Thursday, January 29, 2009

Mui Ne Tastes Good (Part 3)

Day 5

Well, I TRIED to get breakfast outside my hotel this morning, but at 7:30 a.m. nothing was open. Very surprising. Even the places that advertised having breakfasts had pulled bamboo and chicken wire fences across their entrances. Maybe it's because Tet is approaching and they're practicing closing their doors for business. Or maybe everyone was out too late drinking.

But not all was lost. I headed back to the hotel and found a better buffet than the day before. All just waiting for me to devour it. I complied the best I could, which meant totally, as you can see in the photo below. Pancakes (not so good, but real maple syrup was good), two strange forms of sausage (I think it was sausage), a croissant (yum), a chocolate and nut filled pastry (super yum), and a strawberry filled pastry (yum again). Plus fresh passion fruit juice (yum yum yum). And coffee (it couldn't be Vietnamese; it tasted like old bath water). And fresh fruit (so good). That trip to the buffet saw me batting about .500.

Another Western breakfast

I was more or less full by the time I'd finished the above (I couldn't finish the sausage, though, or whatever it was: meat? reconstituted socks), but I had a hankering somewhere inside me for Vietnamese noodle soup (pho). They had a bowl of beautifully cooked white chicken meat, and the basil and lemon leaf looked appetizing sitting in front of the steaming broth. So I got a bowl. It was good. Probably not the best combination with what I'd eaten just before, but my stomach has a short term memory anyway, so it really wasn't a problem.

Pho ga

By the time lunch rolled around, I was heated through by the sun, and the prospect of returning to my room, putting on my sandals, dealing with my windswept, madcap hair, and locating my wallet was too much for me. The hotel cafe was within a few yards of where I'd started melting into my beach chair, so I scooped myself up and headed over there.

I have no idea what's wrong with me, but I did some major sliding with my eating habits. Number one, I chose the lamest item on the menu -- a cheeseburger and fries -- and totally turned my back on my desire to eat non-crap food in Vietnam. And number two, the cheeseburger was the first I'd ordered in at least four months; the Diet Coke, the first soft drink I'd ordered in maybe two or three months. I have no idea what got into me, but the photo below shows just exactly what kind of terrible food territory I'd gotten lost in.

Hamburger, fries, and a Diet Coke -- I'm really slipping now

The cheeseburger, not surprisingly, was terrible. I have no idea if that was a real hamburger patty, but it seemed to have been mixed with vegetables and herbs of mysterious origin. It certainly had no taste, and it was mushier than any hamburger I've probably ever had. I'm pretty sure that they placed the cherry tomato on top to distract me from what I was about to eat. The fries were Vietnamese fries. Nothing special at all. That "side salad" was never touched. At least not by me.

I refused to eat another meal at my hotel today, but I didn't venture off too far. No, I merely walked across the street to the Dragonfly Restaurant, despite the bad feeling I had when I saw that their menu posted on the sidewalk was only in English and Russian. In my experience, any Vietnamese restaurant that lacks a Vietnamese menu isn't worth eating at. But the place looked nice, the waitresses were friendly, and I was interested in eating their curried fish as a point of comparison with my own.

Dragonfly Restaurant

I started with an appetizer of squid and coconut milk soup (sup muc sua dua). I got a larger bowl of it than I expected, but that was okay by me. I scooped out every morsel and drop of soup I could gather in my spoon, it was so good. The squid was firm and squiddy, and the broth was flavored subtly with dill, cilantro, and a bit of ginger. It was also nice to see so many slices of pearl onion, tomatoes, and mushrooms. I'm sure any calorie budgeting is thrown out the window here, but at least this soup was tasty.

Squid and coconut milk soup

The curry fish, however, was a bit of a disaster. The curry was much too thick. It was about as thick as curry can get without technically being labeled a solid. The eggplant, tomato, mushrooms, and barracuda didn't go all that well together, though I'm pretty sure the curry sauce had much to do with this. The barracuda was dry and a bit fishier tasting than I was hoping for, and in the end I had to stop without finishing the dish. Which almost never happens. Remember, I am a human food disposal.

Curry fish and rice

The dishes weren't terribly expensive, but then again my eating experience here wasn't terribly good. The soup was only 29,000 dong ($1.66) while the curry fish cost 51,000 dong ($2.92). My beer was less than a dollar. Despite the limited number of dishes I sampled, it's hard for me to say this place is or isn't worth going to. The one thing I can confidently tell you NOT to order, however, is the curry fish. Not unless you're a fan of sludge and vegetables.

Fresh seafood displayed in front of the restaurant

Dragonfly is located directly across the street from the Blue Ocean Resort on Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street.

