Thursday, May 10, 2012

Street Food in Hoi An

A powerful trading port for many centuries, Hoi An has a uniquely picturesque Old Quarter, its timeworn wooden buildings a testament to all the cultures that have traded and thrived here. Unscarred by war, the beautiful and easy-going town is also known for its multicultural street food, which blends the best fast-food elements from Vietnam, France, Japan, and China.

Hoi An sits roughly midway down Vietnam’s coast; its position made it the country’s largest and most successful trading port from the 15th to the 19th century. Evidence of the many foreign merchants that were drawn here – from China, Japan, India, and Europe in particular – can still be seen in the town’s crumbling but beautiful architecture, miraculously untouched by the Vietnam War. It is an extraordinary record of the fusion of different cultures over time and as such has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The almost entirely wooden architecture of Hoi An, rich in tiling and lacquer, is a fascinating blend of Vietnamese and foreign designs and techniques. The Old Quarter’s lanes and alleys are lined with small and grand homes, family cult houses (dedicated to the worship of ancestors), community houses, striking pagodas, and even a 17th-century Japanese wooden bridge. Despite the conversion of many interiors into shops, this old area has lost none of its charm.

Impromptu seated “restaurants” spring up around the central market during trading hours

Visitors able to drag their eyes away from the stunning buildings, with their craft shops, working artisans, and tailors, find that there is some fantastic street food available. Women in Chinese hats teeter through the cobbled streets, an entire restaurant hanging from a pole across their shoulders. When a suitable spot is found, the mobile restaurateur lays out a collection of plastic chairs, and before long customers are tucking into delicate seafood-topped rice pancakes or bowlfuls of sickly sweet desserts, fragrant with ginger and coconut. On the next corner a banh mi vendor can be found filling French-style baguettes with pâté and roast meat, before adding pickled daikon, chili pepper, and cilantro; it’s another instance of East meets West.
The pedestrianized Old Quarter is undoubtedly Hoi An’s main draw, but the new town offers an interesting, if noisy, glimpse into everyday Vietnamese life. An early-morning visit to the “wet market” is a must; it’s here that the street sellers haggle over fish and all the exotic edibles that will go into making some of the freshest, tastiest street food in the world.

A blend of Japanese and Vietnamese food, cao lau is  a pork noodle dish with greens and crispy fried pork skin

A Day in Hoi An
The Old Quarter of Hoi An is pedestrianized, and it’s a joy simply to wander around its narrow streets, but watch out for motorbikes, which haven’t yet been banned from the area. Aim for an early start, along with the locals.
MORNING : Head down to the wet market before 7:00 AM as the locals descend to get their supplies for the day – this is an ideal place to sample some local dishes for breakfast too. While it is still early, take a walk through the Old Quarter, so you can appreciate the beautiful buildings and take photographs of the Japanese Bridge without interruption. As sites open, visit one of the preserved old houses or a museum. One special “tourist ticket” buys you entrance to five of the 18 historical sites.
AFTERNOON : Leave the mainland behind and head across Cam Nam Bridge to Cam Nam Island and walk the streets to see glimpses of local life. Then indulge in some thrilling shopping, from artisan goods (such as ceramics and paintings) to custom tailoring at a fraction of the normal cost.
EVENING : If you’re in the town during a full moon, you’ll be able to witness the monthly lantern festival in the Old Quarter: all street and house lights are turned off and the only light comes from glowing silk lanterns.

The Japanese Bridge, also known as the Pagoda Bridge, doubles as a temple with shrines to several deities

Getting to Hoi An
Danang International Airport is around 22 miles (35 km) from Hoi An; there are buses and taxis to the town. All the sights in the town can be reached on foot.
Where to stay in Hoi An
Cua Dai (inexpensive) is a welcoming, pretty hotel with a large pool, 10 minutes’ walk from town.
Long Life Riverside Hotel (moderate) is a modern boutique hotel on An Hoi Islet with views of the river and Old Quarter.
The Nam Hai (expensive) is located a short trip out of town and provides luxurious beachfront villas, some with their own pools.

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