One of the things I like about writing for Destinasian is that they still appreciate and curate long-format food and travel writing. Here’s a piece I did for them earlier this year on the always-sensational cuisine of Da Nang and Hoi An in Central Vietnam. The photos below are my own, those in the print magazine are far more professional:
Vietnam famously enchanted both the author Graham Greene and his character Thomas Fowler in ‘The Quiet American’. Four decades later, the contemporary chronicler Anthony Bourdain similarly fell under the country’s spell the first time he visited: “The food, culture, landscape and smell; they’re all inseparable. It just seemed like another planet; a delicious one that sort of sucked me in and never let go.”
He’s not alone and food is frequently cited by visitors as the principal reason for their journey. The country’s cuisine has rapidly grown in global popularity thanks to the Vietnamese diaspora, exporting pho from Melbourne to Paris, LA to London. However pho, the slow-boiled bone broth livened by translucent noodles, fresh herbs, chilli, lime and cuts of beef, barely registers in the cuisine of Da Nang, the country’s third largest city nestled approximately halfway down the country.
It’s a busy and bustling port, its location along a bay giving the palm tree-lined waterfront an occasional air of Miami, even if the city proper lacks the sights of its bigger rivals. In common with these cities, however, it also boasts a fiercely proud and unique culinary tradition, making it one of the most compelling food destinations anywhere in Asia, especially when you add its neighbour of Hôi An.
The Vietnamese word ‘bà’ means ‘Madame’, a term often affectionately used for older women. If it appears in a restaurant’s name that’s generally a good sign, showing that it has been around a while. A case in point, Bà Vi, as explains Viet, a Da Nang native and 28-year-old economics lecturer whose time studying in Melbourne makes him the perfect host for Funtastic Da Nang food tours.
As with almost all Vietnamese businesses and restaurants, families tend to live above where they work and Bà Vi is no exception, conveying an air of eating in someone’s front room. The plastic stools are so low that we’re almost squatting on our haunches, but Viet explains this is a good sign. “The lower the stool, the cheaper the food! The cheapest comes sitting on the pavement”.
Bà Vi specializes in arguably Da Nang’s favorite and most iconic dish, Mì Quang. Every family makes it, sometimes every day for every meal, while each have their own recipe. Mì Quang is all about the layering of textures and flavours, fresh greens, banana blossom and herbs, rice noodles and shrimp even before the broth – a combination of pork, beef, fish and chicken bones, boiled together for five to six hours – is poured over. Lime is liberally squeezed for sourness, spring onion and coriander added before peanuts and broken rice crackers provide the crunch. It’s the perfect example of Vietnam’s culinary DNA, namely that food should stimulate all the five senses.
Chả bò is a delicious sausage made from ground beef and steamed in banana leaf. Although it’s not the prettiest thing you’ll eat in Vietnam, it’s sweet and subtle and stupidly moreish. Nem chua is fermented raw pork, not half as terrifying as it sounds, with heat from the chilli peppers, pungency from the garlic and sour notes from the curing. Tre is ground up pig snout, face, ear and skin and, while it sounds like the crunchy Filipino favorite sisig, actually it’s more like jellyfish in its surprisingly chewy, stringy consistency.
Bánh Xèo is another dish beloved in Da Nang, while one of its finest examples comes at Bánh Xèo Ba Duong a couple of minutes walk down a nondescript narrow alleyway. Pronounced ‘bang-say-o’, the ‘xeo’ is culinary onomatopoeia, the phonetic sound of the pancake sizzling in pans wielded by the extraordinary team of female cooks in the kitchen. The pancake in question is made from cornflour with water, turmeric for it’s golden yellow color, sugar and spring onion, with pink shrimp embedded in it.
The secret is most definitely in the sauce, however, one that includes pig liver, peanuts, chilli, garlic and shrimp paste, ground into a heady mix, not unlike satay but with deeper notes from the liver. You take the crispy shrimp pancake with its shrimp, lay it on a rice paper roll, add in your fresh herbs, slide off one or two skewers of grilled pork and roll up the whole gorgeous concoction into a stubby explosion of flavor, even before you dunk it – no polite dipping here –into the sauce. It’s those five senses all in action, all at once, the textural interplay and mouthfeel, the aroma, the sights and sounds and of course the brilliant harmony of flavours, so multilayered that it’s difficult to discern which is providing the most enjoyment.
