Fleets of fishing boats come to the head of the river, just outside the market, daily at 6am. The bartering and buying is a spectacle in itself. It is completely run by women - they take small boats out to the large boats, collect the fish, return to shore and then haggle with the dealers. It seems to pass through 3 exchanges before the housewife can buy it. It is so fierce and so female that the canny owner of Les Amis will not buy himself. He prowls around having a bit of a look and then sends along his wife (who is also now the chef at his restaurant) to do the deal.
Along the waterfront, are a series of excellent small cafes (notably Les Amis) with some of the best food in the country. Nguyen Manh Kim, 55, owner, French speaking. French music plays, young waiters hum along to French tunes, he dances around with a baby introducing himself and getting us to shake hands with the baby. Prefers to speak French but can understand English. Wears a Web Crawler T Shirt.
Food is vegetarian or seafood (no meat). Very good balance of flavours, good variety of tastes and styles of cooking - amazing considering how primitive the kitchen is. His wife and an assistant do it all. Team of boys do the waiting including Nguyen's sons (Tuyen aged 26) and one who is adopted (the son of a fisherman lost in a storm).
He learnt French food from his father who worked for the French marines and then when he was in the South Vietnamese army he had to prepare and taste every dish for the French officers (to check for poisoning)
Some specialities are Banh Bao Banh Vac (White Roses) like ravioli, very fine light rice flour parcels stuffed with a shrimp terrine and served with a sauce made with Nuoc Mam (fish paste, chillies and vegetable oil); delicious stuffed calamari; flat open raviole with shrimp and vegetables piled on top; deep-fried eggplant with three sauces.
He changes the menu every day (or so he says) he tells you this on your first visit and encourages you to come back for his special other dishes, the duck you will only get on your third visit. He made an exception for us and we got it the second visit. A clay pot of soup made from the duck and vegetables arrives (takes 5 hours to cook) then the duck is dissected/pulled off the bone in front of you - done by one of the small boy/waiters. It is chopped and then tossed with vegetables. The soup is ladled into bowls and then the duck and vegetable combo popped in. Lots of potato, taro and carrot. Lovely rich flavour.
If you visit Hoi An when it is not too hot, hire a motor bike and take an excursion to My Son, Vietnam's most evocative Cham site, 40 kilometres to the south. The road is a bit rough, so you may prefer to take a mini-bus tour. Tragically American B52s destroyed most of the ruins but, the isolation of the setting and the remnants of delicate masonry work provide an interesting experience.