For some reason, I was really excited about my side trip to Hoi An since I arrived in Vietnam. From what other people have told me, and the images I’ve seen on internet, I am really looking forward to get lost in this beautiful little town and indulge myself with some delicious local delicacies.
We had our transportation sorted prior with the help from the hotel staff, it will be a short 2 hour journey to Hoi An by bus, a very special kind of bus. The ‘sleeping bus’ is split into three rows of narrow bunk beds and with one house rule, the shoes must be off before hopping onto the bus. One by one, we take our shoes off and put in the plastic bags given by the driver, then squeeze ourselves through the narrow aisle to get to our beds. Backpackers with no shoes on inside a fully sealed air conditioning bus also means Eau-de-Funky-Feet-ohh-la-la for everyone! I am slowly slipping into a coma by inhaling the intoxicating air and who knows how long I’ve been passed out because I am already in Hoi An by the time when I regained my consciousness.
Our hotel is a little out of town, but is cheap and equipped with swimming pool. (Yes! Swimming Pool!) They also provide you with bicycles to make the trip into town a whole lot more fun and quicker. We waste no time and get on the bike, head into town to grab a bite. I have to admit that I haven’t been on a bicycle since uni days back in 1996! It takes some time to get the hang of it, but oh boy, I almost forgot how much fun it is riding a bike so freely terrorising the locals! *kidding*
Every town has its own Central Market, and there is no exception in Hoi An. That’s where we are heading to for food and I also need to buy a pair of swimmers so I can just spend the rest of the afternoon in the swimming pool to beat the heat. As we walking along the narrow lane, checking out the stalls on both sides selling all kinds of local delicacies, then we spotted the stall with a big mount of white duck eggs neatly stacked on top of a steamer. I know exactly what it is and my time has come!
Commonly known as Balut, they called it Hot Vit Lon in Vietnamese. Hot vit lon is just like a hard boiled egg except the egg has been fertilised with a nearly developed embryo inside. Balut is considered the national street food in Philippines but is also widely available in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. I’ve been dying to try it, but the idea of eating a 19 days old embryo is also quite disconcerting.
I grab a stool and sit down, point at the pile of duck eggs, the egg-lady instantly beams me a smile and knows I am here ready for some aphrodisiac. Usually the hot vit lon is eaten straight from the shell, the locals will simply suck out all the juice then eat the embryo just like a hard boiled egg. Since I am a hot vit lon virgin, the egg-lady happily peels the whole egg for me, puts it in a bowl, sprinkles with a smidgen of salt and pepper, and places it right in front of me, waiting in anticipation of this silly tourist (me!) to put on a good show.
(Note: the next image can be graphic for some readers)
Hmmm…. love at first sight? The 19 days old embryo is rather well developed with blood vessels spreading all around the whole placenta, feeding the embryo from the yolk, which has been totally squeezed and squashed to one side. Then there are some black streaks on each side which probably worries me the most. Yes, the embryo already started growing with feathers! How am I supposed to eat feathers?!
I take a big deep breath, well that’s all I can do really; sink my teeth into the hot vit lon and take a big chunk out of it that almost choke me to death. My theory is if I don’t like it, at least I can finish it sooner, how wrong was I. The taste is actually not that bad, it is like eating chicken innards and an egg yolk at the same time. The embryo tasted like liver pate except a little crunchy from the soft bones and the feathers. The feathers are nasty! The yolk is dry and very strong in flavour, even my brother in law who is totally freaking out by now can smell it from afar. That’s when I need to sip the sweet juice from the bowl to lubricate my throat, aids the yolk go down. By now, another lady from next stall saw what this fool is up to and also came over to cheer me on by pointing her finger at me, laughing.
“Hmm… mmmm….” I groans even louder to reassure everyone that I am actually really enjoying it. I am totally faking it. I am already almost half way through only then the egg-lady offers me some Vietnamese coriander leaves to go with the egg. The coriander leaves does cover up some of the acquired taste and makes it alot easier to eat. I probably would have enjoyed it more only if she could have offered me the coriander leaves from the start. When I finished the egg, I have to ask for a cup of chinese tea to clear the throat. Even though at only 5000VND (AUD$0.30) a pop, I simply could not accept her offer for another one, I quickly get up and walk away.
