Hoi An, as I mentioned earlier, was somewhat unkind to us. But it wasn’t just the rain. In addition to dodging drops we also had a terrible time finding good places to eat, let alone great ones.
Partly, I think we just got spoiled in Hanoi. It was so easy to find delicious meals in Hanoi that almost anywhere else would seem a disappointment by comparison. And so it was initially with Hoi An.
Don’t get us wrong, Hoi An is a lovely city. But it really is a tourist town. Unfortunately, many of its eateries reflect that. Too many cater to what they think westerners want and serve up mediocre food at inflated prices as a result.
In the past we’ve been able to side-step tourist cuisine by avoiding the places where tourists eat. But in Hoi An, that strategy didn’t always work. We had bad experiences at upscale places as well as downscale ones and everywhere in between.
Through sheer persistence, and a week of trying, we did eventually uncover these handful of standouts.
Stall 34 in the Central Market
Cau Lao is a pork and noodle dish supposedly only served in the city of Hoi An. Unlike many other Vietnamese noodle recipes, cau lao isn’t a soup. Instead of being served in a thin broth, its ingredients are mixed in a bowl with a flavorful sauce. And none of the various cau laos we tried were more flavorful than the version prepared in Stall 34 of Hoi An’s Central Market.
We almost missed this place completely. On our first trip to the market for lunch we settled onto the crowded metal benches of the stall immediately adjacent to the near-empty ones of #34. What we didn’t know at the time, and only discovered the next day, was that Stall 34 does a huge take-away business. Even though her benches were vacant, the woman who runs the place had her hands full filling bags of noodles and sauce for hordes of unseen but in-the-know customers.
Once we discovered it, Stall 34 became our go-to place for lunch in Hoi An. Each day we gladly waited behind a usual line of take-away orders for some of the best noodles we’ve had anywhere. And at less than $1 per bowl (20,000 Dong) they’re some of the cheapest, too.
You’ll find Stall 34 in the northern half of Hoi An’s Central Market along with a bunch of other food vendors. Look for the number on a post behind the counter.
If you’re a restaurant with only one thing on your menu and expect to stay in business that one dish had better be awesome. So it says something important about Bale Well that it has survived for more than two decades while serving the same basic set menu night after night. The reasons for its success are obvious.
As a Vietnamese dining experience Bale Well scores on almost every dimension. Relaxed, street-food-style ambiance? Check. Friendly service? Check. Generous portions? Double-check. Delicious food? OMG-check.
Bale Well’s version of Ban Xeo is greasy and decadent but oh-so good. And ordering couldn’t be easier. All you have to do is sit down and wait for the plates of food to start coming…and coming. Before long you’ll be seated in front of two different kinds of satay, fried spring rolls, Vietnamese kim chi, a variety of fresh greens, and a bowl each of peanut and chili sauce.
Wait a little longer and a helpful waitress will materialize to show you what to do with it all. If you’re too impatient for instruction, then you can dig right in by wrapping everything in the rice paper (including the spring rolls) and dipping the combination in sauce.
It’s a ton of food, but save room for the dessert that comes as part of your set menu. We’re not generally big fans of traditional Asian style sweets, and most of the attempts at western desserts we’ve tried have fallen flat. Bale Well is an exception. Their deep-dark chocolate mousse is absolutely fantastic.
You’ll find Bale Well a short walk outside of Hanoi’s Old Town, down an alley off of Phan Trau Chinh Street (see map below.)
If you need a break from Vietnamese food and have a hankering for Indian, Ganesh serves up unusually solid curries and generous portions of naan. We had their madras and saag, both of which were above average.
You’ll find Ganesh at 24 Hung Dao Street.
Café Nuoc Chanh
We got so much more than coffee when we sat down at this little stand near Hoi An’s famous covered bridge. For starters they quoted us the cheapest prices in town. At 15,000 VND (about $0.70) per cup they were easily half the price of what “proper” cafes in town charge. And instead of the small, bitter cups we had grown to expect elsewhere, they poured us two large brews that reminded us of the coffees we became addicted to in Hanoi.
Then they started plying us with other goods. We each got a complementary cup of the best jasmine tea we’ve had anywhere, some home-made candied lemons, and a couple of tea biscuits.
We spoke with them as best we could in our non-existent Vietnamese and their limited English. We communicated well enough to learn that the two women were sisters who also owned a nearby shop. The gentleman was married to one of the women, although it wasn’t clear which. When they learned we were from the U.S. they exclaimed with smiles, “Vietnamese and America – like family,” which is exactly how it felt.
That was especially true when they introduced us to their three beautiful daughters, who posed with us for a photo (at their Mom’s request) and even gave Shannon a bouquet of five red roses. We still don’t know the significance, if any, of the gift, but while walking around town several local women smiled and commented on the flowers.
If you go, stock up on the jasmine tea. We bought a bag for 20,000 VND and are hooked on it. Unfortunately we haven’t been able to find anything nearly as good anywhere else in Asia.
You can’t just pop in for a meal at the Hoi An Ngo Homestay, but if you’re lodging there you’ll be invited to dine. The owner, Madame Nhung, works as a primary school teacher by day and yet still hosts evening meals twice a week. She told us she loves to cook and also likes to give guests a chance to get to know each other. We joined couples from South Africa and France, happily enjoying a simplified version of Ban Xeo one night and Cơm Gà, a chicken and rice dish, on the other. The above-and-beyond hospitality was unexpected and much appreciated…especially so since we didn’t have to venture out into the rain for dinner.