There is no mistaking the signature dish in Hội An, a Unesco World Heritage town in Central Việt Nam.
Every other noodle stall in the market, on street corners and along the riverbank hawks cao lầu, a noodle dish with caramelised pork garnished with crackers, bean sprouts and fresh herbs.
I had my taste of cao lau at the Hội An wet market, and we stumbled upon the stalls after shaking off a persistent woman who “stalked” me and “persuaded” me to visit her tailoring shop.
My friends were supposed to rescue me if I don’t emerge, and they somehow managed to find me in the midst of the market lanes and stalls.
After eating in restaurants all through our weekend in Hội An, I was pretty excited about sitting down at the low table and stools and trying cao lầu.
This dish is not widely available outside of Hội An as the noodles are made by soaking rice with lye and water drawn from the town’s centuries-old wells.
The chewy but smooth noodles are also unlike its Vietnamese peers because its gravy is rich and robust with the flavours of pork and black pepper, and comes with slices of roast pork.
But it is also distinctively Vietnamese because the richness of the noodles is balanced by a generous mixture of fresh herbs such as mint, coriander and basil.
There are also crackers to provide contrast in textures, and chilli sauce to spice things up.
The writer finds dining by the Hội An riverbank a rather exquisite experience
It’s a delicious treat for VND5000 (RM0.75) a bowl, and so much tastier than a stir-fried cao lầu we had for dinner at an upmarket restaurant later that evening.
I have never been squemish about trying out street food, and I have always survived unscathed and well-fed.
Việt Nam, to me, is one of the easiest places to eat on the streets.
The selection is wonderful, and the stalls always seem cleaner, and the atmosphere, more convivial.
On another trip to Hà Nội, I ate two breakfasts every morning.
I’d wake up as soon as it was light and the horns started blaring on the streets, and I would walk out to the market where I tried beef noodles, porridge and a Vietnamese version of chee cheong fun.
Then, I’d have another breakfast at the hotel, sitting on a proper table and chair.
And there’s cream puffs to devour from the bakeries, and baguette with ham.
But much as I love the food, I have never been back to Hà Nội because I find it too busy.
Hội An is also touristy, and the ancient shop houses that lined the streets of this heritage town are now occupied by shops and restaurants.
But somehow it has not been totally consumed beyond recognition by the tourist trade – many houses are still occupied by families, and vendors still set up stalls on the pavements.
It was the 15th day of the Lunar calendar when we were there, and the town was overrun by locals enjoying street performances and floating lanterns on the river.
Hội An’s signature noodles — cao lầu
Most tourists are happy to dine in restaurants where the decor is pretty, and the service, courteous and friendly.
We tried different restaurants in Hội An, and I’d not return to most of them.
The food doesn’t taste as good as the street food, and it’s as though they have been modified to appeal to a different palate.
The quality of the food is reminiscent of the cheap tailoring services offered by every other shop here – they can rustle up a suit in hours, but it’s poorly cut and doesn’t fit right.
But there were two restaurants where we had excellent Vietnamese food.
Morning Glory is famous in Hội An, and locals will point out the direction to the restaurant.
We enrolled for an evening cooking class, and it was conducted ever so professionally by the restaurant owner Trịnh Diễm Vy.
Every one had their own work station, and we learnt to cook four Vietnamese dishes (cabbage soup, fish in caramel sauce, Vietnamese salad and stir-fried morning glory).
Trịnh also elaborated on the local food customs.
It’s a must-do at US$25 (RM79).
She was one of the first to start a restaurant to cater to tourists, and is also the author of the cookbook Taste Of Việt Nam.
Our dinner at Morning Glory was delicious.
Trịnh’s spring rolls come with roast pork, prawns and herbs, and there were dainty wantan skin pancakes topped with crabmeat, chopped onions, tomatoes and herbs.
There was also Việt Nam’s famous bánh xèo, crepe pancakes stuffed with beansprouts, prawns and herbs.
The caramel custard here is also excellent; creamy and smooth as it should be.
Street food is plentiful and cheap in Hội An
The other good restaurant we tried was the Ancient Place Restaurant in Đà Nẵng, the biggest city in this region, which is about 20 minutes from Hội An.
It’s a Chinese-themed restaurant with pavillions and ornate furnishings.
I didn’t think the food would be good in such an affected setting, but they served up the best dishes I had in Việt Nam this trip.
My favourite is snails in a broth flavoured and fragranced with lemongrass and basil.
Morning Glory also had a version of this, but theirs was with clams.
I am partial to the snails, especially when it comes with a delicious dip of salt, black pepper and lime.
We also like the seafood salad here.
It comes with squids and shrimps, with white fungus for crunchiness, and lots of herbs.
The dressing is similar to Thai salad dressing, but without the heat.
Vietnamese food is so easy to love.
The cuisine is familiar because of its Chinese influences in the use of ingredients and cooking methods, but it is distinguished by its use of herbs which keeps meals light and fresh.
And it is easy to eat well in Hội An because there are enough nice restaurants and a bustling street food scene.
It’s also convenient to fly to this part of Việt Nam as Air Asia flies there four times a week.
BY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR
Source: The Star Malaysia