Hard to taste victory over Hoi An snails
IN A back alley eatery in Hoi An, a Vietnamese city along the central coast, I found that I am really bad at sucking the meat of sea snails out of their shells.
Set before me was a platter of sea snails, steamed in their shells and stir-fried in lemongrass, chilli and garlic, and I was unable to get at the meat.
"You do this," said Phuoc, the guide of the food tour I was on.
He plastered his lips tightly over the broad end of the tapered snail shell and, viola, yet another snail was in his mouth.
I tried. All I got was a mouthful of air.
If you have the skills, this is how you eat the slender pinky-sized snails, a popular Vietnamese street food.
You squeeze a lime over the entire dish and stir thoroughly.
You pick up a snail with your fingers, use the broad end of the shell to scoop up as much gravy as you can, lift it carefully to your lips and suck, and you will get a mouthful of sour and spicy broth together with a sliver of snail meat.
Using toothpicks to pick the meat out is only the second best method but it will have to do when I cannot suck.
But not all is lost. That eatery we were at also served another tasty street food, nicknamed Hoi An Pizza.
In this dish, a quail's egg is cracked over a piece of Vietnamese rice paper. Minced meat, spices and a sweet-sour sauce are loaded onto it.
It is grilled over a charcoal stove until the rice paper turns crispy, and then cut with scissors into slices.
The food tour I, my husband and our six-year-old son were on took us on a route around the non-touristy parts of Hoi An, making stops at roadside stalls where the locals eat.
It is run by Mr Phuoc under his company Coconut Tours, one of many agencies in the city that organises food trips and cooking classes in Hoi An.
While Hoi An is primarily known as a Unesco World Heritage site for its well-preserved Old Town, it is also becoming increasingly popular with visitors as Food Central.
A cooking class or food tour is fast becoming a must-do.
On our tour, we sampled bowls of black sesame paste called xima in Vietnamese ("good for constipation," says Mr Phuoc), sat alongside schoolboys on a bench eating Vietnamese creme caramel drizzled with strong black coffee and ate roasted banana wrapped in glutinous rice.
We also tried duck porridge mixed with a herbal gravy, Hoi An's famous White Rose dumplings of minced meat and shrimps and chicken rice cooked with turmeric and served with a copious amount of fresh herbs.
And then, there were the cao lau noodles, the iconic Hoi An rice noodles topped with peanuts, rice crackers and roast pork.
The special thing about the chewy cao lau noodles is that they are made using water from an ancient well in Hoi An named Ba Le well, and mixed with a lye solution made from a specific type of ash from trees growing on an island off Hoi An.
To top it off, the recipe for making the noodles is highly guarded and known to only a few families there.
Mr Phuoc takes us through winding back lanes to see the famed Ba Le well.
Along the way, we picked up more snacks like banh beo, which are chwee kueh-like cakes with a pork and shrimp topping.
Food stops on his tour change depending on which stalls are open but we seem to have hit jackpot on the day we went.
By the end of the four-hour tour, it was all we could do to not waddle.
VISIT OLD BUILDINGS
But, of course, the main reason visitors go to Hoi An is for its well-preserved Old Town.
Named a Unesco World Heritage site in 1999, the town's three main streets and several lanes are lined with buildings reflecting the influence of traders from Europe, China and Japan who sailed there during the 16th century to the 19th century.
Wooden Chinese shophouses and temples stand next to mustard-coloured French colonial buildings, and an iconic covered Japanese bridge crosses one of the many canals that run through the town.
Twenty-one of the heritage sites or buildings in Hoi An Old Town are open to visitors, and with your entry ticket to the Old Town (120,000 dong or $7.30), you can visit any five buildings.
Two memorable ones are the House of Tan Ky, which was passed down over seven generations and whose descendants still live in the house; and the wonderfully elaborate Cantonese Assembly Hall.
It functioned as a members' club and temple for Cantonese settlers.
Other old buildings have been turned into restaurants and shops, some of which offer another Hoi An speciality - tailoring and custom shoe-making services - and others sell tourist kitsch like T-shirts printed with the words "iPho", souvenir potteryware and silk sleeping bags.
The streets are car-free, but don't think you can walk all over the place without looking behind you, for there are chains of cyclos ferrying tourists on their sightseeing rounds.
Do not get in their way, for you are likely to incur the wrath of a cyclo driver, who will, if you don't hear him ringing his bell, shout at you.
Despite the presence of tourist trappings and irate cyclo drivers, the Old Town is an atmospheric - and photogenic - place for an aimless stroll.
And things get even more magical at night when the strings of lanterns that hang across the buildings come on, lighting up the streets.
If you make your way over to the river, you might also see tourists setting lit floating lanterns on the water, which makes for a pretty scene.
But while absorbed with the sights around you, don't forget to watch out for the cyclos.