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 Chinesechar 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.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Ahh, the South. Everything is hotter: the air, the chiles, the woks, the fashion. Beer is served with a big chunk of ice; it melts before you’re finished. Compared with the food up North, the dishes are generally lighter—the heat, again—and sweeter. (Southerners have a predilection for coconut milk, sugarcane, and saccharine desserts.) And while Northerners might call Southern cuisine unsophisticated, its origins are varied and complex. Unlike Hanoi, a more insular city whose identity is decidedly Vietnamese, Saigon has always had one foot in the outside world—just as the world has always had at least one foot in Saigon. Foreign influences are readily absorbed here, from the Indian and Malay flavors that inspired Southern-style ca ry (curry) to the Singaporean noodle shops now favored by Saigon teenagers.
This is an upwardly mobile city, consumed with money and ways to show it off, and its dining scene is accordingly flashier, more cosmopolitan. Alas, things change quickly in these boom times; every year or two I return to Saigon to find that more old favorites have disappeared. Thankfully, some touchstones remain—including my beloved crab joint, Quan Thuy 94. With an industrial fan roaring in the corner and a Jason Statham movie cranking on the TV, it’s short on visible charm. But the staff is adorable, and the kitchen knows the hell out of crab. The soft-shells, coated in lip-puckering tamarind sauce, burst in the mouth to unleash a creamy, tangy sweetness.
Cha gio cua (crab spring rolls) are fried to an unerringly calibrated crunch. The unmissable order is mien xao cua be: glass noodles sautéed with crabmeat, mushrooms, chiles, and vermilion-colored crab roe. (A word about the name: Quan Thuy 94 used to be at 94 Dinh Tien Hoang. When it moved down the street to No. 84, it kept “94” in its name.