Off the Eaten Track The picture-perfect city of Hoi An looks as good as its knockout noodles and divine dumplings taste. Gooooooood morning, Vietnam, says James Ramsden
Off the Eaten Track
The picture-perfect city of Hoi An looks as good as its knockout noodles and divine dumplings taste. Gooooooood morning, Vietnam, says James Ramsden
THERE IS SOMETHING dramatic about Hoi An. This might have something to do with the typhoon that is steaming towards us from the Philippines on the day we arrive, causing palm trees to arch comically and waves to crash at our stoop, though I suspect it’s more than that.
The town, a Unesco World Heritage site, sits on the skinny waistline of Vietnam, with the South China Sea to the east and the Hoai river to the south. For centuries it was a trade centre where Chinese, Japanese, Dutch and Indian merchants would bed in for months at a time to flog ceramics, spices, and textiles.
Little has changed since then, except for the fact that today the traders are all Vietnamese, and that to the above list you can now add lanterns, questionable art and fridge magnets that are so unbelievably naff as to be somehow appealing.
What makes Hoi An historic is the extraordinary level of preservation. Its houses and shops, bridges and boats all feel deeply, almost cinematically authentic.
That contradiction isn’t unintentional — there’s no doubt that this meticulous devotion to romantic imaginings of Vietnam, and indeed south-east Asia, is as much for tourists’ benefit as anything else, yet nevertheless it has more soul than anywhere else we visit over the course of a ten-day jaunt around the country.
We are there for the grub. Well, actually we — my bride Rosie and I — are there for our honeymoon, but let’s not split hairs. With both of us being involved in the nebulous world of ‘food’, the twain were always to meet (honeymoon and food, that is), and there are few places I would rather eat in than Vietnam. With influences from China, Thailand and France, this is one of the richest and most complex cuisines on the planet, and Hoi An’s restaurants do a fine job of it.
James Ramsden and his bride Rosie take a ride
Over the course of two days we wallow in noodles and broths and rice and greens, the prominence of lime juice, chilli and herbs keeping things light and zippy. It’s a highly healthy cuisine, too, so you can guiltlessly pack away a surprising amount.
Our somewhat pantagruelian first dinner at Morning Glory is perhaps the highlight of the trip. We’re jetlagged and not a little discombobulated, but after a plunge in the South China Sea, an enormous bath, a couple of sharpeners overlooking the river and a saunter through the lanterned streets, it’s a hungry brace of honeymooners that arrives at Ms Vy’s renowned restaurant.
We order fresh spring rolls — the first of many this holiday — generously stuffed with prawns, noodles and herbs and demolished in two bites; caramel mackerel wrapped in banana leaf represents what we soon discover to be a favoured combination of sweet, sour and sticky; clam and lemongrass broth is more cleansing than a bath in Evian, while pho bo, its meatier, noodled cousin, just about finishes us off. We push on through with a gorgeous plate of garlicked morning glory — water spinach, that is — before folding napkins and sitting back, perspiring gently.
Clam and Lemongrass broth
WE SLEEP LIKE the dead and wake to a warm and windless day. The typhoon has taken its business elsewhere, and while it’s tempting to spend the day mooching on the hotel’s private beach, we’ve heard mention of the Victoria Hotel’s motorbike with sidecar, and, after a heady breakfast, we duly potter off in search of a guide.
Hoang, our guide, thrusts helmets in our direction and we get comfortable on our new chariot. The roads are mayhem but seem safe enough — it’s a particularly organised kind of chaos — and it’s not long before we take a sharp right and are haring up a ridge between fish farms and rice paddies, sending bewildered cattle hither and yon and puncturing the silence with the putter of the diesel engine. A vast water buffalo eyes us from afar.
Hoi An by night
Suddenly we’re out of the rice paddies and in the most immaculate garden I’ve ever seen. Acres of well-kept lawn reveal, on closer inspection, plots of herbs — coriander, mint, Thai basil, chives, dill, pennywort, sorrel… On and on they go. We wander and pick for a while, and then Hoang zips us into town to get some clothes made in the Savile Row of Vietnam (only without the prices).
The delights of Vietnamese spring rolls
For lunch we eat lightly fried spring rolls and bowls of Cao Lau, the local dish of noodles, pork and greens, while watching the world go by on the river — ancient Vietnamese women in sampans offer tours of the waterways to nervous-looking tourists, larger boats roll in laden with men and their mopeds, as if a new consignment were needed to add to the havoc of the roads, and street traders hawk sweet tofu and flimsy frou-frous.
It is easy to become somewhat shut off to the notion of buying anything, so insistent are many of the marketeers, but with a bit of focus and a thick skin there’s good stuff to be had — bowls, chopsticks and silk all at stupidly low prices and all eminently negotiable. As ever, we are more distracted by food and devour lemongrassy, coconutty pork skewers bought from a little charcoal grill on the side of the road, then perch by the river with iced coffees sweetened with condensed milk.
Dinner’s highlight is another local speciality, white rose dumplings, at the terrific Ms Ly. These soft, slippery, pork-stuffed dumplings are made by one producer in the town and doled out to the various restaurants. With Ms Ly’s crisp shallots and the nip of fresh chilli, they’re one of the best dishes of the week.
It’s no accident that most of the restaurants we visit in Hoi An are helmed by women. Back in the UK the catering trade remains an obdurately male environment, with little overlap with home cooking. Here, on the other hand, restaurants are more predominantly built on the family and the home, with the women running the show. (It is, I’m told by a Vietnamese friend, only ‘modern men’ who cook.) If you want good, authentic Vietnamese cooking — cooking with history and heart — make sure it’s mama manning your morning glory.
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