I sit extremely close to the ground at a long table that dominates an alleyway in Hoi An, Vietnam. Above, hundreds of lanterns cast their warming glow onto intricate Chinese temples and Japanese teahouses, the sticky air thick with pungent fish sauce and heady aromas of fresh herbs. I’m trying not to notice the scrutiny of a young Vietnamese girl making her mind up whether to laugh or cry at the token blonde girl who is obviously too large to sit on the tiny plastic blue chair on the edge of her family dinner. If I could speak Vietnamese I would tell her that I have sneaked out of the luxury of Hoi An Beach Resort (you get a lot for your money in Vietnam!) to hunt down Hoi An’s legendary noodle dish: Cao Lau.
The tiny girl consults with her little brother and then appears to accept me before focusing her efforts on slurping hot broth from the steaming bowl of noodles that Ty has carried over from his perfectly compact mobile stand, Ty Cao Lau, on a corner off Phan Cu Thrinh. Her mum shyly smiles before tucking in to her own bowl, and the sweet, smoky, aromatic scent of their dinner teases me with what’s to come.
A few minutes later I get to see what all the fuss is about. Ty’s been at this gig for over 20 years, so my bowl of cao lau is crafted into perfectly formed layers – caramelised bbq pork slithers carefully balance atop handmade Chinese noodles that have been soaked in pine ash water to give a distinct smoky taste and springy texture. Crisp beans sprouts and crunchy squares of cao lau dough hide beneath fresh aromatic Vietnamese herbs to create the unique contrast in texture.
Trying to decode menus of Vietnamese herbs can be daunting, but a trip around Hoi An Central Market is the best way to learn – we take in aromas of Bittersweet betel leaves, aniseedy Asian basil and pungent fish mint. Pointy bamboo hats provide shade for women working in small collaborations to sell herbs, coconuts, prawns and vegetables.
My travel buddies prefer bricks and mortar joints, so the following day I take them to get a taste of cao lau on the veranda of family home Hai Restaurant (6A Truong Minh Loung). We peer into the seemingly abandoned house and spy a Vietnamese grandma having an afternoon snooze in a rocking chair. We make our presence known with a faint clearing of the throat, and she scurries through the beaded door curtain to fetch head of front of house.
We point to our dishes of choice and hold up three fingers for cao lau and one for mi quang, a turmeric noodle dish originally from nearby Danang.
The portions are huge, but the bill comes to less than £1 per head, and we’re more than satisfied as we know we’re heading onwards to top up with another Vietnamese speciality: banh mi.
We make a beeline for infamous Banh Mi Phoung, a tiny empire that has progressed from market stall to a shop with a full-blown production line. Members of Phoung’s family drizzle dressing and spread thick layers of liver pâté onto torn open warm baguettes with crunchy casing, while others pack in cold meats, bbq pork and Vietnamese herbs until we are presented with the ultimate sandwich. We pull up a low plastic stool, as we have become accustomed to doing, and bite through the layers before swiftly ordering a second.
As we get up to leave, I spy an elderly chap sitting on the steps of a neighbouring doorway and catch a glimpse of golden baguettes gently rising inside. I get his approval to pass through the large wooden doors, to find a fully functioning bakery on the other side. Vietnamese boys and men of all ages knead, roll and form dough like clockwork, interrupting their work only to yell at the football on the tele precariously balanced on the work surface in the corner of the room.
More lavish places that don’t involve shacking up on the roadside also offer clean, fresh and pungent bowls of noodles and rice. We eat on the rooftop of Tin Tin Restaurant (Phan Dinh Phung) and enjoy great value cocktails and epic spring rolls and Vietnamese pancakes beneath trees of lanterns. Morning Glory (106 Nguyen Thai Hoc) is a Hoi An institution; warming baby clams in a spicy lemongrass broth packs a real punch, and the highly recommended squid stuffed with caramelised pork mince, shrimp and wood-ear mushrooms is one of the best dishes I’ve tried in a long time.
By the time I finish my cao lau, the little Vietnamese girl and her family have fully accepted me and my enthusiasm for their town’s iconic dish. Knitted brows turn into shy smiles and enthusiastic waves as I get up to leave Ty Cao Lau and see what else Hoi An’s street food scene has to offer…
Hoi An top 10 places to eat and drink
Best banh mi: Banh Mi Phuong
Best street food: Morning Glory
Best local experience: Ty Cao Lau
Best cao lau: Hai Restaurant (6A Truong Minh Loung)
Best setting: Tin Tin Restaurant
Best cookery course: Green Bamboo Cookery School