Monday, September 23, 2013

Cheap & Local in Mui Ne

As you can see, the roads here are full of dirt and dust. Thank goodness for the glass case.
Living in a resort area is hardly uncomfortable, but when it comes to getting meals nearby I’m faced with paying resort area prices. However, whenever I’m in Mui Ne there’s a place I often go that sells to a local crowd. It’s a five-minute drive from my place and never terribly busy, which always surprises me. It’s as simple a setup as you’ll find anywhere, though the owners have recently added a mechanics shop to their place. Mechanics shops and restaurants don’t usually mix well, but I have no problem with it here.

I think that wet spot to the right of the cart is water, not motorbike oil.
As you can see from the photos above, the family sells their homemade dishes from a wheeled glass display case, which they roll into their house for safekeeping during the night and roll back toward the road when they’re open for business. And they’re open for breakfast, which is either bánh mì (sandwiches) and xôi mạnh (sticky rice), as well as lunch, which is always cơm bình dân (common rice dishes).

The bánh mì goes for a mere 15,000 dong ($0.70), even if you get a mix of just about everything you can put into a sandwich. You can’t see it all that well in the photo below, but my bánh mì came with grilled pork, mixed sautéed veggies, fried eggs, cucumber, and a squirt of sauce. It also doesn’t show how one of the two women there used her chopsticks to feed her baby, then to feed herself, then to pick up a strip of grilled pork for my sandwich. Thankfully, the end she picked up had a chunk of bone in it, and it got cut off by a clean (I think) pair of scissors.

Is there such a thing as bánh mì bụi?
Considering that only one or two people make these dishes every day, I’d say their efforts are pretty impressive. They usually sell thin vegetable omelettes, grilled pork, fatty pork, fatty pork with hardboiled eggs, sautéed mixed vegetables, sautéed water spinach, grilled fish, fried fish, and sometimes shrimp. My takeaway meals often consist of rice, mixed veggies, a large slice of omelette, and two strips of grilled pork, or one strip of grilled pork and one small grilled fish, and includes a complementary vegetable soup and a packet of fish sauce with red chilies. It’s not as much as it sounds, but it’s more than enough for lunch. The total cost is the same every time: 20,000 dong ($0.95).

I'll take this over resort restaurant meals any day...
Passersby on motorbikes often stare at me as I stand at the display case, and those standing in line to order, or at one of the two metal tables where you can sit down and eat, often ask me how I can order in Vietnamese. When they ask if I have a Vietnamese wife and I say no, some ask in all seriousness if I have a Vietnamese mother. Which is a compliment out of all proportion with my Vietnamese abilities. In Saigon or Hanoi this would happen less frequently, but since most Westerners here (80% or more are Russians) don’t speak a single word of Vietnamese, I suppose I stand out a little more. All in all, it makes life here a little more interesting.

I’m also told that I should avoid eating in places like this, despite the deal it seems to offer and the fact that it tastes good and seems relatively healthy. People tell me that food on the street is cheap precisely because it uses poor ingredients, especially those that bypass whatever regulators exist in Vietnam (and there aren’t many). It’s hard to know what to do about this situation in Vietnam, as there are so many street food vendors, but there have also been numerous reports about high concentrations of toxic chemicals (used as preservatives and whitening agents) being found in the vast majority of rice noodles. Coffee on the street, I’m told, is often mixed with quinine (and all kinds of other things) to make it bitterer. Sad news for Vietnam, but not something the country can’t overcome with more care and diligence.

I threw this photo in even though it came from another local restaurant. You can often get mixed fruit (to go, in this case) for very little money. This order – two bananas, half a dragon fruit, a thick slice of mango, and two hunks of watermelon) cost me 23,000 dong ($1.09), which is about the same price I've been asked to pay for a bunch of bananas (and the seller wouldn't bargain, which is rather rare).

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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Back in Vietnam, Back in Mui Ne

I'm back in Mui Ne...

Another long hiatus from the blogosphere may be ending (it’s too soon to say for sure). But for now, at least, a quick update…

After nearly two years in Japan, and very little time for myself, I’m back in Vietnam, in Mui Ne to be exact, with quite a bit more time on my hands. I’ve now been back for a little more than two weeks and I’m trying to see what I can share about the places, people, and food I encounter here. Generally it’s been good, though the gloss and shine of years past seems to have worn off the country, as the economy is doing poorly and people seem less optimistic. Also, a few nights ago, while getting ready to leave a restaurant in the company of friends, a horrific motorbike accident occurred within about 60 feet of where we were sitting. At least one passenger died, and perhaps all three did. One never wants to see such things happen, but it’s especially jarring after just moving back. After inquiring with others about current traffic conditions in Mui Ne, I started hearing numerous stories directly from people who’ve lost loved ones in road accidents here. I’ve already decided that if I continue to feel unsafe on the roads, it will be time to leave Mui Ne and give the Hoi An/Da Nang region a shot. Eventually, though, I’m pretty sure I’ll end up in Saigon again. Even though Saigon’s hospitals aren’t up to international standards, they’re light years ahead of medical care in this part of the country. If one gets sick or injured in Mui Ne, it’s at least a five-hour journey by car to Saigon. And that’s assuming the car doesn’t get into an accident on the way there…

Until I have more time to collect food and travel experiences in Vietnam, I’ll give a quick update on my novel, Lotusland, which is set to come out in April 2015, coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. I’ve been working with an editor on it for the past several months, and about 10 days ago I submitted what should be the final changes, most of which dealt with style issues. I’m now working on developing a promotion strategy and hope to start on it soon – contacting people who will hopefully be interested in my work, and who might be willing to lend a hand in bringing it some good publicity. I’m also getting back, albeit slowly, into the rewrite of a novel I completed several years ago. I hope to have it done and accepted somewhere before my first publication is available.

Here’s a teaser of what I hope will be more blog posts coming from Vietnam. I’ve been hitting some old haunts recently rather than explore new options, though it doesn’t seem like there’s very much new here worth blogging about. If anything, there are more western restaurants in Mui Ne now (and chintzy shops), but I’m not particularly keen on eating in those places. While I can still get meals nearby for less than US$1, they’re harder to come by – impossible to come by in Mui Ne itself, which is a resort area. But even so, one can eat cheaply and well in Mui Ne. And drink some of the world’s best coffee…

Seaside seat at Cay Bang restaurant.
Mì xào haỉ sản at Cay Bang. While the fish is pretty expensive here, this only cost 70,000 dong ($3.30).
An order of garlic-sauteed greens and claypot fish (cà bớp: cobia fish). Price tag: $4.25. In most restaurants, cà bớp is by far the most common fish found on menus. It's a bit depressing, as the skin tends to be thick and rubbery and without that much flavor. Of course, Vietnamese sauces help in the latter regard.
For a hotel restaurant with a view of the beach, this was great. Gà xào xả ớt (sauteed chicken in a chili and lemongrass sauce), boiled mixed veggies, rice, and tea – after VAT and a service charge, still only $7.60. Poshanu Resort.
Cà suốt with a stack of fresh herbs, sesame rice paper, and beer brewed on the premises of Hoa Vien, a Czech-Vietnamese restaurant.
Terrace at The Cliffs. One of the better views in all of Mui Ne.
Cà phê sữa đá in the shade, with a view of the ocean. A perfect place to write.

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