While Hoi An may be best known for its tailor shops and photogenic Ancient Town, visitors are often surprised at its vibrant food scene, largely a product of its unique history.
When Hoi An came into popularity as a bustling port town in the 15th to 19th centuries, it drew people from all over Vietnam who came looking for economic prosperity. Even today, dishes from all over Vietnam can be found here.
In addition, foreign merchants from as far away as Portugal, France, Japan and China frequented this stop on the Maritime Silk Road and some stayed and established communities in Hoi An, adding their native flavors to the culinary melting pot.
Here are our Top 9 dishes to try while in Hoi An:
The secret to this very un-Vietnamese dish is the chewy noodles, only made in Hoi An
1. Cao Lau
This noodle dish is practically impossible to find outside of Hoi An because of its unique noodles that are reminiscent of Japanese soba or udon noodles instead of the thinner Vietnamese rice noodles.
Thick and chewy due to first soaking the rice in a lye solution that’s made from the alum-rich water in Hoi An along with ash from a special kind of tree, cao lau noodles form the base of this tasty dish that is somewhere between a soup and a stew. The noodles are topped with pork that’s been marinated in Chinese five-spice powder, fresh herbs, crunchy crackers, and a savory gravy.
Try it at Cao Lau Thanh (26 Thai Phien) after 4pm, a mom-and-pop place that’s semi-outdoors with metal tables set out under a big tree.
2. Fried Wontons
It’s said that the Chinese originally brought wontons to Vietnam. But while it’s usually served in a soup, the people of Hoi An have put their own spin on wontons by deep-frying the skins and using them as a crispy base on which to add a sweet-and-sour topping of pork and shrimp. It’s the closest thing you’ll find to a Mexican nacho, and it’s addictive as a snack!
Locals like to crunch down on a plate at the White Rose Restaurant at 533 Hai Ba Trung.
3. White Rose Dumplings
Often available together with fried wontons is another great snack, the white rose dumplings. Dough made of rice flour is formed into discs and filled with a minced shrimp or pork filling. After they get steamed, the translucent dough crinkles up, looking almost like petals of a rose, hence the name. These chewy ravioli-style dumplings are topped with crispy-fried shallots and dipped in a fish sauce.
Try them at the little eatery at the back of the ancient Quan Thang House at 77 Tran Phu.
4. Banh Beo
Another steamed rice flour dish is “banh beo”. It’s said that these little cakes originated in nearby Hue, one of the dishes served to the imperial family. Steamed in little dishes, the flat, round cakes are usually topped with dried shrimp floss, but the Hoi An version has a thick sauce made from shrimp and pork and topped with crispy bits of cao lau noodles.
You’ll usually find banh beo sold by itinerant sellers who cart them around near the Hoi An Market on a yoke, but for a truly homemade version, there’s an elderly couple who sets up shop in their small living room after 3pm at 98/50 Nguyen Truong To (down an alleyway across from ÊMM Hotel Hoi An).
5. Minced Clams
Hoi An is blessed by being surrounded by water. Along the beach, you’ll find restaurants selling freshly-caught seafood (a local favorite is A Roi, just a few minutes down the road from Victoria Hoi An Resort) while closer to town are places selling minced freshwater clams that come from the Thu Bon River and its tributaries.
Head over the Nam Cam Bridge just south of the Ancient Town, and you’ll find about a dozen or so eateries by the river selling up little plates of minced clams, lightly seasoned and then sautéed to retain their flavor. Use one of the crispy crackers as a spoon to scoop them up while enjoy the river views.
6. Sizzling Crepes
Known as “banh xeo” in Vietnamese (“xeo” is the onomatopoeic word for “sizzle”), these savory crepes are made from a rice flour batter tinged yellow with turmeric. You’ll find big plate-sized versions in Ho Chi Minh City, but here in Vietnam’s South-Central region, they’re much smaller and filled with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts. Wrap them in a big lettuce leaf along with some fresh herbs like a burrito and dip it into the accompanying Hoi An-style sauce that’s thick from soy beans, pork liver and other seasonings instead of the regular fish sauce dip.
Ba Le Restaurant (45/51 Tran Hung Dao) serves banh xeo together with a filling set that includes fried spring rolls and grilled pork skewers.
7. Mi Quang Noodles
Hoi An is located in Quang Nam Province where this eclectic noodle soup takes its name. What you’ll first notice about mi quang is just how many ingredients go into it, probably because it started as a working man’s dish using almost anything on hand. Starting with broad rice noodles or yellow egg noodles (sometimes both), mi quang is topped with pork, shrimp, chicken and sometimes even fish. A bit of broth and a pile of fresh herbs finishes the dish.
You’ll often find mi quang sold streetside. Just look for the large array of ingredients set up on the counter.
8. Hoi An-style banh mi
A remnant of French colonization, the Vietnamese have made the common baguette their own, filling it with all types of delicious ingredients. In the morning, it can be filled with fried eggs for a quick breakfast, and later in the day, it’s all about the pate, char siu pork, pork meatballs, cucumber, pickles and more. While you can find banh mi on almost every corner in Vietnam, these tasty sandwiches got a boost when TV personality Anthony Bourdain visited a local shop and declared it a “symphony in a sandwich”.
Try it at Banh Mi Queen at 115 Tran Cao Van.
9. Hoi An Chicken & Rice
Lots of cultures do great chicken and rice, with Hainan (China) and Singapore being some of the better-known. But Hoi An does its own version, and the secret is infusing great chicken flavor into every part of the dish. First, boil a chewy, free-range chicken and strip it of its meat. Use the broth to cook the rice that’s been aged and dried out to better absorb the broth. Because the rice has been dehydrated, when it cooks, the grains are separate, unlike new rice. Use the chicken bones and gizzards to make a gravy to pour over the dish, all served with salad of greens and sliced onions and a little bowl of soup to wash it all down.
Com Ga Xi at 47/2 Tran Hung Dao has what the locals claim is Hoi An’s best. Expect a very “local” vibe where metal tables are set under the cover of tarps and motorbikes zip past in the narrow alley.
While it’s great to wander around town sampling all these Hoi An favorites, if you wanted to try them all in one place, Spice Viet Restaurant (187 Ly Thuong Kiet, just next to ÊMM Hotel Hoi An) puts a healthy spin on Vietnamese food, including a page on the menu just for Hoi An specialties.