Sunday, October 26, 2014

Morning Market At the Beach

To the far left, the huge white 67m-tall statue of the Goddess of Mercy
(Quan Am or Kuan Yin) stands in the Linh Ứng Bãi Bụt Pagoda,
keeping the people safe from storms and sea creatures.

I love beaches and being in the water. Not to swim in it though. Just to wade around. Dislike swimming in the open sea unless I'm in full dive gear. Đà Nẵng's beaches are still relatively unspoiled. They're also working beaches in the sense that fishing boats are still anchored out and go to work between 10pm to 4am, returning to shore in time with fresh catches for the morning boisterous seafood market. The public beaches are clean. Refuse washed up doesn't look too horrifying. Unlike Hội An's battle with coastal erosion, especially on Cua Dai Beach, Đà Nẵng is still okay. Non Nước Beach is home to many resorts.

Further along to Son Tra Peninsula is My Khe beach (or otherwise known as 'China Beach') has a wide expanse of space and a few deck chairs for people to hang out. Seafood restaurants still mainly cater to the locals. Outside of these resorts, unlike Thailand, there're no souvenir or tourist traps nearby. WOOT. You can't like...walk out to lunch or something. There's nothing near outside of the resort. Everything is a 20-minute walk either way filled with roads and not particularly interesting sights. Unless you count the shoreline and beaches as a welcome sight. No massage parlors dot the roads, save for one or two for the locals which are nothing near the ambience or smells of a spa. Any decent spas are found within the resorts or a 45-minute ride to Hội An. Đà Nẵng gloriously uncrowded for the now. However, the entire stretch of shoreline here is ear-marked for the development of five-star resorts and two more golf courses. This area has changed so much and in another five years, it would be more...touristy.

I didn't linger at the public beaches except to take a walk through and turn up early one morning to smell the fish and check out the informal seafood market. Didn't understand a single word of the bargaining that went on. Didn't dare to snap photos at will. Couldn't buy anything, but at least my companions and guides could. They were on their daily sourcing and buying tasks for eateries and restaurants. But it was a good walk. There's something magical about early mornings. Totally enjoyed checking out the buzz.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Cool Rains

As Vietnam moves into a mild winter, Đà Nẵng usually rains everyday in October and November. Totally prepared for it. The locals call this 'high foreign tourist season'. Makes no sense. It's their 'low tourist season' in hot hot summer that makes a much better experience for most visitors.

Our scheduled activities have been matching the weather. Won't melt although the monsoon rains are heavy and not suited for trekking either. We're cool with walking in the rain. No biggie. No diving or snorkeling. Seas are too rough. I knew that it would rain mostly, and didn't bother to bring a bikini even. Hahaha. What sun. None. That's okay. Popping out to see the Chàm Islands (Cù lao Chàm) on a cloudy day was enough. As it is, limited tourist boats are allowed out to the islands during October to mid-December.

On rainy days, we stayed in at the resort. Time to enjoy its full facilities. The Intercontinental Hotel Danang Sun Peninsula is beautiful. It's perched atop a cliff in the Son Tra Peninsula. It's got such a glorious view that it would be a waste not to stay in to admire it. A total joy to hang out in the room or chill out at one of their many daybeds in quiet corners. Don't even need air-conditioning all the time because a cool breeze usually wafts through and rises into a strong wind in the nights.

We've got unlimited data on our phones, plenty of gadgets, steady WiFi throughout the resort. e-books and hardcopy magazines. All sorted. The man caught up on 'Agents of Shield' S2 and I happily lapped up 'Supernatural' S10. S10! Muahahahaha. Oddly, we haven't had any issues accessing social media channels. They load fast. Vietnam has announced so loud that it blocks everything that it deems unsavory. Had prepped and paid for VPN on the gadgets, but there hasn't been a need to turn it on. Strange. Hmmm.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Đà Nẵng City

Very pleased that we chose to stay in Đà Nẵng instead of Hội An. Not very fond of Hội An with all its touristy vibes. Đà Nẵng feels more residential, with its shops and businesses for locals.  If you're not interested in urbanscapes, the individual pulse of a city or just hanging out in a new place without needing to do anything, then Đà Nẵng isn't for you. I've heard fellow tourists complain that there's nothing to do in Đà Nẵng and more to see and do in Hội An. Well, it depends on what type of visitors you are. It's tough to find souvenir or tailor shops in Đà Nẵng. Thank gawwd. If you want those things, go to the tourist trap that is Hội An Ancient Town. Plenty of that.

