Hoi An Dining

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Hoi An Dining
Outside Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An has Vietnam’s best selection of restaurants. Most are Vietnamese, ranging from hole-in-the-wall venues to fine dining, along with international flavors to suit every taste.
By Duncan Forgan, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by Megan Ahrens
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    Taste Hoi An's Traditions
    Each region of Vietnam has its own specialties, but Hoi An is especially blessed with indigenous fare. The town’s most storied creation is cau lao, a light dish made with soba-style noodles, pork, and greens, topped off with a smattering of chili jam and bits of fried bread. Legend has it that authentic cau lao noodles must be made with water from an ancient Cham well located outside Hoi An. Other Hoi An favorites include banh vac shrimp dumplings (also known simply as "white rose"), and com ga Hoi An (wok-fried rice with chicken and Vietnamese cilantro).
    Photo by Megan Ahrens
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    Contemporary Cuisine
    Experimentation is the exception rather than the rule with Vietnamese restaurants, where menus can be monotonously uniform. Hoi An, however, is the best place to experience the country’s most forward-thinking cuisine. Chief among its innovators is Duc Tran, the Vietnamese-American chef/proprietor of The Mango Rooms, Mango Mango, Fat Fish, and Mai Fish. His restaurants specialize in inventive fusion cuisine, as well as potent cocktails. The menu might include pan-seared red snapper with ginger, onion, and roasted black pepper, or beef chunks flame-broiled with Cuban rum and served with mango salsa. Also mention-worthy is Lanterns at Anantara Resort, where local ingredients are elevated with Vietnamese and European cooking techniques.
    Photo courtesy of Anantara Resort
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    A Vietnamese Beach Feast
    The most memorable dining experiences in Vietnam are often found not at a fancy restaurant but while eating seafood fresh from the ocean at a stainless steel dining table surrounded by plastic stools. There are sanitized—and perfectly satisfactory—seafood restaurants in Hoi An itself, but for authenticity, make for An Bang or Cua Dai beach. Take your pick from one of many open-air venues (the busier the better), choose your live seafood from the water tanks, crack open some beers, and wait for the goods to arrive at your table. It is all invariably delicious, but special mention should go to local favorites such as tamarind crab, and grilled shrimp served with salt, pepper, chili, and lime.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Learn to Cook Vietnamese
    Hoi An is widely regarded as one of the best places to learn how to prepare Vietnamese dishes, due to its easy access to fresh produce, lively markets, and long culinary tradition. The value for money is especially high thanks to the strength of the instruction at the town’s growing number of cooking schools. A class usually starts with an early-morning visit to the market for ingredients, followed by schooling on the preparation of three or four classic Vietnamese dishes. There are multiple schools to choose from, but two long-established options are Ms Vy Taste Vietnam and Red Bridge.
    Photo by Pietro Scozzari/age fotostock
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    The Ultimate Filled Baguette
    Competition in Hoi An is not limited to the tailors vying for the right to clothe you. There’s a tastier battle being fought over the identity of the town’s best banh mi (Vietnamese sandwich). The banh mi—a baguette stuffed with a combination of fillings that can include anything from pork belly to canned sardines in tomato sauce—has become a global icon of Vietnamese cuisine, and Hoi An's versions are particularly legendary. Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain waxed lyrical about the banh mi at Phuong Banh Mi near the town’s main market. Others yield more to the alchemy of Madam Khanh, the "Banh Mi Queen" of Hoi An, who serves up her magic from a stall on Tran Cao Van Street.
    Photo by Philippe Body/age fotostock
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    No-Frills Local Fare
    A multitude of simple restaurants serving simple local fare are tucked away down tiny alleyways near the Thu Bon River. For tasty food in a lively atmosphere, Bale Well is a reliable bet, jam-packed every evening with a mixture of backpackers, locals, and curious tourists. The restaurant serves a simple set menu that revolves around banh xeo (Vietnamese crepes) and delicious meat skewers that are designed for diners to wrap in rice paper with fresh herbs and dunk into a variety of dips. Other prime spots for local fare include the central market and along the Thu Bon River, where vendors cook up specialties such as cau lao and mi quang (turmeric-infused noodles with pork and shrimp).
    Photo by Andrew Scrivani/age fotostock
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    A Break from Vietnamese Food
    Just as Hoi An excels at traditional Vietnamese dishes, it also has a range of options for those who might want to inject some variety into their travel diet. Get a curry fix at Ganesh, featuring Indian dishes from all over the subcontinent. Splurge for the innovative menu of fusion and western dishes with a river view at the Anantara Hoi An resort's Lanterns Restaurant. Many of the town’s better restaurants offer international options alongside their Vietnamese offerings, such as the European-style desserts at Cargo Club, and White Marble's Old and New World wine list.
    Photo courtesy of Anantara Resort
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    Indulge Your Sweet Tooth
    You could say that the entrepreneurial Ms. Vy has the magic touch, as the owner of the Morning Glory has a slew of other successful dining venues and hotels in Hoi An. On a trip to Australia, she observed the growth of café culture in Melbourne and Sydney, and especially how good coffee was best enjoyed along with an expertly made pastry. Transplanting this concept to Hoi An, she opened the Cargo Club, now the go-to place for an indulgent (and very fairly priced) sugar fix. The in-house bakery pumps out fresh pastries daily, as well as decadent desserts.
    Photo courtesy of Cargo Club
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    Fine Dining, Hoi An-Style
    Hoi An’s culinary reputation is well-deserved among foodie travelers. Competition for tourist traffic is strong and standards remain high even in the lesser-known restaurants, but certain restaurants operate on a higher plane. Morning Glory's kitchen team is well versed in the loving preparation of classics from around Vietnam. A similar ethos and standard of cooking can be found at the riverside Brothers Café. Secret Garden is another upscale venue worth trying, tucked away in an unassuming alleyway and excelling at dishes like slow-caramelized pork. Finally, Faifo Xua is located in one of the old town's extravagant merchant houses; it serves traditional and more experimental dishes adapted for a western audience.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Dining for a Cause
    Walking around Hoi An’s quaint streets and dining at its expensive restaurants, it can be easy to forget that Vietnam still has more than its fair share of social problems. The hospitality industry is a lifeline for many impoverished families. STREETS Restaurant Café in Hoi An is a branch of STREETS International, a social initiative that trains vulnerable kids for a career in the culinary arts or hospitality. The menu is compact yet creative, with a few international dishes among the Vietnamese standards, while the service is charming. Another charitable dining option is Project Indochina's White Lotus Restaurant, where profits go towards improving the quality of life of disadvantaged children and their families.
    Photo courtesy of STREETS Restaurant