I've had my best bowl of pho in Ho Chi Minh city, to crazy deep fried and multi-coloured Che in Hue, and not to forget the 19 days old duck embroy egg that I devoured in Hoi An, sadly this post will be the last haul of my journey in Vietnam before moving forward to the next destination. But don't worry there's a lot more exciting stories to tell and more exotic food to eat.
But first, have a guess what this is in the picture below? You will find the answer further down the post. So keep reading.
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It's a shame that I didn't plan to stay a little longer in Hoi An, an overnight stay just ain't enough. I have yet to venture out to the beach area in Hoi An for some fresh seafood and coconut juice, so that will have to be in my itinerary next time I am in Hoi An again.
The morning breakfast in Khanh Hoa II Restaurant is rather mediocre and not worth raving about. Most dishes are lack of flavour and even my favorite Vietnamese ice coffee is not as strong as it should be. I ordered Cao Lau - a regional dish only found in Hoi An which I actually don't think much of it. I quickly learned my lesson - never believe all the praises written by tourists plastered all over restaurants.
We spend the rest of the morning doing a little bit of souvenir shopping at the Central Market before taking the 'sleeping bus' back to Hue in the afternoon. The journey back to Hue is just as boring as the first time, but also the best time to rest and rehydrate with plenty of fruit and water. We pretty much spend the rest of the afternoon catching up on some sleep and waiting for the sun to set before venturing out to look for some food again. A quick research on the internet, I knew instantly that I have found the perfect restaurant for dinner tonight.
Seriously, check this out!
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Is this cool or what?! The whole floor upstairs at Lac Thien are graffitied with scribbles by tourists who came here for the best Banh Khoai in town. Lac Thien, is one of Hue great institutions, the famous restaurant owned by a deaf and mute family. But make no mistakes as there are also two other shops right next to each other with very similar names (one is Lac Thanh, and another one is Lac Thuan), and all claimed that they were listed in Lonely Planet. After consulting the locals, they confirmed us that Lac Thien is definitely the original one and the owner is definitely deaf and mute, the other shops are just faking it to get customers.
When we arrived, a mute guy is calling out (isn't that ironic?) from Lac Thanh to get us eat at his shop. I actually feel a little guilty for not going inside but veer to the left and walk into Lac Thien instead. The lady owner indicates us to go upstairs which is when I have my first glimpse of the overwhelming graffiti on the wall. There are layer upon layer of scribbles by tourists from all over the world everywhere. When I say everywhere, I literally means everywhere! Even the ceiling cannot escape its fate. Marker pens are widely available on the table for you to express your creativity. A family from Wales followed right behind us and the two daughters immediately go crazy with the markers and start drawing everywhere!
The first local specialty we try is the Bun Bo Hue, a hot and spicy rice vermicelli noodle soup served with slices of marinated beef shank. My first impression of the dish, it looks nothing like the images of Bun Bo Hue I found on the internet. It is missing a layer of red chili oil on the surface to give me that fiery kick that I was hoping for. The beef stock is also rather mild in flavour and lemongrass is all I could taste. On the bright side, the beef slices are just nicely cooked in the hot soup, it is tenderly soft against the smooth slippery rice vermicelli noodles. Nevertheless, the soury soup has whetted my appetite and I am ready to try the other local specialties.
When I walked into the restaurant, I couldn't help but mesmerised by the sight and sound of a lady frying some Banh Khoai outside on the verandah. Banh Khoai is another popular local specialty which is very similar to Banh Xeo, just like how the local would say it, "Same same, but different". Indeed, they are both pan-fried Vietnamese pancakes stuffed with slivers of fatty pork, shrimps and bean sprouts, but the difference is on the pancake skin itself. Banh Khoai is actually made from using Cassava, while Banh Xeo is actually made from plain rice flour.
When the Banh Khoai arrives at our table, I'd imagine it would be alot bigger. The Vietnamese pancake is only as big as a side plate, and folded in half. But I am not complaining, as I am already hypnotised by its sheer beauty. It is pan fried to an inviting golden brown with bubbly blistered skin, filled with crunchy bean sprouts with a few shrimps and fatty pork slices hidden beneath. The cassava pancake skin is so crunchy on the outside yet chewy on the inside. A side plate of fresh green herb leaves is provided to balance out the oiliness of the fried dish, and also a bowl of peanut sauce for that extra sauciness. But I keep finding myself neglecting the extra filler and just want to eat the whole golden glory on its own.
