Hội An is my favourite town in Vietnam. After the chaos and noise of Hanoi, the shuffle of tourist hoards at Halong Bay and the heartbreaking ruins at Hue, I was ready to be one of those tourists. You know the ones; they order cocktails by the pool and cast a customary glance at historical relics before indulging in shopping and restaurant hopping. Yes, the very tourist I claim to eschew.
I happily wore my mea culpa in glorious Hội An. The whole town centre is a UNESCO World Heritage site, so technically you don’t even have to venture to see historical buildings. Historical Old Town also houses some of the best restaurants in Vietnam. I don’t know whether its history as a port, with Chinese and Japanese influences resulted in this happy situation, or just that as a small tourist town, competition begets quality. The worst thing about Hội An was that we only had two full days to cram in as much relaxation and the best eating of the trip.
Trinh Diem Vy is a culinary legend in Hội An. She opened Mermaid in 1994, the first ‘Western-style’ restaurant in Hội An to have an English menu and a range of authentic local dishes in a formal dining atmosphere. Success followed, and now the Vy umbrella covers 4 restaurants, a cooking school and a boutique hotel. Each new venture has elevated the standards of hospitality and cuisine.
We managed to get to three of them in the two and a half days. The first one we got to was dinner at Mermaid, the most casual of Ms Vy’s restaurants and serves all the Vietnamese favourites along with some Hội An specialties. There were so many dishes I wanted to taste.
I settled on two appetizers, the first was the Hội An bánh xèo, a rice flour and mung bean pancake with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts. To eat this, you cut a slice, then wrap the pancake with fresh herbs, star fruit and green banana in rice paper, and dip into the peanut sauce.
The pomelo in the pomelo and prawn salad (gỏi bưởi) was juicy and sweet, and with the fresh mint and coriander, the salad was brilliantly refreshing. Just what the balmy evening called for.
Di had the squid with mince pork which he generously shared. This was the best stuffed squid I’ve had, the flavours were perfectly balanced and the squid stunningly tender.
The next day, we headed to The Cargo Club which is part restaurant, part patisserie (so many divine looking creations in the patisserie’s cabinet). However, the myriad of tasty Vietnamese dishes and sweltering heat conspired against me in my plans to sneak back in afternoon tea at Cargo Club.
I had to contend with a very nice lunch. My gorgeous green mango and prawn salad came with rice crackers; the slightly salty-rispy crackers made an ideal accompaniment to the refreshing salad.
Cargo Club’s version of cao lầu (a chewy rice noodle found only in Hội An) definitely looked better than the version we had previously.
On my last day in Hội An, I scheduled in lunch at Morning Glory restaurant. I decided to continue my exploration of Vietnam’s street food. Fried wontons with crabmeat (hoành thánh chiên) showcases the Chinese influence, with the delicate, sweet taste of the sautéed crabmeat.
Chạo tôm, or grilled shrimp mousse on sugarcane skewers is a traditional Vietnamese dish, which is eaten with rice vermicelli, herbs, starfruit, wrapped up in rice paper and dipped into nước mắm pha (dipping sauce).
The food at all of Ms Vy’s restaurants showcase Vietnamese cuisine at their best in beautiful surroundings. Each restaurant has an extensive menu, and I doubt I would run out of delicious discoveries if I ate at her restaurants every meal for a fortnight.
Mermaid (Nhu Y) Restaurant
2 Trần Phú, Hội An
Phone: +84 510 3861 527
The Cargo Club
107 D Nguyễn Thái Học, Hội An
Phone: +84 510 910 489
Morning Glory Restaurant
106 Nguyễn Thái Học, Hội An
Phone: +84 510 3241 555