Thursday, January 29, 2009

Vung Tau Tastes Good

Day 1

Vung Tau on a cloudy day

Most people who know Vietnam don't seem to give Vung Tau much thought. That includes both those living in and merely visiting Saigon, even though Vung Tau is a 90-minute hydrofoil ride -- with stunning river scenery for nearly the entire trip -- away. To me that shows serious short-sightedness. There's more than enough to see and do in this seaside resort town. Granted, the beaches aren't the most beautiful around, but on a sunny day, Back Beach, which is often uncrowded over long stretches, even on weekends, offers a great beach outing. For cultural enthusiasts, there are old colonial buildings that now serve as museums and government offices, centuries-old temples high in the surrounding mountains, and a lighthouse with a beautiful view of Vung Tau and its curving bay. Now when I visit, the cultural attributes are no longer high on my list of things to do. But eating the local food always plays a big part of my activities here. I think you'll see why when you scroll through these entries.

The first place I went to was, luckily, just up the road from my hotel. Since it was lunchtime already by the time I checked in, I decided to walk there just as soon as I'd thrown my luggage on the floor of my room.

Entrance to Gành Hào restaurant

I'll start by saying that less than two weeks ago I ate at a restaurant in Taipei that's widely considered to be one of the best in the world. Today, I feel like I ate at a restaurant that far surpassed that experience. Really, by the time I'd finished my lunch here I had a hunch that I'd come upon something big. (It was when I returned for dinner the following night that I truly felt like I'd left one of the very best restaurants in the world. Gành Hào could very well be one of the most unrecognized great restaurants anywhere.)

Baby oyster spring rolls, with baby oysters, onions, and black pepper (48,000 dong / $2.75)

I started with Gành Hào's signature appetizer, the fried baby oyster spring rolls (cha gio ganh hao), followed by -- and I can't understand even now why I went for river eel rather than something from the sea -- grilled eel with cilantro and chili (luon nuong xa ot). I was pretty excited by the baby oyster spring rolls, and for good reason. The insides, which were a mix of baby oysters, onions, and black pepper, were flavorful with a subtle taste of the sea, but enough of a mouthful to be substantive. The rice paper in which it was all bundled was crisp and light -- like a pastry, really -- without a trace of oil. Its job was merely to hold the other ingredients together, and it didn't step beyond that role in the slightest.

Grilled eel with red chili paste (58,000 dong / $3.32)

The eel was spicy. So spicy that I went through three glasses of iced tea before giving up with two small pieces of eel left. And trust me: I wanted to eat those last two pieces, but by that time my tongue was involuntarily waving around in front of my face, trying to lap up the salty breeze off the ocean, and sweat was cascading down my face like a water main running around the perimeter of my head had burst. The eel was meaty, slightly dry but made moist from the chili paste in which it was cooked. I would definitely order the eel again, except for the fact that the rest of Ganh Hao's menu looks so promising.

One of the four or five different eating environments at Gành Hào

The other praiseworthy aspects of Gành Hào are its design, location, and service. It lies smack on the edge of the South China Sea (the Eastern Sea in Vietnam), and small, colorful fishing boats dot the near waters. The restaurant seats over 700 people, which you wouldn't know unless you started wandering through the different dining areas, which extend, seriously, for perhaps an eighth of a mile. Or more.

Eating under the wave

In terms of the service, I don't think I've ever been around a more helpful and friendly wait staff anywhere. Vietnam is guilty 99% of the time of having either totally listless or totally overly-friendly wait staff. There's almost never any in-between. Here, however, the wait staff was a dream. Any time I had a question about the food, I was given an enthusiastic response and then left alone to eat. They did not hover or talk about me. They did express curiosity when I spoke in Vietnamese to them, but they waited until I was done eating to ask me about my background. I really appreciated their professionalism, especially since my travels have left me tired of dealing with local people who like to shout random English at me.

Anyone who travels to Vung Tau should not pass up Gành Hào. It is simply not to be missed. It can be found at 3 Tran Phu Street, just up the hill past Binh An Resort. The telephone number here is (064) 550-909.

