We’re sitting in a street-side stall in the historic town of Hoi An, on the recommendation of an ex-pat we met in the airport, eagerly anticipating a bowl of Cao Lầu — a dish I’ve told Annie about 1000 times, and, as my memory serves me, is one of the best dishes I had when I was here in Vietnam 10 years ago.
I have many memories of that trip, all fuzzy, lost in an era of pre-iPhone, pre-ubiquitous wifi, pre-every-moment-is-amazing documentation. I don’t have any travel buddies to confirm or deny the details, because I was flying solo.
And so, memories fade, nostalgia intensifies, and the only way to know, is to go. This time, I’m ecstatic to be here with Annie. Besides the obvious reasons I want her around (read: by my side all the time), I want her to experience this place. I want to see her delight in these experiences. And I want to know that I didn’t just dream all of the joy that was my Vietnam of 10 years ago.
Last time I came through this way, I was on a bus route South to North — Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City (depending who you ask) to Hanoi — and I honestly don’t remember why I was drawn to Hoi An. Probably a tip from some random backpacker. I took two overnight buses in a row to get here, and as my old blog post shows, I spent sometime wandering around the beaches, biking around town, eating great food, and getting some tailored clothing made.
Thanks to incredibly budget Asian airline prices, we flew into Da Nang, and took a short bus ride down to Hoi An. We found a great place — Tropical Garden Homestay — to crash for a few days. Super friendly family/staff and clean, new rooms for a good price. Most places have bikes to rent/included in their price, so we were happy staying in the quiet countryside by the rice paddies and biking into town or to the beach.
Our first trip into town we checked off a few items. “White Rose” dumplings at Bánh Bao Bánh Vạc Bông Hồng Trắng (delicious!), and getting measured for some custom clothes at Canali Custom Tailor. I know. I know… getting custom made clothes in Vietnam, so cliché, but also pretty awesome. If you’re awkwardly sized like me, it’s a dream to get shirts that actually fit. It’s also fun to work with the tailors, picking fabrics, designing products. In the end, I got a couple cool shirts and a pair of shorts. Annie got a cool shirt/dress item and we both left happy.
We wandered down a dark, dirt street that night for dinner at a restaurant called Baby Mustard. We were only one of two full tables in there, but the restaurant was fantastic.
The next day we went in search of Cao lầu — “a regional Vietnamese dish made with noodles, pork, and local greens, that is found only in the town of Hội An” (Wikipedia). My old travel journal says I ate this for lunch, dinner, and then breakfast one day here last time. Our hunt brings us to the old market in Hoi An’s historic district, where there are many small stalls run by little old Vietnamese women, eager to please hungry tourists and locals alike. We settled in at Mrs. Van’s and I was not let down. Cao lầu is just such a tasty dish, made more special since it technically can’t be made anywhere else (the noodles allegedly can only be made with water from the local well).
We then spent a few hours exploring the old historic district on foot/bike. There are a bunch of old assembly halls, traditional homes, museums, all open for exploration (just buy a pack of ‘tickets’ from the local tourism board).
We took a break for tea at Reaching Out, a beautiful little tea house that is run by young women who are all deaf/mute, and thus it is completely silent. Ordering is done with pencil and paper, and even customers/tourists generally stay silent while there. It’s a wonderful respite from the hustle and bustle of the streets outside. Reaching Out also has a store where they sell ornate crafts made by the same friendly staff. Very cool project/business employing those who are differently abled. Definitely support.
We biked out to An Bang Beach in the afternoon, enjoyed a refreshing swim, and were entertained by groups of teenagers celebrating the end of the school year at the beach. The beach is pretty nice. No surfing in sight (though we heard there are some waves along the Vietnamese coast), lots of restaurants offering chairs/umbrellas, and many individual sellers offering all sorts of snacks, wares, etc. Annie ended up in conversation with one of the young woman selling souvenirs. On a hot, HOT day, the woman was covered head to toe — socks with her sandals, gloves, two sweatshirts, traditional Vietnamese hat and a mask — all to avoid the sun. Consistent with the rest of Asia, being tan is bad, white skin is in, particularly for the women, who seek the approval of men… who of course prefer white skin. Here we were, Annie consistently seeing the beauty in all these women, while they just saw beauty in her… particularly her skin, with statements like “I want your skin.” Funny? Sad? Or simply the grass always being greener…?
