Vietnam's funky port
Hoi An, a well-preserved port town, is a Vietnamese Provincetown of sorts. Its tranquil waterfront and art galleries make it the perfect weekend away from Hanoi and Saigon (planes connect both cities to nearby Da Nang). Hoi An is so small you can hit most every street. And the food is exceptional.
Explore the market, and watch the seafood action on the banks of the Thu Bon River. Don't resist trying banh khoai,the crisp rice-flour crêpe topped with tiny shrimp, slivers of pork and egg, and bean sprouts, sizzling streetside on iron braziers. Let chef-owner Madame Vy at the Mermaid cook you seafood-stuffed wontons, tuna grilled in banana leaves, and her pineapple pancake. Come for lunch and you'll insist on returning for dinner. —Gael Greene
A Vietnam Culinary Vacation
Absolute Asia (800/736-8187 or 212/627-1950) is planninga 12-day tour of Vietnam, from October 16 to 27, led by Melbourne food writer/historian Tony Tan, with a stop in Hoi An. The price of $3,985 per person, double, includes accommodations, in-country flights, cooking lessons from local chefs, and most meals. Absolute Asia also provides custom food itineraries throughout the continent and can arrange for guides, drivers, restaurant reservations, even dinners at private homes.
TravelandLeisure.com Exclusive Itinerary Additions:
Saigon and Hanoi are rich in French and Italian restaurants for the timid, and spiffy spots with slightly edited Vietnamese fare for the fastidious. But if you hunker down on a stool to taste street food, you're in for a revelation.
Day 1: Saigon
Check into the New World Hotel (76 Le Lai St., Dist. 1, 84-8/822-8888, fax 84-8/823-0710; doubles from $65), or the Saigon Prince Hotel (63 Nguyen Hue Blvd., Dist. 1, 84-8/822-2999, fax 84-8/824-1888; doubles from $80). The former is the largest hotel in Vietnam with over 500 rooms; the latter caters to Japanese tourists with numerous sushi restaurants and shiatsu massages. Work up an appetite strolling through the Ben Thanh Market, where you can buy lacquer trays, all sorts of fabrics, and explore vast stretches of produce and foodstuffs. For lunch: fabulous banh cuon (pork and mushroom wrapped in a rice cr'pe, made while you watch), banh xeo (pancake stuffed with egg, shrimp, and onion), or seafood soup. Just point.
They say Hue cooking is better here than in Hue (perhaps because it has been southernized to fit the Saigonese's taste), which, with its imperial heritage, has a reputation for sophisticated, complex dishes that use flowers and fruit to layer flavors. At Phú Xuân (128 Dinh Tien Hoang St., Dist. 1; 84-8/820-0329; dinner for two $14), order banh uot tom chay (tiny steamed rice flour cakes topped with minced shrimp), sour pork hash, and spring rolls. Or reserve at Tib (187 Hai Ba Trung St., Dist. 3; 84-8/829-7242l dinner for two $16), a lovely old villa with a garden. Insomnia?Troll the late night snack stalls in the area called Nga San Saigon for beef ball soup, stuffed pancakes, or sweet sticky rice desserts.
Start the day as the Vietnamese do, with a bowl of pho bo or pho ga (beef or chicken broth with rice noodles) particularly at Pho Hoa (260C Pasteur St. Dist. 3, 84-8/829-7993). Sapa (26 Thai Van Lung St., Ben Nghe Ward, Dist. 1; 84-8/829-5754; brunch for two $16) is the place for great sandwiches (French bread, prosciutto, wonderful cheeses) and an all-you-can eat Sunday brunch. Segue into spiffy Don Du Café (31 Dong Du St., Ben Nghe Ward, Dist. 1; 84-8/823-2414) next door for gelati and espresso.