Arguably the most famous iteration of bánh – meaning any food made from flour, usually ground rice flour – is bánh mì, the most visible culinary reminder of France’s role in Vietnamese history. At a street side stall called Bà Lan, just one of seemingly thousands across the city, the baguettes are baked on site and kept warm in an ancient black mini stove, only removed and filled at the very last minute with a heady combination of cheese, meats, pâtés, vegetables, herbs and sauces. Wrapped in thin white paper, the definitive Vietnamese takeaway.
The contrast in surroundings and cuisine couldn’t be greater just a twenty minute drive away, up over Monkey Mountain to the Intercontinental Sun Resort. The breathtaking property hugs the cliffs, its white villas and suites blending seamlessly into the mountain. Amongst its dining options sits arguably the finest restaurant offering international cuisine in Vietnam, Maison 1888, where one French culinary legend has replaced another with Pierre Gagnaire recently taking the reins from Michel Roux, senior.
Gagnaire explains why he took on the unique challenge “My culinary philosophy translates itself in Vietnam – like anywhere else – by observing and integrating with local culture. Vietnamese cuisine is fragrant, light, based on infusions, soups and aromatic herbs. We then try to translate the elegance of this cuisine through my own sensibility.“
What that means in practice, in the elegant high-ceilinged dining room, are dishes marrying the best of French and local Vietnamese produce such as sublime poached Brittany oysters with champagne and local banana blossom, the symbiosis of two cuisines and Gagnaire’s philosophy writ large.
The banana blossom relates Gagnaire’s ceaseless passion for discovering new produce, as he adds that the aspect of local cuisine that most excites him is “herbs and the Vietnamese way to use vegetables“. When one of the world’s most renowned chefs feels inspired, it’s no surprise to learn that he’s not the only one.
A short drive south lies the beachside haven of the Nam Hai, a luxurious but understated hideaway of villas just outside the charming small town of Hôi An, where another international chef is inspired by local produce. Kiwi Richard Wilson seems most at home in his herb and vegetable garden, tended in the winter sun by a team of ladies in nón lá conical hats.
A huge range of herbs and vegetables, from lemongrass to peanuts, pineapples to bitter gourd, are watched over in orchards and neat beds before travelling the short distance to the tables he oversees in the property’s villas and award-winning restaurants.
One of many bowls where they feature is cao lau, a Hôi An style noodle with roast pork where coriander, mint, basil and more unfamiliar leaves join noodles and fried squares of dough. The real hero, however, is a unique local sauce made from chilli, tomato, sesame and garlic, sweet and sticky and dark all at once, the perfect accompaniment to any dish but especially the ‘muc nuong’ calamari, perfectly charred from the poolside grill. Wilson explains Vietnam’s extraordinary food diversity by pointing out that even though Hôi An is barely twenty miles south of Da Nang, their specialties are utterly distinct and its chilli sauce is very difficult to find outside the town.
Even though Hôi An itself has quickly grown in popularity and visitor numbers, it still retains true charm. Amongst the lanterns, laneways and beautiful sixteenth century architecture, the most famous bánh mì merchant in a town renowned for them is
81-year-old Madame Khanh. The self-styled ‘bánh mì queen’ is clearly a canny marketer, but also a craftswoman without rival, slowly and methodically filling her baguettes with a spread of her home made pork pâté and deft moves of her chopsticks. Amongst those I valiantly tried in the name of research, hers was the best, a kaleidoscope of ingredients, flavours and textures without rival.
The last word on the food of this remarkable stretch of Vietnam lies with Duc Tran. His is an extraordinary story, having fled as a teenage refugee on a boat before reaching Malaysia, eventually being adopted by a Mexican family in Texas, living in Central America and Australia before returning to start his own restaurant business which is now thriving at Hôi An venues including Mango Mango, Mai Fish and more.
“Vietnamese cuisine is all about five tastes, senses and textures in every single dish: Even the bánh mì here in Hôi An, it’s humble food but one bite delivers sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. There’s fatty meat, crispy and crunchy vegetables, soft bread and creamy pâté. When you eat it with your hands, you eat with the five senses – your eyes, nose, ears, tongue and fingers. Wherever I’ve been in the world, there’s just nothing like it.”
Funtastic Da Nang Tours: http://funtasticdanang.com/food-tour/
Maison 1888: http://danang.intercontinental.com/la-maison-1888
The Nam Hai: http://www.ghmhotels.com/en/nam-hai/
Mango Mango: http://www.themangomango.com/