Thursday, January 29, 2009

Mui Ne Tastes Good (Part 1)

Mui Ne (Day 1)

Afternoon walk along the beach in Mui Ne

Mui Ne has always been a favorite destination of mine. When I first came to Vietnam, Mui Ne was nothing but a fishing village, but since then hotels have sprung up, restaurants line the main drag, and tour buses are always carting travelers here or away. In just the last two years Mui Ne has undergone another big change — an inundation of Russian tourists, thanks to direct flights re-opening between Moscow and Cam Ran Bay. This is not a bad thing, mind you. It’s just another in an endless string of changes happening seemingly everywhere in Vietnam.

Aside from Mui Ne’s adapting to the influx of Russian tourists, not much really seems to have changed here, other than the inevitable increase in food and accommodation prices. The night before I came to Mui Ne, I bumped into a friend who told me that the beaches here are all eroding and falling into the sea. I haven’t seen that here, but perhaps this is true farther along the coast.

Sand dune not far from Mui Ne

Mui Ne isn’t particularly famous for food, at least not the way that other areas in Vietnam often are. Even Phan Thiet, the large city next to Mui Ne, doesn’t seem to lay claim to renowned cuisine. When people think of Mui Ne, they think of seafood. And every time I’ve been in Mui Ne, I’ve always been blown away by the range of seafood and its quality. The seafood here is still extremely affordable, though some restaurant menus have doubled in price since I visited two years ago.

I was excited to revisit my favorite restaurants here, and on the afternoon I checked into my hotel I made a point to scour the vicinity for places that would trigger my memory of great meals. I quickly recognized one place, not for its name but for the stone bridge leading over a channel that had been dug around the restaurant. I’m not sure why I remembered it, but I did, and I also recalled the nice older man who used to run the place. His seafood dishes had been memorable, and so had the kindness he’d shown me in the past. Today, however, he wasn’t there. It appeared, though I didn’t ask, that someone else now ran the restaurant.

Yen Gia, a "peaceful family restaurant"

It took a while to get the attention of a waiter, and when he finally came over, I asked him about a dish called “scallops in garlic sauce” (so diep xao toi). “Are your scallops large,” I said, drawing a circle roughly around the perimeter of my palm, “or are they small?” and I drew a circle on my palm about the size of a pencil eraser. “Scallops large,” he said, making on his palm the same large circle as I’d made on mine. I repeated it in Vietnamese, but he cut me off, saying in English, “I know, I know,” and walked away with his eyes closed. I guess that meant I’d ordered the dish.

I was pretty psyched about the large scallops, as they’re relatively hard to find in Vietnam. I sat in my chair watching motorbikes and cars and buses and trucks rumble past, wondering if I’d see any of the ox-drawn carts I’d taken photos of during my last trip here. A table of Russians left just as a pair of Russian couples came in and sat down. I tried to see what kinds of tattoos the men wore on their arms, and the women on their ankles, but I didn’t have my glasses on and couldn’t see. Eventually my lunch arrived, and as I peered toward my plate I saw a few dull vegetables (mostly onion, with an occasional carrot and straw mushroom tossed in) scattered over a mini-heap of tiny scallops.

My lunch of "large" scallops in garlic sauce (so diep xao toi)

“You said they were large scallops,” I told the waiter in Vietnamese, drawing a large circle on my hand and then pointing at his hand. “These are large,” he said. “They’re the only size we ever have here.” He hurried away, leaving me to ponder the sense of what he’d said. I dug in and was quickly disappointed. About a third of the onions still had their outer skin attached, so after chewing them for a moment I then had to spit them out. I don’t mind tiny scallops, but they’re not my favorite. Especially after I’d been led to believe I’d be getting something else. In any case, I ate the food and it was fine. It was nothing special, especially for the 60,000 dong ($3.43) it cost, and my estimation of the restaurant fell.

Yen Gia is at 53 Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street. Their telephone number is (062) 741-019.

Afterward, as I was walking home, I decided to buy some fruit to snack on. The fruit stand was just up the road from where I was staying, and the girl in charge was sweet. I love these colorful fruit stands, which are prevalent along the main drag of Mui Ne.