Walking back down memory lane, last time I was here I was taken out to dinner (by the tailor I’d worked with who was appreciative of some extra business I sent her way), to a local restaurant (her sister’s or cousin’s if I remember correctly). When I say local, I mean local. The place was down a little alley, tiny plastic stools, all local Vietnamese dining there, save for myself and a couple other guests of the tailor. The food was amazing! The owner served family style, fresh bbq pork spring rolls. I remember eating (and drinking) well that night and chalking it up as one of the best meals of my world tour. Unfortunately, this time around, I couldn’t remember the name of the place (too many beers!), but I kept an eye out as we biked around town. Then, one afternoon, I noticed a man directing people down an alley and a sign overhead, “Ba Le Well.” I turned down the alley and looked around, what was once a hole in the wall was now a full-scale operation that had expanded across the street into a courtyard with diners munching on spring rolls everywhere! I was stoked!
Annie and I went back for dinner. All we had to order was our drinks. There are no options, just the same, amazing spring rolls, served as make-your-own family style. We stuffed our faces and I was so proud to have rediscovered this place. I tried to explain my story to our server, who then brought me to the owner — much older now, but extremely proud of her business, “#1 TripAdvisor!” She repeated. Guess my little local spot had grown up… and I guess I could’ve found the name of the place online, but more fun to have found it on our own, again.
The next day we booked a tour with Hoi An Ecotourism. While normally reluctant to book guided tours like this, I am so glad we did. Hoang, the owner/operator, is great! He met us at our homestay with bikes, led us on a pretty ride through rice paddies to his home. From there we learned the ins and outs of rice cultivation, complete with our own attempts ploughing fields with a water buffalo. We loved getting hands on with the equipment, and getting a better understanding of how labor intensive rice farming was and still is. We then had a cooking class, taught by Hoang’s sister, in which we learned how to prepare traditional Vietnamese pancakes. We dined on our creations, then headed out for the afternoon to learn traditional fishing methods, of which there are many in Vietnamese culture. Our first attempt, was casting a hand-net from a wobbly canoe. Our instructors were an old Vietnamese couple, no English spoken, who make a life on the water. I cast the net a few times and “did very well for a tourist,” catching two (tiny!) fish on my second attempt. We then assisted in the haul of a fisher-net — a large rig built on the river, where a net is laid down in the water for an hour at a time (usually overnight, but in this case set up for us tourists to try), and then cranked up with a pulley system. We caught very little, but it was cool to see how it all worked. Finally, we hopped into a traditional round basket boat and did some crabbing amongst the groves along the river. Super fun. All in all a great day being outside/active, learning about traditional methods and more from Hoang. Highly recommend taking a tour with him if you’re in the area.
And then there we were… sitting at Thanh Cao Lầu, the street-side stall I began this post with, watching the old man (Thanh?), meticulously, yet casually preparing our lunch… the meal as delicious as I remembered 10 years ago, but this time around a little sweeter with someone to remember it with.
All of the recs:
- Eat…Thanh Cao Lầu. Best we had.
- Eat… White Rose dumplings at Bánh Bao Bánh Vạc Bông Hồng Trắng. From what we could gather, this is the original/oldest/best place.
- Keep eating… fresh BBQ pork spring rolls at Ba Le Well. I will go so far as to say this is a must/do not miss/you’d be an idiot if you skip this place.
- Tour… Hoi An with Hoang of Hoi An Ecotours.
- Drink tea… at Reaching Out. Tea and cookies are great, but the experience of silence is unique and it supports a good group of people.
- Visit… the old historic district. Some great history to see by day, and beautiful at night as it is all lit up by candles, lanterns etc.
- Read… my 10 year old blog post on Hoi An. And yes, I’m an idiot who forgot about my old blog, in which I wrote the name of the restaurant, Ba Le Well. Sigh.
- Beach it… at An Bang Beach.