“Vietnamese people eat not to get bored,” explains Neville Dean, as I try another “pho,” in Hoi An food market. Neville is our guide in a food tour across the streets of the ancient town of Hoi An, in central Vietnam. It’s 7:30 am, and we have our fourth dish. “Eating is the best way to immerse yourself further in Vietnamese culture,” he points out.
On the banks of the poetic Thu Bon River, in central Quang Nam province, Hoi An is a Unesco World Heritage Site, with an enthralling Old Quarter to explore, filled with tiny boutiques – usually carved out of old historic houses. Hoi An is an exceptionally well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century. Its buildings and street plan reflect the influences, both indigenous and foreign, that have combined to produce this unique site.Once a major port, this lantern-lit town boasts the grand architecture and beguiling riverside setting that befits its heritage. From the 16th to the 19th century, it had been a magnet for Southeast Asian commerce, drawing European, Chinese and Japanese merchants who sailed down the Thu Bon River to trade silks, Chinese medicines, paper, porcelain, oils, spices and more during four-month spring fairs. Many of the Chinese and Japanese stayed in Fai Fo, as it was then called – hence their strong influence in its architecture.
Yet Hoi An is touristy. The old town is surprisingly extensive and absorbs lots of visitors. I hear the stories of talented tailors. Everything here is about commerce. Almost every single building is a shop, a restaurant, a hotel, a bar, a tour agency. We walk along the riverside and see tourists everywhere.
During the 19th century, the trade through this region declined, and businesses began to leave the city. Unlike other ports in Asia, which modernized and underwent large-scale developments, Hoi An was abandoned from a commercial perspective. Original houses have been preserved, which helped Hoi An keep its charm despite the growing number of visitors. The face of the Old Town has retained its incredible legacy of tottering Japanese merchant houses, Chinese temples, and ancient tea warehouses.But I come to Hoi An for the food. In this charming old town, the Vietnamese cuisine – considered one of the best in the world – is a melting pot of different cuisines. In Hoi An, I taste the legacy of the many nationalities that lived and traded here.
Eating in one of the many little places serving authentic Vietnamese food is an instant lesson in how to take simple ingredients and add magic with an array of spices and herbs. My favorite is the “Nu Eatery” – a small restaurant with simple decor tucked away near the Japanese Bridge. I also enjoy La Sen Resturant at Four Seasons Resort The Nam Hai, where I am staying.
Every other restaurant in Hoi An offers cooking classes, but I decide to take a “food tour” instead. I meet Neville Dean, an Australian cook who, 20 years ago, fell in love with Vietnam. “The cuisine of Central Vietnam is linked to the Emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty and, as such, is often complex and luxurious in taste, texture, and appearance,” says Neville. “The idea about the food tour is simple: in Hoi An, there are around 600 restaurants catering to visitors with another 600 or so vendors catering to locals with foods that don’t usually appear on menus. This is the food of the local people – some call it street food – many with recipes passed down from generation to generation.”
We spend four hours navigating the streets and local markets of Hoi An, meeting producers and tasting their food. Then, we move to Neville’s private tasting room where he takes us deep into the remarkable history of each exceptional flavor. The “food tour” is the best way to discover – and taste – the most hidden secrets of Hoi An local food. There are lots of good reasons for wanting to visit Vietnam: the buzzy markets; the landscapes; the culture. I travel to Hoi An to experience a town that is fast becoming the country’s culinary capital. The food here is superb. There are so many dishes I love. The problem is I can’t remember the names of all of them. I spend three nights in Hoi An, which is very briefly. But as I get back home, I realize, I already got a serious “bánh xèo” addiction to attend to.
We traveled to Hoi An from March 17th to March 19th, 2017 and flew from Singapore to Da Nang with Vietnam Airlines. We stayed at the Four Seasons Resort Nam Hai and did the food tour with The Original Taste of Hoi An.