A great place to buy a snack -- but it's in a
tourist area, so be ready to bargain

At dinnertime, I got hungry early, probably because you have to eat about 300 tiny scallops to get full, so I went out wandering Nguyen Dinh Chieu again to find someplace else that brought back good memories of food. I quickly came across Restaurant Coccinelli, or CCC, or Con Canh Cam — they seem to want you to take your pick. In any case, the restaurant is simply appointed yet really beautiful, and the lanterns that sway slightly in the sea breezes are a nice touch.

Second floor of the restaurant, nicely lit up with lanterns

Although I had a tough time with the wait staff here, too, I managed to order a dish without complicating anything for my waitress or myself. Well, maybe I complicated things a little. But it wasn’t intentional.

I did get a little worried once. After my waitress kept confusing “restaurant specialty” with “restaurant special teas,” I said “Nha hang co mon an dac biet gi?” (More or less, “What special dishes does the restaurant have?”) But she said, “No, in English please,” and waved away my words like they were a jar full of mosquitoes I’d just opened in her face. In the end I just let the question drop.

First floor of restaurant, looking toward the street

I ended up getting exactly what I ordered — “steamed seafood with coconut milk” (hai san hap nuoc sua dua) — and it was good. My dinner came with two mussels served in their shells, two steamed giant prawns, two large pieces of squid, a piece of grouper (ca mu), and a small salad on the side. The coconut milk had a delicate flavor, and I was glad the seafood hadn’t been smothered in it. The mussels tasted like the ocean, the shrimp was firm and meaty, and the squid was neither firm nor soft — it was somewhere in the middle, which is right — and did well with the coconut milk. The grouper was good but not great, as the meat was a bit drier than I prefer. The salad, with a light vinaigrette, was a great accompaniment, too. I didn’t touch the soy sauce. I didn’t want to destroy the effect of the coconut milk on the steamed seafood.

Mixed seafood dinner

I also ordered a plate of sauteed veggies, which were crispy and fresh and very tasty. Seafood by itself is good, which is how it’s often served in the U.S., but seafood with really fresh vegetables is a treat, and in Vietnam it’s quite affordable to order them as a side dish.

Small plate of sauteed veggies

All of this, plus white rice, a beer, and an iced tea, knocked me back for a grand total of around 95,000 dong ($5.43).

Coccinelli is on Nguyen Dinh Chieu, across the street from Terracotta Resort. Their telephone number is (062) 741-243.

Mui Ne (Day 2)

This morning, after a long walk on the beach, after I’d missed the sun rise by probably only 15 minutes, I settled for my free hotel breakfast, which wasn’t bad at all. I got a veggie, ham, and cheese omelet and a roll, and of course had coffee — two cups, which I definitely needed after a poor night’s sleep. I was surrounded by cockatoos roaming the ground by my feet, but when I tossed a bit of bread their way they merely looked up at me as if to say, why are you obstructing our path with your human food? Ah, those crazy cockatoos…

Free breakfast at Bao Quyen Resort

I would have chilled at the beach today, but the other people staying here made a point of claiming beach chairs with towels and books, but then not being around to use them. I hate that. The pool chairs were taken too, so I just hung out with the caged songbirds and read and wrote for a while.

For lunch I wanted to try another place I’d been to several times in the past. It’s nothing special to look at, but the food has always been good. The only difficulty I had in finding it was that a copycat restaurant had been built right beside it. I looked inside the one I thought I’d eaten in before, saw the tour package photos that I seemed to recall, and decided to give it a shot.

Ngoc Phuong Restaurant

Flipping through the menu I was relieved to find an old favorite: fried fish (mackerel) in sweet chili sauce with green mango and carrots (ca bam xoai). I ordered it and watched the bored-looking waitress — yes, this was true to memory as well — wander into the kitchen.

It tasted much better than it looked

When the dish came out, I was, for a moment, disappointed in its appearance. Perhaps because of the white rice, the white dishes and bowl, the pale papaya and pale centers of all that cucumber, I felt that the dish might be bland. One bit of the mackerel with papaya, carrot, and fish sauce, however, proved otherwise. It was unbelievably good. The crisp skin of the oily, deep-flavored mackerel combined beautifully with the fresh, sweet crunch of the veggies, and the salty fish sauce drew out the different flavors in each bite. As I thought back on my many previous visits to Mui Ne, I decided that this has consistently been my favorite dish. Everything about it is simple, yet the flavors are all strong and distinct and mix wonderfully together.

