I’m not going to be sick, I’m not going to be sick, I can do this. No I can’t! Yes I can! No I can’t! Yes I can! Scaramouche! Scaramouche! Will you do the Fandango? Thunderbolts and lightning, very, very frightening….Why am I singing Bohemian Rhapsody in my head? Because I will do ANYTHING to distract myself from the fact I’m about to spoon a mouthful of duck foetus down my gullet.
I’m standing next to a street vendor called Madame Dung in Hoi An, Vietnam. It’s already dark, which thankfully hides my grimacing face. Unlike some of the other stalls, which include tables and chairs and waist-high kitchen units, the duck foetus stand is little more than a couple of low stools, a stove the same height and another table to display the unappetising wares.
Long before it became fashionable to sit outside on a Shoreditch/Brooklyn/San Fran/insert-your-metropolis-hipster-hub-here pavement and buy street food, Vietnam was dishing out Cau Lau and Banh mi like the champion street food destination it’s always been. While the historic (Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City) and capital (Hanoi) cities of the country are known for their excellent street food, there is perhaps no better destination for street food in Vietnam than Hoi An.
Traveling by myself I decided food tours were the perfect way to not only ensure I did more than sunbathe at nearby An Bang beach but also guarantee I was suitably adventurous with my food choices. Going on a vespa adventures food tour one night, I was whisked around the eating hotspots of Hoi An and enjoyed the transportation as much as the dishes I tried. My other tour was a one on one food odyssey with perhaps the most passionate about food person I’ve ever met Phuoc Hyung, a chef who frequently teaches cookery classes in the morning before taking people on a food or bicycle tour in the afternoon. Greeting me with a bottle of water and brand new chopsticks for me to use on our tour, I’m full of anticipation for the foodie delights he will introduce me to.
Now cue the duck foetus egg…
Chao (rice porridge/Congee)
‘I really fancy fish puree on my porridge instead of honey’….said I never. Although it may not sound so appetising to lily-livered western palates like mine, this is well worth a go, not least because the vendor I visited had been making the same congee, mixed with fish and pumpkin puree then sprinkled with spring onion, for ten years. Locals come and grab a takeaway bag in the morning.
Banh cuon (fresh rice paper salad)
The rice paper is cut into thick ribbons and served with salad leaves, bean sprouts, crispy shallots, pickled papaya and a sweet and sour chilli dressing. Choose between steamed beef sausage or fermented hot paste to top the salad: dressing sweet and sour with chilli steamed beef sausage. Mine comes with fermented hot paste (fish or pork available) that has been fried and shaped into thick triangles that look like Dairylea segments.
Many a morning I’ve also woken up and thought ‘I really fancy duck porridge’…again, said I never, but you get the drill. Congee can be topped with anything and in fact the salty rich flavour of duck works. Duck meat is marinated in fish, sugar, salt, cooking oil and a bit of msg. Locals also order sides of pickle, which are served up with the chopped up, cooked, duck organs. Still reading?
Cao Lau (noodles, pork and greens)
Quite possibly the best pork dish I’ve ever eaten. Anywhere. The vendor Phuroc takes me to is so successful she now has a whole restaurant – but there’s still just one dish on the menu: cao lau. Noodles from the local market are seasoned with fresh herbs, bean sprouts and served alongside the roasted pork. Unlike fancier hotels and restaurants who serve up pork loin, this vendor marinates belly with, lemongrass, five spice, soy sauce, sugar shallots garlic, and cooking oil for at least 2 hrs. The meat is then fried in a large wok and left to simmer with added water for an hour and a half. Going on the food tour just so Phuroc can take you here is worth a thousand duck foetus eggs.
Banh beo (Steamed rice cakes)
Popular with Vietnamese children, these snacks are steamed in banana leaves and uber cheap. Look for banh nam (rice cakes willed with pork and shrimp) for extra flavour. Mine are daubed with an orange paste on top, that gives a taste of garlic and shallots.
Banh can (Grilled rice cakes)
Cooked over small ceramic pots placed over a coal grill, these rice cakes have a crisp texture on first bite and are then softer inside.
Snails and beer is a Vietnamese institution. Grab a shell and slurp and suck till the mollusc pops out. Swigs of beer counter the often spicy chilli marinade. At the restaurant I visit diners dispense of the empty shells in large red buckets at the foot of each table. Others tuck into a pizza-style dish with a quail egg and crispy onoin topping.
Com Ga Hai Nam (Hainan Chicken and rice)
There’a walkway in Hoi An known as Chicken Rice Walk and one of the (relatively) new kids on the block is the only place in Hoi An that uses free range chicken to make this festive dish. The outside is decked with fairy lights and strewn with paper lamps, belying the utilitarian food cart. Chicken in Asian cuisine is to be savoured so it’s no surprise the whole chicken is cooked in this dish, which originates from the island of Hainan, off the Chinese coast. The chicken is poached and fried, the poaching water used to slow cook the rice and give it its delicious flavour. Pre-poaching, vendor Lang uses peanut oil to lightly fry the rice and give it an extra nutty boost.
Banh Mi Phuong (sandwiches at Madame Phuong)
With recommendations from Anthony Bourdin and felt-tipped well wishes scrawled on the walls, Madame Phuong’s Banh Mi sandwich shop and takeout is a Hoi An instiution. Most of the customers are tourists but my food guide Phuroc is adamant the hype (and queues) are worth it. A sandwich is a sandwich right? Wrong. Everyone who goes to Vietnam will eat Banh mi but if you come to Hoi an make the effort to queue. The crispy on the outside, soft in the middle baguettes are baked just next door, while the legendary pate is Madame Phuong’s secret recipe.
Banh Bong hong tran (Hoi an white lotus dumpling)
Sure these dumplings are tasty but the big pull about trying these is seeing the staff nimbly fold and pleat the dough into the neat flower shapes at XXX restaurant. Go on a food tour for a chance to make your own mishapen lotus dumplings.
With condensed milk, yogourt or whisked egg whites, Vietnamese iced coffee is delicious enough that even non-coffee drinkers won’t be able to resist.
Mango or Papaya salad
Keep walking down An Bang beach until the beachside restaurants start to peter out then order a mango or papaya salad. The fruit should still be hard and unripe to provide a tart base, doused in a sweet and sour lime and sugar dressing, along with grated carrots and coriander garnish and peanuts, its the best beachside lunch.
We’re back at duck egg foetus. Madame Dung uncracks the egg and it’s dark. Puoc expertly preps ‘just one spoon’ for me: sprinkling the morsel with ginger, chilli and Vietnamese mint. I take my bite. It’s like egg. ‘Phuoc, do you want the rest?’
‘Oh, no, thanks, I never eat that.’
Vespa Adventures Hoi An ‘Streets and Eats’ tour costs from $79 per person, depending on numbers. For more information, visit www.vespaadventures.com.