Hoi An specialties you have to try range from Vietnamese street food staples like banh mi to distinctive local dishes like cao lau, white rose and fried wontons. This is our guide to what to try and where to try it, based on three months of
eating research in Hoi An.
Once you arrive in the central Vietnam coastal town of Hoi An, it becomes immediately clear that there is so much more to Vietnamese cuisine than the country’s famous noodle soup, pho. Not that there’s anything wrong with pho but wait until you try cao lau.
Street-side stalls, markets, modest eateries, and restaurants serve up an array of Hoi An specialties that are unique to the historic trading port, as well as dishes found all over Vietnam that have been given the Hoi An touch.
Hoi An Specialties You Have to Try
These are the Hoi An specialties – and some Vietnamese dishes given the Hoi An stamp – that you have to try…
Cao Lau – Hoi An Noodles and Pork
The most legendary of Hoi An specialties, cao lau, the town’s most quintessential dish, is sold at roadside stalls, backstreet eateries and almost every restaurant in town. Chinese and Japanese merchants traded in Hoi An for centuries and the key ingredients of this dish are coarse handmade noodles that are often compared to Japanese udon or soba noodles (the texture is somewhere in between), and roasted Cantonese-style ‘char siu’ pork, products of that rich history.
Cao lau is also the most mythical of Hoi An specialties, about which tales (and fairy tales) abound due to the fact that once upon a time the noodles were only produced by one family, using water from the Ba Le well and lye from wood ash from Cham Islands, which gave the noodles their rough texture and smoky flavour. That’s not the case now; click through to read our story on cao lau.
You’ll find the best rendition of cao lau at Ty Cao Lau, where for 25 years Mr Ty has been tucking crisp sprouts beneath the noodles and pork, upon which he drizzles a luxuriant broth of roasted pork juices, sprinkles crunchy deep-fried cao lau dough squares, and on the side serves fresh fragrant herbs – lettuce, mint, basil, Vietnamese fish mint, rice paddy herb, and coriander. Mr Ty adds his own pickled onion and garlic to the ubiquitous table condiments – fish sauce, chilli jam, fresh chillies, and limes.
Ty Cao Lau, corner of a lane off Phan Chu Trinh Street, one block west of Le Loi Street. VND 20,000 a bowl. Open daily 4.30pm until Mr Ty runs out.
Banh Bao Banh Vac – White Rose Dumplings
One of the most beloved of Hoi An specialties, banh bao banh vac – or white rose dumplings, as they’re named because of their delicate flower-like appearance – are almost as legendary as cao lau. Unlike cao lau noodles, which are now produced by several artisanal noodle-making ‘factories’, the original family still hand-makes these shrimp stuffed, rice-flour dumplings, distributing them to restaurants around town.
At the convivial Ms Ly Café, it’s how owner-chef Ms Ly handles the dainty dumplings that sets her’s apart from others in Hoi An. Firstly, she says she steams them to order, rather than cooking them and re-heating them as many do.
Secondly, Ms Ly serves them piping hot. Lastly, she arranges them prettily in her own finely-balanced secret recipe sauce, made from premium grade fish sauce, garlic, chilli, sugar, and lime juice. They taste as exquisite as they look.
Ms Ly Café, 22 Nguyen Hue, between Nguyen Duy Hieu and Phan Chu Trinh Streets, 0510 386 1603. VND 45,000 a plate. Open daily 10am-10pm.
Hoanh Thanh Chien – Fried Wontons
I think these are the most addictive of Hoi An specialties. The grandfather of Tran Tuan Ngai, whose family produces the ‘white rose’ dumplings, also created hoanh thanh chien, now made by several local families. These ‘fried wontons’ more closely resemble crunchy tortillas than the Chinese wontons and are topped with a piquant tomato salsa.
Along with their white rose dumplings, Ms Ly Café’s wontons are hands-down the finest in town. Her secret again is cooking everything from scratch to order, including the salsa. While some Hoi An salsas taste Italian or Tex-Mex, Ms Ly’s speak to their Chinese heritage, with a subtle sweet-and-sour flavour from the combination of fresh pineapple, tomato, onion, lime juice, chilli, sugar, black pepper, and prawns.
Ms Ly Café, 22 Nguyen Hue, between Nguyen Duy Hieu and Phan Chu Trinh Streets, 0510 386 1603. VND 90,000 a plate. Open daily 10am-10pm.
Mi Quang – Yellow Noodles and Pork
Many Hoi An street vendors specialise in one dish but if they offer two it will usually be cao lau and mi Quang (Mì Quảng in Vietnamese; also written as ‘my Quang’ and pronounced ‘mee wong’). Mi Quang is found across Quang province. Hence the name, which means ‘Quang noodles’.
