Banh Mi Sandwiches in Hoi An

(Other than this introductory paragraph, this post has been ghost written by Lisa on behalf of Robert.  First, because Robert by all accounts has never been much of a writer, even though he is a great talker.  But, more importantly, because Lisa doesn’t eat banh mi sandwiches and really doesn’t know anything about banh mi sandwiches except for the fact that they have too many “icky” things on them.  Well, except for the peanut butter banh mi (according to our guest expert, Robert, not really a banh mi sandwich) she found in Hanoi.  OK, now that that is out, read this in Robert’s voice for a change).

When one thinks of Hoi An, the first thing that comes to mind is tailoring.  And, then perhaps custom made shoes.  Maybe cao lau.  And, definitely the old buildings and lanterns.  This post isn’t about any of those things.  This post is about the absolute best part of Hoi An — the banh mi sandwiches.

What is a banh mi you might ask?  Well, the first thing to know is that, technically, “banh mi” (sometimes spelled “banh my”) is just bread.  But, when most people hear “banh mi,” they think of it as the number one sandwich in the entire world combining both French and Vietnamese influences.  The best ones start with a crunchy baguette (you know, the kind that will rip the roof of your mouth apart if you aren’t careful).  Then, you add pate, grilled pork, ground pork, shredded pickled papaya and carrot, lettuce, cucumber, some meat juices (the more the better!), hot sauce, and maybe an egg or some cheese.  You can sometimes get vegetarian versions, but why would you?

Where can you find a banh mi in Hoi An?  Well, pretty much everywhere.  But, here are the best ones.  Every single one of these sandwiches was better that any sandwich I ate in Hanoi and any banh mi sandwich I have ever eaten in Chicago.

Tam Hoa Banh Mi.  I went here on our food tour of Hoi An.  I’m pretty sure this is the best banh mi I’ve ever had in my entire life.  Every single component — from the bread, to the grilled pork, to the au jus, was top notch.  Tam Hoa is just a little cart located at the corner of Tran Cao Van and Tai Phien.  It is only there until 10:30 am, so get there early.  (No idea what time it opens, but the earliest I was there was around 6:45 or so — I’m still mad at Lisa for making me get up that early for the photo tour).

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At Tam Hoa.  Doesn’t look like much, does it?  But looks are deceiving.

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Tam Hoa banh mi.

Phi Banh Mi.  This stand is just down the street from Tam Hoa.  Yes, I did go to both places within the span of 15 minutes one day.  No, I don’t feel one bit guilty about it.  The sandwich here had all the usual ingredients, but this place also adds mint to the sandwich.  It was a great addition.  Phi Banh Mi can be found at 88 Thái Phiên.  They have seating if you want to eat in.

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Phi Banh Mi.  Look at how neatly this sandwich was put together.

Mrs. Hoa.  This stand sets up most late afternoons/evenings and seems to do a brisk business with locals who pull up on their motorbikes and get a sandwich to go.   This banh mi was juicy and saucy and porky and eggie goodness.  A fantastic late-night snack.  Mrs. Hoa can be found right by the bridge over to Cam Nam Island and, if you are staying on Cam Nam Island like we were, I guarantee you will have devoured the sandwich before you finish crossing the bridge.

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Banh Mi from Mrs. Hoa.  Can you see all that greasy, juicy deliciousness?

Madame Khanh — The Banh Mi Queen.  Affectionately known as “Queen,” this place is always on the “best of” lists.  Unfortunately, on my first visit, the bread was stale and the pate and ground pork were not evenly distributed across the sandwich.  That said, it was still really good.  And, the on the second visit, the entire sandwich was much better, although still not good enough to make it rise up any further on my list.  Queen can be found at 115 Trần Cao Vân.  They have seating too if you want to eat in.

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Queen Banh Mi.  Check out how messy this one is.

Banh My Xuan Cam Nam.  This is a little stand right across the Cam Nam bridge (on the island side).  She sets up most days around mid-afternoon.  She was grilling her bread to get the moisture out and her sandwich was layered with different juices.  Yum!

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Banh My Xuan Cam Nam.

