The air is hot and as thick as soup, and the painted houses seem iridescent behind the swaying lanterns in steamy Hoi An. It's our first evening in the historic central Vietnamese trading port and we've beaten the crowds to a prized downstairs table at Morning Glory restaurant.
Housed in an atmospheric old trader's house, Morning Glory has all the colour and excitement of the Vietnam that we've been searching for. We watch the cooks hard at work in the open kitchen while the ceiling fans struggle to do their job.
As we're waiting for our food, Ms Vy, the owner and well-known chef, strides in with a folder in her hands. She spies a lone hawker who's sneaked in past her staff and asks him to leave. He brazenly stands his ground, voices are raised and she deftly ushers him out the door with a gentle tap of the folder.
Along with the town's old quarter and World Heritage status, the formidable Ms Trinh Diem Vy has helped put Hoi An on the map. About 18 years ago, she opened a tiny, simple cafe near the market. It was the first place to offer English-language menus – which, with the open kitchen and fresh, zingy food, has made it a hit. Mermaid is still open today, with main courses from about $5; bring your wallet, as it's cash only.
The Cargo Club, on Nguyen Thai Hoc Street and housed in a picturesque white colonial-style building across the road from Morning Glory, was set up by Ms Vy after a visit to Australia. Downstairs it offers pastries and drinks – the strong, freshly filtered Vietnamese coffee is a must. Upstairs is more upmarket, and dining on the spacious balcony overlooking the Hoai River while drinking in the lantern-laden ancient streets across the way is a magical experience.
Many visitors sign up for Morning Glory cooking classes – make sure you book a course that Ms Vy is giving. The early visit to the market is a real eye-opener. It's also worth taking a 20-minute boat ride up the river to the Red Bridge Restaurant and Cooking School, set in spacious tropical gardens. The time to explore Hoi An's old quarter is in the evening, when it's cooler and the streets are closed to traffic. The port, known as Faifo to Westerners from the 17th to 19th centuries, hosted traders from China, Japan, Britain, Holland and France and they've left their mark. The Japanese Covered Bridge was built in the late 16th century, the Fujian Chinese Assembly Hall dates from 1792, and the Quan Cong Temple was built in 1653.
Most of the old quarter is a showpiece for tourists. Shopping is popular and it's a great place to pick up bargain scarves, clothes, shoes and jewellery, and to visit a tailor.
Hoi An has many hotels but, for those who like a more peaceful setting, the resorts at nearby Cua Dai beach are – at six kilometres – a reasonably priced taxi ride away.
FLY Vietnam Airlines flies Melbourne-HoChi Minh City-Danang from $1172. Singapore Airlines flies Melbourne-Singapore-Danang from $1061. Hoi An is about one-hour's drive from Danang.
STAY Victoria Hoi An Beach Resort from $170, victoriahotels.asia; Boutique Hoi An Resort from $134, boutiquehoianresort.com.
EAT Morning Glory, 106 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street; Cargo Club, 107-109 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street; Mermaid, 2 Tran Phu Street, restaurant-hoian.com; Red Bridge Restaurant and Cooking School, Thon 4, Cam Thanh.