Thursday, January 29, 2009

Mui Ne Tastes Good (Part 2)

Day 3

This morning I managed to wake up just before dawn, somehow without using my cell phone's alarm. I was glad I dragged myself out of bed in time to watch the sun come up.


It was well worth the wait, too. The beach became noticeably warmer once the sun had risen over the horizon. There were several plovers running up and down the lip of the ocean, too, looking for shellfish or perhaps one of the many sand crabs speeding sideways across the sand.

The sun peeking over the clouds

Walking along the beach and watching the sun rise golden into the sky like a giant wheel of cheddar cheese made me hungry, and again I opted for the free hotel breakfast. I ordered a "banana pancake," which more resembled a crepe, and added dollops of sweetened condensed milk to each bite. It was actually quite good. The coffee was Vietnam-strong, which means it was like United States-strong espresso. I grabbed a second cup and wandered to the pool, where I read until the sun got too intense. The wandering cockatoos kept me company while the hotel's caged black-collared starling (chim cuong) whistled tunes, bowed a lot, and made half-human noises.

Banana pancake with sweetened condensed milk and a cup of coffee

For lunch I took a taxi to a restaurant called Cay Bang. I came to Cay Bang about three years ago. It was the lunch rush, trucks were arriving one after another, and all the workers were hauling fresh seafood to holding tanks in a building to the side of the main dining hall. The fish were so fresh that they were flopping all over the place, at one point splashing water onto the front of my wife’s clothes, and at least twice powering themselves out of their crates and onto the tiled floor of the restaurant. We ordered a “Devil’s Face fish,” which was so ugly that we both gasped when they brought it to our table and asked if we wanted to eat it. We agreed, staring at its hideous countenance, which involved scales, wrinkles, warts, and slime, and a gaping trapezoidal mouth with razor sharp teeth around its edges. It tasted much better than it looked, but we were surprised by the $35 price tag that came with it. But that was the correct price. The restaurant prices each fish according to a weight chart on the wall and a scale in the holding tank that may or may not be accurate. But the meal was fantastic, and the environment was insane. I had every reason for wanting to come back here, and today was the day I did so.

Seaside dining at Cay Bang Restaurant

I got to Cay Bang early, largely to avoid the lunchtime rush. It worked, at least up until the end of my meal, at which point perhaps fifty people poured in, many of whom circled around my table to see what I’d eaten, and to ask me where I was from and why I was eating alone. I got out quickly, before I could be sucked into more of the same conversation I’ve been sucked into all trip.

One of the seating areas at Cay Bang

Cay Bang will perhaps seem a little dirty to a newcomer to Vietnam, and for an open-air dining hall it’s also surprisingly thrown together. But the point isn’t to look around and judge the interior of Cay Bang. The point is to look out upon the gorgeous blue ocean, where the waves roll and crash only a few meters from the restaurant’s edge, and where colorful fishing skiffs line the horizon and dot the calm middle waters.

Holding tank

The other point to remember is that the only thing of importance here is the seafood, which is the freshest you’re going to get ANYWHERE in Mui Ne. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that it’s possible to have a fish cooked and placed before you, all ready to eat, less than an hour after it’s been caught.

I ate him. I'm sorry Mr. Grouper. It's good to be made to see the creatures we eat,
but I'm not used to it. For dinner that night I ate nothing but fruit.

It took me a while to decide what I wanted, partly because some of their menu items, such as ca bong and stingray, weren’t available, and partly because about ten waiters converged on me and made me feel a little awkward. I decided to go with grouper, which sold at 300,000 dong ($17.16) per kilo.

Grouper in a claypot

That turned out to be on the small side of most of the grouper they kept in their tank. I know this because I went and watched them catch my lunch. In any case, since you can’t order half a fish, I went with the whole grouper, asking them to deep fry half of it and make a simmered claypot out of the other half.