We veer into the top far end corner of the market and suddenly our attention are transfixed on the big tray of roast pork and cha lua slices at the Bahn Mi stall. Without even thinking, we walk straight up to the lady and ask for two bahn mi. But too bad, she asked us to wait for 10 minutes as they just ran out of the bread rolls. The wait was longer than 10 minutes and eventually the baker delivers a basket full of fresh bread rolls behind his motorbike. My jaw just dropped in awe at the sight and smell of those fresh golden nuggets! Anyone who walks past also simply couldn’t resist the alluring smell of fresh bread rolls and slowly a group started forming itself in front of the Banh Mi stand. Our banh mi lady also wastes no time and starts compiling all the ingredients and stacks them tightly into the fresh bread roll. (Yes, we want E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G! Thank you!)
The Banh Mi is still nice and warm in my hand, neatly packed with pork mince, cha lua, roast pork slices, capsicum, fresh herbs and a good dash of chili sauce. I am sold and can’t wait to sink my teeth into that big boy right in front of the stand while everyone watches on. Soft warm bun with crusty top, tender grilled pork with chewy pork rind, peppery cha lua and aromatic vietnamese coriander, and the meat juice oozes out and is slowly dripping down my hand, each bite is an explosion of flavours in my mouth. This has to be the best Banh Mi I’ve had in Vietnam.
Great minds think alike, when I am about to suggest that we should get another one, my brother in law already walking back to the stand and order some more. But instead of Banh Mi, he actually just points at a big chunk of grilled pork loin and asked the lady to slice it up. The lady seems hesitant and confused with our intention, eventually she grabs the pork loin and puts it on a scale and weighs it. We agree to take it for 20,000VND and she then slices it up and put it in a bag. Little did she knows that we are actually going to consume those glistening grilled pork slices right there and then. Now I can really taste those fatty porky goodness – each slice has transported me to heaven and back, they are sticky and sweet from caramelisation, the tender meat simply melts in the mouth while I am having much fun chewing on the fatty pork rind. The stall lady along with her friends come out from behind the stall, laughing at our outrageous behaviour by just having pork slices without the buns.
“Goooooooood…..” I complimented her for her beautiful grilled pork with two thumbs up before we hop back on our bicycles and continue with more sightseeing. A tummy full of porky-licious makes riding a bicycle twice the effort, and the heat just keep rising every second. All I can think of now is a nice cool dip in the swimming pool, so is time to head back to hotel just for that.
I blame the frolicking in the swimming pool makes me peckish again. After a quick shower, and a nanna nap, I am fully recharged and I am hungry! As we are riding our bicycles back into town, we spotted a group of locals hoarded around a street food stand across the road, so we decided to check it out. The team of mother and daughter who runs the stall doesn’t seem to understand English, but luckily a family friend of theirs who is also hanging out at the stall pulls up a stool and volunteers to be our food guide.
It is a common affair for the locals to hang out at a street food stand for some snack food while slowly easing into the evening hours. Our friendly food guide, Ken, has picked a few local specialties for us to try. Firstly we get to try two types of Nem Chua. Nem Chua is a fermented pork roll which can be eaten raw or grilled on BBQ over charcoals. Every region in Vietnam has its own version of Nem Chua which usually named after the area it originated from – Nem Dong Ba, the royal capital city of Hue. The Nem Dong Ba is a mixture of pork mince and pork rinds wrapped in banana leaf for fermentation process over 5 days. The nem chua has an acquired sweet, salty and garlicky taste, with an elastic texture of a fishball. The pork rind also adds a nice crunch to it.
The Nem va Tré Huế is a more pinkish colour meat roll (or the other way round?). If memory serves me right, Ken told us that the nem va Tré Huế is similar to nem chua but made of shrimp instead, hence it has a short shelf life and best eaten grilled. The tre hue has a much stronger fermented shrimp flavour and a lot saltier. I kinda like it.
Next dish is Goi Du Du (Gỏi đu đủ), I love the name. Goi du du is a Vietnamese papaya salad, usually with shredded papaya, shrimp, pork rinds, herbs, all tossed together in a more vinegar-based rendition of Nước chấm (fish chili sauce), and a final touch of roasted peanuts, sesames, and a dollop of chili paste for those who like it hot. The layers of texture and flavour in one simple dish are simply mind blowing. We noticed two girls behind us also having a big piece of rice cracker with the salad, so we want one too! We snap the rice cracker into bit size, top it with salad and nom it in one go. Delish! It has a fiery kick, but definitely not as hot as the Laos or Thai version. I absolutely enjoy snacking on the side of the road, and mingling with the locals, it is definitely a highlight of my trip.
The food we’ve eaten plus two glasses of icy passionfruit drinks (they called passionfruit the “vietnamese lemon”) only costs us 60,000VND (AUD$3.70). Our appetite has been tantalised so is time for us to continue our bike ride into town to look for some real meal.
