Savour­ing Hoi an

Lara Dun­ston is cap­ti­vated by the dis­tinc­tive cui­sine of Cen­tral viet­nam’s un­ESCo World Her­itage-listed Hoi an as much as its en­chant­ing port town, en­tic­ing beaches and al­lur­ing re­sort.

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Frosted glasses of chilled white wine in hand, my neigh­bour­ing din­ers are trans­fixed by the idyl­lic scene be­fore us: in­fin­ity pools framed by lofty palm trees, pow­dery sand and azure sea be­yond. as dreamy as the set­ting of Cen­tral viet­nam’s The nam Hai is, i’m more dis­tracted by the plate be­ing set down be­fore me: a pretty ba­nana flower and smoked duck salad (goi hai chuoi), com­bined with wok-fried shal­lots, fresh greens and fra­grant herbs – plucked that morn­ing from the ho­tel’s gar­den – that re­veals as many tex­tures and per­fumes as flavours.

The au­then­tic touch The nam Hai, set on pris­tine Ha My Beach, is a des­ti­na­tion in it­self – a vil­lage of dis­creet Zen vil­las, de­signed on feng shui prin­ci­ples, with ar­chi­tec­ture that tips a con­i­cal hat to the royal tombs of the im­pe­rial city of Hue to the north. it’s the sort of re­sort where, once sprawled on a sun bed, sip­ping a cock­tail in­fused with le­mon­grass and kaf­fir lime, you send a mes­sage to the concierge to can­cel the af­ter­noon’s ex­cur­sion. i re­sist the urge. i’m here for the food and the fan­tas­tic break­fast is still fresh in my mind. The nam Hai lays out one of the most gen­er­ous spreads around with an am­ple buf­fet of ex­otic fruits, just-baked pas­tries, house-made yo­ghurt and eggs. i opted for the dish that is ‘Hoi an in a bowl’ – cao lâu.

Earthy noo­dles, hand­made ev­ery morn­ing by a lo­cal fam­ily to an an­cient, well-guarded and much-mythol­o­gised recipe, are topped with suc­cu­lent sliv­ers of char siu roasted pork, sea­soned in a five-spice mari­nade and gar­nished with an ar­ray of greens: aro­matic mint, basil, rice paddy herb, viet­namese fish mint and let­tuce. Sprin­kled over these are crispy deep-fried squares, while se­creted be­neath them are crunchy sprouts. Ho­tels of­ten don’t achieve the au­then­tic­ity found on the street or in the home, but The nam Hai’s ver­sion of this leg­endary dish would hold up along­side the many ren­di­tions i’d try dur­ing my stay.

Most guests are here to ex­plore the at­mo­spheric streets of Hoi an, a charm­ing river­side town of cen­turies-old Ja­panese-style tim­ber houses, in­cense­filled Chi­nese tem­ples and French colo­nial shop-houses drip­ping with lan­terns. it’s all sur­rounded by emer­ald rice fields and palm-fringed beaches. What many don’t re­alise is that Hoi an is also home to a dis­tinc­tive cui­sine and unique dishes – the re­sult of its long his­tory as a cos­mopoli­tan trad­ing port – that can­not be found else­where.

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