Day 6

On my last full day in Mui Ne, I went without any breakfast. I didn't plan to go without breakfast, but it turned out that I didn't have time with all the places I wanted to visit this morning. I thought I might be able to squeeze in a dish of noodles somewhere, but then I decided I might as well fast for a meal. I wasn't particularly hungry anyway after all the eating I've done. (And besides, I more than made up for it at dinner.)

The first place I went to was the Phan Thiet port and fish market (cho ca con cha). All the fish lying in crates made me hungry, but soon the smell overwhelmed me and I decided that fish was in fact the last thing I wanted. I left shortly thereafter, hoping that some fresh air would bring back my appetite. Little did I know what was waiting for me...

Phan Thiet fish market

The next place I went to was pretty interesting. It's a temple called Van Thuy Tu, which, from the explanation I received, is a Chinese name (chu nom) for...a whale...from far away...that exhibits intelligence and humanity. I know I'm way off on the translation, but that's as far as I got. In any case, the temple contains the bones of the largest whale ever recorded in Southeast Asia, and it has been pieced together and displayed in a room for worship.

Van Thuy Tu Temple

Phan Thiet is an old fishing community, and for centuries the temple has been used and supported by members of that community. In addition to the whale pictured above, there was a back room filled willy-nilly with random whale bones. It was under lock and key. From what I could gather, many people in Phan Thiet consider the whale bones sacred.

Duc Thanh School

Breakfast was further put off by a trip to Duc Thanh School, where Ho Chi Minh taught children from poor fishing families for a short time before leaving Vietnam to go study overseas. Again, it was an interesting little stop, but rather than preserve the school as it was when Uncle Ho taught there, they've fancied it up and expanded the premises.

Poshanu Cham towers

Finally, I basically gave up on breakfast after going to Poshanu Cham towers. These were interesting, and the views of Phan Thiet City on one side and Phu Hai fishing village on the other here were stunning. But it was getting hot, my stomach was growling fiercely, and so I decided to return to my hotel and see what kind of breakfast I could get on the main drag of Mui Ne.

Amazingly, despite all the signs on the various restaurants that advertise breakfast, I failed for the second day in a row to find anywhere that actually sold breakfast. One place told me to come back at 11:30, and when I asked if that's when they sold breakfast they nodded their heads. Confused, as I'm often confused here, I wandered onto the beach and immediately found this smiley fellow with two big aluminum bowls full of spider crabs (con ghe cua). I nearly had him make me a late breakfast of them, but then I remembered how, fifteen year earlier, a bowl of fish soup sold to me by another smiley beach vendor in Hue gave me giardia, which is one of the foulest stomach conditions you can get (without really having your life endangered, anyway). So I backed away from him, taking photos, and told him I needed to think it out a little more. I didn't go back.

Crab seller on beach

But maybe I should have. Instead, I headed back to the main drag about an hour later and, for some reason, decided to go to a small restaurant called Thanh Nhan. I ordered grilled fish, which they were only willing to make with barracuda (maybe they had an old supply in back?), and so I caved in and got it to go. About thirty minutes later, or perhaps longer, they brought it out to me. I checked it, wasn't very thrilled, then paid my 60,000 dong ($3.43) for it and took it home.

My order of grilled barracuda. Notice how it's grabbing at a side of wilted
lettuce to hide its face. Yes, barracuda, you should be embarrassed...

I ate it without much enthusiasm. At least it didn't make me sick, though the gray, rubbery outer portion made me wonder if later I'd be crawling down the street looking for a pharmacy.

Thanh Nhan, by the way, is located at 61 Nguyen Dinh Chieu. I don't know their telephone number, but I don't think you really want it anyway.

But I redeemed myself for dinner. I ate a meal that would have filled that whale at Van Thuy Tu Temple. Actually, it wasn't just "a meal." It was three meals. And if you must know, I ordered relatively small portions, which is what allowed me to keep going. The pain of my insides expanding, like a balloon attached to a faucet with the water on full blast, was worth it.

The first place I went to was a banh xeo ("sizzling crepes" is the English description one commonly sees) restaurant. I've had loads of banh xeo, but the banh xeo in Phan Thiet is supposed to be unique. They stuff the crepes with squid, in addition to the normal ingredients of shrimp, pork, and bean sprouts, and serve with it a bowl of fish sauce mixed with peanuts and red chili sauce for dipping. Of course, a dish of veggies and herbs -- lettuce, pennywort (rau ma), and mint -- was there to be stuffed into the banh xeo, too.

Banh xeo restaurant in Phan Thiet

The banh xeo was excellent, thanks to the brilliant inclusion of squid, but they were also really greasy. I started off eating them like tacos, but in the end I cut them into pieces with my chopsticks and just ate the huge mess I'd thereby created on my plate. For four banh xeo crepes, the total damage was only 20,000 dong ($1.14).