The town is split into this side of the Hàn River and the other. One that's nearer to the airport is the business side of town containing a soon-to-open California Fitness gym, a fake Apple Cafe with copied-identical logo and all, a KFC outlet and many offices. The side we visited is more residential. Lots of local shops that the residents frequent. Selling brooms, pots and pans, furniture, mirrors, plastic homeware stuff, jewelry shops, etc. Đà Nẵng City is very much for people on work trips and domestic tourists, completely different from the chaos and noise in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City where tourists can wander around easily on their own. Taxis aren't plentiful here. It's a 30-minute drive into town from the corner of Son Tra Peninsula where our resort is. Took a private car on full-day disposal. Anyway, we hold local data-SIM cards. 3G works great. Unlimited data. All sorted.

First thing we did was to stop by the morning market. Which is also a night market, depending on whether the stall keepers finish selling their wares. It isn't like a designated market. The stalls pop up where there's space on the pavement near a major intersection. Heh. Lots of fruits and vegetables dotting the streets. People squatting down to chat or play a few rounds of chess. Was very happy to stroll along the streets soaking up the vibes of Đà Nẵng so vastly different from Vietnam's two other bigger and more crowded cities. I walk very fast, but what a pity I can't cycle, otherwise I could cover even greater distances.

One aim of this jaunt- to buy fish sauce. Heeeeee. Good Thai fish sauce can be found rather easily at the supermarket at Golden Mile Centre. But one can't quite get good nước mắm in Singapore. Whatever I can find in Đà Nẵng will be good enough. The driver was rather amused. I guess fewer people come here to buy fish sauce than to tailor clothes and buy trinkets.

Saw packs of dried Quảng noodles and seriously thought about buying it. LOVE mì Quảng. Almost tempted to re-create it at home. The man doesn't like it enough to cook it. He's a phở person. So if I want to eat it, I'll have to cook it. HORRORS. It'd be easy grabbing ingredients, even those mint leaves. Am sure someone grows it in the garden, or the Thai supermarket sells it. But rice noodles are best fresh. That's an item I can't buy in Singapore. Although I'll be damned if I try to pound it out from rice flour. o.O

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Hội An is Bánh Mì Heaven

Tiệm Phương Bánh Mì's
bánh mì ốp la'
or 'bánh mì deluxe'. 

There're many odes to this tasty, filling and kinda-healthy Vietnamese 'sandwich', a recent one being BBC's rave about itBánh mì is always welcome at lunch. Love the bread. It's pretty light. It fills me up on not-too-hungry-days, and on others, leave me plenty of space to gobble up more food.

The man loves the meat versions, bánh mì thịt, which are mainly pork in all types- ham, paté or terrine, floss, sausage or char siew. Most bánh mì cost under VND25,000 (~S$1.50). A super-happy meal. There's grilled chicken available. But there're always vegetarian versions for me, bánh mì chay, with the option of adding an omelette.

The man marked out all stalls in Hội An that have been reviewed online and dragged me around eating many loaves of fantastic bread. Oddly, these two are good- Tiệm Phương Bánh Mì at its new premises 2B Phan Chau Trinh Street, earlier made famous by Anthony Bourdain and his 'No Reservations' in 2009, and the other locally known favorite, Madam Khánh of The Bánh Mì Queen at Tran Cao Van Street, thankfully sited outside of Ancient Town. That's not to say these are the best, but even the locals eat there, so it's cool.

Madam Khánh presiding over her modest stall under the avocado tree.
Her husband helped out with the ingredients and frying of the omelette. 

One could put anything inside the baguette and call it bánh mì. It's up to you. One just needs to find a damn good tiny baguette to make it. Finding that bread alone will take forever. Even the dressing is entirely decided by the individual stalls- cheese, mayonnaise, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, cilantro, pickled carrots, daikon. Whatever, really. Thousands of interpretations out there which are just as delicious. But this is the home of bánh mì, and I'll take their version as authentic.