Banh Mi Phoung.  This is the place Anthony Bourdain recommended, and his photo is even on the paper the sandwich is wrapped in.  The shop is completely disorganized with no clear method to the madness, and it is pretty much always crowded, and the hassle of trying to figure out how to order here diminishes the tastiness of the sandwich.  And, there was a small bone in my sandwich.  But, again, it is still one of the best I’ve ever had.  Banh Mi Phoung can be found at 2b Phan Chu Trinh.  Even better, just down the street is a place called Tap House that will let you eat your banh mi there while you drink a Vietnamese craft beer.  And, for those of you with a picky wife like me who doesn’t understand the beauty of a craft beer, Tap House has wine too.  (Note from Lisa:  Looks like the Anthony Bourdain curse struck again — a place that was once probably the best but has been a victim of its own success).

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A sandwich endorsed by Bourdain and a beer.  What is not to love?

Bahn Mi Pho Co.  I had high hopes for this little stand, as day after day we saw taxi drivers stopping in and grabbing a sandwich.  Maybe they get a better sandwich than I got, or maybe I was just annoyed because the lady tried to shortchange me (there is no way this was worth double all the other sandwiches I had….), but it certainly wasn’t my favorite.  Still, it was quite good (even in spite of the strange yellow color) so it seemed worth putting on the list.  This stand is on a corner around 2 Le Loi street.

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Bahn Mi Pho Co.

Ahh….Hoi An, I’m going to remember your sandwiches for a very long time.

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The best cao lau in Hoi An

Cao lau (the first word is pronounced like “cow” and the second word is kind of like “how” only with an “L” although, apparently, they pronounce it “cow low” in Hanoi even though they don’t make it there) is a dish you can only find in Hoi An.  It is made with firm and chewy rice noodles that legend says must be pre-soaked with water from one particular well in Hoi An and lye made from ash from trees grown on one of the Cham Islands.  (I’m calling BS on the idea that all the cao lau noodles in town are still made this way….I’m pretty sure the well would have run dry and there wouldn’t be a single tree left on any of the islands otherwise.  But, who knows?).  In addition to the noodles, the dish includes grilled pork, lots of local greens (which are supposed to come from one particular village), bean sprouts, a small amount of a light broth, and crispy crackers made from rice flour (my favorite part).

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Crispy crackers drying in the sun in a random alley.

I used to LOVE cao lau.  I used to dream about cao lau when I wasn’t in Hoi An.  Last time we were in Hoi An, I ate cao lau for nearly every meal.  We decided to visit Hoi An yet again (I think this is our 4th visit) largely so I could eat more cao lau (Robert doesn’t mind the return visit because Anthony Bourdain says that the best banh mi in Vietnam is here — more on that in a future post).  I even made a list of restaurants that were supposed to have the best cao lau in town and planned to eat at all of them.  But, you know what?  My first few bowls of cao lau sucked.  Like “why am I wasting stomach space on this” sucked.  Like “why did I ever think this was good” sucked.   Can you believe one restaurant didn’t even include the crispy crackers?  That is sacrilege!  And, for awhile, I thought that I was no longer in love with cao lau.  I though perhaps khao soi had completely stolen my heart and that cao lau just couldn’t compete.   And, then I stopped into Cao Lau Khong Gian Xang and my taste buds sang.  And, I realized something:  cao lau is still a special dish, but now that nearly every single restaurant in town sells it, you have to really look long and hard for a good bowl of cao lau.  Because the vast, vast majority of them aren’t even worth eating.

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Fresh cao lau oodles for sale at the market.

But you know what?  Finding a good bowl is worth the search.  Because a good bowl of cao lau is one of the best foods on earth (OK, maybe that is a slight exaggeration, but still, it is worth it).  So, here is where I think you should go.

Cao Lau Thanh at 26 Thai Phien.  This is just a tiny little stand with a few small tables and chairs behind the stand, and I’m pretty sure the only dish they serve is cao lau.  The locals flock here (both to eat in and to take away on their scooters) and for good reason.  This bowl of cao lau was delicious.  The pork was sweet and meaty and chewy and downright amazing.  And, they put just a tiny little dab of hot sauce on top, which makes the whole dish sing.  They are only open for lunch and close when they run out, but they are 100% worth visiting.  If you only eat cao lau once, eat it here.  Trust me on this.  We paid 30K Dong a bowl, and I’m pretty sure we paid the “tourist” tax — it looked like others paid 20K Dong — but I don’t begrudge that extra 10K even one teeny, tiny bit.

