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You thought our Hoi An food crawl was over, didn’t you? Well clearly you’ve underestimated the power of our appetites.
Actually, Scott said he was full from the gigantic bahn mi and bowl of Cao Lau but I convinced him to soldier on (in the name of research, of course). I was so happy with my powers of persuasion that I neglected to realize one thing: making food decisions when you’re already in a food coma is generally not a good idea.
But two stops does not a food crawl make, so we headed toward the Hoi An food market, wandering under a mosaic of overlapping green and blue tarps while looking for something enticing. Word on the street was that the food there was good, and we eventually saddled up to a stand and ordered two specials:
A crispy stuffed pancake called bahn xeo was the Vietnamese equivalent of the taquito: greasy with a little bit of a crunch, and not as flavorful as you’d think.
Next up is the noodle dish bahn cuo, for which I had high hopes. Thinly shredded herbs and carrots make the long, flat noodles look like they’re filled with confetti, and they fall prettily as they’re hand-cut with a pair of shiny scissors.
But they’re served cool—and I’m never been one for anything that tastes like leftovers the first time around. I forced a few slimy noodles down before giving in. Luckily, at $1.50 for the whole shebang, I don’t feel so bad about leaving food on the plate.
Plus, I didn’t have time to feel bad. I had a $1 manicure to attend to. Oh Hoi An, you make life so hard.
If there is one rule that governs travel food, it is this: the worse the seating, the better the eating. To get the true essence of a country’s cuisine, one must eat on as many plastic stools, lawn chairs, and street curbs as possible. So when we saw dozens of locals sitting down at the plastic kiddie tables at this Cao Lau stand, we knew we wanted to eat there.
Cao Lau is special soup with a lot of stuff in it. Technically it’s special because it can only be made using water from one well; but what really makes it special is all the stuff that goes on top. The earthy-rich broth is laden with thick noodles, salty pork loin, crunchy rice crackers and fresh greens. Holy texture combination heaven.
The owner agrees: the stuff makes it special. We can’t communicate through words but she won’t let us touch our chopsticks until we add condiments that she presents to us like Christmas gifts. She nods as we load the bowl with chopped pickled peppers, dried peppers, fresh peppers and pickled onions. I’ve never been so glad to like peppers.
But even if I didn’t like peppers—even if I thought they were terrible—I’d add them for her. Because she hauled that soup water out of a specific well on the outskirts of town just to make her famous Cao Lau, and she’s not about to let someone eat her masterpiece wrong.
A masterpiece it is. $1.25.
It was less than two days into our Hoi An stay when Scott and I started getting soft. I’m not sure if it was the tropical air or the king-like service at the Ha An Hotel, but we were spending far too much of our time lying in hammocks drinking tequila-laced mango juices. If we were ever going to make it to Saigon, we had to earn our traveler street cred back, and there was only one way to do it: the Hoi An Food Crawl.
We devised a plan, readied our stomachs, and set out on a pair of rusted beach cruisers. The first stop? A cluttered sandwich stand that we had spied locals crowded around the evening before.
$3.25 for two bahn mi with the works, plus a coke and a water to wash it all down. It set the bar high.
Layers of pork, cilantro, peppers, cucumber and tomato are stuffed inside crusty French bread doused with just enough earthy au jus to make your jaw happy But the hearty portions came at a heavy price: it was our first stop and our stomachs were starting to feel full. More seasoned travelers would’ve known to save their stomachs by splitting just one sandwich amongst themselves.
Next up: Cao Lao.
I just realized I never told you about the traffic in Saigon…or the jackfruits in the Mekong Delta…or the sea urchins in Phu Quoc!
So, while I promise I won’t make it long (or turn this into a travel blog), over the next few weeks I do want to share some snippets from the rest of my trip, in case you’d like to see 🙂 First up, our food crawl in Hoi An…
Interrupting my unplanned summer blogging break (welp, sorry!) to share with you a fantastic blog by two lovely Brits. Scott and I met Jamie and Joe while hiking in Sapa. They were 4 months into a 9-month trip, and between their travel stories and their happily shared knowledge of photography, they made for interesting companions on long hikes through rocky terrain. Our photos got drastically better after spending time with them, but our shots still don’t hold a candle to the ones they just posted over at OddJam. They truly captured the essence of those teeny hill villages.
Hoi An is bikes and lanterns and lizards and magic. It’s a mix of French Colonial sophistication and Southeast Asian vibrancy with a happy, laid-back spirit that envelopes you like a cool cocktail. I wanted to fly all my family and friends over and have us live there forever, sipping mango juice in hammocks by the beach and getting $1 manicures for fun. Scott just wanted to buy a panama hat and play soccer with the locals.
If we ever need to run from the law, you’ll know where to find us.
You don’t order off a menu; you just wait to see the ripples from her paddle and hear the sound of her heavily-accented voice.
“Skew-meee!! Buy some-teeen?”
Don’t try to duck under the window. She already saw you. And you know you want those Oreos anyway.
Vietnamese room service: it’s like a drive-thru, except they come to you, and you get to negotiate the price. So basically, it’s the best thing ever.
I’m a sunshine girl. I grew up by the beach and nothing makes me happier than a bright and sunny, 85-degree day. Show me a rainy morning and I’ll duck back under the covers and tell you to wake me up tomorrow.
But in Halong Bay, even I can’t deny the beauty of the fog. Because while the bright green karsts and the deep turquoise sea sparkle in the sun, it’s when they’re clouded in the fog that they truly shine. There’s something about the eery iridescence that makes every view feel like a scene; every vision a painting. And then when the fog goes away, the karsts and the sea seem lonely.
You go to Halong Bay for the islands the sea; but it’s the fog that captures you.
This is our Sapa guide Chi and her son Jahn. She is five feet tall and made of muscle. She eats bamboo and dandelion greens from the side of the road, gave birth in her thatched-roof home, and has never heard of mail. She is a proud guide when there’s tourists and a happy rice farmer when there’s not. She never went to a day of school in her life.
In two days, Chi taught me more about Vietnamese culture and life in general than I learned on the rest of the trip combined, and I developed a deep affinity for her unassuming nature and no-nonsense style. Ten thousand miles from home she made me feel welcome and safe, and her easy manner made me smile for hours of hard trekking.
This is Chi, the only woman who ever has, and who ever will, get me to ride on a motorbike.
This lady was not our guide in Sapa, but she followed us through 5 hours of strenuous hiking anyway. She followed us for miles of ascents and descents. She held my hand as I struggled to balance on steep, rocky slopes in my expensive sneakers, while she climbed easily in flimsy plastic sandals with a baby on her back. She followed us for 5 hours; all with the hope of selling us $5 worth of embroidery at the end. And then she went home to stitch more embroidery for the next day.
She smiled the whole time.