Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Hoi An, Vietnam - Eat the food, skip the beach

We were a twosome again. Dave had headed back home after spending a few weeks with us as we made our way across SE Asia. Our one hour flight took us south from Hanoi to the small town of Hoi An, Vietnam.

We had heard great things about Hoi An from fellow travelers and it was highly advised as a must see in a tour of Vietnam. We flew into the Da Nang, Vietnam airport and our transfer from the airport took us the 45 minutes to the town of Hoi An. On the drive we noticed a surprising difference in architecture and development as you traveled from North Vietnam where Hanoi is located, towards the south where Hoi An and Saigon lie. We assumed the better infrastructure and more western companies was a legacy from the times when the North and South were divided, the North being the communist state. Vietnam is under one umbrella now having been re-unified but there are noticeable differences.

We stayed at the Hoi An Chic Hotel. This was a bit of a splurge but the reviews were great. The hotel itself had beautiful huge villa style rooms with a patio, beautiful bathrooms with tub and shower, and an amazing pool. We both definitely found it a bit strange to be staying in our uber luxurious villa or lounging at the pool while the sounds of local Vietnamese herding cattle, raising chickens, or harvesting rice was our normal soundtrack. The Hoi An Chic wasn't directly in the center of Hoi An, it was about 10 minutes each way, which ended up not being an inconvenience at all. The hotel had a gimmicky but fun US Army Jeep that would shuttle guests to and from central Hoi An free of charge and a taxi back wasn't more than $3.

From our first trip into central Hoi An we were sold. The town was gorgeous, quaint, and didn't have the big city feel of Hanoi. It was quiet but vibrant with lit up bridges for walking across the river, and a collection of bars and restaurants, some built into old French Colonial buildings, and others just shacks sitting along the river. The street food in Hoi An, in true Vietnamese style, was in full force, but more about that later.

We enjoyed our first meal at the worst place we could have possibly chosen. Much to Hannah's chagrin, my choice of a comfortable place to sit and have a quick bite or a beer always seems to be the loud place with a bunch of foreigners, blasting Bon Jovi, advertising $.50 beers. It's odd because these are the places I typically make fun of but always find myself drawn to.

After half an hour of tolerating mediocre food and sitting amongst drunk backpackers we decided to cut our losses and find another dinner. We wandered towards the other side of Hoi An and found our perfect place, an entire area devoted to street vendors making Vietnamese pho soup, and other unidentifiable deliciousness. The tables were placed along the river, away from the center of town where authenticity was replaced with more traditionally touristy restaurants. We took a seat at a soup stall, balancing carefully on the red plastic seats that were 6 inches from the ground and wouldn't fit an American toddler but apparently work for all Vietnamese people. We were delivered a beautiful steaming bowl of soup and proceeded to load it up with spices, peppers, and hot chili sauce....our party in Hoi An had finally begun!

Watch out for those peppers, they're killers!

After soup we couldn't resist stopping at another stall for yet another dinner, a Vietnamese speciality called "banh xeo" which is an amazing sizzling Vietnamese rice pancake loaded with bean sprouts, shrimp, and pork. You then wrap your banh xeo in a lettuce leaf. We laughed at ourselves as we sat at this food stall and threw caution to the wind. We proceeded, in our first 30 minutes in Hoi An, to break every food sanitation rule we have ever been told to observe in a foreign country...don't eat the ice, don't eat fresh vegetables, don't eat a banh xeo that a man rolls up with his bare hands and hands to you.....but with all of our rule breaking and all of our eating questionable foods on the streets we never had any problems with food in a month in Vietnam. We were learning slowly that even though things appear to be unclean and sanitation seems to be an afterthought, they take great pride in well cooked, safe food. Actually, most food illness that we heard about weren't from food from street vendors, but rather from fancy restaurants or five star hotels.

We tried to capture a lot of these foodie experiences in a set of videos that we modeled after one of my favorite web series on Vice called Munchies. We called it Goldberg Munchies. We'll share a few of them with you here:


Hannah demonstrates the Vietnamese Pancake.

We spent the next few days in Hoi An doing much of the same things that we did on the first evening. We enjoyed the pool at the Hoi An Chic hotel, wandered around the city center, ate every bit of street food that we could, and ordered as many Vietnamese ice coffees to our hotel room as we could stand. The staff at the Hoi An Chic definitely thought we had a terrible caffeine and condensed milk addiction and eventually started just showing up with Vietnamese iced coffees without us even asking for them.

One of the least memorable, but an experience nonetheless, was our bike ride to the beach. We borrowed bikes from the hotel and rode the 5km to the local Hoi An beach. The beach was really nothing to speak of, and it was a lot like beaches that we saw near Halong Bay. They were really just quite dirty with lots of food vendors aggressively chasing you down the beach trying to get you to sit at their miniature tables. We did sit down at a table but we were served mystery meat in mystery sauce and left most of it untouched. When in Hoi An, skip the beach.

The very unpicturesque ride to the very unpicturesque beach.

You can always know how much your bill at the beach is (or change it) by looking at the sand behind your chair.