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Cao Lau Thanh

Cao Lau Khong Gian Xang at 687 Hai Ba Trung.  You are going to look at this restaurant and think “it is dark, it is dirty, there is trash on the floor, they only have six things on the menu, the lady looks annoyed that we walked in, I don’t want to eat there.”  Ignore all of those thoughts.  Sit down and order a bowl.  Look at how that pork glistened.  Look at all those crunchy crackers.  This is what a bowl of cao lau should be.  And, at only 30K Dong a bowl right in the Ancient Town, it is a bargain.

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Golden Lotus Cooking School.  OK, this one comes a bit out of left field, but the cao lau we made at the Golden Lotus cooking class was actually really good (although the photo doesn’t make it look that way due to my awful knife skills on the pork and the fact that the noodles aren’t visible because there was so much pork).  Other than the noodles, which were purchased fresh at the market, everything was made from scratch.  The broth and pork were by far the most flavorful we have had.  And, I even got to fry up the crispy crackers.

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Morning Glory.  Are you feeling shy about eating on a stool or at a place where napkins litter the floor?  Do you need a large menu with choices for a host of picky eaters?  Do you have to have wine with your meal?  (I feel you on that one).  But you really want to try cao lau?  Then, I would hesitantly recommend Morning Glory, which is a relatively famous restaurant right in the heart of the Ancient Town.  The cao lau here wasn’t life-changing, but it was solid and the best we had at a “fancy” restaurant (“fancy” being a highly relative term in Vietnam).  The pork in the cao lau was very good and there were not one but two types of crispy crackers.  The main thing letting this dish down was that there was very little broth.  If you do go to Morning Glory, I highly recommend trying the chicken rice as well — it was amazing (by far the best we had in Hoi An).

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Cao lau at Morning Glory.

I’m sure there are other places with good cao lau and we didn’t make it to all of the places I had on my list.  But, try one of these places first so you have a good basis to judge what cao lau SHOULD taste like.  And, if I missed your favorite, please be sure to tell me so I can try it next time.

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Morning in the Alleys

After trying for nearly two weeks and after being repeatedly washed out by rain, we finally took the Morning in the Alleys tour with Hoi An Photo Walks.  It was a great way to spend a morning in Hoi An.

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This lady posed for us.  So photogenic.  Not shown in this photo is the hair that went down past her waist.

The day started with a mini lecture from our guide Pieter on camera settings such as aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.  In spite of the fact that I pretty much never take my camera off of the auto settings (sacrilege to a professional photographer, and something I need to change, I know), I learned a lot.  And, Robert didn’t mind the refresher — besides it reinforced his view that he is always right.

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I’m pretty sure this guy was just pretending not to notice us.

Then, it was off into the alleys to explore and learn about composition and more about camera settings.   This is where the day really shined.

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We both think this is just about the perfect shot.  Color, composition, and action all in the same frame.

First, although this has nothing to do with photography per se, we got to see a side of Hoi An that we hadn’t previously seen, even though we had repeatedly walked within a few feet of these alleys.  Sadly, with the recent proliferation of guest houses, I fear this side of Hoi An may soon disappear.  But it was wonderful to walk through the alleys and see how people really live.  Everyone has their doors and windows wide open — just a tiny bit different than in Chicago!

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Sewing some of the clothes that make Hoi An famous.

Second, Pieter helped us get up close and personal with a variety of people in the alleys — hopefully we will both be a bit more confident about doing this in the future (note to self:  Vietnamese really don’t mind if you photograph children — in fact, sometimes like today an entire family will help make sure you get the perfect outfit and the perfect pose of their little one and sometimes like today little kids will run right into your shot to make sure you get their photo while their mom watches from the sidelines).

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Look at that smile….

Pieter also spoke to us in the alleys about things such as how to tell a story and how to evoke feelings in your photos, and explained it with photos he took on the spot.  Now, if I could just manage to see the things he sees….

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Butchering meat right on the street.

And, he also taught Robert numerous technical things, such as exposure compensation.

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A little blurry, but so much fun. 

All in all, we both felt like we learned quite a bit and got some fun photos to boot.

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This little kid literally ran into the scene to ensure we got his photo.

(P.S., in spite of insisting on using auto settings, half these photos are mine…..).

