11 Day Food Tour (Part 2): Da Nang, Hội An, Huế, and Hồ Chí Minh City.
Adamo Hotel With all that has been unholy and un-American under Trump, I never felt more patriotic and American than I did when I ordered a burger, fries, and extra fries at our rooftop pool in Da Nang. Forget about working for Kirstjen Nielson and Homeland Security or enlisting in the military. Instead, travel to a place previously listed as an axis of evil country and order a Philly cheese steak sandwich (which they had btw). Truth be told, I felt really guilty after having this meal in Vietnam of all places, not because of any historical conflicts or imperialistic food tendencies, but because I was too lazy to get up and get out of my hotel. Much respect though to the chefs and server for preparing a wonderfully delicious pub spread. Not much is seemingly beyond the reach of this world food capitol.
Nón Lá (Rice Hat) Restaurant Dinner was here, a romantic modern throwback to French Colonial Vietnamese. This large air conditioned, pastel colored bistro offered an impressive 4 course tasting menu with the option for a la carté. Note that I’ve been traveling with my friend from college and realized I really hadn’t seen this much of him since, well, college. Thankfully our access to amazing food and our aligned politics kept our mutual pet peeves at bay. Still, I ate silently through my savory papaya salad and secretly pined for my wife…
A dish that stood out was claypot rice (cơm niêu) with shaken beef . The pot itself adds a chicken
pot-pie-esque warmth, while the beef is stir-fried at high heat with onions and bell peppers. Anthony Bourdain met his cultural liaison and 2nd mom (Madam Ngoc) at Cơm niêu Sài Gòn. Their version of claypot rice was uniquely encased and tossed across the full stretch of the dining room (much like the salmon flingers at Pike’s Place Market) before being cracked open and served. None of those acrobatics here, but still a worthwhile tasting experience.
The faifo Factory & Morning Glory Restaurant 2 Hội An is a 40 minute cab ride from Da Nang and will set you back 340,000 dong ($13 bucks) round trip. You’ll be given a rate for every additional hour the driver has to wait for you while you shop and take selfies:
You could be a bad-ass and rent your own scooter or bicycle and make a day trip out of it. An entire family of foreigners wearing matching banana shirts mobbed our taxi while riding Vespas. If you do decide to bike it, remember to bring plenty of fluids and a sun hat, seriously.
Once you arrive, refresh and get your bearings straight at The faifo Factory . It’s an open cafe secluded by plants, reclaimed wood, and the occasional hipster. Iced coffee and dessert is your fare here. Please remember that Vietnamese coffee in Vietnam, is just coffee. So refrain from shouting “I just want Vietnamese coffee!” Make an effort look at the menu and civilly engage your barista. Wi-fi is readily available.
Morning Glory Restaurant 2 is located across the Thu Bon river and close to the Bridge of Lights. Hidden within a conglomerate of eateries, you will feel like you’ve walked into the wrong place.Walk confidently into the first floor restaurant and follow the staircase up. A host will meet you at the top. I strongly recommend sitting inside for the live music and avoiding any wafts of air from the river (trust me).
We ordered Bò kho or stewed beef with daikon and carrots. It was dark, wholesome, delicious, and will take you to new heights of stewed beefy goodnesss. This dish can be eaten with a crispy baguette or egg noodles. We got both. Surprisingly my favorite dish was a delicate green bean salad tossed with a light fish sauce and topped with fried onions. The green beans were meticulously shredded, offering a gentle new texture with the right flavor profile. Another home cooked favorite was prawns with pork belly in caramelized fish sauce (tôm kho thịt). The pork melted on my tongue and the prawn’s head was crystallized in sugar and salt. The food here silenced my obnoxious critiques and humbled my palette.
Đặc Sản Số 1 Bún bò Huế I reached a life performance measure by eating Bún bò Huế in Huế, Vietnam. It ranks among the top ten best things I’ve eaten. This labor intensive soup is a pleasing blend of simmered beef bones and tendons, shrimp paste, pork, lemon grass, paprika, pineapple, and fish sauce. It’s served with thick rice noodles and a compliment of shredded banana flowers, bean sprouts, lettuce, limes, and Vietnamese coriander. This vivacious soup, both delicate and potent, came at cost of $1.75 US.
