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 on-the-spot 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 (~$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 loaves as main meals. Ate some other versions around the world 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 of you speak 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

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. 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.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Hội An Ancient Town

I really don't like you very much, Hội An Ancient Town. Made up of a few narrow streets, the only vaguely interesting aspect is its architecture, which isn't that fascinating if you live in Asia and are familiar with Chinese buildings, and have visited small provinces and villages in China.

Majority of these buildings in Ancient Town have been turned into gaudy and insipid shops selling useless souvenirs, silver, pearls, trinkets, shoes, clothes and nonsense. The eateries aren't good either. A complete tourist trap. Get out of the area and go to the other parts of the city. It'd definitely be a much better experience.

Its newly established ticketing system imposes a VND120,000 entrance ticket just to enter the Ancient Town. (Details here and here.) Setting up an entrance fee is expected, but enforcing it is dicey. A ticket allows for multiple entry over a few days- exactly for how many days, that's arbitrary. It changes according to the mood of city authorities. Even setting up ticket booths and security officers to check, and allowing domestic tourists to pay a lower VND80,000 are normal procedures. What isn't pleasant, is to discover that the checkpoints aren't manned during rainy days and even stumble upong two entry points to the demarcated area that aren't policed. Importantly, one can only hope the fees collected truly contribute towards the preservation of the Town.

Hội An was known as Faifoo or Faifo. It's a Southeast Asian trading port that flourished from the 15th to 19th century. Sounds familiar eh? Before that, during the Cham Kingdom, it was the region's largest harbor. Chinese influences are huge because of Vietnam's tributary state back then, and its acceptance of refugees from the Ming Dynasty in the 1640s. Hội An's Chinese influence is mainly Hokkien, which explains why it especially reminds me of Xiamen (known as Amoy) in Fujian Province. Its Trieu Chau Assembly Hall translates into the Chaozhou Hall. There're also two other Assembly Halls from two other dialect groups- Quang Trieu (Cantonese) and Phuc Kien (Fukien/Fujian). Definitely felt like I was visiting provinces in southern China.

The 150-year old Quan Thang Ancient House seems to be still lived in by the present-day generation of the family. The matriarch sat by the house selling cigarettes and drinks, and the patriarch hung out indoors offering visitors to buy little souvenirs within and showed us his Singapore two-dollar note. These families/houses collected the coupons from the entrance ticket, which hopefully translates into reimbursements for them since they've opened their family homes to visitors. Same goes for Duc An Old House, which is more spacious and holds even better preserved furniture. It's an example of Hội An-style merchant architecture, which eerily holds the exact layout of a shophouse anywhere in Southeast Asia, especially a Peranakan-style house. Wood carvings and tile decorations include the usual peacocks and flowers.

Needless to say, after watching videos and flipping through photos of Huế, I decided it isn't worth the drive all the way. Really not interested in the Nguyễn Dynasty that lasted from 1802 - 1945. Not even keen on it as the supposed origins of the áo dài. Don't feel like seeing more pagodas, temples, war sites or tunnels. Saw the photos and videos of the Huế Citadel, couldn't stop grinning. Tell me this Citadel and its surrounding buildings don't look familiar? Importantly, while I enjoy the region's spicy foods, I don't like bún bò Huế. Heeeeee. I'd do better re-visiting the highlands of Lâm Đồng Province, flying in via Đà Lạt. That city has little pork, more vegetarian food options and fantastic bánh căn with quail eggs.

Sunday, October 19, 2014


Hello beer with ice cubes, we meet again.

Super tickled at how the Vietnamese still drink beer with ice cubes. Luckily the eateries don't immediately pour the beer into glasses filled with ice cubes. Those are added later. There's time to stop them before they dilute the beer. Vietnamese beers are mainly pilsner and lager, so ice cubes tend to make them taste better, like a spritzer. Those honestly aren't my choice of beer, but Da Nang's own Biere Larue is fine. Saigon Export is okay too. Just avoid Sabeco Brewery's 333 and Bia Saigon. Try them at your own peril. Kept seeing the locals' tables piled heavy with bottles of Heineken and Tiger. Ours are usually stacked with Biere Larue and Saigon Export or Special.

Giggled when I read that Vietnam wanted to have beer parlors control their temperature below 30ºC. Most of Vietnam is not air-conditioned. Most cans or bottles are stored in the fridge anyway, so they would taste cold down the throat for at least five minutes. As long as my beer is served cold, I don't particularly care that I'm squatting by the roadside chugging a pint. Best thing on a blazing hot day. It's almost thirst-quenching.

Oddly, more than two servers at different eateries on separate days, have remarked to me, "You drink wine like water" and "You drink beer like water". WELL, I don't see that as a problem. Vietnam's beers holds only about 4.2% ABV.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

La Maison 1888

Pan-fried lobster medallions 
with white port sauce and ginger flavored vegetable julienne.

Eating local food is best when visiting other cities on vacation. My palate is spoilt and loves all sorts of cuisines. It doesn't need anything too familiar or comforting. Sambal with food is always nice, but when that can't be obtained, chillis or peppers will do. Along the same reasoning, there's no need to have western food in Vietnam. However, I conceded to one western meal at a fancy restaurant in Đà Nẵng because the man was curious. Michel Roux's La Maison 1888, his first restaurant in Asia, beautifully situated at the ridiculously scenic and chic Intercontinental Hotel Danang Sun Peninsula Resort.

I hesitated partly because of its three-starred Michelin chef-owner who is regularly in-residence for now- don't quite buy into the Michelin-stars-hype; also mainly because it's French cuisine of which I'm not a fan. Ah yes, I'm one of those who isn't hot about The Fat Duck or its neighbor and kinda sister restaurant to La Maison 1888The Waterside Inn. Be warned, dress code is formal. Ladies could wear dressy sandals, and men could get away without a tie or a jacket. Just look very good. You know how to push the envelope. This is a resort where ladies seem to be fond of carrying huge Birkins as beach bags.

Service at La Maison 1888 was excellent. Pleased that there was a decent selection of whisky offered. Loved its bread and butter. Happy to see rice noodles included in this Asia flagship in the form of pan-fried red mullet on a bed of rice noodles with vegetable tian and basil emulsion. I chose the safest dish which is also on the UK menu- tronçonnettes de homard poêlées minute au porto blanc. Quite delicious. The man totally enjoyed his grilled rabbit fillets served on a bed of celeriac fondant with glazed chestnuts and Armagnac sauce. Tasty and well-balanced flavors in our dishes, but I found everything a wee thick on the butter, oil and cream. The side of seasonal vegetables appeared in the form of really decent mushrooms, laden in a pool of butter. Offered to share something sugary with the man, but he declined. All right then, a savory dessert it was. Took its cheese platter and quaffed all five tiny slices of happiness.

This restaurant, is unfortunately one of those that prescribes printing two versions of their menus, and handing separate versions to male and female diners. Guess which gender's menu isn't printed with prices. (Oh, the drinks menu held prices though. At least. I could drink my date's pockets dry.) It wasn't like this was a specially-created menu with prices set beforehand. You should have seen my look of perplexity when I couldn't find the stated prices, and in five seconds, how far my eyes rolled out of the door when I realized why. It isn't surprising that this restaurant practices it. It's soooo 2004. Since I was clueless about prices and after flipping the menu, deemed it unnecessary to know, my handsome and gentlemanly dinner date paid for the evening.