By the time I went on a tour of vegetarian food in Hoi An, I had been in Vietnam for almost three months and in Hoi An for a week. Even though I thought I had tried everything vegetarian that Hoi An had to offer, Kam from *Hoi An Food Tour introduced me to lots of new vegetarian food in Hoi An that I hadn’t yet tried.
She also shared the myths and legends of vegetarian food in Hoi An, so that I could enjoy the food with a cultural spin.
An important note about vegetarian food in Vietnam: “Vegetarian” food often contains fish sauce in Vietnam. Fish sauce is everywhere in Vietnam and if you think you are staying completely vegan or vegetarian, I have news for you… if you eat outside of the Buddhist vegan restaurants, you will probably consume a couple of drops of fish sauce here and there. Make your peace with this fact before you book your flight to Vietnam!
A less important note about me: I am usually vegan but in the name of research, I agreed to eat eggs and fish sauce on this tour. Yes, my vegan morals were scattered by the winds of curiosity!
A Tour of Vegetarian Food in Hoi An, Vietnam
Banh Kep Stall
Hai Ba Trung
We started the tour with a decidedly non-traditional Vietnamese food: Vietnamese pizza (Banh Kep). It is loosely related to Italian pizza and, like its European cousin, is a popular snack for school kids and teenagers.
Banh Kep consists of a circular rice cracker which is carefully toasted over an open coal fire until crispy. “Pizza” toppings, like pork pate or quail eggs, are added and the whole concoction is roasted over the fire again.
As we waited for our pizza, my guide Kam filled me in on the fine balance that signifies top-notch Vietnamese cooking. The food should include a balanced mix of the five elements, which represent five flavours:
- Spicy is fire.
- Salty is water.
- Sweet is earth.
- Sour is wood.
- Bitter is metal.
The best dishes also include five colors (green, red, yellow, white and black) and appeal to the five senses.
Even this simple snack of Banh Kep, when topped with red hot sauce, fulfills the five requirements in each category. Though I was a little squeamish eating the golden yolk of the tiny quail eggs, the crunch of the rice cracker combined with the creamy eggs and the zingy hot sauce did make a satisfying (and nutritious) snack.
Famous Hoi An White Rose
Tran Tuan Ngai, 533 Hai Ba Trung Street
This is the home of the original White Rose, which was invented 100 years ago by the owner’s grandfather. Every morning, Mr. Ngai makes a batch of dough from the secret recipe that has been handed down from father to son. Legend has it that he is the only person who knows the recipe and can make the dough.
Once the dough is ready, it is shaped into delicate circles and filled with dab of shrimp or vegetarian filling by a team of women who work in the front of Mr. Ngai’s restaurant. The women make around 5,000 dumplings per day. These are distributed to restaurants throughout the city. Though the work is painstaking, the women are relatively well-paid and it is a good job compared to others that might be available to them.
I’d had White Rose elsewhere in Hoi An, but it didn’t come close to the delicately flavoured dumplings at Tran Tuan Ngai. Many restaurants serve their own version of White Rose, which can be spotted by its thicker, less transparent dough.
At restaurants where the original White Rose is served, they still need to reheat them after they are cooked and delivered by Tran Tuan Ngai so it’s well worth seeking this special dish out at its point of origin.
Half of the flavour comes from the secret-recipe dipping sauce (which very likely contains shrimp paste or fish sauce) but is well worth trying once in your life.
Legendary Black Sesame Pudding (Xi Ma)
Ly Thuong Kiet
We were the first ones to arrive at a humble — one woman and her large cooking pot — Black Sesame stall on the sidewalk of the busy Ly Thuong Kiet. We pulled up the smallest plastic stools I’ve seen yet and were handed two small bowls of jet-black sesame pudding.
Kam had timed our arrival perfectly. Within five minutes all of the stools were full of local people anxious to get their treat.
