Sunday, March 17, 2013

Postcards from Vietnam part 4: Hoi An part 2

Day 3: Animals / exploring
In the way into town from Da Nang we finally saw the iconic Vietnam scenery we'd been hanging for: rice padis being worked by locals in straw pointy hats. Although bicycles were available to us, you have to be braver and surer than I on two wheels in traffic to actually try to transport yourself by this method. (Okay, it was far safer here than in Hanoi, especially once you got out of the old town. It could actually have been pleasant, and we could have seen far more. But then there's the idea of cycling on a full stomach -- and in Vietnam my stomach was never wanting.) A decent stroll out of town led us back to this idyllic scene. And water buffalo, carp, frogs, rats, birds, chatty locals, and plants that shrivel up when you touch them. It was awesome. Unfortunately, it was not the nicest day for it -- hence the grey skies and raincoats.

Along with all the animals which contribute to the table, there were a few which received scraps from the table. Dogs, mostly, but even a couple of cats. 

 Day 4: Local specialties
The markets (Cho Hoi An) are really something, and it's amazing how important they are to the cuisine. Shopping twice a day to get fresh ingredients rather than once a week and keeping it all in the fridge (after the food has been sitting in someone else's fridge/warehouse for a week). It's not just the herbs that make the food taste so fresh -- it's the culture.

There is a hall dedicated to little kitchens serving fresh bowls of sustenance. There may be some local protocol to work out which one you eat at. I had to wing it, using a combination of the look of the food, proprietor, and how many people were eating there. For the record, stall 34 was better than 47, with a rich coconutty pho a more satisfying choice than the brothless bun mam. But the numbers give you an indication of how many there were to choose from.
Mermaid was, to hear Ms Vy tell it, the first restaurant in Hoi An. It is also responsible for the other local specialty, banana pancakes. The food is a little simpler than Morning Glory, with the aim to keep the prices really low so locals can still afford to eat there. I love that philosophy, and while I enjoyed the food at Mermaid I did prefer Morning Glory. I've heard others say the opposite. I suspect it's a case that whichever you eat at first will earn your loyalty. 
 Day 5: Hidden treasures
It's no Angkor Wat or other well-known temple ruin, but the ruins of My Son make an enjoyable day trip. Head out super early before the tour buses and enjoy ruins, a gentle bushwalk, some peace and quiet, and butterflies.

Mai Fish is (at least it was at the time) an absolute hidden gem. About 50m on the 'other' side of the Japanese Bridge is a the new restaurant from Mango Rooms/Mango Mango owner and chef Duc. The menu here is inspired by his mother's recipes, unlike the more contemporary/experimental dishes at the Mangoes. The music and decor help reflect this older vibe, with beautiful old furniture (our table was an old sewing machine) and laid-back Miles Davis and co setting the tone. The best part was that, being new and on the 'wrong' side of town, it was quiet. (Actually, a little too quiet -- hopefully business has picked up!) Scored a private table right by the water, with amazing cocktails at half-price during happy hour. The cumquat mojito and star-fruit mojito were delicious: sour but sweet, and really refreshing. But the standout was the combination of strawberry and chili in the Devil's Advocate. Oh, and the cold refresher towels straight from the fridge? A golden touch.
And that's a wrap. Hope these postcards make it to you alright, Molly. Sometimes they get lost in the post and take MONTHS to arrive...

Hoi An food summary -- see Detective Chow's Annotated map of Hoi An food
• Morning Glory, 106 Nguyen Thai Hoc. Hoi An's best restuarant. Incredible food, and ultra-affordable. Highly recommend the cooking class here as well. $30 and you get a tour of the markets and lunch. (Every restaurant seemed to run a cooking class.)
• Mermaid, 2 Tranh Phu (near the markets). Original restaurant from Ms Vy, owner of Morning Glory, and Hoi An's first restaurant. A little cheaper than Morning Glory, and very good, but doesn't quite live up to the Morning Glory experience.
• Mai Fish, 45 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai (about 100m on the 'other' side of the Japanese covered bridge.) Hoi An's uniscovered secret. Go for happy hour (5:30 - 7:30) and have ½-price cocktails in the back courtyard looking over the river. Then inside for some excellent food. (This restaurant uses the chef's mother's old recipes. His other two, Mango Rooms and Mango Mango are his own style.)
• Brother's Cafe, 27-29 Phan Boi Chau (past the covered markets, about 50-100m past the big bridge). Lovely surrounds, with a big garden and outdoor seats right near the water. A bit more expensive than the others, and the food not quite as good.

Street / Market
• Thit Nuong Cuon Banh Trang: BBQ pork in rice paper rolls. Look for the BBQ pork being cooked fresh in bamboo skewers, with bowls of herbs and greens. Charge is about 10k dong (50c) per skewer. Sit nearby and roll your own.
• Banana pancakes. Everywhere (they were invented in Hoi An). Try to get them to cook one fresh for you -- the old or re-fried ones are a bit chewy. They'll ask for 10k dong each, but you can some can be talked down to 5k.
• Beer by the river. Where all the tourist boats are perched are some covered tables where the local men sit and play cards. Grab a local beer (10k dong) and watch the locals. Surprisingly, no other tourists joined us.
• Sweet potato cake. Look for little round cakes being BBQd fresh. These were delicious and sweet. 10k each, but I'm sure we could have bargained that down.
• Markets (Cho Hoi An), along Tran Quy Cap and Bach Dang: There is a big concrete hall full of stalls cooking fresh meals (Tran Phu end). Cao Lau (noodles and beef -- you're supposed to mix it all together before you eat it) is a Hoi An specialty, and there are plenty of people serving that and other things. We picked a couple of places based on a) how many locals were eating there, b) how good the ingredients on the prep table looked, and c) friendliness of the proprieter. Price is around 15-20k dong per bowl.

View Hoi An Food Tour 2012 in a larger map
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