That night, after wandering around the city on foot for a good two and a half hours trying unsuccessfully to find a restaurant that had been recommended to me, I decided to head back to my hotel and give their menu a shot. It was a bad decision. In retrospect, I should have just fasted. The one thing that made my stomach happy was that I found a nice little sugarcane juice stand on my ignominious walk home.

I came upon this sugarcane juice stand right as I was ready to collapse. Ah, sweet nuoc mia...

I happened upon this place along the sidewalk at 30 Quang Trung Street.

This is a terrible photo of my sugarcane juice, which I got to go. But I always
think it's interesting to see how "to go" drinks are done in Vietnam.

When I made it up the hill to my hotel, I decided to go vegetarian, if only to keep things light. I wasn't hungry, but I figured I should eat. By the time I sat down and ordered a $6 glass of Dalat wine -- Ugh! Give me my money back! -- I realized my mistake. But by then I was almost sleeping at my table, and when the waiter came up I managed to lift my head slightly and point to a $6 dish of tofu-something-or-other. What I got is what's pictured below. The tofu was dry and flavorless (just like when I make this dish at home!!), and about 40 times the price of what it sells for in a local market. Just think how you'd feel if you ordered the equivalent of a McDonald's cheeseburger and then was made to pay $60 for it. Well, now you can imagine how I felt...

Boring, dry, overpriced tofu. I don't even think it was what I ordered.

Day 2

I had heard about banh khot some time ago, but I never had the opportunity to give it a try. It originated in Vung Tau, and is synonymous with this part of Vietnam. I was determined to have it on this visit, however, and on Saturday morning I managed to get to the most famous banh khot restaurant in Vung Tau well before 8 a.m., when I was told it really got crowded. If you go anywhere for banh khot, make sure it's Goc Vu Sua. All the surrounding banh khot restaurants are just pretenders. But this should be quite apparent -- the copycat restaurants never have a single customer.

At first glance this place scared me a little bit

When I came here, I admit that I didn't know what I was doing. As with many Vietnamese dishes, I can be a little uncertain at times about which foods go with which sauces, and if I'm expected to make my own sauces at the table I'm usually at an ever greater loss. Luckily, a group at a table in front of me was served shortly after I sat down, and I carefully watched them prepare how to eat banh khot.

Banh khot. My new favorite Vietnamese breakfast. With iced tea, this breakfast cost me 20,000 dong ($1.14).

Banh khot comes with the following: the main dish of banh khot (small rice pancakes with shrimp, sprinkled with ground dried shrimp and chives), a bowl of fish sauce, a bowl of papaya and carrot slivers, and a dish of rau ma (pennywort), basil, mint, perilla leaves, and lettuce. One can either place the assorted vegetables on the banh khot pancake and then dip it in the fish sauce, or, like my neighbors did, one can stuff the bowl of fish sauce with assorted veggies and scoop them into one's mouth after taking a bite of banh khot. The rules of the game seem to be whatever works.

I ate this entire bowl of shredded papaya and slivered carrots

I absolutely devoured my banh khot. The flavors weren't all that new, but the textures were, and the colors set before me were dazzling. The rice pancake, which is made from a liquid mixture of rice flour, a combination of cooked and cold rice, and water, is cooked until a golden brown in a pan with perhaps twenty shallow, circular molds. Fresh shrimp are added, followed by ground dried shrimp. When the cooking is done, minced and sauteed chives are added.

I also ate this entire plate of herbs and leafy greens

The bottom and sides of the banh khot pancake, which is smaller than the size of my palm, are crispy, while the white and bubbly center is pleasantly hot and chewy. The fish sauce provides a salty flavor, the shrimp results in a meaty center, and the fresh vegetables add a second layer of crunchiness along with the subtle but distinct tastes of various herbs.

It was completely packed on Saturday morning. I was the only Caucasian there.
Most customers, however, stared at me like I was the only Caucasian on the planet.

My order came to a whopping total of 20,000 dong ($1.14). The frying oil probably isn't all that great for you, but the rest of the ingredients, especially the fresh vegetables that were served, make this a well balanced, healthy breakfast. It's also fun to watch the banh khot being prepared at the front of the restaurant. It's an intense, laborious enterprise, and my stomach was ecstatic with the final result.