According to Kam, the recipe for this black sesame pudding is another carefully held secret. The only person who can make it is the vendor’s 99-year-old father who still cooks the pudding almost every morning. People flock to this stall not only because its some of the best black sesame in town, but also they know that their time to eat it is limited. When the father dies, the magic of the recipe will die with him.
As with White Rose, the myth is just as important as the food itself. This was my first experience of Xi Ma, a thick creamy porridge of black sesame, Chinese herbs and sugar. It is said to be good for digestion.
Hearing this, I felt perfectly justified in ordering a second bowl.
Best Banh Mi in the World
Banh Mi Phuong, 2B Phan Chau Trinh
No Vietnamese food tour would be complete without the famous Banh Mi sandwich and no Hoi An food tour misses Banh Mi Phuong. After all, according to Anthony Bourdain, this is the best Banh Mi in the world (though I’m pretty sure he hasn’t tasted them all).
After a visit from Bourdain and President Obama, Banh Mi Phuong skyrocketed to international fame.
Now, it is busy from early morning until late evening and people from all over the world line up to get their Banh Mi on. Before 8am, you’ll line up with locals getting breakfast and later on you’ll share limited table space with bus tourists, backpackers and everyone in between.
For non-veggies, the classic Banh Mi filling is a pork pate; for veggies, there is tofu cooked in thick, sweet soy-based sauce. The magical hot sauce is the mythic ingredient at Banh Mi Phuong. It is a long-kept secret… do I need to say more?
For me, the bread is what really makes or breaks a Banh Mi. Banh Mi Phuong’s bread is a perfect balance of fluffy, chewy and crunchy. Made in the bakery next door from a special combination of wheat flour and sweet potato flour, it couldn’t be fresher!
So, is this the best veggie Banh Mi in the world? All I can say for sure is that it’s the best one I’ve had so far.
The Square Noodle with a Well-Rounded Heritage
Food court in the central market
Our next stop is a small stall at the back of the food court in the central market. Wandering through here the other day, I couldn’t spot anything remotely vegetarian to eat, so I’m thrilled to have a guide to help me. Kam took me to Ms. Ha’s stall (in the last row farthest to the left if you enter the market from Tran Phu street).
There, I finally got a chance to try Hoi An’s most famous dish, Cau Lau. It is a square noodle, about the thickness of Japanese Udon, made by slicing flat rectangles of dough. Ash is added to the dough to give the noodles an extra chewy texture and to make them keep longer than ordinary rice noodles.
Just like every food in Hoi An, Cau Lau is made from a secret recipe. All of the Cau Lau in the city is said to originate from a single noodle-maker who uses only the water from the ancient Ba Le Well and only the ash from a particular tree grown nearby. This story is utter rubbish, of course, but the food is only as tasty as the mystery behind it.
Ms Ha’s vegetarian Cau Lau is served with crunchy fried bread and fresh greens, all doused in a tasty, salty broth. Though the combo was tasty, Cau Lau noodles are far too dense and chewy for me.
To get a second opinion, read this in-depth article about the famous Hoi An Cau Lau noodles and where to eat them.
Home-Cooked Vegetarian Food in Hoi An
For our final stop of the night, Kam led me down one of the winding alleyways just north of Hoi An’s Ancient Town. As the rain starts to spit down as we entered the open front of the family home of Mrs No. We sat at a table in Mrs No’s tiled living room, where one wall is adorned with extra large wedding portraits of her two daughters and the other wall is completely devoted to a Buddhist temple.
I snack on the small plates of fried spring rolls and banh khot — tiny deep fried rounds of rice dough traditionally filled with a single shrimp.
Mrs No tells me that ever since her daughters got married, their home is too quiet and lonely so she welcomes food tour guests to fill the house with people and conversation. I feel a little inadequate for the task, exhausted as I am and stuffed full of food, but I do my best.
*Note: I was a guest of Hoi An Food Tour for this tour of vegetarian food in Hoi An. All opinions about the yumminess of food are my own.
♥Happy eating, Jane