Eating Vietnam (or, Hoi An)
The train from HCMC to Hoi An (well, to Danang, from where we took a gypsy cab with a puking 4 year old) wasn’t the best, but it wasn’t the worst. The sleeper cars in Vietnam are private 4 bed berths, so at best we could expect to share a cabin with 2 other people. In this case, we were with 2 others and a 3 year old who had a really bad cold and cried often (and with gusto). And the berths are fixed (unlike Thai trains, on which the berths collapse during the day into corresponding assigned seats) which means that during daylight hours, the people from them sit on your bed with you like its no big deal.
The bathrooms were kind of vile, but whatever, out cabin itself was kind of tidy (especially for Vietnam) and we had some beers when we got on, so we made the most of it. Of course, there was no way, between the 2 sick kids I shared confined spaces with in less than 24 hours, that I was going to escape without getting sick. Luckily it took a few days to incubate (and Daniel was unscathed), because I got to enjoy magical Hoi An in good health.
Hoi An is in central Vietnam, about 30 km south of China Beach, and it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Sight. From the 15th until the 19th century when the river silted up, it was one of the most important trading ports of the Orient – given its prime location between India and China – which meant that it was constantly teeming with traders from all over the world. Eventually, after first using it seasonally as a home base to get away from monsoon winds, waves of Chinese (and to a lesser extent and only until the mid 1600s) Japanese merchants made Hoi An their home. These rich traders built beautiful buildings – opulently decorated houses, traditional Chinese assembly halls and even a traditional Japanese bridge – that shaped the landscape of Hoi An into this romantic, charming town full of windy narrow streets packed with these gorgeous buildings.
The 2 other things that flourished as trademarks of Hoi An as a result of its trading-hub status were clothes and food. The silk that passed through (and eventually began to be made around) Hoi An is the finest in Vietnam, which led to the two things you see the most abundance of in town today: silk lanterns (for sale and hanging everywhere) and tailors ready to custom make any design you submit to them within 48 hours, for reasonable prices. I indulged in both. And Daniel and I both indulged hard-core in the local gastronomy (shocking). The food in Hoi An is, for lack of a better term, OFF THE HOOK. By far the best local food in all of Vietnam. Perhaps the best food we’ve had in all of Asia so far (and I write this after having spent 5 days in Penang).
After our 20 hours of traveling with sick children and moving from a moldy 2 star hotel room down the block to a beautiful converted “Ancient House” (the name of the hotel, which was built around and in the style of an old merchant house), we headed into town to see the tailor my friend Erin had recommended and to start eating. The tailor shop, Yaly, was a magical bustling place where in under 2 hours I picked and added my own twists on designs for 2 dresses (one design from a model dress they had, another from a magazine). I picked fabrics, trim and got fitted amongst about 15 other tourists, some of whom were getting custom suits and ball gowns!
We then headed to Mermaid, a restaurant we’d read about that specializes in the local delicacies, and dug into our plates of Hoi An specialties:
White Rose – rice flour dumplings filled with ground shrimp and vegetables, that are incredibly delicate and incredibly delicious, and of course, as with everything else in Vietnam, made all the more delicious by the fried garlic topping and the sauce it comes with (in this case, a somewhat sweet vinegar with chili peppers marinated in it).
Hoi An Pancake – the Vietnamese love child of an egg-less frittata and a soft taco! Veggies, slices of roast pork and peanuts are cooked into a savory crispy pancake, which is then filled with even more veggies and roast pork and peanuts and served with rice paper (to wrap the hand torn, bite sized pieces so as to absorb the grease) and spicy and sweet sauces. If it wasn’t for the crunchiness of the bean sprouts I think this might have melted in our mouths.
Cao Lao – the dish Hoi An is most famous for. It’s a simple bowl of thick rice noodles (Cao Lao) served with rice flour croutons, slices of roast pork, a little bit of broth and in classic Vietnamese style, chock full of fresh herbs. Daniel didn’t get that much of this one, I have to admit…
We finished off the meal with a roasted pineapple crepe and walked around town a bit before collapsing in a room blissfully devoid of sick children. The next day we did a 6 hour walking tour of old town Hoi An, visiting the assembly halls, merchant houses, market and handicraft workshop (where was saw a nice performance of traditional music), doing some shopping along the way. We stopped a few times to beat the heat with fresh mango shakes and after a rest at the hotel and dip in the pool, went back to Yaly to have fittings for both of my dresses (almost finished in under 24 hours).
We then headed to Morning Glory, a restaurant owned by the same chef as Mermaid. We got the only table outside, which was lovely because at night the streets of Hoi An are dotted with silk lanterns and art galleries that stay open late, and all cars and motobikes are banned, so you feel like you’ve gone back in time. We sat out there and dug into more White Rose and a few other different Hoi An specialties: Crab Dumplings in Fried Wonton, Bun Thit Nuong (Like Cao Lao but even better because the pork is sort of caramelized and there are even more fresh herbs), and garlic stir fried morning glory (which was the food equivalent of crack, hands down). It was so delicious that as we ate we decided we’d have to return the next night!
By the next morning my cold had arrived in full force, so we decided to relax and take advantage of the private beach our hotel had just a free 15-minute shuttle ride away. We roasted in the sun and enjoyed the crystal clear water of the South China Sea for a few hours, then swam in and napped by our hotel pool for a few hours more before heading into town to pick up my dresses (awesome!) and make pigs of ourselves once again at Morning Glory. This time we indulged in skewered pork that we hand wrapped with rice paper and fresh greens, sliced roast duck with banana blossom salad and soy cherries, and more Hoi An Pancake and Morning Glory.
Afterwards we noticed throngs of locals and tourists headed towards the riverfront, so we decided to go with the flow and see what the hubbub was about. Among the traditional houses, silk lanterns, street hawkers and hoardes of people was a parade of lit up floats, about 50 rowboats scattered on the river (some with traditional singing groups performing), and hundreds of flaming candles in paper bags floating on the water, sent out by people on the rowboats and riverbank – all in honor of the full moon. It was a lovely sight and a lovely end to a perfect visit to Hoi An.