Another must try local specialty is the Nem Lui. The mince pork is marinated with lemon grass then stuck to chopstick and grilled over hot charcoal. The herbage provided are shared between the Nem Lui and the Banh Khoai. The Nem Lui is not just tasty, but is also a fun dish that involves a little bit of DIY by wrapping them along with some fresh green herbs, green banana slices, figs and a dash of the peanut sauce in a paper thin Vietnamese rice paper. The rice paper for this dish is a lot thinner and more fragile than the one that is used for Vietnamese spring roll. So soaking in cold water to soften it is unnecessary. The heat from the Nem Lui along with the moisture from the herbs and peanut sauce, the rice paper will gone all soft by the time you wrap them up and ready to put it in your mouth. It is simply one of the most delicious dish I've tasted in Vietnam although the soury spongy raw banana slices is something I am still not quite get used to. But it supposedly good for your digestive system, so I eat it anyway.
Now, have you guessed what the mystery object is yet?
It is the ‘world famous’ bottle opener, a piece of wood with a screw in it! Not sure where it's originated from, but I've been told that all three shops now have this bottle opener as one of the gimmicks to get customers. On the wall, you will also notice two picture frames with lots of photos sent back to the restaurant from tourists around the world, posing in front of some famous landmarks holding the bottle opener of course. Such a fun idea has got everyone to jump on the bandwagon and the overflow of photos they've received are now compiled into two thick photo albums lying around in the restaurant for your viewing pleasure.
We were so impressed watching the lady owner demonstrates how to pop the beer bottle cap open. So we have to order another round of the Huda Beer so that we can practise ourselves. By the way, I love Huda Beer, probably one of the most drinkable beer in Vietnam. It has a light yellow tint, and the taste is clean and crisp with a sweet fruity pineapple flavour. We both have two 750ml bottles each, which is the smallest bottle you can get at the restaurant. At only $0.60 each bottle and eating hot fried food in this hot humid weather, no doubt they are the perfect companion for the meal this evening.
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More food to come, we simply can't resist the grilled squid to go with our cold beer. The squid is stuffed with pork mince similar to the Nem Lui, along with garlic and chopped shallots. A few accurate incisions across its body before grilling it over hot charcoal. This is Vietnamese style, the squid is grilled until it is tough and chewy but crispy around the edges. I grew up with sun-dried chewy stinky squid and cuttlefish, so I actually don't mind it. In fact, the tough squid with soft pork mince inside works really well together. That's how the locals like it, a perfect smokey chewy squid-jerky to go with the cold beer.
The small Banh Khoai will never be enough to satiate our big appetite and it is simply too good, so we ordered another round of the pancakes. Now I am regretting that I didn't order more, I could simply eat the pancakes whole night! By this time, the two little girls are still running around, scribbling on every blank spot on the wall they could possibly find. Of course, I simply can't visit this little quirky restaurant without leaving my own ATFT logo somewhere on the wall. I know.. I know... I drew the spoon and fork the other way round... I blame the 1.5 litre of Huda Beer in me.
When we leave the restaurant, we asked the lady owner nicely whether we can have the bottle opener as a souvenir but she happily given us two and signed on them. We had a chat and soon found out that the deaf and mute restaurant owner is actually her father, who is unfortunately sick and resting at home. She also told us the owner next door is actually her uncle, which makes perfect sense as to keep the family-relatives business next door so they get a lot of the spill-over customers. It was a good night at Lac Thien to end my side trip to Hue and Hoi An, definitely one of the most memorable moments throughout the whole journey.
The next morning, we catch a flight back to Ho Chi Minh city as my brother-in-law's journey ends here and I will continue my eating tour on my own from here. We do a little bit of souvenirs shopping at the Ben Thanh Market in Ho Chi Minh city, that's where I bought half kilo of the Weasel Coffee. I also bought another half kilo of Buon Me Thuot coffee (aka Blue Mountains) which is actually the highest quality coffee from the mountain region in Vietnam. The Blue Mountains coffee definitely smells a lot sweeter with stronger vanilla aroma, while the weasel coffee is robust and bitter.