Fried grouper

The claypot fish was unbelievably good. The white flesh was in fact as fresh as I’ve ever had fish before, not firm and not flaky, but with a texture that was virtually perfect. The skin pulled away easily from the flesh, and the sauce, heavy with salt, pepper, and sugar, and splashed with a little red chili, was incredible. Midway through my meal, when I wanted a short break from the fish, I ended up pouring the sauce on my rice and just eating it like that.

Fried grouper atop a bowl of rice

The fried grouper was excellent, too. The skin was golden brown and crispy, and not the least bit oily. The flesh was nearly bursting from the skin, and when I used my chopsticks to separate the fish into pieces, a delicately sweet-flavored steam rose up, and that was exactly how the fish tasted to me: delicately sweet with an underlining flavor of the salt of the ocean. I was given a sweet and sour fish sauce (nuoc mam chua ngot) for dipping, but it didn’t add much to the dish.

Mustard greens sauteed in garlic

I also ordered a plate of mustard greens sautéed in garlic. What can I say? They were flavorful, with a solid crunch that made a good counterpoint to the fish and rice, and for being sautéed they weren’t oily at all.

This was simply too big of a meal for me, and I was ashamed to have pigged out just because I could. This is a wonderful place for larger groups, and is in fact set up that way. It’s also very expensive by Vietnamese standards. For my entire meal, which also included iced tea and white rice, I paid 364,000 dong ($20.82). This was, let me say again (and again I’m ashamed to say it), easily a meal for two.

My god. I need to stop this before I overeat and die.

Cay Bang is located at 02-04 Nguyen Chinh Dieu Street, on the turn before entering Mui Ne. They’re open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day. You can telephone them at (062) 847-009. They also have a website (only in Vietnamese):

After destroying that grouper for lunch, by dinner I couldn't bear to put anything much else in my stomach. I certainly wasn't going to eat more fish. As I was walking around the main drag I came across a fancied up fruit stand. I stopped and asked for a fruit salad. It was much more complicated than it should have been, but I got a bag of cut up fruit to take with me. I was also going to get some sugarcane juice, but they said they didn't have any.

Fruit stand in front of Thai restaurant

I'm not sure that eating nothing but fruit for dinner was a good idea. I did that once before in Vietnam, and I was up all night afterward with a crazy sugar high. So far I'm all right, but in another hour or so, when I go to bed, I'll know whether or not I'm in trouble.

Dinner: cut up fruit in a plastic bag

This bag full of mango, apple, banana, papaya, and water apple (trai man) cost me 50,000 dong ($2.86). I could have gotten a cheaper fruit salad elsewhere, but I wasn't about to go shopping around for a better deal. It was good. What fruit salad in Vietnam isn't good?

Day 4

I woke up still full from yesterday’s lunch, but since breakfast was free, and because it was such a huge and colorful spread, I forced myself to forget my fullness and dove in. It was actually nothing all that special, though their pastries were pretty good.

Hotel breakfast

I started with muesli and several scoops of fruit yoghurt that had the consistency of boiled glue and tasted like it had turned the corner onto Spoiled Street. That didn’t stop me from eating it, though, because these days I’ve become like a tank. No food terrain can stop me.

Went back for more

I went back for a small omelet and a bowl of sautéed pork balls and onions. I ruined my omelet by sprinkling sesame seeds on it, mistaking it, perhaps because it was still early, for crushed white pepper. I ate it, but take it from me: sesame seeds on an omelet isn’t a good combination. The bowl of pork and onions was fine, but it would have been better inside the omelet.

Part of the hotel breakfast buffet

The breakfast turned into a bigger meal than I had planned, which is the way all my meals have gone this trip, so by the time lunch rolled around I really wasn’t all that inspired. I also felt particularly lazy, and decided that moving too far from my shaded, reclining seat on the beach wasn’t worth doing. So I had lunch at the hotel café, which overlooks the beach and ocean.

