The Vietnamese has a saying: Rice is the wife to whom you should be faithful, phở is the flirty mistress you slip away to visit. Yet to all Vietnamese, phở is a taste of home wherever they are, and it’s also often the first thing that comes to mind when people think about Vietnamese food or even just Vietnam itself. Delicate bone broth, charred spices, springy flat rice noodles, slices of succulent beef or chicken, vibrant greens and herbs make up the base of this now world-famous noodle soup.
Phở is said to have originated in the North of Vietnam only from the early 20th century, but it has quickly caught on all over the country. Each region has their own version of the perfect phở, and even today, the war on proper phở etiquette rages on between the North and the South over sauces, beansprouts, or even the addition of sugar. Central Vietnam might not be a big phở player, but here you could still find a steaming bowl of light, refreshing noodle soup full of vibrant Vietnamese herbs and a sincere love for good food.
Now a beloved national sandwich ubiquitous on every street corner, it might come as a surprise that the bread for Vietnamese bánh mì only appeared in Vietnam by the late 19th century. In Vietnamese, bánh mì simply means bread. Like many Vietnamese staples originated from the country’s French colonisation, bánh mì was built upon French cuisine, that basic foundation of baguette and cold cuts.
Bánh mì evolved over time with the Vietnamese taste – adding Maggi sauce, pork floss, Vietnamese pork sausage (chả), mayonnaise in place of butter, fresh herbs, pickles, and a healthy dose of hot chilli sauce. Every morning, bánh mì in hand, the harried workers, drivers, and students of Vietnam are prepared take on the world, often with some extra boost from a glass of intense Vietnamese iced coffee.
Each region and each bánh mì shop has their own specialty, but Central Vietnam is home to some of the best bánh mì in the entire country. The warm baguette in Central Vietnam is extra crispy, and the special sauce provides an amazing chilli kick that goes straight to your head with the first inhale. Whichever bánh mì shop you end up at, it would be a huge mistake not to try their version of bánh mì đặc biệt, a special that piles everything imaginable onto a crispy hot baguette, which feels like a feast for kings on the move.
The Origin Story of cao lầu is, like Hoi An itself, a centuries-old cultural melting pot. The chewy noodles is a distant cousin of Japanese udon, made with water from the local well and wood ashes, the recipe shrouded in secrecy and fiercely protected by a few local families. The char siu (roasted pork) and savoury flavouring carry reference to Chinese Cantonese cuisine. The crispy pieces of pork skin – reminiscent of French crouton. The greens and herbs, a must-have in every Vietnamese noodle dish, all come from Trà Quế Garden – a huge organic farm just outside of town.
Cao lầu is a unique dish found only in Hoi An, the perfect embodiment of the old trading port, and definitely one of the most delicious Vietnamese signature dishes not yet popularised by the world at large. You could find cao lầu everywhere in Hoi An, but it would be a shame not to try it at Laguna Lăng Cô’s Seedlings restaurant in the centre of the old town – the first social enterprise restaurant by Banyan Tree Group which provides training and a career path for underprivileged local youths.