One of the best
Stall 034, Hoi An market food court (look for the black and gold sign)
If you are on the hunt for a few Hoi An food specialties and love a bit of noodle, then you can’t go wrong with cao lau, a delectable dark pork broth with fat yellow noodles, slabs of tender pork, bean sprouts, fresh greens and crispy croutons — the noodles must be made with the water from one of the closely guarded ancient Cham wells hidden throughout Hoi An.
The history of this famous dish indigenous to Hoi An is often disputed, but the udon-style noodle and the almost five-spice caramelised broth leads me to believe the story that it was created by an enterprising local street food vendor back in the trading port days of the early 17th century. Apparently she was eager to capitalise on the Japanese and Chinese merchants visiting, so she developed a chewy rice noodle dish and incorporated the flavours and textures the visiting merchants most missed from home; it’s my favourite version of events, anyway.
Almost every restaurant in town will serve you up cao lau, but having ploughed my way through most of the dishes on offer, I still can’t find a single one that beats Ms Chien’s Pho Cao Lau Hu Tieu. This is a small, one-dish stall in the heart of the central food market that serves up a consistently delicious cao lau daily from 07:00 till 18:00, for 20,000-30,000 VND, depending on your bartering skills — this lady is one of the best. The servings are small, which leaves you plenty of room for white rose, quang noodle and com ga you are bound to want to sample next — ask Ms Chien to order from one of the many speciality stalls for you, which saves the hassle of bartering.
If you’ve a particular aversion to eating your pork while being stared at by a freshly butchered pig’s head, you’re in luck. The new central food market has cleaned up its act: now it’s shiny stainless steel tables and benches all the way, with the pigs’ heads are around the corner.
If you prefer the comfort of a restaurant, take a wander down to Ms Vy’s Morning Glory restaurant on Nguyen Thai Hoc Street in the centre of town, where they serve up a pretty mean version in the comfort of air-con. Once you’ve got a taste for the chewy cao lau noodle, amble along to Lantern Town down by the river, where the Vietnamese chef has gone all fusion with his noodles and created a spectacular chicken carbonara with a Vietnamese twist. It works.
If you’d like to see one of the Cham wells, you could try Ba Le Well (see below), which is hidden down an alley, in a garden, by a tree. If you make the trip, you should also stop off for all-you-can-eat banh xeo 80,000 VND at the Ba Le Well Restaurant on the same lane. Although it’s not the best banh xeo, it’s good and the staff here make it a fun and memorable experience — you see the trap of eating in Hoi An is that there is always something else to try.
By Caroline Mills
Last updated on 24th July, 2014.