Cao lau is Hoi An in a bowl. Unique to the town, this noodle dish brilliantly reflects the influence of waves of traders who came here to seek their fortune.
Perhaps the differentiator between cao lau and other noodle dishes is the texture. Cao lau noodles are firmer and chewier – very similar to Japanese udon – than those found in typical Vietnamese noodle dishes such as pho. However, it is the handfuls of fresh herbs, lemongrass, bean sprouts, crispy fried rice cracker croutons and crunchy pork crackling that makes it unmistakably Vietnamese.
Cao lau literally appears on every menu around Hoi An – both in the Old Town and on streets outside. With every eatery in town advertising some interpretation of the dish, finding authentic cao lao can actually be daunting.
The best bet for finding authentic cao lau in Hoi An is to eat from street vendors who only serve cao lau or a small handful of local dishes. Do not expect the real deal from tourist restaurants along the river with menus as thick as phone books.
If you do not mind the hassle and hectic environment, authentic cao lau can be purchased from stalls in the outdoor market on the east end of Bach Dang Street along the river.
Otherwise, try your luck by approaching one of the handful of restaurants that also operate a cooking school; many schools have students prepare authentic cao lau as part of the course.