48 Hours in hours in Central Vietnam

December 1, 2014 frvtravel
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Watching early morning activities on the side of Thu Bon river is something you can’t miss.

Text by Will Meyrick

I was heading to Hoi An, Central Vietnam, a beautifully preserved UNESCO city situated at the mouth of the Thu Bon River that gives visitors the best of all worlds, rural pastures, shady beaches, elegant nightlife and a buzzing market scene, but first I was to spend five hours in Nha Trang to connect to the night bus that would take us there. Here the contrasts of the country hit me head on: the silky soft white sand of the beaches, the undecipherable signs, in Vietnamese and Russian, and the ironic charm of the Vietnamese themselves, which is part of Vietnam’s appeal.What you see is what you get, there are no surprises hidden behind the smiles, and while it can be unsettling, Vietnam is one of Asia’s most favorite tourist destinations for a reason.

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Central Vietnam is bliss for street food addicts.

Na Trang offers a very different type of tourism than the rest of Vietnam, where tourists go looking for culture and adventure. Na Trang doesn’t do that, it offers sports, waterparks and Russian bars, and while I can’t speak for the Russians, it does cater very well for kids. And Vin Pearl Water Park was the place to go, a freshwater palace on its own island off the beach that you reach by cable cars called gondolas. It is the ultimate water park of Southeast Asia, but it lacks street food.

So I headed off on my own exploration, the best way possible. From Lanterns on NguyễnThiệnThuật I took a street-food tour of the city by motorbike. Among the dishes I got to experience on the tour of small street vendors were the Bánh tai vạcnhântôm, a shrimp tapioca dumpling, soft yet sharp in taste through the fish sauce and lime juice combination, the Banh Xeo, a soft rice cake omelet, which is a non-egg omelette, although it does look egg like with the addition of turmeric into the rice flour and the Bahncanh cha ca that uses a rice paddy herb, green shallots and a salty fish stock as the base with the addition of fiery chili, sharp lime and the ever present pungent fish sauce to make a soup that is served with fried, almost chewy fish cakes and udon rice noodles.

Pedicab riding, one of the most enjoyable ways to get around Hoi An.

Pedicab riding, one of the most enjoyable ways to get around Hoi An.

Vietnamese foods have a distinct, fresh taste to them, a clear spiciness that doesn’t weigh the food down. It is fragrant, boosting and harmonizing of the individual ingredients. It was here that I had something of an epiphany: the Vietnamese have great fresh food, they don’t have to go to any length to disguise it with sauces and spices, rather they enhance it with their fragrant herbs. The last dish on my tour is the banh can, and by now I have also figured out the word “bahn” means anything made of rice or flour, the banh can is like the Indonesian serabi, little quail eggs in a rice-flour pancake served with a julienne of green mango, just delicious.

With the family we take a cab to the port area of seafood cafes, over the bridge, not far from the centre of Na Trang. Although the destination itself is geared for locals who come to the many restaurants in the evening for their favourite dishes, dining out in great crowds, it is a beautiful spot. Around seven it gets jam packed with the crowds tucking in and slurping up their favourite chili crab which I discovered has a dash of cola added to the tamarind, palm sugar and rock salt to sweeten up the chili paste. I have to recommend the crab roe rolls too, the delicate roe is blended with peanuts, chili, lime juice and palm sugar and wrapped in rice paper for a quick easy bite, just perfect to snack on before catching the night bus to Hoi An.

A typical boat used for daily activities by the locals.

A typical boat used for daily activities by the locals.

Hoi An, the number one most popular UNESO site in the world, is awash with the new travellers of Northern Asia, so in order to see Hoi An at its best it is wise to avoid certain times, when the streets are thronged to bursting with tour groups each following in military style their flag-waving leader. Early morning is a good time to start or between three and five in the afternoon when it seems the sock and sandal wearing tourists of China and Taiwan take their rest. Another tip is to stay outside the city itself between the town and the beach where the cost of accommodation is lower, but the quality very much higher than in the town itself.

Hoi An is a place that can be revisited over and over. It’s a place to stop, rest and soak up the rural life of Vietnam and to indulge in a little nostalgia along the beach at sunset, if that’s your style. For me it’s about riding a motorbike with the sun setting behind you and going off road through the back of the mangroves to loose yourself in the scenery. It’s seeing locals fishing on the side of the river, smoking cigarettes and drinking local beer. I’m not a day dreamer, I will never be the one watching rice grow, but I love to pass by vignettes of rustic life as it unfolds in amazing rural settings.