Contrary to what you might read, like cao lau, mi Quang is not a soup – it’s a bowl of turmeric-tinted rice noodles topped with slices of tasty char siu pork, a splash of mildly spiced broth, and crispy lettuce and aromatic herbs. Like the cao lau noodles, the mi Quang noodles are made fresh daily.
At Hai, a local favourite and our regular noodle spot, Mr Hai has mastered not only cao lau, but Mi Quang’s essential balance of flavours. His silky noodles sit in an intense broth, topped with succulent slices of pork, two plump fresh prawns, a perfectly-cooked quail egg, caramelised shallots, crunchy toasted peanuts, crispy sprouts, and prawn crackers. Upon finishing the first bowl, locals often order a second.
Order Mi Quang anywhere else and you’ll probably be asked what kind you want. Mi Quang Ga is with chicken, Mi Quang Tom Thit with shrimp and pork, and Mi Quang Dac Biet with shrimp, pork and egg. At Hai, rice crackers, which you should break and sprinkle on top of the noodles, are automatically delivered to the table. If you need to ask for them, they’re called banh trang.
Hai, 6A Truong Minh Luong, a lane off Phan Boi Chau Street. VND 30,000 a bowl. Open daily from 11am until they run out, usually late afternoon.
Com Ga – Chicken Rice
This is one of those Hoi An specialties found elsewhere, but com ga or ‘chicken rice’ is a dish that the locals here have made their own. Com ga is the Vietnamese take on the ubiquitous chicken and rice found across Asia, although Vietnamese com ga is different to the Hainanese chicken rice beloved in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, and com ga Hoi An is different again.
Here at An Hien, our favourite com ga spot in Hoi An, yellow turmeric-yellow rice is topped with shredded chicken, tangy thin onion slices, zingy Vietnamese mint, and black pepper. It’s served with a bowl of intensely flavoured chicken broth with chrysanthemum leaves, to which a solitary quail’s egg is added at An Hien.
Locals like to settle in to down cold beers while working their way through the prodigious portions, deftly mixing in Hoi An’s ubiquitous condiments – fish sauce, chilli jam, pickled chillies, and lemon juice. Like many Vietnamese dishes, the delivered dish is a starting point, not a finish line.
An Hien, Ly Thuong Kiet Street, near the corner of Ngo Gia Tu. VND 15,000 a plate. Open daily from 4.30pm until they run out.
Bun Bo – Beef Noodle Soup
Another one of those Hoi An specialties that’s found more widely, bun bo is beef noodle soup, but the zesty soup at Ba Nghia Bun Bo is not just any beef noodle soup. Central Vietnam’s most famous broth is redolent of lemongrass, with the spicy, sour, sweet, and salty notes the Vietnamese love. However, here at Ba Nghia Bun Bo the soup’s stock is the highlight, made from plenty of beef and pork bones that simmer for many hours each morning.
Three generations of this family have been sating hungry locals and the 77 year-old grandmother still supervises preparation at the family home, while the granddaughter runs the stall across the lane. There, she ladles each bowl with the utmost attention, from the portions of pork balls to the fragrant herb garnish.
Ba Nghia Bun Bo, on a lane opposite Mr Ty’s stall, off Phan Chu Trinh Street, a block west of Le Loi Street. VND 25,000 a plate. Open daily from 2pm until they run out, usually by 4.30pm.
Banh Uot Thit Nuong – Barbecued Pork Skewer Rolls
The streets of Hoi An are filled with mobile vendors, but Nguyen Thi Mot doesn’t need to roam around town to move her stock. An hour or so after she sets up and begins to fan the flames of her charcoal barbecue, all 100 of her smoky lemongrass and sesame pork skewers have been sold.
Trust us on those figures: if we weren’t tucking into cao lau or working our way through a banh mi during our three months in Hoi An, we were perched on tiny plastic stools making pork rolls. So here’s what you need to do: don’t wait around for a spot to become free or you’ll miss out. Simply sit down somewhere, either at the covered well that serves as her communal table, or pull up a stool and sit close by.
Hoi An’s most hospitable mobile vendor will pass you a plastic tray laden with skewers, salad greens and herbs, dry and soft rice paper roll casings, and a tasty peanut and chilli sauce. If she detects you’re new to this, she will also demonstrate how to roll your skewers. If she runs out early and has gone by the time you get there, or, if you simply prefer a glass of red with your barbecue, Mai Fish restaurant does a more than generous and equally mouth-watering version.