For a spectacular city view, have an aperitif on the Rex Rooftop Café (The Rex, 141 Nguyen Hue St., 84-8/829-2185), but don't bother eating here. Instead, go to Vy (164 Pasteur St, Ben Thanh Ward, Dist. 1; 84-8/829-0729; dinner for two $50) for roast pigeon. Or feast on sauteed whole crab at Lemon Grass (4 Nguyen Thiep St., Ben Nghe Ward, Dist. 1; 84-8/822-0496; dinner for two $7), a favorite of the city's expats. Or try Com Nieu Saigon (6C Tu Xuong St., Dist. 3; 84-8/820-3188), which specializes in clay pot rice casseroles.
Put together a breakfast from street stalls outside Cho Cu Market on Ham Nighu Street downtown. Then take a taxi to District 5, the 19th-century Chinese settlement, with narrow, frenetic streets lined with family businesses. Stop for lunch there at the sprawling Cholon Market. Or try a lunchtime tasting of stuffed buns, banh beo (steamed rice cakes served with minced shrimp and spicy fish sauce), banh bot loc (shrimp-stuffed dough), and banh uot thit-nuong (rice-dough ravioli) at 73 Nguyen Du.
Quan Truong Hao (217B Pham Viet Chanh, Dist. 1; 84-8/835-8186, reopens in February or March) is known for its snails and seafood, especially clams. Oc xao chuoi xanh is stir-fried snails with green bananas; ngheu luoc is steamed clams with a pungent dipping sauce.
Days 4 and 5
Fly into Da Nang, and drive 40 minutes south by taxi or hired car to Hoi An, a once-thriving seaport, which looks much as it did a century ago. Stay at the Hoi An Hotel (6 Tran Hung Dao St.; 84-510/861-445 or 84-510/861-362; fax 510/861-636; doubles $TK), the only decent place in town, or the Furama Resort (68 Ho Xuan Huong Bac My An, Da Nang, 84-511/847-333, fax 84-511/847-666; doubles from $40), 30 minutes away by car.
Hoi An is so small you can hit almost every street. Explore the market, and watch the seafood action on the pier. Try banh khoai, Hue's famous crispy rice crepes topped with shrimp, pork, and egg. (Look for street peddlers cooking them on small iron braziers.)
Let chef-patron Madame Vy at the Mermaid cook you seafood-stuffed wonton, tuna grilled in banana leaves, and her pineapple pancake. Come for lunch and you'll want to return for dinner.
Days 6 and 7
HANOI For colonial luxury, stay in the old wing of the Sofitel Metropole Saigon (15 Ngo Quyen St.; 84-4/826-6919, fax 84-4/826-6920; doubles from $259). There's great coffee and mocha latte at Bar Maj Café (SW corner of Hoan Kiem Lake, 84-4/828-7043). Explore the food streets, Ngo Cam Chi off Hang Bong Street is one of them, in the Old Quarter. The sidewalk cooks with crowds around them are the best for stuffed rice pancakes, rice noodles with snails, or bun cha (pork patties with spicy fish sauce).
For a taste of home: Little Hanoi (23 Hang Gai St.; 84-4/825-7721) for great tuna salad on a baguette, and Carvel Ice Cream (32 Le Thai To St.; 84-4/828-7192).
Have a drink before dinner at the Metropole hotel bar. Then join the long communal table at 67 Hang Dieu (Quan Bach Phuong; 67 Hang Dieu St.; 84-4/824-5352), where the one (and only) dish is fabulous bun bo nam bo, a beef soup with noodles and shallot crisps. Afterward, take in a water puppet show performed by the Thang Long troupe at the Kim Dong Water Puppetry Theatre (57 Dinh Tien Hoang St.; 84-4/825-5450).
At the legendary Cha Ca La Vong (14 Cha Ca St.; 84-4/825-3929; dinner for two $9), where the tables have braziers, cook yourself ca lang, a mild white fish, steeped in the family's secret spices. (Add dill, noodles, peanuts, and fiery chili to taste.) That's all they have, and all they need to have.
Brothers Café (26 Nguyen Thui Hoc St., 84-4/733-3866; dinner for two $20) serves traditional fare in a lovingly restored villa. Quan Hué (6 Ly Thuong Kiet St., 84-4/826-4062) is a sidewalk shack/café serving the best Hue food in town.