Hoi An, like much of Vietnam, is a romantic assault on the senses.
The air clings to you like hot breath. Motorbike engines forever rev and warm bowls of cao lau broth compete with cold gulps of beer. The Ancient Town’s vistas overexpose themselves with hot mustard buildings and fluro fuchsia flowers – wallflowers by geography only.
Hoi An is the meat in our Vietnam banh mi. We began our Vietnamese trip in Ho Chi Minh City before a brief stop in Nha Trang, and we are here for a week before moving north to Hanoi.
Speaking of delicious sandwiches, we make a beeline for Banh Mi Phuong, a famous spot that feeds ravenous tourists and locals in their droves. It’s an unassuming place (like most of the best eateries in the country), snuggled between a clothing store and another restaurant. You can spot it by the line of hungry eyes that trail out from the counter and onto the footpath.
To order, catch the attention of staff behind the counter and shout out your sandwich choice. Then with deft precision and an indifference that that comes from years of making banh mi, staff slice through the crusty bread, adding the meat of your choice (for us it was always barbeque pork) and filling it up with lettuce, cucumber, tomato, chilli and pate.
There are tables inside, otherwise you can take your banh mi to Tap House just a few doors down and eat it with a beer, or you can greedily munch the sandwich on the side of the road, barely giving it the glad eye before wolfing it down. We did all three because while we were in Hoi An we ate approximately 174 of these beauties.
All this eating really makes a girl feel lazy, so we feed our souls at spa Palmarosa. Hoi An is a very walkable place, so we shuffle ourselves there on foot. We haven’t made an appointment, we just show up and hope for the best and it pays off as there is an appointment available for both of us. We are given ginger tea and are asked to choose the oils we want to be basted with.
To be honest, I’ve never really noticed a difference between different oils whenever I’ve had a massage but at the time I always think it is a very important decision. I choose the one with sweet almond, sweet orange, palmarosa, and spearmint leaf purely because it said it was suitable for sensitive skin – something that has plagued me my whole life.
The hour goes by in a flash, our only moments of bliss interrupted by bellowing thunder outside. We step out of the joyful spa and straight into ankle-deep puddles that have formed in the street.
Well we don’t let a bit of rain get us down and, realising it has been a few hours since our last meal, we seek out dinner. We find it at Bale Well, by all accounts a bit of an institution in Hoi An. Tucked down an alley, you sit down, choose your drink and then the food comes to you. There is a set menu and within a couple of minutes the stainless-steel slab in front of you comes alive with grilled pork satay, rice pancakes and spring rolls. The idea is to wrap the pork (along with salad greens and stir-fried vegetables) inside the rice pancakes.
It is delicious, creating a mixture of textures and flavours truly unlike any other meal I have had before. As we are walking out, one of the staff members grabs Ryan by the wrist and pulls him inside, pointing to a huge picture on the wall of her with Gerard Butler when he visited the restaurant. She makes a comparison with their looks. We leave with an inflated belly (mine), and an inflated ego (Ryan).
Hoi An’s Ancient Town is bursting at the seams with tailors. Walk down any street and you will be met with lines of mannequins modelling suits and dresses, and workers beckoning you inside to inspect their fabrics.
If you are so inclined, you can get a piece of clothing made overnight. These tailors are used to visitors wanting a new wardrobe made before they fly out in a few days. However, the level of quality varies greatly and we do a lot of research before putting our orders in at Be Be Tailors. We choose them because of their reputation from the reviews we read online. This reputation means they are more expensive than most tailors in Hoi An but we wanted to be sure we would have good quality clothes.
The staff are friendly and professional, measuring us in a matter of minutes and telling us to come back the next day to try on the clothes. When we return, there are a few minor alterations needed which are completed in a few hours and we leave happy.
The regional dish in Hoi An is cao lau and most restaurants offer it on their menus. The story goes that the water used in the broth comes from an old well in the town which is why you can only get proper cao lau in Hoi An. Though surely that is a tall tale.
It is a magnificent dish and if you like pho or bun cha you will love cao lau. Each bowl is filled with slices of roasted or barbecued pork, noodles, lettuce and deep fried cao lau dough on top to make a type of crackling. It is accompanied by a plate of greens – lettuce, mint, coriander and lemon basil – for you to create your ideal balance.
We have cao lau a few times in Hoi An, once at famous restaurant Morning Glory (I preferred other dishes on their menu to the cao lau, however) and at Pho Xua, a small restaurant frequented by locals that offers a cheap and cheerful meal.
By serendipity we are in Hoi An during the lantern festival, which happens each month during the full moon. The romance of the Ancient Town is in full bloom at this time. Street lights are turned off and lanterns illuminate your path through the town. Roads are closed to cars so the streets are instead crowded with foot traffic. We stroll past countless clothing, souvenir and art stores; cafes are filled with people-watchers sipping on Vietnamese coffee. Some people play instruments while others burn incense and fake money as a way of honouring their ancestors and receiving prosperity. Continue towards the Japanese bridge and cross over the Hoai River, which will have candle-lit lanterns drifting down it. We are stopped by many women selling these lanterns for about 10,000 dong, the idea being you light your own one and float it on the river to receive good luck.
It is across the Japanese bridge that we come across Mr Son for dinner. A very tiny (as in there are only about 4 tables), very affordable place, Mr Son is part of a strip of restaurants offering similar meals. For some reason Mr Son is the most popular one tonight. We order cao lau and a glass of the cheapest beer we have comes across so far – 4000 dong (25 cents) per glass.
In some ways Hoi An seems to be a place run by TripAdvisor, as nearly every store proclaims they are recommended on the review-based site. Despite the town’s blatant hunger for tourism, Hoi An leaves behind a sweet taste.
BANH MI PHUONG
2B Phan Châu Trinh, Minh An
3 Phan Châu Trinh, Hải Châu
90 Bà Triệu, Cẩm Phô
27 Phan Châu Trinh, Minh An
40 Trần Hưng Đạo, Sơn Phong
106 Nguyễn Thái Học, Minh An
35 Phan Châu Trinh, Minh An
Khu am thuc 62