Our last night in Da Nang, I had my first bout with food poisoning. It was a full house at an outdoor eatery and the service was extraordinarily slow. While waiting for what seemed like eons, we fell victim to wandering street vendors selling everything from pastries to packaged fruit. The establishment seemed to care less of attempts to siphon our patronage, so I happily purchased a tray of Jackfruit bound in plastic. Combined with shaky hands and my legendary hunger, I clumsily tore
through the industrial strength Vietnamese Reynolds Wrap, nearly freeing a ruby sized piece of Jackfruit when it fell flat on the table. Now the short-sighted will argue there’s a 1 2 3 4 and even 5 second rule, while the more intelligent will point out bacteria is bacteria, no matter how many seconds your coveted treat naps in filth. Ergo you throw that shit away and regrettably, I did not. I used my fingers to brush off granules of god knows what and placed it in my mouth. This one act marred the remainder of my evening and most of the following day. A lesson to be learned for travelers and homebodies alike – once it makes contact, let it go, no matter how unctuous the entreé. Parents traveling with toddlers should be vigilant.
When dinner finally arrived, I didn’t have an appetite. But my fellow travel companion enjoyed canh chua ngao (clams in Tamarind soup) and rau muống xào tỏi (water spinach in garlic). Know that canh chua is favored by most of the common folk in central and southern Vietnam. It’s easy to make, it’s healthy, and it can fill up a lot of hungry people with nothing more than just a side of rice. The broth is typically made with local vegetables, tomatoes, tamarind paste, pineapples, and some form of a water dwelling protein (shrimp, catfish, or clams).
Hồ Chí Minh City
This is exactly what you want to see, a bánh mì shop with a line of locals ready to kill the next tourist asking for substitutions. This place has a 4.5 rating on Google and Tripadvisor,
and OMFG it’s that good. Know that they have mostly cold cuts, steamed meats and sausages (chả lụa), but I did see one tofu sandwich come out for a very pleased vegetarian. You can attempt to figure out what you want before hand, but save yourself the headache and just ask for the house special (đặc biệt). This in fact is an important word to know (đặc biệt) when ordering things like phở or bánh mì. The bread in Vietnam will consistently blow your mind. It’s exoskeleton is crunchy, crisp, flaky, and warm, but has a perfectly airy pillow-like center. Paté is painted generously across the inside canvas and layered with fresh cucumbers, cilantro, pickled radish, chilies and scallions. A variety of cold cuts and steamed pork (packed idyllically into a single vessel) delivers an orgasmic taste and texture experience unlike any sandwich you’ve eaten. If you need a cozy and quiet place to enjoy your French envied Vietnamese Hoagie, walk a few steps west to the Mint Café located on the first floor of the Cinnamon Hotel. They’re fine with you eating in their space as long as you order something. I ordered an “egg” special ca phé – an innovative espresso blended with an egg yolk and sprinkled with cinnamon. The egg itself ingeniously creates a rich and frothy flavor, and paired with my sandwich became a euphoric moment seared into memory. It was the climax of my food tour.
Marukame Udon Located in Little Japan Town of the Bến Thành shopping district, this restaurant caught the eye of my travel companion. He came across the franchise in Honolulu and was eager to try it here. Needless to say it was hot, but even hotter standing directly in front of vats of boiling water. It was a pleasure watching and listening to chefs actualize and flatten dough into long threads of noodles, but by the time we reached the “order here” guy, I was steeped in my own broth of sweat.
We both ordered curry noodles with variations in protein. To the left was chicken, and the right was beef. Additional items included a fried potato croquette and tempura shrimp. To be entirely honest, I don’t remember what my dish tasted like. I felt light-headed and went straight through my bottle of LaVie. Before my friend was finished with his noodles, I stepped outside but experienced very little relief. My body continued to sweat and I sat down and drank another bottle of water with my head still spinning. When you lose more fluids than you can replenish, it’s a problem. Find a place with AC and if you can and drink fresh coconut milk which is often available. It helps retain your fluids. Please do listen to your body in this climate!
