“Who run the world? Girls.” It’s true in Beyonce’s world, and it’s true in Vietnam, according to Neville Dean, the jovial co-founder of the Original Taste of Hoi An food tour. He explained that in Vietnam, women are the ones working while many men spend their days playing checkers in coffee shops — which certainly aligned with my experience during our food tour.
Neville and his wife, Colleen, have been running daily tours ($70 per person) with their local staff since 2011. The tours start early — 7:30 a.m., to be exact. Neville explained this is because the food is freshest in the morning and there are more options to choose from.
Nam, our first tour guide, arrived and distributed headsets and menus, including a list of 43 dishes we’d be trying during our tour, written in both Vietnamese and English. At our first stop, a market, Nam explained the inner workings of the female-run stands and stalls selling items like the banh xeo, a savory Vietnamese pancake.
Our group followed Nam through the busy trading streets to a house. Here, we tried four fantastic dishes, including Hoi An’s famous white rose dumplings and cao lau. Real cao lau noodles are said to be made by only one family, using water from the old town’s well and firewood from nearby Cham Island.
Walking along the road, Nam encouraged us to pull up tiny plastic chairs next to a woman scooping black xi ma liquid into bowls. Nam explained that a 105-year-old man makes this health elixir out of sweet potato, sugar, black sesame and secret spices.
We weren’t even halfway down the list of foods when we arrived at Pho 10 for a steaming bowl of flavorful beef pho. Nam instructed us to add in the bean sprouts, fish sauce and chili to our liking.
Around 10 a.m., the group arrived for the final stop of the tour: Neville and Colleen’s home-turned-communal dining space. There, our second tour guide, Phuong, took over. A survivor of Agent Orange, she and the rest of the team bought out tray after tray of bite-size local dishes and shared stories about life in Vietnam, the devastating effects of the chemical defoliant and how the tour supports its victims.
Just when we thought we were about to burst, there was more, including desserts and a rice wine toast led by Neville. With a food coma setting in, I walked back out into the hot Vietnamese sun in search of a nap, or maybe another delicious bowl of cao lau.