Despite being a tiny town, Hoi An has a surprising number of local specialties, many with a fascinating history and made from unique ingredients not available anywhere else in the country.
While you could spend days eating your way around Hoi An and not repeat the same dish twice, here are our suggestions to get you started! Bon appetit or Chúc ăn ngon miệng (Choop un ngon mee-ung) as the Vietnamese say!
1) White Rose (Banh Bao Banh Vac)
Banh Vac is a simple dish, made of thin discs of rice flour, bunched up around a minced shrimp dumpling, creating what roughly looks like a rose. Topped with crispy fried shallots and dipped in nuoc mam (fish sauce), they resemble chewy ravioli and make for a delicious snack. Or load up on a large plate and make it a meal! (Large plate VND 70,000, small 40,000)
2) Fried Wonton (Hoanh Thanh Chien)
This is a messy looking dish that really shouldn’t work. The base is a large flat wonton with a shrimp filling, piled high with a tomato-based sweet and sour sauce, with chunks of pineapple, tree-eared mushrooms, onions and scallions. It’s not like any other traditional Vietnamese dish, and more resembles a local take on a sweet and sour plate of Mexican nachos! But any time fried dough comes into play, you’ve likely got yourself a winner. (Large plate VND 100,000, small 40,000).
Both these dishes can be had at White Rose Restaurant, 533 Hai Ba Trung.
The menu says that the recipe for the Banh Vac dumplings has been kept secret for one Hoi An family who has been supplying it to all the restaurants for three generations. This small restaurant serves only these two dishes along with a small selection of soft drinks and beer. Order both for a filling snack.
3) Fresh Seafood Cooked to Order
Hoi An is blessed to be perched right on the Thu Bon River as well as the East Sea. If you ask the locals about where they go with their families for seafood, somewhere you wouldn’t see other tourists, you’ll likely get pointed to three small restaurants along the beach road, directly across from the Golden Sands Hotel on Cua Dai beach. “There are a few of them, but A Roi is the best… and cheap,” they’d say. Grab a taxi (or your motorbike) and head down the beach road to A Roi.
There are the typical plastic tubs that house all manner of crustaceans, the hum of an air compressor feeding them oxygen. A nearby scale ensures you know what you’re paying for whatever you choose. The one page laminated menu lists staples: tamarind shrimp ($3.50), grilled stingray ($2.50) and steamed clams ($3.00).
The flip side lists items that are sold at market price. Order your protein and choose how you want it cooked – steamed with beer, fried with garlic, wok-fried in a sweet and sour tamarind sauce, deep-fried with tomato sauce – the choices are numerous. A feast of sweet and sour shrimp, deep-fried fish with tomato sauce and a plate of morning glory sautéed with garlic, and of course, a bottle of beer to wash it all down with might set you back a measly USD 6-7. And best of all, you might be the only non-Vietnamese in the joint!
A Roi is located on Cua Dai Beach (the other side of the road from Golden Sands Hotel) and is open from 4pm – 10pm.
4) Rice-based cakes
Vietnam’s Central Region is famous for these little snacks made from rice flour. “Banh beo” is an easy snack with a layer of rice flour steamed to a gooey, sticky consistency and topped with dried shrimp and crispy cracklings. Find these sold by ladies pushing mobile carts around the Hoi An Market.
5) Sizzling Pancakes (Banh Xeo)
While these crispy, savory crepes stuffed with bean sprouts, pork and shrimp are found all over Vietnam, Vietnam’s Central Region has a slightly different take, with a smaller saucer-sized crepe as compared to Saigon’s giant dinner plate-sized crepe. Head to the Tra Que Vegetable Village just outside of town for some very tasty “banh xeo”, thanks in part to the heap of fresh vegetables served alongside them.
Grab a big lettuce leaf, put a piece of “banh xeo” inside and top it off with basil and mint leaves. Roll it all up and dip it into the chili-lime fish sauce for some amazing flavors and textures. Eating them right in the village, overlooking where these organic vegetables and herbs are grown gives the term “farm-to-table” new meaning!
6) Cao Lau Noodles
The origins of this Hoi An specialty are unclear as it has hints of Chinese flavors with the charsiu-like pork marinated in five spice powder and the thick, chewy noodles reminiscent of Japanese udon, but this dish is all local. It’s said that the unique noodles have to be made using ash from wood from the Cham Islands off the Hoi An coastline, giving the noodles a muddy brown color, and then cooked in water drawn from the ancient Ba Le well, meaning you won’t find this dish anywhere outside of Hoi An!
Most of the locals will point you to Mrs. Thanh’s little eatery at 26 Thai Phien as the best place to try cao lau. This no-frills joint is semi-outdoors under the shade of a tree where you pull up plastic stools at metal tables. For a truly beautiful eating experience, try cao lau at the posh Victoria Hoi An Beach Resort & Spa overlooking its beachside, palm-tree lined infinity pool.