Clear soup

Feeling a strange twinge for Western food, I ordered “clear soup” and a club sandwich. The clear soup was advertised as being made from boiled carrots and shiitake mushrooms, but it also had slices of onion and lots of baby corn. The broth was beautiful, and yes, it was pretty clear, but I stayed away from the carrots because they hadn’t been peeled – always a dicey option in Vietnam, even if I am staying at an otherwise immaculate hotel.

Looks pretty, but it tasted like nothing

The club sandwich was a disappointment. It looked pretty, but it had no taste at all. I’m not sure how a club sandwich like this could manage to be tasteless, but somehow it was. I almost want to give the cook kudos for managing to do the impossible.

By dinnertime, I was feeling guilty for not doing the “local” thing and eating Vietnamese food. So I decided to grab a taxi and head into Phan Thiet City. I had been told to give a restaurant called Nelly’s a try, but I’m glad I asked for a fallback.

Beer at Nelly's, in Phan Thiet

Nelly’s turned out to be like any other pseudo-classy-Western café I’ve been to in Hanoi or Saigon, and I managed to get out of there as soon as I could finish the Tiger beer I felt obligated to order.

I had asked my taxi driver to wait for me, but he said he’d be back in thirty minutes, as he wanted to grab some eats from a soup vendor in a different part of town. Seeing how I didn’t have any wheels, I decided to make the 15-minute walk to Pham Van Dong Street, which runs along the picturesque Binh Hung River. Pham Van Dong Street is well known locally for its fresh seafood restaurants, and this is where people in Phan Thiet flock to when they want to enjoy seafood in the city. I walked to Bo Ke Restaurant, which was my backup all along, and sat down.

Bo Ke Restaurant

I was given a menu, and I promptly asked for half an order of seafood spring rolls (cha hai san) and fried squid with salt and chili sauce (muc chien muoi ot). I also asked for vegetables with my squid, and also white rice, but I’m not sure what happened to either item.

Outside seating at Bo Ke

I was immediately surrounded by four restaurant workers – a man in his thirties, a girl twenty, a girl twenty-four, and a woman probably in her fifties – and peppered by the girls with requests to introduce my American guy friends to them. Once they’d made clear what my responsibility to them now was, they then proceeded to ask me my life’s history. This is the kind of thing that could quickly become annoying, but they were genuinely being friendly, and I seemed to be a good distraction from two other foreigners there, one Austrian and one German, both of whom I found friendly enough, but neither of whom could speak Vietnamese to the restaurant workers. They introduced themselves to me as Rudy and Yoachim – I’m guessing at the latter name because when he introduced himself he sounded like he was crunching through bones. Maybe he was.

Seafood spring rolls at Bo Ke restaurant

In any case, the food here was very good. Not the best I’ve had, but Bo Ke holds its own. The seafood spring rolls were excellent – crispy rice paper skins, with generous portions of shrimp and crab inside. I was given rice paper mixed with sesame seeds to wrap the spring rolls along with various fresh herbs, and the end result, which meant dipping all this into a bowl of fish sate sauce mixed with peanut sate (nuoc mam dau phong), was nearly otherwordly.

Fried squid at Bo Ke

The fried squid was good, too, though somewhat softer than I prefer it when fried. Each piece also contained small chips of squid bone, or whatever holds squid together, which weren’t particularly bothersome for me to remove, but surprised me a little to find.

My favorite part about Bo Ke, however, was the atmosphere of the place. The street is active at night with children playing and vendors pushing their colorful toy- and balloon-carts. Beyond them, along the river wall, men and women untangle and repair their fishing nets, while in the water behind them clusters of bright blue and red fishing boats fill the Binh Hung River. I could have spent all night there just watching Phan Thiet go by, but eventually my taxi driver showed up and I didn’t want to keep him from getting more business.

My entire meal, including a Tiger beer, cost 69,000 dong ($3.95). That’s outrageously cheap, and it makes the special trip into town worth doing.

Bo Ke is located on Pham Van Dong Street (they have no street number) and they can be reached by telephone at 0907649440.

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