Coconut Tours

A food tour on a budget

What we say: 3.5 stars

Hoi An’s street food tour industry has been rather dominated by the $60-plus, cram ‘em in, feed ‘em up style half-day trips. Though fun and informative, they can be a big dent in the money belt for a solo traveller and a hard sum to swallow for a family. So we thought we’d try a cheaper trip with Phuoc from Coconut Tours, who promised a US$35 street food crawl heavy on interaction, but easy on the stomach. Kids go free.

Would you even know where to start here?

Would you even know where to start?

Each tour kicks off daily at 14:00 with a caffeine hit of the local drip variety in a small cafe, where final tour details are decided upon (you get to choose). This gives guests a chance to get to know chirpy, cheeky Phuoc, who started up his street food tours in earnest after the little thatched cooking school he’d set up in his grandmother’s garden blew down in a 2013 typhoon.

The anticipation of what was in the pot.. That's Phuoc to the left.

The anticipation of what’s in the pot… That’s Phuoc to the left.

The tour begins away from the tourist epicentre of the old town on a street sprawling and vibrant where dozens of stalls groan under the weight of brightly coloured produce, steaming vats of soup and family-recipe delicacies, all peeking out behind a mad motorbike take-away scene.

Breaking down the science of the condiment tray.

Breaking down the science of the condiment tray.

Our particular tour started off with a condiments lesson. Phouc chose a family-run cart serving fish soup, or banh canh ca, a fragrant light broth swimming with tapioca noodles and extras including fish cakes, herbs and a churro-style batter stick. It’s a dish that cries out for a bit of DIY-flavour layering, and it comes accompanied by a tray of eight various sauces, pickles, chillies and seasonings. Without guidance, it’s easy to screw it all up, but once explained you’ll be tinkering with your street food like a local.

The simple pleasures of being free with the cau lau gravy portions!

The simple pleasures of being free with the cau lau gravy portions!

Next off, we grabbed a cau lao in a local kitchen and were treated to a step-by-step guide (hands on if you like) to throwing the ingredients together. We snacked on banh beo with a group of pyjama-clad, beret-capped old boys in the throes of a heated debate (blame the chilli) of a Chinese chess match cheat. We seized a glass of xi ma (a medicinal herbal tea) from a walking vendor and then joined the banh bao banh vac (white rose) family to attempt all the tricky stages of dumpling design. Phuoc translated the family’s cheeky banter over one of the group’s ham-fisted efforts.

White Rose. Our efforts were not quite so picturesque.

White Rose. Our efforts were not quite so picturesque.

We then met a spritely 84-year-old com ga lady, who went into quite some detail of the importance of organic ingredients and a little bit too much detail about her lazy, unmarried grandson. A che lady served us pennywort (to help our digestion) after hearing how much we had eaten and our gag reflexes were tested at a chao vit (duck congee) stall with a surprise centre plate of all the brain, blood cake and offal we had politely refused. We discovered, once we’d got over the texture and dowsed the morsels with enough chillies, that they were not all that bad.

Intestine, not quite as chewy as one would expect.

Intestine is not quite as chewy as one would expect.

Next up Phuoc directed us to a local cafe pumping with techno and workers relaxing over coffee, green tea and bia hoi to bring us all a final taster bowl. We discussed and then ducked out of trung vit lon (duck foetus egg) — there was only enough room left for banh can.

Quails egg banh can. We dream of these!

Quail egg banh can. We dream of these!

Each street food tour lasts for up to four hours and ends around sunset by the river in the old town. The $35 pays for everything you consume. Unless you are planning a trip over half or full-moon, when vegetarian options are abundant, Phuoc asks for a bit of forewarning to prepare a route as most of the suitable vendors are walkers (moving carts).

Banh canh ca (just in case you were confused by all the banhs and the can(h)s.

Banh canh ca.

What stood out about Phuoc’s tour was his outgoing demeanour combined with the fact that he has been visiting these stalls for almost three decades, which made for a warm welcome at every stall we visited. His introductions, story telling and running commentary on what’s going on adds a richness to the experience and his relaxed attitude to food gives more nervous guests the confidence to try food they might normally freak out over.

Last updated: 12th December, 2014

About the author:
After years of camping in her back garden in the New Forest, Caroline Mills’ parents went wild and jetted her off to Morocco where her dream of becoming a traveling belly dancer was born.
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