Danang, Vietnam, January 2020.
Food is very important to the Vietnamese. They eat a lot. And when they’re not eating they’re thinking about eating. ‘I eat out twice a day’, Anh told us. Nearly all Vietnamese eat breakfast on the street. ‘We get up very early, we’re not really awake and no-one has time to make noodles for breakfast’. Any morning, any place in Vietnam, you’ll see food carts, tiny tables and people slurping on noodles. Noodles for breakfast? I couldn’t get my head around it. ‘You must’, Ben* told me. ‘Evening noodles are not the same as breakfast noodles. Those carts are only around for an hour and they’re gone’.
Lunch and dinner are always eaten at home with family. Anh, his wife, and two-year-old son live with his parents. ‘I see the joy in my parents eyes when they look at my son. They love him. I am so happy to do this for them – but only one’, he told us, laughing. ‘My mum is a great cook, my grandma was a great cook. She was a butcher. She always made sure we had meat. When you are bought up in such a culture, you know about food’. His wife helps his mum in the kitchen, and sometimes he even cooks himself. ‘Then I try to make a dish to give my parents something different. When I made guacamole they couldn’t understand what I was doing, but they loved my aubergine parmigiana’.
After breakfast Anh goes ‘most days’ to his favourite cafe. ‘This is my second home’. Nam Café was down a side street, retro, hip and young. ‘This is like Vietnam from the nineties. I love that a lot of the things here are from the owner’s own home. See that photo over there – that’s his family, standing in Red Square in Moscow’. We sipped on coconut coffees and tried to digest. We were on yet another food tour and we were almost done – literally and figuratively.
We’d started with bahn mi. The anytime, anywhere, Vietnamese snack. According to Anh, Quynh Anh is the best in Danang. ‘bahn mi is everywhere in Vietnam, some good, some not so good’. We bit down into a crispy baguette. ‘They make their own’, Anh told us, ‘and their own pate, and they use three different types of pork meat – pate, belly and sausage. Often people only put in a bit of pate. We could taste every individual flavour in the roll, fresh mint, the meat, the aftertaste of the chilli. ‘They’ve been in business for twenty-five years. I come here most days’.
Anh took us places we’d never have found by ourselves. Dead-end alleys, cul-de-sacs, dark, winding lanes, stuffed with people and dogs and motorbikes. Living rooms by day, morphing into restaurants at night. Not for nothing all that miniscule plastic furniture. It’s portable and easy to stack. Our knees creaked as we bent and rose. ‘Sit with your back to the wall, that’s easier for you’, laughed Anh. It wasn’t but the discomfort was worth it. We’d arrived at a house, open to the street, two small children watching TV. The boy sitting upright with the remote in his hand, his younger sister, half lying, half sitting across her own table and chair, engrossed in a story about a cat with a magic pocket. ‘Every child in Vietnam loves this story’, Anh told us.
This was the restaurant. You’d have to know it to know it. But people search it out because the food is so good. The lady, sixty-five years old, was cooking in the street outside. A couple of cupboards, a burner, no kitchen, and she produced a crab soup so rich in flavour, so layered; without doubt the best soup of the trip. ‘She makes a ball with the crab meat, and adds fish-cake. This is the only place that you’ll get this soup. No-one else makes it like this’. I felt a little sad, because I knew I’d never find this place again. So, I had a second helping. ‘She gets up early, goes to the market and is ready to open about 15.30’, Anh continued, ‘She has one free day a month. I was last here on New Years Eve and her two daughters had taken the evening off. I asked why she was working and she told me she didn’t want to disappoint people who wanted her food. She probably also needs the money, she has a lot of children’.
The government encourages these small businesses, to help families generate an income. Unlike mobile street vendors they pay tax, and are subject to hygiene checks. ‘I wouldn’t eat from a travelling street vendor, unless they’d been visiting my area for a while’, Anh told us.
The next stop was heaving. The floor was littered with used napkins and morsels of food, and it was difficult to find some of those tiny chairs free. A plate of banana-leaf-wrapped parcels was placed in front of us. Tapioca – light and fluffy and steamed, which we ate with a spoon, and translucent tapioca, pretty as a picture, with a little pink shrimp shining through the glistening pocket.
It was all so good. But Anh saved the best for last. Kem bo. ‘Vietnamese people don’t really eat dessert’, Anh told us – ‘maybe some fruit at the end of a meal’. He knew I liked dessert though. I think that’s why he put the coconut-coffee stop in. Much more than a drink, it’s rich, thick and creamy, needs to be licked and savoured from a spoon, and then sipped through a straw. And then the kem bo. Lumps of fresh avocado, drowning under wodges of coconut ice-cream, topped with shavings of roasted coconut. ‘You need to break it up’, Anh told us and he took my glass and stabbed at the mix ferociously, beating it to a mush. Who’d have thought – fresh avocado and ice cream, soft, flavoursome and then the delicious crunch of coconut.
We went back for kem bo every night after.
- We met up with fellow bloggers, Ben and Peta from Green Global Trek, in Hoi An. https://www.greenglobaltrek.com/
Danang Food Tour, http://www.danangfoodtour.com. Our guide Anh Nguyen spoke excellent English. Morning and afternoon tours available, VND 1,000,000 p.p.
Bahn Mi Quynh Anh, 132 Phan Chau Trinh, Phuoc Ninh, Hai Chau.
Has signs in English. Banh mi VND 25,000. A bargain!
NAM House Cafe, Hem 15 Le Hong Phong, Phuoc Ninh, Hai Chau.
Sinh to Hong Quyen, 105 Thai Phien, Phuoc Ninh, Hai Chau.
Kem bo VND 20,000. Absolutely delicious!