After reading Foraging Otaku's recent trip to Vietnam, I decided to spend the last meal with my brother-in-law at Quan An Ngon, yet another famous restaurant listed in most guidebooks. The restaurant is very popular with the tourists and also the more affluent locals, so be prepared to queue and wait for a table. If you don't mind, you are encouraged to share a table with another group to shorten the waiting time.
The main attraction of Quan An Ngon is its hawker food stalls setting. If you want to try all different kinds of local specialties from different regions in Vietnam, and worried about the hygiene of street food, then this is the place for you. It is an upmarket food court sets within the bungalow's compound. Wooden tables, benches and chairs are scattered around almost every corner, and different hawker stalls are lined up along the walls. Once seated, I am immediately overwhelmed by the intoxicated fragranced air from all the cooking stations around me. Once we are presented with the menu, it actually takes quite some time for us to get the waiter back to take down our orders. A big wave of hand to get their attentions is highly recommended.
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First to arrive is the Banh Xeo. The Vietnamese rice flour pancake is a lot bigger compared to the Banh Khoai I've had in Hue. Despite its size, the filling is scarce with nothing more than a few shrimps and pork slices and a small handful of beansprouts. But the wafer thin pancake is definitely the highlight, so crunchy, so tasty, so good. It also comes with the usual herbage on the side and Nuoc Cham fish sauce for dipping.
My brother-in-law has to have one last bowl of beef noodle soup before leaving country and ordered Bun Bo Vien Gan to fulfill his desire. The slithery flat rice noodle soup is served with thin slices of beef briskets, beef balls and also tendons for that extra luxurious. A sprinkle of roasted peanuts on top for that extra crunch.
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Now to think of it, the meal at Quan An Ngon is almost similar to the one at Lac Thien. Here we also order a grilled squid in salt and chilli (Muc Nuong Muoi Ot). The squid is coated in salt and chilli then grilled to perfection, it is fresh, tender and bounce off the teeth. A squeeze of lime to give it an extra tang, or dip into the bowl of salt and chilli powder for that extra oomph! The squid is nicely cooked and all but its flavour actually has been subdued by the intense flavour of powder dipping. I think I still prefer the grilled stuffed squid at Lac Thien and also a lot cheaper.
The last dish to come is stir fried rice vermicelli with pork and shrimp (Bun Gao Xao Thom, Thit). The stir fry noodle is rather lacking "the breath of wok", it looks too 'clean' and none of the caramelised charred bits can be found. Nevertheless, it is a nice hearty dish and I am pretty much full when we finished the meal. Overall, I quite enjoyed the meal at Quan An Ngon, definitely will visit here again next time I am in Saigon. To have all the local specialties from around Vietnam gathered in one restaurant for your convennience is well worth the extra money.
Once my brother-in-law has left Vietnam, I myself also slowly winding down and spending the one and a half day pretty much doing nothing. For once, it feels good without having to worry about blogging and take photos of every single meal I eat. Most of the time I found myself hanging out at Eden Bar in Pham Ngu Lao, swapping holiday stories with other backpackers, and also got to know the staffs pretty well by the end of my trip.
During my last night in Ho Chi Minh city, they've invited me to stay a little longer until they closed the shop then go out for a drink with them after work. Next thing I know I was sitting at the back of a motorbike, roaming freely on the highway without helmet at 3am! And the rest is simply one of the most memorable times of this trip.
Next stop - CAMBODIA!
Addresses of restaurants/places I've visited:
Khanh Hoa II Restaurant - Hoi An
88. Ba Trieu Street,
Hoi An, Vietnam
P: 051 0917765
Lac Thein - Hue
6A Dinh Tien Hoang
Directions: At the river north shore (Citadel) between the 2 bridges. The last one closest to the Citadel.
Eden Bar - Saigon
236 De Tham, Pham Ngu Lao, District 1,
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
P: (84-8) 836 8154
Quan An Ngon - Saigon
138 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia,
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Tel: (84-8) 8257179
Directions: It is right opposite the Reunification Palace.
Ben Thanh market - Saigon
Directions: On the north west side of the roundabout;
intersection of Le Loi, Ham Nghi, Tran Hung Dao Avenues and
Le Lai Street, look for a big blue clock tower.
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Related Posts: In search of the best Pho Bo in Vietnam Part 1 – Postcard from Vietnam – Ho Chi Minh City Part 2 – Postcard from Vietnam – Hue Part 3 – Postcard from Vietnam – Hoi An