Banh xeo hai san

The banh xeo restaurant is called Cay Xoai (Mango Tree) and can be found at 40 Tuyen Quang Street, Phan Thiet City. Their telephone number is (062) 824-593. They're open in the afternoons and evenings only.

But I wasn't done. Not even close. From there I walked down the street about one hundred yards until I came across a small place, squeezed in between a hair salon and the sidewalk, selling food I didn't recognize. I asked if they were selling banh canh (not to be confused with banh can), and once their shock at a Vietnamese-speaking white face dissipated they nodded that they were. Reactions like I got there always force me to look down the length of my body to make sure that in fact I wore all my clothes into public. I discovered that I'd put my boxers on over my jeans, but I've seen plenty of other people around wearing weirder outfits and I didn't give it another thought. In any event, I ordered a bowl and sat down at a back table.

Banh canh restaurant

I was told, when I'd asked, that banh canh doesn't come in the form of a soup, but in fact what I was given was a bowl of white noodles in clear broth, with button mushrooms, triangular fish sausages, small red chili slices, cilantro, chopped scallions, and a boiled egg. "It has soup," I said to the woman as she placed it on my low plastic table. "I thought you said it didn't." Her only response was to laugh. I watched her walk away and then did the only thing left for me to do: I attacked my banh canh, which was clearly swimming in soup, with gusto.

Bowl of banh canh

It was pretty tasty, though also rather salty. I enjoyed the thick round noodles, fish sausage, and button mushrooms, which had absorbed the hot soup and burst in my mouth like hot dumplings. Once the owners had time to warm up to the idea of a foreigner eating at their place -- apparently they don't drop by very often -- they became a lot friendlier toward me, which was, I guess, an added bonus. The original bonus was the price of the meal: 6000 dong (34 cents).

The banh canh restaurant has no name. "We've been around ten years and still haven't named it," the garrulous owner's son proclaimed. "It's just called Banh Canh." So maybe that's its name now. Banh Canh is located at 13 Tuyen Quang Street, Phan Thiet City, and is open from 5 p.m. until the last customer goes home at night. Not surprisingly, they have no phone number.

The banh canh, luckily, was about as substantial as most snacks are to me, and so I felt confident that I could try another important Phan Thiet dish without too much trouble. I grabbed another taxi and headed toward Ngu Ong Street, which is about a mile or so from Tuyen Quang Street. As we turned down Ngu Ong, I was pretty sure the recommendation I'd received for banh can (which is not to be confused with banh canh) was wrong. The narrow street was dark and empty, and somewhat strangely for Vietnam the residences here didn't double as small businesses. When my taxi driver pulled up in front of a small sidewalk eatery, I didn't have the highest hopes. In retrospect, I'm not sure why I felt that way. This place is a gem. As soon as I sat down I realized that this is exactly the kind of eating experience that I used to have back in 1994 in Bien Hoa, and again in 1997 in Hanoi, before Vietnam began madly to change.

Banh can sidewalk eatery

The women making the banh can were very nice to me, and they explained to me how to eat the banh can. First, they give you a very interesting sweet and sour soup (canh -- again, don't be confused) filled with shaved lengths of green mango, chopped scallions, tomatoes, meatballs, crunchy pork rinds, and a boiled egg. The soup was tepid, and meant to be, and was one of the most interesting and delicious soups I've ever had. But that's not the end of what goes into it.

Bowl of banh can

The woman also gave me four circular rice cakes, which were grilled (see the circular grill molds in the photo above) with egg and then topped with more chopped scallions. These were served to me on a plate, and I was told to put them in my soup, let them sop up the liquid, and eat my banh can like that.

Small rice and egg cakes for banh can

I was also served a small plate of ca kho to, which came as a complementary side dish. I'm telling you, if you visit Mui Ne and want to try one of the most interesting, unique, and delicious dishes that I think can be found in Vietnam, DEFINITELY make the trip here. The entire meal, including ginger tea that was again given to me without my asking for it, cost 12,000 dong (69 cents). This place is my new number one for sidewalk foods ANYWHERE in Vietnam. The food was fascinating and superb, the people here were friendly and seemed grateful for my being there, and the nighttime atmosphere, sitting under the yellow streetlights on a quiet back street, was inimitable.

Again, the place has no name or phone number, but the address is 18 Ngu Ong Street, Phan Thiet City. The women here serve banh can every afternoon and evening from 4:30 - 10 p.m., or until the last customer goes home.

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  1. Everything that came in a bowl looked outstanding. What we get here in the US is apparently a fraction of a fraction of what constitutes true Vietnamese cuisine!

  2. I've been to Minneapolis a few times and always thought the city was lucky to have so many good Vietnamese restaurants. The next time you eat at one, maybe you can order something off-menu (or call ahead and see if they take special requests). I should do that here, too. Don't be afraid to plead or even grovel!