It’s true that the quaint, narrow streets of this fishing village turned backpacker mecca turned resort haven are often choked with tour buses. But Hoi An still evokes Vietnam’s long-ago like few places can, especially at night, when the lanes are finally quiet and silk lanterns glimmer like rainbows off the river. Like Hue, Hoi An has a fine culinary tradition, including some dishes that are only made (or made well) here. One is the soup known as cao lau, whose thick noodles are cooked in water from one of five local wells. Any other water, people tell you, just won’t work.
Because Hoi An is still a town of fishermen—at least those who haven’t taken jobs at luxury hotels—it’s a fantastic place for fresh seafood. On nearby Cua Dai Beach, barbecue restaurants have set up tables in the sand; the best of the lot is the amiable, family-run Hon, whose muc nuong (grilled squid) and ngheu hap (clams with ginger, lemongrass, and fresh mint) are both ridiculously good.
The doyenne of Hoi An’s food scene is Vy Trinh Diem, whom everyone calls Ms. Vy. The 40-year-old chef owns four restaurants here, the flagship of which is Morning Glory, a bustling two-story house in the heart of the Old Town. Morning Glory is a tourist haunt, and proudly so. It’s also the best place in town to sample Hoi An cuisine. While you can get a very good cao lau from stalls at the Hoi An market, Morning Glory’s rendition is endlessly richer: a tangy broth spiked with anise and soy sauce, sprinkled with chives, mint, and cilantro, and topped with a crumbled rice cracker. In the center are juicy strips of xa xiu (soy-simmered pork, pronounced sa-syoo, as in the Chinese char siu). Ms. Vy’s cao lau noodles are so toothsome and chewy you’d swear you were eating soba, not rice noodles.
But what Hoi An is mainly known for is banh mi. Vietnam’s iconic sandwich is rarely served in restaurants, but sold from bakery counters and street carts. The term (pronounced bun-mee) refers to the baguette itself; the sandwich is formally a banh mi thit pâté (thit = meat, pâté = pâté) or sometimes a banh mi thit nuong (thit nuong = grilled meat). In the classic version, the pâté—a rich, velvety, offal-y spread—is paired with smoky barbecued pork and/or some mortadella-like cold cuts. Atop that goes a slathering of mayonnaise, strips of pickled carrot and daikon, cucumber, chiles, a few sprigs of cilantro, and behold: the best sandwich ever.
That’s what I used to think, anyway. But no prior encounter could have prepared me for the marvel of Phuong Banh Mi, a sandwich stand on Hoang Dieu Street run by a young woman of the same name. I’d heard about Phuong from friends in Hanoi and Saigon. The concierge at the Nam Hai resort practically growled with hunger when I mentioned the place. Phuong’s banh mi is unique in that (a) she adds sliced tomato and hand-ground chili sauce, along with the standard trimmings; and (b) unlike in the South, where the baguettes are inflated to balloon-like proportions, Phuong’s are modestly sized, the bread-to-filling ratio spot-on. Come in the early morning or late afternoon (after the second baking) and the bread is still warm. Phuong wraps her creations in newspaper if you want them to go, but I devoured mine right there on the curb in about 47 seconds. It was unbefreakinglievable.