Ngoc Phuong is on Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street, just past Terracotta Resort and before the Crocodile Shop (with the giant stuffed crocodile displayed on the sidewalk). The telephone number is (062) 847-730.

After lunch I had a craving for something sweet, and when I spotted the words “ice cream” on a signboard up the street I decided to try it out.

I went to Gecko for the sweet stuff

I crossed the street and walked about a hundred feet to a fancy restaurant/bar/lounge/ice cream shop called Gecko. It looked a little too nice, but it was virtually empty inside, and I decided to grab a seat on a long couch and order a banana split.

The ice cream corner has it going on

My waitress headed over to the ice cream corner in the photo above and spent a few minutes creating the mouthwatering treat in the photo below. The first few bites were excellent, but by the end it started to taste a little strange. It could have been due to the garlic in my lunch, but I detected a slight chemical aftertaste near the end of my final scoop of ice cream. It didn’t stop me from finishing it, of course. You’d have to shoot me, or point out a cockroach wading through the melted ice cream and syrup that I’d overlooked at the bottom of my dish, to get me not to finish a banana split.

That's what I'm talking about. So many flavors melting together in perfect harmony.

The banana split was good. It was fine. I don’t expect to go back there before I leave Mui Ne in four more days. The price was steep, too, at 60,000 dong ($3.43). They initially charged me 65,000 dong. The Vietnamese habit of overcharging customers never fails to amaze me. I can’t say that it was done intentionally, but it happens all the time, and in all my years in Vietnam I don’t think I can recall ever being UNDERcharged for anything. The amounts are usually small, and sometimes I pay the extra amount rather than make a fuss and cause other people to get involved, but I’m getting less and less tolerant of the habit.

Gecko is located at 52B Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street.

I guess that my ice cream put me in the mood for Western food, because at dinner I found myself being drawn to Good Morning Vietnam, an Italian restaurant that’s always had a good reputation with me and others I know. I’d also eaten here on previous visits to Mui Ne, and I have to admit that I was excited to order their pizza again.

Looking toward the wood-fired brick oven and main drag

The place seems to have fallen in decline since my last visit here two years ago. When I walked in, at 5:30 p.m., half the tablecloths were rolled up and about half a dozen waitresses were sitting in the dark around a table, looking out at me like they might try to eat me if I got too close.

I asked if they were open, and once I was told that they were a waitress led me to a table and gave me their memorably authentic-Italian menu. I didn’t remember the prices being so expensive, but by Hawaii standards everything was still very cheap. I wasn’t able to get a small version of their “jumbo salads,” so I went with one of their cheaper appetizers, the Bruschetta Toscana (toasted garlic bread topped with tomatoes, capers, and olives, and drizzled with olive oil). It was excellent — the vegetables were fresh, and they were generous with the amount given — and the portions were so big that I worried I wouldn’t be hungry for my pizza when it arrived.

Bruschetta on garlic bread

I was initially served someone else’s pizza, but it was whisked off my table before I could devour even a bite of it. A few minutes later I was served the pizza maranara that I’d ordered and immediately launched into it.

Pizza maranara

It was decent, though the crust was cracker thin and I was hoping for one other type of seafood besides squid and shrimp. I quickly realized that I’d worried unnecessarily about getting full. The pizza was fairly slight, and not as flavorful as I remembered it being in the past. For 105,000 dong ($6), I expected a little bit better. The bruschetta, at 39,000 dong ($2.23), was a better deal.

I was unimpressed with the service, I should add. It wasn’t the worst I’d had, but they’ve been around long enough, and have a foreign owner and manager, that I expected better. They didn’t seem all that happy that I was there, and it was kind of a bummer that I couldn’t get anyone to give me my check when I was ready to leave.

Good Morning Vietnam is at 57 Nguyen Dinh Chieu, and their telephone number is (062) 847-585.

Much later that evening I decided to snack on some fruit. I had no idea that the restaurant at my hotel would give me so much. I wasn’t able to finish it, but what I did eat hit the spot.

A ridiculous amount of fruit for dessert: papaya, dragon fruit, banana, watermelon, and pineapple

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