"So, Olivia, do you like ice-cream?" booms the giant Australian at our tiny, half-asleep five year old. She perks up fast, tongue darting in and out and bleary eyes starting to twinkle. Sugar, even just the mention of it, will do that to our kid.
It's 7.20am in Hoi An, Vietnam. The city is famously lantern-strewn, UNESCO protected and pretty as any postcard money can buy. But we, unsurprisingly, are here for our stomachs, and we've managed to wangle a place on the best food tour in town.
Neville and his wife Colleen run The Original Taste of Hoi An, a four-hour, forty-dish whistle stop tour of the good, the great and the downright delicious of the city's street food scene. He is broad and brash, garrulous and generous, with a near-encyclopaedic knowledge of not only the edible delights of Vietnamese cuisine but the culture that surrounds it as well. But we'll get into that later, because first, importantly, coffee.
It lands on the table in front of us, condensed, caffeinated and heavily iced: the jolt we need to kickstart the day. The tour itself is meticulously planned and split into sections, each led by a different member of the team. First up is Sen, a local woman in possession of a conical hat, a killer wink and a wit to rival Neville, who she has known since before the tour began. They’re like brother and sister, who clearly love each other as much as they love to annoy each other. As Neville himself says with a grin “it’s like family. You love them. But you don’t like them.” They can bicker as much as they want, but for now Sen has us to herself, and is in charge of shepherding us through the markets and streets of her hometown, filling our bellies and our brains at the same time.
Our motley crew heads out onto the street, a small gaggle of retirees, parents, solo adventurers, obsessive eaters and young children. The latter comes as a relied, because sometimes, determined as we are to show our kids the world, we can feel awkward bringing them along on formal tours, worried that they’ll either lose the plot or lose all interest. But here, children aren’t just tolerated or accepted, they're welcomed with open arms. And for the bravest of them all, for those little adventurers who try every dish, the coveted title of ‘Food Tour Legend’ awaits.
Sen snaps into action, whisking us from stall to shop, nibble to gobble and sight to spectacle. We eat hot silken tofu from bowls on the street and crispy pancakes straight from the griddle. We slurp Xi Ma or sweet black sesame soup from little bowls of blue and white china. It might have looked humble, but every day for the last eighty eight years, a little old man has woken up at 3am to grind the sesame, make the soup and send it out to market. He calls Neville ‘the foreigner’. He just celebrated his 103rd birthday. So, we figure, it’s probably time we all ate a bit more black sesame. It’s the perfect example of this tour, because here every dish comes with a story, getting under the skin of Hoi An and its cast of unlikely chefs.
We give our feet a break from time to time in the strategically located tasting rooms, where plates are passed around and Neville pops in to check up on us. Bowls of stunning, steaming pho bo disappear fast, as does an extraordinary banh mi opla from a decidedly ordinary stall, all crisp baguette and oozing egg with the sharp smack of chili, herb and pickle.
There comes a point where we’re filling up fast, where it seems impossible that we’re only halfway through, but, seated comfortably in the unassuming Dua Viet restaurant, we devour mouthful after mouthful of Vietnamese culture, each tiny dish giving us a new insight into the lives, loves and laws of the locals. There are the dishes laced with legend, from the secret family recipe for white rose dumplings to the town’s signature cau lau, a bowl of pork, heat, greens and distinctively chewy yellow noodles which can only be made with the water from the nearby Cham wells.
Now, this might all be fascinating for us, but Olivia is slumping a little, the sugar wearing off and the early start taking its toll. So it’s just as well the ice-cream shows up. A cart pulls onto the pavement, filled with slender metal tubes of fragrant pastel-hued joy. Our daughter is first to the starting blocks, of course. She take this shit seriously. But the adults are hot on her heels, gleefully taking on the challenge of eating as many ice-creams as possible, from chocolate and coconut to wild mint and the odorous, odious, obscurely popular durian.
We have one last stop. One last tasting room. Neville’s office. And he’s waiting for us. We eat, because you know, why stop now? But above all, we listen. Because Neville is a machine, rattling through the basics at the speed of light. We learn the rules and regulations, the soup-salad-rice-meat-fish, the crispy-crunchy-chewy-soft-silky. The fact that pudding doesn’t exist. That “if you're not confused in Vietnam, you're not doing it right.”
We moan a little as we sample the blissful beef stew served at every traditional wedding. We know that the Vietnamese are far more worried about hygiene than we are. That tea-towels are seen as disgusting, hence everything here is left to air dry instead. We learn our manners, and vow to never pick up dropped food again, as it’s one of the rudest things you can do. “It doesn't matter how much you liked it, leave it on the floor.” We hear that Neville has lost 44 kilos since he came to the country. But then he knocks us sideways by introducing us to Phuong, who talks us through the trauma of Vietnam’s violent past, the impact it continues to have and the vital charity work being done to help. And then Neville comes back, and feeds us spam. Of course he does.
He pauses for a second, aware our time is nearly up, and looks at us with absolute honesty. “Look, there are 1700 dishes with regional variations. You will never live long enough to try them all. I’m a foreigner. I’m just trying.”
And there it is. The joy of this tour. Yes, it's wildly delicious and fast-paced and touching and funny as hell. But it has its feet firmly on the ground. We'd be idiots to believe that we could even begin to understand a culture as complex and rich as Vietnamese cuisine. Though this, surely, is a damn good start.