In Vietnam’s historic riverside town of Hoi An, a noodle dish steeped in legend offers unique flavours and textures that only a rich culinary heritage and hours of preparation can produce. The ubiquitous dish, cao lau, is the essence of Hoi An in a bowl – so mysterious and seductive that we stayed three months to discover its secrets.
“Cao lau! Cao lau!” cooks and noodle vendors call out continuously from the crowded markets, curbside food stalls and backstreet eateries of Central Vietnam’s UNESCO World Heritage-listed Hoi An, an atmospheric riverside town of incense-filled Chinese temples and Japanese-style timber houses, surrounded by rice paddies.
As it quickly becomes apparent, cao lau is the historic town’s quintessential must-try dish, partly due to the legend surrounding its making, and partly due to the fact that the deliciously light yet complex rice noodle dish is the essence of Hoi An in a bowl.
Cao Lau, the Legendary Noodles of Hoi An, Vietnam
“Cao lau! Cao lau! You try my cao lau!” The constant cries fast become as irritating as that other ubiquitous request from the tailors lining the lantern-filled streets to come in and get a suit made. It will drive you crazy – until you actually try it. Then it’s no longer an annoyance but a temptation.
In Hoi An’s central market, where a dozen stalls sell cao lau among other local dishes, one cook has her sales technique down pat. Remaining silent amid the cacophony of “cao lau!” cries, she’ll catch your eye and thrust a spoon of steaming, aromatic, spice-laden broth in your direction. Succumb to a slurp and you’ll be pulling up a stool.
You won’t be the first. Few dishes have occupied travellers and obsessed food writers as Hoi An’s legendary cao lau. Indeed, the rustic, earthy noodle dish is more deceptive than its innocent, garden-fresh looks suggest. It’s the stuff of legends.
Guidebooks will tell you that cao lau can only be made with water from the ancient Ba Le well, one of dozens of centuries-old wells dotting the old town; that only lye* ash from a tree grown on the nearby Cham Islands can be used in the making of the noodle dough; and that only one family closely guards the secret recipe, and are so protective that they won’t allow outsiders to watch their covert noodle-making. Of course, that’s all a load of bull.
The fact that cao lau isn’t as mysterious as myths would have you believe doesn’t reduce its enigma.
This is a dish demanding respect, and, at its best, reverence. For it’s the perfect balance of textures and flavours that make cao lau special – it’s a dish that’s the sum of its part, each bowl carefully crafted as if it’s the last bowl ever to be made.
The first ingredient that will have you salivating after a bowl of cao lau is set down in front of you is the char siu pork – Cantonese-style barbecued or roasted pork, seasoned in a five spice marinade.
At Ty Cao Lau – a laneway stall set up around 4.30pm each evening – Mr Ty has been making cao lau, and only cao lau, for 20 years and his richly flavoured slices of tender pork are the tastiest in town.
After three months of daily tastings of cao lau, we determine his only rival to be Mr Hai of Hai restaurant (our favourite noodle shop in Hoi An), who carefully arranges three thinner yet even more succulent slivers of pork across his noodles.
Depending on the cook, an array of fresh locally grown mixed greens will be piled upon or beside the pork – fragrant mint, basil, Vietnamese fish leaf, rice paddy herb, crisp lettuce, sometimes coriander. Crunchy deep-fried squares of cao lau dough are sprinkled on top, while secreted beneath the noodles will be crispy bean sprouts.
Your first instruction from the cook, waiter or nearest local diner will be to add some of Hoi An’s famously fiery chilli jam from the condiment basket on the table.
The next will be to combine all the ingredients to ensure the chilli jam and sweet pungent broth, created from the pork fat juices that has been drizzled over the noodles, is thoroughly mixed through. After the noodles, it’s the broth and pork that truly sets apart one cao lau from the next.
Yet the key ingredient of cao lau will always be the cao lau noodles. Invented by a Chinese family, they’re more similar to Japanese wheat-based udon noodles. Boasting a similarly coarse dense texture, cao lau noodles differ in their pale brown colour, rough-hewn surface, and subtle smoky flavour.
Hoi An has a long history of trade with China and Japan, which peaked in the 16th century. Many Chinese and Japanese merchants married local Vietnamese women to facilitate business. So it should be no surprise that this fusion noodle was born in Hoi An.
Sold fresh or dry at Hoi An markets and seen laid out in the sun on large, shallow rattan baskets on footpaths and roads around town, the noodles are delivered direct to eateries daily from the artisanal noodle workshops around Hoi An.
The best noodles are produced in two rudimentary family kitchens operating out of the home of the fifth generation descendants of the original cao lau noodle creator who worked at Hoi An’s first Chinese noodle factory.