The old quarter in Hoi An is absolutely buzzing with tourists in the evening. All restaurants and waterholes are now packed with tourists cooling off with liquid amber. We are actually having trouble to decide which restaurant shall we dine at as they all look so inviting like a movie set out of Wong Kar Wai’s films. And then, until I see this…
An oil painting of Bono from U2 in Superman outfit?! Hell yeah! The whole tongue-in-cheek quirkiness has captured my attention and that’s where I want to have my dinner tonight. (Note: I am not a U2 fan, and Bono actually shits me!)
Before N Now, an interesting name for a restaurant. Just like any other restaurants catered for tourists in Vietnam, equipped with a relaxing lounge bar downstairs where you can enjoy a drink and watch the world goes by, and a much quieter restaurant upstairs. It is quite crowded downstairs already so we decided to head upstairs for dinner first and chill out later.
The menu is nothing special but the usual half half local and western selections. I simply couldn’t decide what to order and decided to ask the waiter for his recommendations. The question seemed to strike the right chord, he suddenly perks up and can’t wait to reveal a special dish that is not listed on the menu. He recommends us to have the chef’s secret stash of fresh giant King Prawns that has been bought from the local market every morning. Just to reassure us the freshness of the king prawns, the waiter quickly runs back into the kitchen and brings out a big plate of it to show us. Those king prawns are humongous! At least 8 inches long I would say.
It is not just the king prawns he is showing us, he is also holding another plate of fresh hand made linguine pasta in three different colours of green, white and red with the flavour of spinach, original and tomato respectively. The waiter suggested a fusion of Vietnamese spicy flavour stir fry with the prawns will go well with the fresh pasta. We agreed to go ahead with his suggestion and take two prawns each for the price of 255,000VND (AUD$15.80) per dish, absolute bargain. I wait in anticipation for my meal to be cooked and entertain myself with some complimentary garlic bread and bruschetta.
After a 20 minutes wait, our main has finally arrived and I am absolutely shock by the size of the plate and the amount of food on top. It is a platter, with two king prawns already peeled with heads still intact, resting on a bed of linguine pasta, plus a mount of steamed jasmine rice on the side, beautifully garnished with tomato skin roses, dotted with red chilis and olives. The side of steamed rice is totally unexpected and there is no way I can finish it all even without the snacking prior.
The king prawn is beautifully cooked, tender and bounce off the teeth. Despite the promising size of the prawn, its inedible head is actually already taken 1/3 of the body length. It is served in a thick sauce like salsa with tomato chunks but with an oriental flavour. The sauce, the prawn and the pasta works really well together and I quite enjoy it. I found the steamed rice is a little odd and doesn’t really needed in the meal, so I left most of it untouched.
With drinks, the total bill for the meal comes to 597,000VND (AUD$37.00) which is a steal for Australian standards. I am absolutely stuffed from the meal, and definitely not looking forward to climb back on the bicycle right away and turn into a human spewing machine. Hence, we head back downstairs to chill out over a beer while admiring some of the artwork.
I actually really love the artwork on display in the bar and I even asked them whether they are for sale. I soon found out that the artist of these paintings is actually based in Saigon and also a good friend of the owner of this restaurant. I got the artist’s name card but sadly I didn’t get the chance to go and pay him a visit.
Hoi An is definitely so much hotter compare to Saigon. It is really uncomfortable sitting in a hot bar with no air conditioning, drinking warm beer and the sweat starts dripping down my face. We finished the one beer and leave the place for some fresh air outside. We decided to get some cold beers from the local shop then cycle to the riverside where everyone is hanging out here, admiring the beautiful night lights reflected on the river.
And not far from the riverside, a whole street is illuminated with lots and lots of colourful lanterns in different shapes and sizes. I am totally in trance and mesmerised by the sheer beauty of the whole scenery. I keep imagining it is just like a scene from the movie Raise the Red Lantern. You can’t help but feeling blitheful just by looking at the glowing lanterns.
A family is chilling out outside while manning the stalls. It is truly a beautiful sight uniquely Vietnam.
As the night draws in, everyone is also slowly drifting away in this tranquil old town. It is best for us to get back on our bicycles and head back to hotel to call it a night. I absolutely enjoyed Hoi An and my heart is totally captured by its breath-taking untouched beauty. I highly recommend it.
View Hoi An in a larger map
Address of places/restaurants I've visited: Before N Now bar & restaurant 51 Le Loi street, Hoi An, Quang Nam, VietNam P: +84 510 910 599