That evening we tried to make it right by having a wonderful dinner at Morning Glory, one of the best reviewed restaurants in Hoi An. We have started to become leary of restaurants highly reviewed on Trip Advisor as they always seem to be full of westerners and too expensive. This was an exception. Morning Glory was a kind of street food restaurant, served with a finer dining feel. We over ordered and over ate but it was well worth it. We loved the Bahn Xeo, Cau Lau, Morning Glory, Vietnamese Sandwiches, and probably other items we've forgotten.

We continued our Munchies series, of course, competing for air time with the incredibly mundane converation spewing from the table behind us.

Here I demonstrate eating Cau Lau, the local Hoi An noodle specialty.

Hannah loving her Banh Mi (Vietnamese Sandwich).

Hannah again loving her Banh Xeo (Vietnamese Pancake).

We were very lucky to be in Hoi An the evening of the full moon festival. On the night of the full moon every man, woman, child, and tourist (of which there are many) in Hoi An goes to the river and places a candle in a cup in the water. You make a wish and set it sail. It was beautiful around 9pm when the river was literally full of candles.

The local children were all along the river banks selling candles for 10 cents.

Here chicky chicky.

In the class were a few Aussies and a multinational group of kids (we call them kids but in reality they were probably mid to late 20s) who started off as a complete annoyance to us but grew on us after a while and actually made the class more fun. Several times on our trip we will immediately detest another group of travelers for no reason other than us being crumudgeons, and within a few hours we've made best friends with them. We can only assume they love us from the get go.

The class was awesome but not as awesome as watching Hannah attempt to prepare the dish she selected. Hannah hates squid and octopus, she never orders it, and hardly ever tastes mine when I do, but under the pressure of having to make a last minute change of menu selection for the day's class, she chose squid. Squid also happened to be the most disgusting and complicated preparation of any dish of the day. Needless to say, she aced it, but she will never be making it for dinner at home.

This one had an extra surprise for us, his dinner became our dinner.

The finished product!

I, on the other hand, picked the best possible dish. My choice was one of our favorites, the Banh Xeo, Vietnamese pancake. We WILL be making this dish at home. You've never tasted deep fried goodness so delicious.

Some of the other dishes served in the class were equally great, and we learned great Vietnamese cooking skills that we hope to bring back to NYC with us.

In reluctant conversation with our derelict, but surprisingly super, group of frenimies during the cooking class we learned that the following day they had signed up for a little known Hoi An secret, the Taste of Hoi An Street Food Tour. WHAT, this was what we had been looking for our whole lives...a guide to teach us about all of those street carts, what they were serving, how to order it, how to eat it, and how to be sure you are being safe about it all. The problem was that we were scheduled to leave Hoi An the next morning. That's the beauty of a 6 month sabbatical, which I commonly fail to see and Hannah always reminds me of....we can do whatever we want. It took a little convincing from Hannah, but eventually I saw the light....let's change our departure, spend a couple of more amazing days at the Hoi An Chic Hotel, and try to get on the schedule for tomorrow's street food tour.

Hannah communicated via email with Neville, the tour conductor. It turned out that Neville was the single most likable Australian one could ever meet (aside from my manager Andrew Spaulding). He was 50 + 15 (as he described it) years of age. His chattiness and acceptance made the tour great, as we walked around town he seemed to have befriended every woman between the ages of 20 and 90 in Hoi An, and was a devout lover of all things Vietnamese food, especially the street food.

At the introduction to the tour Neville explained everything we would need to know about Vietnamese street food, especially the insistence on cleanliness and sanitation. One fact that he pointed out and it later became confirmed was the there was never a single fly or rodent in the seemingly chaotic Vietnamese meat markets. This is because everything is fresh and nothing has the opportunity to spoil and attract unwanteds.

And, boy, could Neville talk...story after story about the food, how it's prepared, anecdotes about several characters that we picked up along the tour, including the man, Joe, who lost his foot to a land mine fighting with the South Vietnamese during the American War, to the 90 year old woman who had dyed her teeth black in her 20s as a fashion statement, to the women selling noodles on the side of the street...he was truly a man about town. Neville was a bit of a Hoi An celebrity, handing out tips and kind words to everyone we walked by. He seemed to know everyone in town. His ability to talk to anyone and capture anyone in somewhat flirtatious conversation reminded Hannah and I of my dear Uncle Lloyd.

The Banh Mi is the famous Vietnamese Sandwich. The Banh Mi Queen is a pop icon in Hoi An.

Neville introduced us to at least 20 different types of street food at a series of carts, markets, and tasting rooms, as we walked at least 3 miles around Hoi An. We were amazed by his energy to do this every single day with a sold out tour and loved every minute of it. This was truly a day to remember and would recommend Neville to anyone stopping by Hoi An.

Coconut milk ice cream cheers!

We made a few stops at Neville's tasting rooms, where we were given collections of amazing Vietnamese street food.

Beautiful Hoi An street scene.

Finally, we had been all we could be in Hoi An. It was time to head off to the hustle and bustle of one of Vietnam's largest and craziest cities, Saigon, called Ho Cho Minh City by no one who lives in Vietnam but everyone else in the world.

Of course before leavin we gave Lao a bath and let her use the bathroom in the beautiful Hoi An Chic.

After happily eating our way through Hoi An, we are rolling ourselves on to Saigon!


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