A Taste of Hoi An

The purpose of this travel blog is not to give free plugs to businesses, but today I’ll make an exception. Some years ago I saw a program on TV called ‘Anh Do Does Vietnam’. Anh is such an engaging guy and his journey back to the homeland of his parents was highly entertaining and also quite informative. But one part of the program made a real impression on me. He met up with an Aussie ex-pat named Neville who settled in Hoi An with his wife and started up a food tour featuring many of the local delicacies. Neville took Anh to a street vendor who served him a bowl of what looked remarkably similar to sump oil – it was black sesame soup and Anh loved it. The whole tour looked like fun, so in 2017, when we spent a whole week in Hoi An, Marg and I booked a spot on the tour. We had such a good time that we didn’t hesitate to book ourselves on the tour again for our current visit to Hoi An, this time with the rest of our family. Here’s the link to The Original Taste of Hoi An Food Tour.

Hien, who manages all the bookings for Neville these days, met us at our accommodation at 7.30am and introduced us to San, who would take us on the first part of our tour. It was great to see San again. She was our guide on the walking part of our tour in 2017 as well. She certainly knows her stuff when it comes to food and culture knowledge, but she’s also very funny and has a wicked sense of humour, so it was a very entertaining stroll we took through the streets of Hoi An in the early morning rain. Somehow it felt a bit safer following San through the streets than it did when we tried it for ourselves last night. She confidently strode out into the road without a care in the world and let the traffic flow around her, whereas we kept much, much closer to the kerb and kept an eye out for everything that seemed to be coming our way.

San took us to some local restaurants for the first of our food tastings. Each food had a story to accompany it, and we learned to not only consider the flavours of what we were eating, but also the textures of the different ingredients and the cultural traditions that sometimes also were linked to the individual dishes. At other times we stopped at a street vendor’s stall for a local delicacy.

San took us through the local produce market. Everything is fresh. The fruit and vegies come in from the farms early in the morning. Boats bring in the overnight catch to the fishing village, where stall holders barter for the best seafood in order to sell it in the market. Freshly butchered meat is sold without the need for refrigeration and without attracting any flies. The locals purchase food from the stall holders, take it home and prepare it for eating later the same day. Vietnamese culture dictates that the people constantly graze throughout the day, rather than limiting themselves to three meals a day like we westerners do. Neville claims that their metabolism processes the food efficiently and that, no matter how frequently they snack on foods, they never put on weight. And, from all we’ve observed, there just aren’t any overweight locals to be found in Hoi An – whereas, for tourists, the same cannot be said.

If you went back and had another look at those market photos, you’d soon become aware that in Hoi An it’s the women who do all the hard work. Where are the men? Essentially, many of them can be found lazing around in places like the one in the photo below, drinking coffee, smoking and passing the time of day. All of the people who work on Neville’s food tour had the same message. Vietnamese men are very lazy and Vietnamese women do all the heavy lifting.

The walking tour continued beyond the markets on our way back to Neville’s place. Our next stop was for Xi Ma, the fabulous black sesame soup I had originally seen on Anh Do’s show on TV. Apparently the family get up very early every morning to make it, then bring it down to their place on the street where passers-by can feast on this delicious local delicacy. Until recently, the patriarch of the family was often the person responsible for both making and selling the product. They claim he was still doing this aged over one hundred years old. Perhaps long life is an outcome of daily consumption of this product. Sadly the old man died just a few years back, but now members of his family carry on the business.

Next stop was another highlight for me. A crusty baguette and a big bowl of beef pho – two of my favourite Vietnamese foods in one place. Delicious. The lovely lady who makes the pho had lots of smiles for Layla.

We arrived back at Neville’s place and San bade us farewell. We’d really enjoyed spending the morning with her as our guide. Neville came out to say hello and give us a little background to the Vietnamese food culture. He’s very fond of the women who work for him. San had left school very early and Hien was the first person from her village to finish high school, but now both women are an essential part of Neville’s operation and he claims that one day he will hand the business over to them. The women are paid a good wage and I’m sure his ongoing support of the food providers for the tour makes a difference to their lives. Neville is also a longtime supporter of a charity that aids the victims of Agent Orange.

Neville’s assistant Hien took over the second part of our food tour as more and more dishes were brought out of the kitchen by another assistant, Lun, and Neville’s wife Colleen. Like San, Hien was both knowledgeable and funny, and she was just as engaging as San had been when we were out walking. Some of the foods we tried were used for wedding feasts and others were traditionally served during the annual Tet festival. We tried several different beverages, including one made from bird’s nest, a rice wine and the famous Vietnamese coffee made with condensed milk.

We basically started eating not long after the tour began at 7.30am and were still trying new foods at midday. We sampled 45 different foods in that time. As a vegetarian, Tess sometimes had variations on the dishes the rest of us ate, but each one of hers was equally as good as what those of us who ate meat were served.

So there you have it. A free plug for the Original Taste of Hoi An Food Tour, but well and truly worth doing. And the 2022 tour was just as good as the one we did in 2017. It was a great way for our family group to get a feel for Hoi An and its culture at the start of our trip, and now we can confidently pick up a restaurant menu in town and order dishes we know a little about.

In mid-afternoon, Marg and I, aided by a map, found a new and better route into the Old Town than the one we took last night. This one steered us away from the busy roads and made crossing streets a little less hazardous. It was so good to see the familiar colours of Hoi An Old Town again and we managed to spot a few temples and shops that we’d visited on one or both of our previous visits.

We made our way to Lac Viet jewellers, where we’d had some items made, including my wedding ring, on our last visit. Tao said she remembered us. She got one of the jewellers working out the back to resize one of Marg’s rings and polish up some others while she fitted Marg up for a new wedding ring. We paid her a very good price for the new ring and she didn’t charge us at all for the resizing and cleaning of the others. If you’re after quality jewellery at a bargain price, this is the place to come.

It was hot work walking through the Old Town with the sun beating down on us, so we stopped in at the Hoi An Roastery for a Saigon coffee – it’s much bigger than the local variety – and that did the trick and cooled us down nicely. We wandered back to our accommodation in time for happy hour by the pool with the rest of the family – a relaxing way to kill what was left of the daylight hours before dinner.

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