Hội An’s restaurants come in all shapes and sizes, from steamy sidewalk food stalls to chic bistros fashioned from French colonial-era row homes. The Vietnamese coastal city has been an intriguing food destination for centuries, its dishes inspired by the Chinese, Japanese, and European spice traders who imported culinary traditions from their homelands along with their seasonings. Fortunately for today’s hungry traveler, these early global influences still infuse Hội An’s food scene.
A stroll through the storybook old town is often met with servers and chefs imploring you to try their cao lầu— Hội An’s signature soba-inspired noodle dish. This competitive spirit arrived with the tourists in the late 1990s when the country fully reopened its doors to foreigners for the first time since the Vietnam War.
Among these first tourists was Neal Bermas, a New York-based management consultant. Bermas felt moved by the kids he saw begging on the streets of Saigon, and took an interest in the charitable “street kitchens” he visited—programs that trained needy youth for careers in local restaurants. He was inspired to return in 2007 to start STREETS International, designed to prepare Vietnamese youth for more advanced career opportunities in the hospitality industry.
STREETS is part restaurant, part training center for vulnerable Vietnamese youth. Students come from impoverished backgrounds—some orphaned or trafficked—and participate in an intensive, 18-month curriculum centered on the culinary arts, hospitality, and the English language. Housing and medical care are provided, as well as on-the-ground training at the STREETS Restaurant and Café. This helps prepare the teens for careers in the luxury resorts that are rapidly popping up along the shores of the South China Sea. With all of the proceeds from the restaurant going back into the training program, a meal at STREETS offers diners an opportunity to help the Hội An community while experiencing local dishes. But there is another option, too, for those who want a peek behind the curtain.
While traveling with National Geographic Journeys with G Adventures on their Explore Vietnam trip, I took STREETS’ Oodles of Noodles street food tour—which offered the opportunity to sample typical breakfast dishes around town, followed by a cooking class and a lunch prepared by some of the program trainees. Four smiley chefs-in-training greeted our group at the restaurant, giving a quick orientation before whisking us down a bustling street to our first food stop. Our young guides took the opportunity to practice their English as we navigated the morning motorbike rush.
I talked New York with Thuy Le, a STREETS graduate who visited the city for three weeks in 2013 as a program representative. During her trip, she gave Vietnamese cooking demonstrations to some of New York’s top chefs, attended culinary training sessions, and sampled as much unfamiliar food as possible. “A few years ago I was living in a small village. I come from a very poor family, so I was sent to an orphanage,” she told me. At the time, she didn’t know a word of English, and today she trains other street kids to become chefs.
Conversation continued over tastes of cao lầu, Hội An’s signature dish. The trainees led us far from the beaten tourist track to a family-owned patio that primarily caters to breakfasting locals. We fed off the contagious energy of our young hosts while devouring bowls of barbecue pork, cracklings, and crisp greens heaped on a bed of smoky, chewy noodles. Cooks here claim that the authentic version of cao lầu can only be found in Hội An because the rice flour noodles require water from a centuries-old well in the old town and ash from the nearby Cham Islands.
The next stop was a phở shop, tucked tightly into a nearby alley. At 10:30 a.m., we would be the chef’s final customers of the day. She had likely been up since four, shopping for ingredients at the market and simmering beef bones to achieve the broth’s perfect balance. As we slurped up the familiar beef noodle soup, trainee Nhi Hồng explained why this version might taste different from what we had already sampled in the north. “Here, we add local spices and herbs like chilies and bean sprouts to give it more flavor.” A sweeter phở awaited in our next destination, Ho Chi Minh City.
Our stomachs got a break during a visit to a local market, where the kids sidled up to various food stalls and quizzed us on Vietnamese culinary staples. Nhi Hồng held up spiny fuchsia bulbs of dragon fruit, sprigs of morning glory and fish mint, and speckled quail eggs, sharing some uses for each item. Like all the markets we visited in Vietnam, the produce here looked bright and perky, a testament to the freshness of the meals we’d been enjoying.
After stopping at a third family-run noodle joint for a sample of spicy beef and rice vermicelli soup called bún bò Huế, we headed back to STREETS for a cooking lesson. We made bánh cuốn, a thin, pancake-like noodle, which we wrapped around rice crackers and dipped in a trio of sour sauces. Our experience culminated at the bottom of a big bowl of mì quảng, a regional noodle dish piled with shrimp, boiled quail eggs, and crunchy peanuts and herbs.
Bermas’ vision for STREETS has been so successful that he’s planning a new operation for Ho Chi Minh City, along with a new menu that will feature regional dishes from the Mekong Delta.
Alena Hadley is a writer and editor for National Geographic Expeditions. A self-proclaimed Europhile, Alena’s Vietnam trip marked her first time traveling to Southeast Asia—a place that introduced her to the thrill of motorbike rides and a host of new flavors. Alena tweets @triparchitect.