Bún Thịt Nướng – Nguyễn Trung Trực After a cool bath and a good night’s rest at a
Freon powered hotel, I ventured out and found this amazing hole in the wall the next day. If you blink, you’ll miss it. It’s a food stall with makeshift tables and Bourdain favored low-plastic stools. Confidently walk up to the food cart and place an order of Vermicelli noodles. They’ll point out a spot where you can sit across the road. If you’re a heavy-set person like me, grab an additional stool to reinforce your seat. What you see is what you get – a bowl of rice noodles with grilled lemon grass pork, bean sprouts, scallions in oil, pickled carrots and radish, cucumbers, lettuce, and a giant cut-up Vietnamese egg roll topped with roasted peanuts and fish sauce. I do no justice to the synapses that fired off from my tongue to the pleasure center of my brain. Never have I experienced flavors so vivid and robust prior to Vietnam. In the states, I’d eat two, sometimes three portions because my brain’s reward circuit would tell me “this is good, keep eating.” But in Vietnam, my reward circuit told me “stop eating and enjoy this moment.” I was full before the bowl was empty. On day 10 of my trip, I realized something about me was healthier.
Bánh Mì Bùi Thị Xuân For dinner I wanted something fast. I headed to another bánh mì place and asked for their best sandwich. They handed me a bánh mì bi (pronounced
bee) and a bánh mì chả cá. Bi is a thinly sliced marinated pork with shredded pork skin dusted in finely crushed roasted rice grains. Served at room temperature with a warm crusty baguette it was the best $1.25 I ever spent. The chả cá (fish cakes) sandwich was mind-bending, as I watched them drop handfuls of minced fish mixed with closely guarded herbs and spices into a fryer. Using chopsticks, they individually packed each piece of cooked fish into a bed of bánh mì goodness. The secret is to let your bánh mì rest (outside any plastic bag) for about 5 minutes so your bread, paté, and soy sauce can meld.
Nguyen KY Com Tam “You eat what takes you in; what ensnares your senses,” as Anthony Bourdain would say. I couldn’t resist the smell of freshly grilled porkshops on my way to the Buddhist temple (yes the hypocrisy). Notice in the a large industrial fan above the grill – a food industry guerrilla tactic that never fails. Walk in and take a seat (no consent required) and order cơm tấm bì sườn chả (an abbreviation for broken rice, shredded pork, pork chop, and steamed egg / meat soufleé). Garnishes include pickled greens, scallions in oil, and topped with fish sauce in garlic, lime, and chilies. You can also request for a warm compliment of pork broth with your meal, altogether for a whopping total of $1.50 US.
Bún Riêu Cua Ốc Chợ Võ Văn Tần In the hunt for the last meal of my food tour I discovered the Vietnamese Diagon Alley. Let’s call it the Saigon Diagon Alley. It was in every practical sense magical.
I approached a narrow passage where the whirr of the motorbikes suddenly went dead and all was quiet. Eerily quiet….like a spell had been cast I was the only muggle to notice. The rain ceased and a pink sun finessed its rays through dementor-like clouds. Colorful animals strutted freely and vendors displayed goods which resembled Snape’s potion stores. It was here on my last day, when I felt the closest to this country, its people, and its food. It hit me hard. Tears welled and I understood why both visitors and transnationals are so moved by the magic of this place. When you see and experience a way of living so different from your own, you realize
how much could be done differently and maybe even how narrow your own life has been. Like Harry Potter, Vietnam became my Hogwartz, and somehow in the course of an 11 day visit, my life had changed.
Bún Riêu Cua Ốc Chợ Võ Văn Tần Known as the Seafood Soup Lady, this woman’s bowl of broth and noodles will blow your taste buds. Each day she
starts at 4am to prep her ingredients, specializing in minced freshwater crabs and escargot. The base starts with garlic, tomatoes, tamarind paste, shrimp paste, minced crabs, fish, and fish sauce. Lots of fish sauce. While the broth stews, she prepares her hand made crab cakes and congealed pig’s blood (darker squares below). Slowly she adds her snails and generous cuts of steamed pork rolls to slow boil and simmer. Separately she has a team prep all the noodles and sides, including finely cut red cabbage, banana flowers, basil, raw water spinach, and bean sprouts. Each order of noodles she steeps and drains in a separate pot of broth before laying on individual components and slowly adding broth. Think of this dish as an uncensored savage bowl of bouillabaisse with noodles.