We very much prefer the flavors in Madam Khánh's loaves. There's something about her choice of sauces and all. Apparently she's 90 years old, and still personally tends to her stall every day. Wow. The family lives in the shophouse, and opened up the front space for additional tables. Bánh mì is best eaten on-the-spot. It's no good soggy. It's tiny enough to be eaten quickly anyway. Merrily plonked ourselves outdoors at the table right next to the preparation counter. Wanted to watch what went on.

Forgot to remind the man I wanted plain black iced coffee. He likes cà phê sữa đá and ordered one for me too. Eeeeks. Too sweet! Luckily they served up green tea as chasers. The cold tea went well on a blazing hot day with the food. The man had the everything-in-it version- bánh mì thịt nguội. He totally LOVED IT. Almost ordered a second to chomp on. Two fantastic bánh mì, two strong good coffees and two teas- all for VND80,000 (~S$5). Prices we'll never see elsewhere. The baguette is crisp on the outside and all soft within. In Vietnam where pork rules, I've eaten many vegetarian loaves as main meals. Ate some other versions in other cities too. Most are mediocre. Few are good, and so far, I love Madam Khánh's best.

Madam Khánh, The Bánh Mì Queen
115 Tran Cao Van Street,
065 Hội An, Quảng Nam, Vietnam

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Reaching Out Teahouse

The only shop where I was remotely curious about in Hội An is Reaching Out Teahouse. Not that this is a trip to seek out tea. Even in Đà Lạt, I enjoyed the sights and sounds and scenery more than anything. Each time I think about tea, a kind of resentment arises. Coffee keeps me happier. I've been drinking tons of Vietnamese coffee, as much as my body can bear. It's so good. But this teahouse is of interest to me. Reaching Out is also a social enterprise stocked with a whole range of local handicrafts.

Rustic and sincere, the vibes feel gorgeous. It's a respite from the busy streets, heat or rain. There're a number of plain A4-sized posters of words hung up on the wall, written in calligraphy, "The beauty of silence". Most of the staff are hearing-impaired and the table is filled with little wooden cubes requesting for service. It's great because it makes me not want to talk while sipping tea or coffee, simply enjoying the present. The entire Teahouse is then kept in a pleasant quiet hum, instead of jarring conversation and hysterical laughter. Love it.

I took a tea-tasting set of three teas- green, oolong and jasmine. Locally grown of course. IMHO, the oolong is Reaching Out Teahouse's best offering, from an estate in Lâm Đồng province, if I'm not wrong. What I tasted didn't hold the familiar notes of an oolong from northern Việt Bắc nearer to Hanoi. Vietnamese oolongs are grown from Taiwanese cultivars and produced in the like of an Alishan (阿里山) oolong or Dong Ding (凍頂烏龍), lightly roasted. It's not quite the quality of a top grade Wenshan Pouchong (文山包種) though. These Vietnamese oolongs are superior to their quality of green.

Oh, this Teahouse served great local coffee too. In tasting sets as well. Awesome. I was only interested in a few sips of the tea. As usual, the brewing methods ensured that the second cup of tea tasted over-steeped. Swopped out to the coffee tasting set after that. The man didn't want a tasting set and was very pleased with his iced 'Sweet Chicory Local Coffee'. The Teahouse was spot-on with using frozen ice-cubes of coffee and not water. It kept the coffee thick, gorgeous and cold on this hot day throughout the 45 minutes we hung out at this oasis.

Hãy uống cà phê

Apparently two girlfriends and I have a date in Đà Nẵng next year. Or Hà Nội. As long as it's in Vietnam. Let's see if this trip materializes. Some crazy scheduling and flying would have to be done to make it happen.

In the meantime, I've found plenty of scenic coffee spots. While the girls would love the coffee at Reaching Out Teahouse in Hội An, I think they also appreciate casual spots. Some of the best coffee spots have honestly been found at the side of the roads. While I like my coffee black and piping hot as cà phê đen, on many afternoons, I don't mind it cold as cà phê đen đá. Pure aroma, taste and gorgeousness.