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Hoi An Lantern Festival

Fair warning….this is going to be a Debbie Downer post…

So, one of the many things Hoi An is famous for is the Lantern Festival held on each full moon.  We were so excited (ok, I was so excited and Robert was only mildly enthused) when we realized we would be in Hoi An for a Lantern Festival.  And, it turned out to be a complete dud.

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Lantern on a boat in Hoi An.

As I understand it (and, admittedly, my understanding on this point is not solid), the full moon is one of the most sacred times in the Buddhist calendar.  Accordingly, the full moon is celebrated by, among other things, burning incense and paper offerings and putting offerings out in front of store fronts and homes.  And, in Hoi An, the full moon is celebrated by sending colorful lanterns lit with a candle down the river.  Apparently, the lantern tradition started in the 16th or 17th century and is said to be (depending on what you read) an offering to gods or ancestors or to bring good luck or love or health or happiness or all of the above.

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Lanterns and boats on the river.

But, you know what?  While the local Vietnamese people did put out offerings and burn incense, I’m pretty sure the only people floating lanterns down the river were tourists.  And, many of the tourists were downright rude.  One lady literally ducked in front of Robert’s tripod and put her head right in front of his camera lens so she could get the shot he was trying to get.  And, you know what else?  Because you can buy the lanterns and float them down the river every single night, the Lantern Festival wasn’t much different than any other night of the year (except for the fact that the town shuts off most of the electric lights along the river during the Festival).  And, you know what else?  All we could wonder was:  what happens to all the paper and candle wax being put in the river every single night?  What kind of ecological disaster is it creating?  (We did not buy a lantern).

So, bottom line, while it is pretty to see the lanterns floating down the river, you can see that pretty much every day in Hoi An and we wouldn’t put the Lantern Festival on the list of “must sees” in Vietnam.

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Tam Thanh Mural Village

A few years ago, I’m not sure exactly when but I think it was in 2016, a team of Vietnamese and Korean artists spent two weeks painting over 100 murals all over the sleepy fishing village of Tam Thanh.

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The murals are supposed to reflect the local culture, the local people and nature.

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As I understand it, the purpose of painting these murals was to help the economy of the town.  I’m not sure how well that worked, as we were the only tourists when we visited.  There were no souvenir shops or restaurants catering to tourists.  Maybe the town somehow gets paid when group tours arrive?

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Tam Thanh is about an hour drive from Hoi An.  We thought about renting a scooter to get there, but the older we get the more responsible (i.e., boring) we get.  Since it is technically illegal for us to drive a scooter in Vietnam even though everyone and their brother would rent us a scooter, and since our travel insurance is void if we break the law, and since the drive was along a highway, we decided to hire a driver.

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The drive was interesting.  Although the area around Hoi An is wet, we drove through what appeared to be a desert with white sand that actually looked more like salt than sand.

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And, on both sides of the road there were really cool cemeteries.  If we had been on a scooter, we definitely would have explored those cemeteries.

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The town itself is quite small.  It is only maybe 10 blocks or so long.

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Much of the art is on the small little alleys leading to the ocean.

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The local people are very friendly.  Many of them were fishing and others were repairing fishing nets.

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Tons of kids came up and said hello and asked us our names.

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One lady made sure to tell us when we had reached the end of the artwork.

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And, families let us walk into their yards to get better photos.

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It was a great way to spend a couple of hours.

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The Original Taste Of Hoi An

We went on a food tour today.  There were lots of reasons it should have been a complete and utter disaster.

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Rose apple.  More like a pear than like an apple.  Except it isn’t nearly as good as either a pear or an apple, even when you dip it in salt and chili.  But, it is a pretty fruit.

We can start with the fact that it cost nearly $70 per person.  In Vietnam.  Where we can eat very, very well on a couple of dollars per person per meal.

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Making banh xeo at the market.

And, let’s also start with the fact that we were picked up at 7:10 am.  (No, that is not a typo).  It takes something extra special for Robert and I to roll out of bed that early these days.

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Pretty pink fish on a pretty green plate at the market.

Then, let’s move on to the fact that we tried approximately 40 different things.  Seriously — approximately 40 different foods and beverages (including alcohol) before noon.  I honestly didn’t think that was possible without profusely vomiting later in the day.  Turns out it is not only possible, but fun.  (Our host Neville did question what Robert’s mom would say if she knew Robert was drinking beer at 9 in the morning.  Robert pointed out it was after noon in Chicago….).

