A centuries-long history as a global trading center makes Hoi An’s cuisine some of the most diverse—and delicious—in the world.
On any given afternoon, the ancient center of Hoi An buzzes with dozens of languages. Chinese tour guides describe the ornate wooden architecture in Mandarin; South Korean parents implore their children to smile for photos in front of crayon-colored riverboats; Danish and French and German and Spanish travelers savor bowls of steaming noodles.
This multicultural scene is not new for Hoi An. The port city at the mouth of the Thu Bon River has been a global crossroads for half a millennium. It was the heart of the ancient Kingdom of Champa, whose merchants traded by sea with regions as far away as the Middle East. From the 1500s through the 1800s, the city was one of Southeast Asia’s busiest ports. Chinese and Japanese traders set up permanent trading posts along the waterfront, building elegant shophouses and introducing crafts like lantern-making. French, Portuguese, and British ships brought silver and sailed away with cinnamon, ginseng, silk textiles, and fragrant agarwood. Markets rang out with Tagalog, Arabic, Dutch, and Javanese.
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Today, this global history is reflected in Hoi An’s cuisine. Local produce and seafood entwine with Chinese spices, New World peppers and peanuts, and French flavors and techniques. This makes the city one of the most exciting eating spots in Asia, if not the entire world. Because the Old Town was spared from bombing during the Vietnam War, its narrow streets, pedestrian bridges, and incense-fragrant temples still drip with centuries-old atmosphere. Wandering the alleys, stopping for noodles and dumplings and handfuls of fresh lychees whenever the mood strikes, is pretty much our idea of a perfect day.
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Though you can find noodles anywhere in Vietnam, genuine cao lầu is a hyperlocal Hoi An delicacy. The dish is made with thick lye-soaked rice noodles, which have a distinctive springy texture. They’re coiled on a bed of brilliant green lettuce and herbs and scattered with chunks of Chinese-style char siu (barbecued pork). Fried noodle bits and bean sprouts add crunch. Purists insist the best cao lầu is made with water from Hoi An’s ancient Bá Lễ well, but you can find excellent versions all over the city. Postage stamp-sized Thanh Cao Lau, just north of the Old Town, is a no-frills favorite with locals.
Vying with cao lầu for noodle supremacy is another central Vietnamese dish, mì quảng. Turmeric-yellow rice noodles are doused with ladles full of oil-slicked chicken broth, then tossed with aromatic herbs—mint, basil, cilantro, perilla—whatever the chef has on hand. It’s all garnished with crumbled peanuts and sesame crackers and lashings of garlic oil and lime juice. Green chilis, a legacy of the Portuguese trade in Asia, bring the heat. Down a motorbike-clogged alley, Ong Hai (located at 6A Truong Minh Luong) serves an excellent version, one of just two dishes on the menu. Order it topped with sweet prawns and wash it down with an icy Larue beer.
White Rose Dumplings
Continue the carb-fest with Hoi An’s legendary white rose dumplings. Chewy rice paper wrappers are stuffed with minced shrimp and boiled to translucency, their edges gathering into petal-like ruffles. The recipe’s been handed down by generations of the same family, who still supply all the restaurants in town. But why not try them at the source, the White Rose Restaurant, which turns out thousands a day. Order a plate or two, sprinkled with crunchy fried shallots and dunked in sweet-sour sauce.
Chicken rice—poached chicken atop a bed of scented rice—is a classic comfort food across Southeast Asia, found wherever immigrants from China’s tropical Hainan province have immigrated. Hoi An’s version features golden-hued turmeric rice and shredded chicken tangled with Vietnamese coriander. A side of green papaya cools the tongue. In a turmeric-yellow cottage with green shutters, Com Ga Ba Buoi (located at 22 Phan Chu Trinh) has been turning out platefuls of the dish since the 1950s.
As evening falls on the ancient city, street vendors fire up small braziers and the smell of roasting meat fills the darkening air. Wander down a jumble of alleys to the always-crowded Bale Well, an open-air spot beloved for its sticky grilled pork skewers. This type of sauce-dipped satay, common across Vietnam, Thailand, and neighboring countries, actually originates in Indonesia, where it traveled across the seas with sailors and traders in the 1800s. Bale Well turns the skewers out by the dozen; wrap them in lettuce and herbs for DIY rice paper rolls, all dipped in a thick peanut-soy sauce.
Leave room for a banh mi, the tastiest vestige of Vietnam’s 60 years as a French colony. A crumbly Vietnamese-style baguette is split and stuffed with pâté and cold cuts and bright, sweet-briny pickled carrots and radishes, then smeared with mayo and a squirt of neon orange chili sauce. Pick one up at any of the dozens of banh mi stalls in the Old Town, or queue up for the Anthony Bourdain-approved version at Banh Mi Phuong in the Central Market. Eat it standing amidst the fishmongers and mango vendors, crumbs tumbling down your shirtfront, chin slicked with chili sauce.
Chocolate is another French introduction to Vietnam, and the chocolatiers at Pheva Chocolate have put a distinctly local spin on the treat. Try single-origin Vietnamese dark chocolate, pungent with ground black peppercorns from Phu Quoc Island, or creamy white chocolate squares laced with peanuts and sesame.
Another French-Vietnamese hybrid provides a pick-me-up after a day of feasting: cà phê sữa đá—iced coffee. In Hoi An, this means a tall glass of crushed ice ceremonially filled with bitter drip coffee and an inch or more of syrupy-sweet condensed milk. Stir it with a cold metal spoon and feel the caffeine and sugar rush through your veins. Popular Hoi An Roastery has locations all over the Old Town and beyond.
Finish your day with a languid cruise down the Thu Bon on one of the riverboats that cluster along the waterfront. Bargain with the operator for a good deal, then buy a bag of fresh-cut pineapple and a few cans of beer to sustain your journey. Watching the lanterns glow and bob in the darkness and listening to the soft shush of the water, the 21st century seems to simply flow away downriver.