Here's one coffee spot in Hội An outside the eeky Ancient Town- Đào Coffee. I don't think they use Lao PDR's Dao-Heuang beans. Probably a local variation that I've no idea what it is. It was good. Perfect on a rainy afternoon. Zipped into this family 'cafe' while it stormed. The balcony was the place of business and the family lived in the house. Owned by a hardworking young girl who spoke some English and took our order, and a grandfather who showed me to the balcony and nicely pulled out my chair. Can't wait to have coffee with you girls, and since one speaks proper Vietnamese, I bet we'll see even more of this little town.

Đào Coffee
110 Phan Chu Trinh, Cẩm Phô, 
Hội An, Quảng Nam, Vietnam

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

cơm gà Hội An

Remember Bui Cong Khanh's 'Chicken Rice in the Border' at 'Sensorium 360°'? Went to Food for Thought at 8Q SAM to try the inspired dish. Was a bit worried because I find the food at three outlets of this eatery rather terrible. It was disappointing to realize that the eatery didn't serve the chicken rice as earlier indicated, but instead offered a version as 'Hoi An Borderlands Chicken Salad', and coffee of 'Ca Phe Latte in the Border'. Ordered both.

Food for Thought's 'Hoi An Borderlands Chicken Salad', at S$14, was surprisingly decent. It was chockful of ingredients. Wonderful! It wasn't a sad limp mess. Poked a tiny piece of shredded chicken breast meat and left the rest for the friends. Heee. Me and chicken aren't compatible. But I loved the spices in the salad dressing and the mixture of greens.

With the closing of 'Sensorium 360°' on 22 October 2014,
Food for Thought 8Q SAM's Vietnamese dishes are now off the menu .

Obviously I'm not a fan of Singapore Hainanese chicken rice. The man is. But we agree that the local version is fairly two-dimensional and we focus more on the rice than the meat. It's easier to get the meat right than find a balance for the rice. A less oily version of the rice is always better.

In Hội An, we can't miss out on the authentic versions of cơm gàRestaurants offer it, and plenty of street stalls do a fantastic version. Never mind the chicken. I'm curious about the rice and wouldn't mind understanding the flavors. Oddly, I've never eaten this dish in all my visits to Vietnam. Here, get out of Ancient Town, avoid the fancy eateries, find the street stalls, pick one and order it. Ate this four times at different stalls. Gave all the chicken to the man.

For me, I love this version of chicken rice over Singapore's local versions. Simply because cơm gà Hội An uses so many spices, and has a variety of dipping sauces at the side. Importantly, once there's fish sauce, slivers of young papaya and carrot, onions, mint and lime juice, the entire flavor of the dish is altered. The combination of flavors is something I really like. The shredded meat (kampong chicken usually, of course) is thin and sometimes chewy. The meat isn't the star, so there're few pieces of it, and that's why I like it. Less stinky. The turmeric-stained short-grain rice is the winner for me, along with nước mắm. It has to be nước mắm; Thai naam plaa won't taste the same.

Cao lầu Hội An

Oddly, I'm not fond of the other specialty noodle dish specific to Hội An- Cao lầu. The noodles are made from stone-ground local rice. Kinda thick. Bit like a cross between thick laksa beehoon and udon. I don't mind the noodles at all. Love its texture which is slightly chewy and how the flavors go from sour to sweet.

The locals say that best comes from the street stalls and use water from the city's ancient square wells, and ash from the firewood of Cham Islands. Lye water, really. Caustic alkaline water. Okaayy. I appreciate the difficult steps to produce a bowl of broth and to make the noodles, but not the final flavors that are heavy on the meat which is either pork loin or trotters.

Unfortunately, eating cao lầu at its place of origin didn't make me like it one iota better. Good noodles, but one needs to like pork to think this dish edible in its entirety. Luckily, most eateries serve more than cao lầu. Unless one is squatting by the roadside stall that specializes only in this one item. Gamely tried three bowls from different stalls, taking only the noodles and picking out the meat to leave it in a clean bowl for stall-owners to collect. The man had no interest in eating them. Tried the supposedly famous one at the corner on the street. I can't get over the char siu, pork crackling and lard used. So this dish isn't for me.