Nguyen Thi Mot, on the square where Nguyen Thai Hoc and Bach Dang Streets meet. VND 150,000 for 15 sticks (a huge feast for two) or VND 10,000 per stick. Open daily from 11am until she runs out.
Mai Fish, 45 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street, 0510 392 5545. VND 90,000 a plate. Open daily 11am-10pm.
Banh Mi – Vietnamese Baguette Sandwiches
Vietnamese foodies widely acknowledge that the country’s best banh mi is at Banh Mi Phuong in Hoi An. The locals, expats, and tourists all agree, as attested by the continual lines of customers at varying times throughout the day.
The secrets to Phuong’s success is a combination of ingredients, including her homemade sauces, barbecued pork, pate (made by her lovely sister-in-law), cold cuts, salad, and chilli jam; the meticulous placement of those ingredients on warm crispy baguettes; and the baguettes themselves, baked at the family’s own bakery up the road, and delivered twice daily.
Her hardworking family should also be credited with her success. In fact, Phuong herself can’t always be at the stall, as she works as a full-time schoolteacher. Being featured by Anthony Bourdain gave the stall a hungry foreign audience and now the whole family works shifts to keep up with demand.
Far away from the hoopla, Madame Khanh, the ‘Banh Mi Queen’ (as nicknamed by expat Australian foodie Neville Dean, who discovered her when researching his street food tours) makes an equally delicious banh mi op la (with omelette) that makes a wonderfully filling breakfast. Just don’t tell Bourdain.
Click through for our banh mi recipe based on the Vietnamese sandwiches we ate at Banh Mi Phuong and our banh mi op la recipe inspired by Madame Khanh, the Banh Mi Queen’s omelette baguettes.
Banh Mi Phuong, Hoang Dieu Street, adjoining the market building near Cam Nam Bridge. VND 25,000 each. Open daily 7am-9pm.
Banh Mi Queen, 115 Tran Cao Van Street. VND 20,000 each including tea. Open daily 7am-5pm.
Tom Chien Bong Luc – Hoi An ‘Money Bags’
Hoi An’s Chinese heritage and influence of the cuisine is apparent in these voluptuous deep-fried bags of deliciousness that are more like a Cantonese wonton than the city’s more famous fried wontons.
Once served only at weddings and special celebrations, Hoi An’s money bags (tom chien bong luc) now appear on a handful of menus yet the stylish wine bar and restaurant, White Marble, does the best by far.
Freshness and quality is the secret here, with the plump prawns arriving from the nearby market each morning – or brought in by the manager, a fisherman’s daughter – along with the pastry, filled and fried in clean oil to order. The special chilli dipping sauce is homemade by a local woman.
White Marble, 98 Le Loi Street, 0510 391 1862. VND 90,000 a plate. Open daily 11am-10pm.
Che Bap – Sweet Corn Dessert
There are a handful of sweet Hoi An specialties, which the Vietnamese eat for snacks throughout the day rather than desserts at the end of a meal. One of them is che bap, a sweet corn pudding.
Hoi An locals love their corn. Stroll around town when corn is in season and you’ll see it sold in the husk from footpaths, eaten barbecued off the cob dripping with a spicy herb dressing, and – in its most popular form, che bap.
The most scrumptious version is made by a smiling woman wearing a Vietnamese conical hat who sets up small wooden stools around her stall before settling in for the afternoon to ladle soupy corn pudding and coconut cream into small porcelain blue bowls – or a large glass, if you’re hungry. Just ask.
Che Bap vendor, on Nguyen Thai Hoc where it meets Bach Dang Street. VND 5,000 a dish. Daily from 4pm until she runs out.
Our Tips for Sampling Hoi An Specialties
- Hoi An’s street food is some of the safest in Vietnam, if not Southeast Asia, however, it’s still worth following our tips to eating street food safely.
- Don’t forget to add condiments and DIY seasoning. If there are condiments on the table then they’re meant to be added. Ask the staff what to do or look around and see what the locals are doing. To cao lau it’s essential to add Hoi An’s famous red chili sauce.
- Do a little reading on local customs and etiquette when eating out.
- Try 44 Hoi An specialties, including most of these dishes, over four hours on the excellent The Last Great Taste of Hoi An Food Tour. Started by expat foodie Neville Dean and wife Colleen, tours are ran in partnership with Hoi An born guide, Sen, who leads a street food tour on foot through Hoi An’s markets and neighbourhoods, while Neville and Colleen host a post-stroll sit-down tasting. This is a good thing to do when you arrive so you’re confident about what, where and how to eat for the rest of your stay.
- Stuck for time? Many Hoi An restaurants also offer set menus that will include 3-4 of these dishes. The best are at Ms Ly and Mai Fish, mentioned above.
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