Vietnam abounds in colourful markets but a visit to Hoi An’s market is something special. Set against a backdrop of a carefully preserved ancient port, this bustling local market offers an intense and rewarding workout for all the senses.
Picturesque Hoi An, located midway down Vietnam’s long coast, was already a busy international hub during the Champa Kingdom (2nd to 10th centuries AD). 9th-century Persian and Arabic documents contain references to Hoi An and later came the Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese and Dutch, among others, looking to purchase pepper, pottery, spices and silk. The Japanese and Chinese traders started small colonies near the waterfront, the remnants of which can still be seen today. In fact, Hoi An’s most famous dish, Coa Lau, is based on a soba noodle like soup introduced by the Japanese.
Today’s market activity is equally lively. A large area along the water’s edge is where women sell the fish their husbands caught during the night. The voices of these women busy at their business sound like a cacophony of birds. And they are busy. So focused on selling their fish that they don’t have time to notice let alone stare at a foreigner. A light tap from behind on one’s hip indicates that someone needs to get past. All sorts and sizes of fantastic fish can be had – not quite still jumping but nearly – alongside squid, prawns and snails. All still smelling strongly of the salty sea.
Other areas of the market offer additional sensory feasts. Rice in every conceivable dry form – plain white, plain brown, sticky white, sticky red, rice flour and dry rice paper – as well as freshly made plain rice noodles, the special local noodles and crepe-like rice flour pancakes piled high in banana leaf lined baskets. The produce certainly won’t disappoint with small pineapples, papaya, tumeric, tomatoes, ginger, cherry-sized onions, equally small heads of garlic and those aromatic Vietnamese herbs that cleanse and refresh the palate. In addition to this are stalls jammed with potent cinnamon, dried squid and shrimp, tea, coffee and much more.
No market like this one would be complete without opportunities to taste. Dotted around the market are stalls where for 5000 VND one can sit and watch one’s bowl of the Coa Lau, the Japanese influenced noodle soup speciality, being made. These pale yellow noodles get their colour from a tiny amount of ash water added to the rice flour and are cut slightly thicker than standard rice noodles. A big handful of herbs with a few beansprouts are placed into a bowl. Next come the noodles and then stir-fried pork slices and a ladle of rich broth. A few banh da, a sort of sourdough rice cracker crouton, are sprinkled on top and lastly come drizzles of soy sauce and lime juice. Chillies are optional.
Also delicious are the small green parcels of steamed snacks. Unwrapping one of these treats revealed a savoury filling of white sticky rice on the outside with a centre of yellow split peas mixed with finely chopped mushrooms. On the sweet side, Banh Xoi Duong smelled and tasted like a rich gingerbread. Not surprising given that it is made with sticky white rice, fresh ginger, palm sugar and red beans.
Café des Artistes, just up the waterfront from the market, offers a delightful four-course meal for 60,000 VND which highlights local specialities and produce.
The best time to visit the market is early morning to lunchtime. Afternoons are hot so you may prefer to follow local advice and take a nap.
No doubt market business is occasionally boosted from sales to the many tourists who visit Hoi An, but food-wise this market remains local. The sights, smells, sounds, tastes and the gentle touch of someone wanting to get past form an all encompassing, rich sensory experience. This market, like Hoi An itself, is not to be missed.
Pamela Shookman is a qualified and experienced cook who lives in Beijing