A common misconception is that Vietnamese cuisine is pretty much like Thai. Although many similar ingredients are used, the way they are combined, prepared and enjoyed give it an altogether different and lighter feel. It’s hard to find a town in Vietnam where food doesn’t play a central role and none more so than the proud UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hoi An, perched on the edge of the East Sea.
Straddling the culinary influences of both north and south and with a handful of unique specialities, the best doesn’t always need to be the most obvious or expensive option.
For anyone who visited Hoi An a few years back, 'across the river' was where you briefly walked to look back at the view of the town. This has now well and truly changed and a pleasant array of cheap restaurants have popped up, all specialising in local dishes at rock bottom prices and all packed to the rafters.
On crossing the small lantern-adorned bridge, turn left onto Bach Dang Street and take your pick from what’s on offer. Fresh spring rolls, Cao Lau (speciality rice noodles), papaya salad... the list goes on and all washed down with 14-cent glasses of cold beer.
Yes you read that right, 14 cents (around 9p).
In my experience, the quality and price here can’t be matched.
A word of warning however, street hawkers prowl these restaurants and barely five minutes goes by without someone trying to sell lucky coins, postcards or wooden frogs.
Classed as mid-range this colourful contemporary restaurant does crank the prices up but the quality of food and imagination displayed is worth the extra dosh. Although classic Vietnamese specialities will not be found on Mango Rooms' menu, the innovative fusion of tropical and familiar ingredients reflect the chef's love of travelling with tastes from the east and west combined together.
The spring rolls ooze freshness as the tastes of Japan come seeping through; order these on the five-course set menu and you won’t be disappointed. The restaurant's Super Fly Shrimps offer the perfect example of traditional cooking with an extra kick: king-sized prawns are marinated in typically Vietnamese herbs but topped with a creamy Caribbean lemon, rum and butter sauce.
Situated on Nguyen Thai Hoc, a quiet road flanking the river, Mango Rooms is in between a whole host of Hoi An’s culinary delights. You can also access it from the back where the entrance opens out onto a street of quaintly crumbling facades showcasing Hoi An’s vibrant past.
Whether you’re a dab hand in the kitchen or just love good food, a day trip to the Red Bridge Cookery School is a must. Passionate Vietnamese chefs conduct the entire day with enthusiasm, fun and humour.
The early start to the vibrant local market is a culinary highlight – take part in purchasing exotic ingredients, stare in wonder at gigantic slabs of raw fish and watch bubbling pots of stock lovingly stirred.
Back at the school, making rice noodles from scratch may sound overwhelming, and using razor-sharp local utensils daunting but under the guidance of the expert chefs it provides a unique and enjoyable experience. At regular intervals lessons are paused, seats taken and food demolished as the fresh flavours and personal accomplishment constantly surprise.
Courses can be booked online Red Bridge Cookery School; half-day courses start from $27 and full-day courses from $43.
Overlooking the lantern-lit river, Cargo Club is a mid-range colonial style restaurant showcasing admirable quality and service. With an international feel to the menu you can have a taste of home or an Asian twist on the familiar.
The stand-out highlight is the array of pastries on offer, for around a dollar each, all made that little bit sweeter by the picturesque balcony view.
As for mains, try the tasty pork-stuffed squid or the light, yet filling, seared Tuna with blackened sesame crust and wasabi mash (so tasty I would go back every night if the rest of the world didn’t beckon...).
Cargo Club is found on Nguyen Thai Hoc and is easy to spot as the colonial décor and rattan chairs draw you in to familiar surroundings. Try and get a balcony seat, or at least an upstairs pew, then sit back and enjoy the view.
It may not be the most obvious choice for lunch but tucked away on Ba Trieu Street is Thien Thanh Hotel with its rickety wooden terrace and tranquil surroundings.
The menu of Vietnamese and Western basics isn’t too inspiring but the Cao Lau, a rice noodle Hoi An speciality, stands out. Consisting of noodles, beansprouts, curly leaf lettuce, chilli, basil and mint topped off with thin raw slices of pork, the dish is outstanding. Hot vegetable broth, poured over just before serving, immediately sears and cooks the meat along with softening the greens. Crispy fried squares of wheat dough are scattered on the top to complete the tantalising textures.
The poolside setting is small and the views over the rice paddies offer a peaceful retreat from the chaotic town centre.