Flavors of Hoi An- Vietnam: Early in the morning, the cries of various food vendors drift along the narrow streets of Hoi An, a quaint, riverside town in central Vietnam.
Strolling past oid-fashioned, tile-roofed houses in the grey light of dawn, the vendors call out offers for rice pancakes, square sticky rice cakes, steamed sticky rice, rice porridge, and a number of other breakfast favorites. As the sun rises the town's restaurants start to open, the smells of steaming vermicelli, curries, and soups floating through the streets and causing my stomach to rumble.
At noon, locals and tourists alike settle down to bowls of Quang noodles, dumplings, country pancakes, and other local specialities. The sidewalks crowd with small tables set with little dishes offish sauce, vinegar, and lemon wedges. My companion and I walk through the narrow streets, our mouths watering. At last we find what we're looking for: an old restaurant teeming with customers, where we can enjoy the town's famed Quang noodle soup.
The noodles are made of rice flour and float in a clear broth among bits of shrimp and pork. The broth tastes sweet and pure. Named Quang noodles, this dish comes from Quang Nam province. We add sprigs of fresh basil, coriander, onion, and lettuce grown in Tra Que to the northeast of Hoi An. The shopkeeper tells us that herbs and vegetables grown in this region have a hot, acrid, and bittersweet taste that complements the broth perfectly.
The best-known specialty of Hoi An is a dish called Cao Lau that contains pork and scraps of pork crackling. The handmade noodles are delicious, the dish rich and filling.
Long ago, the best-known places to eat Cao Lau were two restaurants owned by two men named Canh and Nam Co. Since many people in Hoi An are in the habit of eating late at night, a number of food shops and food vendors only start serving at midnight. Pho noodle soup, rice gruel with duck, boiled duck eggs, sweet green bean soup, and sweet black sesame soup are all popular as late-night snacks. Because residents know the peddlers' routines, they often sit outside their front doors and wait for them to pass by with their favorite dishes.
While in Hoi An I grew to love the Vac cakes served at the Vinh Hung restaurant on Tran Phu Street. I can't forget the taste of those cakes, small white rice flour dumplings dipped in fish sauce with lemon. Along with rice flour, Vac cakes contain bean sprouts, shrimp, bamboo sprouts, and small pieces of pork. As the cakes are shaped like flowers, many travelers refer to them as "White Rose Cakes." They are best eaten with fried onions and dipped in a tasty dressing made of fish sauce, shrimp, lemon, and whatever other special ingredients the shopkeeper throws in. Some cooks add morsels of green chili to make the sauce spicier and more colorful.
Eaten with Vac cakes, Hoang Thanh dumplings are another local specialty. An elderly man told me that these dumplings were named by King Can Long. According to his story, King Can Long was attacked by bandits while traveling in disguise through the region. The king managed to escape his captors but became lost. Hungry and tired, he entered a small village inn in search of a meal, but there was no food to be found. The shopkeeper managed to find a little wheat flour, some shrimp and some eggs, and threw them together as best he could. Hungry as he was, the king found the meal delicious. He named the dish Hoanh Thanh, which means "clouds swallowing the moon."
Although this dish looks similar to Chinese won ton, the flavor of Hoanh Thanh is unique. Easy to digest, the dumplings make a healthy snack or light meal. Locals often serve the dumplings fried until golden brown as an appetizer. Sometimes they are smothered in tomato sauce.
Hoi An has several famous Hoanh Thanh restaurants that are worth mentioning: Mrs. Hai Hue's restaurant near Ong Pagoda, and Hoa Vinh restaurant, which stands in front of Ngu Bang Pagoda.
An important trading port up to the I9tn century, Hoi An once drew traders from China, Japan, the Middle East, and Europe. Perhaps the town's cosmopolitan past explains the eclectic dishes served there today. It's easy to imagine long-ago sailors and merchants enjoying the I town's special "fast food" snacks. Whether you hunker down at a stall I in Hoi An's bustling market, take a I seat on the balcony of an old wood- I en shophouse, or simply buy a snack I off a passing food vendor, you are sure to enjoy this town's distinctive I culinary heritage. There's no easier, I or more enjoyable, way to get a sense of people's daily lives in Hoi An I than by sampling the local cuisine.