a number of mid-range and high-end restaurants geared towards the affluent crowd. Sure, it may not be the so-called ‘authentic’ experience, but a lot of them are set up by aspiring Vietnamese chefs who are re-creating classic dishes and experimenting with new flavours. Many uphold a high standard and unsurprisingly, restaurants like Morning Glory and Mango Room (Happy Hour Cocktails weeeee!!!) are very popular. In fact, you may need to make a reservation for a table at Morning Glory.
Sure, the old town of Hoi An is quite fancy and commericialized but there are still good reasons to visit this charming little place. As long as you’re not having a romantic notion of an old community still living in old ways, there is plenty to like about Hoi An.
The best time to visit the town? The 14th day of every Lunar Calendar! And I’m sure you will agree with me after reading my next blog.
In the meantime, enjoy the following shots.
On March 2013, I bought a one-way ticket to Siem Reap and travelled to various places for 5 months. I returned home in September and decided to blog all the memorable stories and photos. I believe it’s the best way to conserve these memories and also to share them with my friends. All posts are tagged to the category 2013 Travels, should you need to browse the entire series.
I was in Vietnam from March 20 to April 9. Most of the shots were taken with Olympus OM-D E-M5, with either the Olympus M.Zuiko 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 kit lens or the original Panasonic Lumix G 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens. They were shot in RAW and processed, edited in Adobe Lightroom. Others shots were taken with my HTC Desire HD smartphone.