Pros at work

After breakfast I decided to walk around the immediate area in search of a decent cafe. There wasn't much there, but I did find one place around the corner from Goc Vu Sua. The coffee was good, but the extra three thousand they charged me kind of bummed me out. It was funny because the owner's son initially charged me 5000 dong. I trusted that he knew what a Vietnamese coffee cost, since this place was hardly new and he worked here. But his mother corrected him and charged me 8000 dong instead. The amount isn't worth worrying about, but it's annoying nonetheless.

I got overcharged for coffee here -- still a common practice in Vietnam

After breakfast I decided to spend the rest of the morning touring Vung Tau, which mostly involved driving up "Little Mountain" to see Vung Tau's biggest lighthouse, biggest temple, and the statue of Jesus on the Cross, and ending with a trip to various points along "Back Beach" (Bai Sau). My hotel helped me hire a driver, and we set off with the meter clicking.

The supernice taxi driver who took me to his home for tea and to meet his family

The sights were nice, though the morning got progressively hotter and more humid. By the time I'd hiked up to the top of Little Mountain I was pretty much drenched with sweat. Near the end of my trip, my driver told me that we were passing by the entrance to the area where he lived and he asked me if I wanted to visit his home. I told him no, as I've visited plenty of Vietnamese friends in their homes, and because I had long grown wary of accepting such offers -- in my experience, the person offering too often had an ulterior motive. But this case was totally different. He honestly just wanted to introduce me to his wife and two sons. He had his son go out and buy me a bottle of sweetened green tea, and he insisted that I hold his two-year-old, who was huge for his age, and was a brilliant talker and far more ambulatory than any two-year-old that I'd ever come across. I took a photo of his family and was going to send him a copy by email, but none of them had ever had an email address. The driver's name is Chat and I'm sure he'd be thrilled if you were to request him by name if you ever find yourself in Vung Tau.

His company's name is Mai Linh, and his mobile number, which he uses to solicit business, is 0918580779.

The trip had tired me out -- I wasn't used to the heat or to two or three hours of uninterrupted Vietnamese conversation -- and by the time that lunch rolled around I was happy to eat. I headed down the street from my hotel to a local restaurant called Nha Hang Cat Bien. I grabbed a table near the entrance, since it gave me a view of the ocean, and found myself dealing with a surly waitress who continued to argue with a coworker the whole time I was ordering. She even left in the middle of my order and came back a minute later even surlier. She eventually got replaced by about three different, quite friendly waiters who were very helpful to me as I peppered them with questions about their restaurant and its food.

Seafood salad (goi "cat bien")

I decided to go with one of the restaurant's specialties, goi cat bien, which is billed on their menu, much too blandly in my opinion, as a "seafood salad." In fact, the salad is stuffed with shrimp, squid, and jellyfish, as well as lettuce, carrot, raw onions, basil, green pepper, green papaya, peanuts, and fried shallots...and nuoc mam (fish sauce) as either a dipping sauce or a dressing to pour over the dish. The dish was very good -- the freshness of the ingredients amazed me -- but the amount of raw onion was overpowering and I ended up picking much of it out in order to experience more of the other distinct flavors.

Glass noodles sauteed with crab and veggies (mien xao cua cat bien)

Being the pig that I am, but excusing myself by virtue of the fact that I consider eating part of my research, I also ordered a dish of glass noodles sauteed with "cat bien" crab and vegetables (mi xao cua cat bien). This came with a small side dish of soy sauce, which I drizzled over my plate. I was quite impressed with this dish, which also consisted of egg, onion (cooked), black mushrooms, cilantro, carrot, chives, and cabbage. The egg and crab gave the dish a meaty heart, the noodles were firm if a little clumpy, and the vegetables were crisply cooked and full of flavor. The dish needed the bit of soy sauce I sprinkled on it, making it just wet and salty enough to satisfy my personal tastes.