Their address is no secret. Indeed, their daughter is a tour guide and was booked to host a group of German tourists the day we dropped by to observe the noodle-making process and do an interview for a magazine story. We easily arranged our visit with a local chef friend who buys their noodles.
Early one morning, we spend a couple of hours with the smiling hardworking family of six, as they near the end of their work ‘day’ – which began around midnight! – in which they produced 150 kilos of noodles.
We watch one woman kneading by hand the dough they’d began making seven hours earlier from broken rice that had been ground into powder and then soaked in buckets of water from the nearby well.
To the dough mixture they had added the lye* water made from ash burned from a massive pile of branches stacked in their yard from a variety of fragrant, locally grown trees, such as pine.
We cough as the smoky scent of smouldering burt wood, now filling the dimly-lit soot-covered room, steams the alternate layers of dough and strips of noodles that another woman has made, using a traditional, hand-wound, Italian-style pasta maker.
It’s the men’s role to keep the fire stoked, lay out the dough and the noodles on racks, and cart those heavy racks back and forth between the steamer and the motorbikes that arrive every now and again to collect the finished noodles. It’s a sweaty job.
After a couple of hours observing the process and asking lots of questions about weights, measurements and times, our chef friend figures out the cao lau noodle recipe. Still, I ask him to find out if the wiry old gentleman who is the patriarch of the family will share their secret recipe.
With a big toothy grin and a glint in his eyes, he says: “We do it all by hand!” rubbing his calloused, wrinkled hands together before heading into the house for his breakfast. That’s the secret to cao lau.
Minutes later he reappears and sits down on the steps – to tuck into a bowl of cao lau.
*Notes on Lye Water for Cao Lau
Lye water is a solution of lye, a powerful base or alkali that was historically created from wood ashes and rainwater and was used to make Chinese noodles, as well as century eggs, pretzels and hominy, and to cure things like olives, among other foods, and was essentially lime or potassium hydroxide (KOH).
These days baking soda or baking powder is used in the home kitchen while industrially, lye water was replaced by commercial lye (sodium hydroxide or NaOH), a chemical that can be highly caustic and toxic and should be handled with caution. Do not get these things confused: it can be very dangerous.
In China, lye is still favoured for use in several styles of thick wheat noodles to give them a chewy texture and yellow colour, including cumian from Shanghai, and several other noodles which gave rise to the coarse Japanese udon noodles, which are also wheat based.
It’s worth noting that the thicker chewier handmade Japanese ramen noodles (not to be confused with instant ramen) are made with kansui, an alkaline solution for which baking soda is often used as a substitute. Yet cao lau noodles are made with rice, and this is what really sets Hoi An’s noodles apart.
Where to Eat Cao Lau in Hoi An
These are our favourite spots for a bowl of cao lau from our time living in Hoi An.
Ty Cao Lau
This mobile cao lau stand opens daily at 4.30pm on the corner of a lane off Phan Chu Trinh St, one block west of Le Loi St. VND 20,000/$1 a bowl.
A simple eatery on the ground floor in the Hai family home at 6A Truong Minh Luong, off Phan Boi Chau St. Open 11am and closes when the cao lau runs out. VND 30,000/$1.45 a bowl.
Ms Ly Cafe
This charming restaurant in Ly’s family home is a good lunch choice if you want air-conditioning and cold beer with your cao lau. Ly makes a beautiful cao lau, as well as some of the most elegant renditions of Hoi An’s other classic dishes. 22 Nguyen Hue St. 0510 386 1603. 10am-10pm.
The riverside location of this beautiful colonial villa, and smooth jazz soundtrack, makes our friend Chef Duc’s restaurant a lovely spot for cao lau after dark. 45 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai St. 0510 392 5545. 11am-10pm.
Red Bridge Cooking School
Learn to make cao lau and other Vietnamese dishes at Hoi An’s best cooking school. The price includes pick up and transfer there by vehicle and a return trip by boat. 0510 393 3222. See www.visithoian.com
The Last Great Taste of Hoi An Food Tour
Cao lau is one of 40 local specialties sampled on this fantastic street food tour, one of Southeast Asia’s best, operated by expat Australian foodie Neville Dean and hosted by local Hoi An born guide Sen. See www.tasteofhoian.com
Where to Stay in Hoi An
Anantara Hoi An
A short stroll from Hoi An’s central market, this riverside, colonial-inspired hotel with swimming pool is ideally located for discovering cao lau. 1 Pham Hong Thai Street. Book the Anantara Hoi An with our booking partner booking.com.
Published 20 February 2015; Updated 26 May 2013
A shorter version of this story originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of Feast, an Australian food magazine by SBS to which we contributed on everything from Bangkok’s off the beaten track floating markets to Vietnamese fish sauce. Sadly, the April 2015 issue was the last.