Banh can, simple, tasty and a fulfilling dish, similar to serabi in Indonesia.

Banh can, simple, tasty and a fulfilling dish, similar to
serabi in Indonesia.

While Hoi An is bustling with ‘to-dos’ there are three must-dos in my opinion, one is obviously a cooking school, followed closely by the photography tour and the motor bike tour and of course wherever you can, eat!

Hoi An is the centre for artisanal everything, and the coffee here comes in some unusual forms, there is the ‘weasel coffee’, similar to the Indonesian luwak, or civet cat coffee, and it seems the Vietnamese prefer their coffee with milk, condensed and sweet, however do not miss the best frozen yoghurt coffee made with coffee, yoghurt and condensed milk, it is incredible. Coffee culture is different in Vietnam too, it has that element of European café society, a little more elegant and sociable than other places in Asia.

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Red Bridge Cooking School was my choice of school, it’s super classy – no pun intended – and set in a beautiful riverside location. The school has half-day and deluxe classes and will give you an in-depth and hands-on experience from sourcing in the markets to preparing and eating. I wanted to really get into the stories of the food and opted to create an experience that would put me into the center of Hoi An with the staff of the Red Bridge Café. This is more at my pace, again getting into the kitchen along with the staff is my way. I get to learn more about the food itself, the history, the approaches to food and through the banter learn more about the people too.

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Finding a superb goat curry was a great delight, using deep friend taro and carrots against a lemongrass curry yields a spice that tantalizes without overwhelming, and the hint of the nutty annatto oil gives an especially Vietnamese flavour. Stingray soup was another discovery, with the addition of the taro stem, bamboo shoots and green banana the texture of the soup ingredients provide contrast to the lightly boiled, tender flesh of the stingray. I did enjoy the yellow chicken rice, fragrant with the jasmine rice that is cooked with turmeric, garlic and shallot before it is boiled into fluffy, yet still tensile golden grains and served with a simple Vietnamese mint dressed carrot and fried shallot salad. Here again I saw this simplicity of ingredients, a salad of just carrot and shallots sounds dull but with the addition of the herbs and the lemon and pepper taste ‘tango’ the whole dish is alive with flavour.

Perhaps though it was the sugar cane prawns that really made the most impact, beautifully crafted balls of blended prawn and tapioca flour are spiced with chili and shallots, sweetened with cane sugar and grilled to a shining sweet, sharp perfection on sticks of sugar cane with the air-dried feef a close second. Vietnam spices blended with sugar, or honey as with the beef, don’t over sweeten the dish, the effect is both sharp and sweet, without the cloying nature typically associated with ‘sweet and sour’. Chili, five spice, honey, lemongrass and ginger give this dish its caramelized kick and the beef slices are served with green papaya and mint salad.

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The photography tour was run by Etienne of Hoi An Photo Tour, and these tours get you places you would find harder to discover alone, and the sunrise tour’s early morning start is definitely worth it. Etienne doesn’t mind if you are using your I-phone camera or the latest SLR and he provides you with advice should you need it. It’s a different tour in that it’s something that not many people think about actually doing on their vacation, but it takes you off the beaten path, into the areas where you can capture the great shots and you don’t have to spend five days searching for the ‘essence’ of your travels.

It’s the sight of fishermen hauling their catch as the sky turns cerulean behind them, the frames of the women in the paddies as they bend and sway in their labours, and the children on their way to school by bicycle. For sure you could pick up a print or a poster in the market, but when you take the time to make your own documentation it adds a whole other dimension to the image. The photography tour also got me further into the market culture of the area as we set out at five in the morning on a boat with the local fish merchants to take the fifteen minute journey to the Duy Hai fishing village. Beautiful light on the water and not a tourist in sight, just the traders of Hoi An and the chiseled faces of the Cham fisher folk as they set about negotiating prices for the day’s market trade against a background of multi-hued and fast changing light.

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Hoi An captured and captivated a part of me, maybe that was the trade off of all the images I had captured from it’s people, it’s trade and its ‘soul’. The time spent there, riding a motorbike from the centre of the town out into the bucolic greens of the rice paddies, the fresh country air and the ease in which things seem to get done remains with you long after you leave. It was a short stop for sure but there was time for a little relaxing, some reflecting and certainly rejuvenation – which was a good thing as our next destination to Da Nang Airport and the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi!

About Will Meyrick
Will Meyrick, a restaurateur with Sarong Bali, Mama San Bali, Mama San Hong Kong and E&O Jakarta. A celebrity chef and a street food enthusiast. The author of “Sarong Inspirations” cook book.

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