What I thought was a free plate of pomello fruit ended up costing nearly two dollars

The only downside to eating here, other than the surly waitress at the beginning, was that at the end of my meal a waiter came by and, without any prompting from me, set down a plate of buoi(pomello fruit). I've had this happen many times in other places, and it was always complimentary. This time, however, although I only ate two sections, I was charged 30,000 dong ($1.72). I made sure to tell the waiter that foreigners don't know that fruit served at the end of a meal, especially when unasked for, will cost them an extra two dollars, and that they have an obligation to explain this to them. I'm sure this has resulted in some ugly scenes before, and if they haven't learned from it yet then I'm sure my words won't have any effect on them. Oh well. Since I paid for the buoi, I decided to have them box it up for me to take home.

View from my table (I know, it's a crappy photo)

The meal, including a bottle of Tiger Beer, ended up costing me 172,000 dong ($9.84), which wasn't bad considering that I ate enough for two or three people. The location is good, and the quality of my meal overshadowed the small difficulties I had as a customer here.

Nha Hang Cat Bien is at 38 Quang Trung Street and is open every day from 7 a.m. until 10:30 p.m. Their phone number is (064) 512-421.

Afterward, I headed just past the ferry terminal to one of the many cafes that look out over the bay. I chose one called "O Cap 1," mostly because I had seen it the night before and thought it looked nice with its various colored lights hanging from its trees and high walls. In the afternoon, I found the place to be a bit disappointing. But the coffee was good, and at 9000 dong the price was right, too.

Iced black coffee and complimentary jasmine tea

Enjoying the ocean view from "O Cap 1" Cafe

"Cafe O Cap 1" is located at 90A Ha Long Street. Its telephone number is (064) 3511803. They're open from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m. every day.

That night, my last in Vung Tau, I decided to return to my favorite restaurant, Ganh Hao, to try two more of their signature dishes. It was a beautiful night to eat by the water, which was lit faintly by lights along the seabreak, with fishing vessels and the silhouette of Big Mountain visible from where I sat. The wait staff remembered me from the previous afternoon, and they were happily to detail the dishes I ordered: goi ca ganh hao (Ganh Hao seafood salad) and muc chien sua nuoc mam (squid fried in coconut milk and fish sauce).

Goi ca ganh hao

The seafood salad was different from other seafood salads I've had. There was no papaya and carrot, but only whitefish (ca bop), slivered onions, sesame seeds, fried shallots, and grated young rice. My goi can ganh hao came with a plate of sliced star fruit, banana flower, and cucumbers, along with mint, perilla leaf, and basil, and another plate with half circles of rice paper for wrapping everything up in. There was a small bowl of mam nem dipping sauce, which they suggested that I have prepared mild (I gladly agreed). The dish was pretty spectacular, with the highlights being the whitefish, starfruit, perilla leaf, and dipping sauce. The flavors and textures in this single dish were, as is typical for various kinds of Vietnamese food, highly varied, and I felt like I was eating the best aspects of an entire local cookbook. How else to describe it?

Fried baby cuttlefish cooked in coconut milk and fish sauce

My second dish, the muc chien sua nuoc mam, was also quite good, though it offered more crunch than meaty goodness. The cuttlefish were nothing if not crisp, but they didn't have the kind of flavor I expected for something cooked in both coconut milk and fish sauce. However, when wrapped up with sauteed chives in the various leaves I was served, and then dipped in fish sauce, the dish was transformed and I found the simple combinations to work deliciously.

Plate of add-ons for the seafood salad (goi ca ganh hao)

Rice paper with goi ca and add-ons

Baby cuttlefish with chives wrapped in various leaves

I finished my meal feeling just as impressed as I'd been the previous afternoon, and I was more than happy to pay the 112,000 dong bill ($6.41), which included two beers. Again the staff was excellent, and this time one of the managers approached me, and after he learned that I'd had banh khot that morning he invited me to come with him to his mother's house in the morning to try her version of the dish. I declined, but now, as I type this on the morning hydrofoil back to Saigon, I wonder if I shouldn't have taken him up on his offer.

