Food tours are an awesome way to get an inside look at the soul of a city. How, when, and where the locals eat are a crucial part of life – after all, we are all eating all day long, right?
Madalin and I took the Hoi An Food Tour by Motorbike this week and had an incredible time – as you’re about to see. Our tour guides Hong and Loan picked us up right on time to start our tour. Of course they bring helmets for you, and give you lots of reassurance if you’ve never been on a moto before.
The first stop was Banh My Phuong, a banh mi made famous by Anthony Bourdain which helped this humble shop grow into a full blown restaurant. Look out for this sign – but you’ll probably smell it before you see it!
They now have tables, chairs, and even a flat screen tv which shows the preparation process.
As we ate our delicious sandwiches – mine was the vegetarian option with fresh herbs, vegetables, and no pate, mayonnaise, or fish sauce – it was brilliant. Madalin also enjoyed his meaty version, but I’m not sure what it contained. The best part was that the buns are slowly heated over charcoal so the outer edges of the baguette are crunchy, and the inside is fluffy, soft and warm. This is some seriously skilled baking.
Anyone coming to Vietnam will quickly learn that Banh Mi is a staple food often enjoyed for breakfast from streetside stalls. What you won’t learn however is how all Vietnamese foods are balanced along the principles of the 5 elements of earth : earth, wind, water, fire, metal and are used in harmony with each other to create an even more positive effect on the body.
spicy (metal), sour (wood), bitter (fire), salty (water) and sweet (Earth)
French influence is found in many aspects of Vietnam, and none more so than the wafting aroma of fresh bread. We got a glimpse inside the bakery where these famous rolls come from.
Each day they make about 5,000 rolls to be sent out to the luckiest restaurants in town.
As we walked from the bakery to the central market, we weren’t the only ones being beaten by the sun.
But soon we took cover of the inside of the market which – thanks to heaps of tourism – has been given a new face and cleaned up.
Now we are in search of the famous Ms. Ha for her Cao Lau noodle soup. She was more than happy to accommodate my vegetarian requests and I loved both eating the soup and learning the three key components which make Cao Lau unique only to Hoi An.
The water must come from the Ba Le well, the ash of trees must come from Cham Island, and the noodles must be processed in the special way that only one family knows…
We walked out of the Central Market to the small stand where a beautiful older woman sat with her cart of cakes, wrapped in banana leaves and stacked in sloppy pyramids. Her eyes were a murky blue; full of life and happiness.
Our guide told us that she doesn’t need to work anymore because she’s made enough money but that she still comes every day so that she can continue to make these special cakes and keep their tradition alive.
What’s the tradition? The husband and wife cake is a gelatinous cake filled with mung bean which is traditionally offered by a groom to the family of his bride-to-be… it’s incredibly sticky which is meant to represent the ties of marriage that stick two people together for eternity.
Next up was one of the most important parts of everyone’s day. Coffee. The coffee culture in Vietnam is strong, and most cafés do not even sell food, but encourage you to bring your own, buy a coffee and sit to watch the world go by.
Vietnamese coffee is served with sweetened condensed milk, strong, and usually over ice. Our guide explained that while most people grab quick coffees in the afternoon it’s more common to get the long coffee in the morning when you have time to watch it slowly drip down into the glass.
You’re meant to sit a few moments, allowing the ice to melt into the coffee to lessen the blow that thick rich, thick liquid offers. Most coffee shops also serve complimentary tea, which is chilled and a nice light contrast to the strong coffee.
Having a few moments to watch the world go by while enjoying these chocolate-like coffees was a perfect time to soak up the ambiance of Hoi An.
Then it was time to hop back on the motos and take in some beautiful scenery.
Our first stop was Chuc Thanh pagoda, the oldest pagoda in Hoi An.
You might notice above the symbols which we commonly see in the Western world as the hate-filled swastika. Here the four arms represent the four stages of life : you’re born, you grow old, you get sick, and you die. Sounds like a blast 😉
Then our guides made us guess what this animal was. I’ll give you a hint, it’s not a liger, nor a bear-dog. It’s a unicorn! Say what?
This was one of the most tranquil places I’ve been to in all of Vietnam, go here and relax, stroll around the grounds, collect your thoughts.
As the sun started slipping, it was time to buckle up and hop on the motos to zip over to the rice paddies. My favorite part about this tour was having first hand information and insight into the local culture. Noticing the fields were being worked predominantly be senior citizens, I asked what was going to happen in the future…
Naturally the younger generations are not hugely interested in this difficult and back breaking work, and are turning to more modern alternatives such as office or entrepreneurial jobs, leaving the future of the fields in uncertain terms.
Can you believe it? We have to eat more! The next stop was a street side stall serving quail egg pancakes made from crispy rice flour. Madalin loved them!
On to another variation of the egg : Vietnam’s infamous upside down egg. Ladies and gents, brace yourselves. This egg is what they call “not still egg, not yet duck”. Yup. It’s … well, an abortion, but a very common cold remedy here. It’s also something you’re supposed to eat if you’ve had back luck, and it will turn your luck “upside down”.
Are you ready? Behold : part hard boiled egg, part duck.
Ready for a drink? Me too! Our next stop was dinner by the river and it was a wonderful little restaurant which was full of locals enjoying the last day of vacation, as well as three men who were seated next to a crate of 24 beers – just working their way through them….
Don’t worry, your drivers don’t drink the beer 😉
Madalin loved the banana blossom salad, and I got to wrap young tofu in mustard leaves and dip into a very salty and spicy paste!
Dessert was sweet : jackfruit, mango, and mangosteen to leave us feeling absolutely stuffed and ready to retreat to the comfort of our homestay.
The Hoi An Food Tour was an outstanding experience which left me feeling so much more at home in Vietnam than I had before. Besides the food – the guides themselves truly made the experience outstanding. Hong and Loan (and Thach!) were full of knowledge, happy to share details of their lives and the culture of Vietnam.
Great Food for a Great Cause
Every tour from Hoi An Food Tour (and they offer lots) has a built in donation so that you’re contributing to the well-being of less fortunate locals. They use money from the food tour to (quite appropriately) feed those in need. Each month they do a large lunch for over 110 homeless, hungry, or disabled persons. You can choose this company knowing they give back to the community just as much as they give on their tours. Highly recommended in every sense of the word! Make sure you request Hong or Loan as they’re wonderful guides and drivers 🙂
please note : we were guests of Hoi An Food Tour for the purposes of this review but you know my opinion is never for sale. Check out my disclaimer (full of monkey photos and legal droning) for more info.