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From the top left.  Morning glory, eggplant, cao lau, and mi quang.

 

Add in the fact that approximately half of the tastings were conducted in a tasting room instead of in a market or on the street.  How weird is that?

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Some of the best banh xeo ever.

And, finally, take into account the fact that half of the tour was conducted by an Australian man who was “60 + eleven years old” and who had lived in Vietnam for less than a decade.

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Can you guess what this is?  Ice cream pops.  The purple taro was fantastic.  (No, I’m not pulling your leg).  We also had coconut and coffee flavors.  Neville asked what my mom would say if she knew I had ice cream for breakfast and I responded she would say “yep, that is my daughter.”)

Yeah, it totally should not have worked at all.  And, yet, the Original Taste of Hoi An ultimately turned into one of the best food tours we have ever taken.  The food was amazing — some of it we had tried before but it had never been so good (the banh mi and the banh xeo were out of this world and Robert said the ca phe sua da was spectacular), some of it was new to us (xi ma, which is a black sesame seed and water herb soup-like thing that I’m going to crave for the rest of my life, and bo kho which is a beef stew served at weddings with baguettes for dunking in the stew (think french dip) that I will be searching out on menu after menu, and barbecued coconut which was so good I bought a bag of it).  The Australian and Vietnamese hosts (Neville and Ms. Sen) were amazing — friendly and funny and personable and oh so informative.  The women who worked at the tasting room were amazing — friendly and helpful and they weren’t afraid to make fun of their boss (Neville), which is always a good sign.

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Papaya salad on a crunchy cracker.

And, Neville provided us with a whole list of recommended restaurants for the rest of ours stay — even some in Saigon.  (The incorrigible Neville really liked Robert once Robert pointed out dark rum — which Neville just happened to have — would be a really good addition to a particular beverage served on the tour.  After tasting the concoction, Neville whole hardheartedly agreed with Robert’s suggestion).

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From the top left.  White rose, nem, and fried won tons.

If you come to Hoi An, we can highly recommend this tour.  Don’t let the price turn you away.  Don’t let the fact that part of the tour is in a tasting room turn you away.  Just go and enjoy.  (No, we didn’t get paid to say any of this, we just really enjoyed our morning).

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Rainy days in Hue

So, Robert and I really enjoy traveling in shoulder season or even off season.  There are far fewer tourists, everything is cheaper, and everything is just a tiny bit more chill.  But there is a reason off-season is off-season.  For example, here in Central Vietnam it is currently rainy season.  And, sometimes (although not very frequently), traveling during off season can really bite you right in the ass.  Our time in Hue was one of those times.  It rained every single day (and mostly all day) for each of the 5 days we were in Hue.  Rain, rain, rain.  So, nearly all of our plans for Hue fell through.  Rent a scooter and visit an abandoned water park or the old royal tombs or temples or graffiti street in the pouring rain?  Take a boat ride on the Perfume River in the pouring rain?  Yeah, I think not.

We did at least make it to the Imperial Citadel on one of the days with less rain.  The Imperial Citadel is yet another UNESCO site.

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At the entrance to the walled city,

Construction on the Citadel began in the early 1800s, and it was the seat of power in Vietnam until the late 1880’s when the French took over.

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A pop of color on a very gray day.

Thereafter, it fell into neglect and was significantly damaged when the Vietnamese fought the French for independence.  What was left was largely destroyed during the Vietnam war.  (Known here as the American War or “the Resistance against the Americans for the salvation of the country”).  The few building that remained after the wars have been or are being restored.  It is definitely worth seeing, but would be far more impressive when the sun was shining.

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Red doors at the Citadel.

Other than that, we did absolutely no sightseeing in Hue.  Instead, we saw some movies (can you believe movies cost under $2.50/ticket in Hue????) and spent quite a bit of time at cafes sipping on coffees, soda waters, and lime juices.

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One of the gates to the Citadel.

Oh, and you will be shocked to hear we spent some time in the local watering holes.  DMZ Bar and Tipsy Cafe were two favorites.  But, after Hue, Robert has instituted a new rule:  no visiting cowboy themed bars anywhere in Asia….

Now, fingers crossed that we get at least a few sunny days in Hoi An.

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