I have no memory of causing this spillage and general damage to my table

As I wrote in a previous entry, Ganh Hao is located at 3 Tran Phu Street and is open from 7 a.m. until midnight every day. The telephone number here is (064) 550909, and their website, which is only in Vietnamese, is

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  1. What a wonderful experience! The Ganh Hao restaurant sounds incredible. I would love to have those spring rolls and the grilled eel and all of the other wonderful dishes. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Wonderful post! I really felt like I was shadowing your every step. I appreciate how forthright you are about your reaction to how some Vietnamese reacted or approached you. As for the food, my head is spinning with so many dishes I've never heard of or seen in any menu Stateside! I suspect that if your new favorite Vietnamese breakfast, banh khot, were to be exported here, it would change from a morning meal to a dinner entree to suit our ideas of which foods properly constitute certain meals.

  3. 5 Star Foodie: I'd love to have them again myself! It surprises me a little that some of these dishes haven't made it to the U.S., but hopefully there will be a second explosion of interest in Vietnamese food one of these days. Maybe then you can try them out...unless you find yourself in Vietnam, in which case you should make a beeline for Ganh Hao!

    Tangled Noodle: I hadn't thought about that before, but I think you're right -- banh khot probably would become a dinner entree rather than a breakfast meal, except perhaps in communities with significant Vietnamese populations. Making the dish was definitely a laborious enterprise, and I could see banh khot of this quality being priced at 10 times what I paid for it in Vung Tau -- more in line with dinner prices, I suppose. After your trip to the Philippines, I'm sure it's disappointing to return to the U.S. and not have ready access to all the great foods you came across there.

  4. I'm myself a Vung Tau citizen. I was searching for some good restaurants in Vung Tau and by chance found out your blog. You made me very surprised at your fully information and awesome pictures about Vung Tau local food. I admire you very much.

    Though this post was written long time ago, I see in your profile that you still live in Viet Nam. May be we can meet each other someday. lol.

    Ha Anh. (Hannah)

  5. Hi Ha Anh: Thanks for taking the time to visit my blog and leave a comment! I hope my information gives you some ideas for where to eat in Vung Tau, though I'm sure you know better than I do, especially since you're from Vung Tau! Your hometown is very beautiful. And yes, I still live in Vietnam, but I'm in Hanoi now, eating lots of food from the north. : ) You're right, perhaps we'll meet some day. Until then, take care!

  6. Good to hear from you :) I've just had dinner at Ganh Hao tonight.

    Hope that I will have chance to go to Ha Noi and meet you there cause I am going to have a trip to the north this summer.

    Best regards.

    Ha Anh

  7. Awesome blog. Thank you for sharing. I'll be visiting Ganh Hao in a few weeks for sure. One question - Do you have any problem consuming ice in VN?

  8. Hi Anonymous: Thank you for your comment. To answer your question, no, I have no problem consuming ice in VN. Supposedly, ice with holes running through them indicates that they've been made using some special purification system, but even when I consume local "chopped" ice I have no problem, either. I think common sense will be your best guide. Don't drink the water, however. I rinse my mouth out with it, but I don't consume it. Enjoy Ganh Hao! It's still a very good restaurant, but the competitor just up the hill (I forget its name, but it's right next to Ganh Hao) is extremely good, too.

  9. I am a serious foodie from Vietnam. Great choices of food. Making my moouth water at the photos.

  10. Hi Anonymous: Thank you for your comments about the food I photographed and wrote about. It's a little late, but chuc mung nam moi!

  11. Wow! This was such a great entry. I have hopes that I will be able to travel to Vietnam someday and be immersed not only in the culture and lifestyle, but to be able to indulge in the food that sounds spectacular. Being there I hope will give me the drive to try some of the things there that I would be too afraid of giving a shot in America. Thank you for making me even more excited about Vietnam itself. My boyfriend, though born here in America, is Vietnamese and I would love to take a trip down there. The funny thing is is that I'd probably have to be the one to push him to try all of the new things there.

  12. Hi SpecialK: I'm glad you enjoyed the entry, and I appreciate the comment! You'd be surprised by how good the food is here in every corner of the country. Restaurants are almost always great, but the street food can be really spectacular, too. Vietnamese food is much healthier than Western food, and there's little chance of getting sick here from what you eat (if you're sensible). I hope you and your boyfriend can get over here one of these days!