Hittin’ The Rails To Hội An
Here’s a good travel tip: When booking an early morning train trip in a foreign country, make sure you’re well caffeinated.
I arrived at the train station in Huế, Vietnam at about 7 a.m. to head to Da Nang. The plan was to book a first-class ticket on the Livitrans car ($17) for the two and a half hour train ride.
Not quite understanding the ticket agent (aside from the phrase “air-conditioned”) I wound up purchasing a $3 “soft-sleeper” ticket. Ooops.
All in all, this wasn’t such a big mistake.
I wound up sharing a four-bunk space with a couple of older Vietnamese women wending their way from Hanoi to Sài Gòn. The six-foot bunk was actually quite comfortable and made the journey most relaxing.
The scenery along the Vietnamese coast was spectacular at times. Unfortunately, it was rainy season, so not totally spectacular.
There’s one aspect of Vietnamese train travel I couldn’t quite get.
How does one take care of business on a fast-moving train whilst squatting? Must be one of those things that takes lots of practice. Luckily there were western facilities as well!
Upon arriving in Da Nang, it was a short, thirty-minute taxi ride to the historic, UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hội An.
I had booked a room at the Long Life Hotel. From all accounts, a very nice place to stay. Unfortunately, the room I’d asked for wasn’t available. Fortunately, they have a sister hotel, the Long Life Riverside, that’s a tad more upscale.
This blew me away. For $45 you get a large, pristine suite, tea service, a personal computer, huge jacuzzi and a full buffet breakfast. Could not ask for a better room for the price.
After settling in, the plan was to hit the town for some dinner. The weather gods started to wreak havoc and changed all that. Not going anywhere!
Having never experienced a southeast Asian storm, this was mind-blowing.
For about half an hour there were HUGE claps of thunder interspersed with an amazing lightning show. The massive black clouds kept building and building but the imminent rains took forever to materialize. Finally the skies opened up with a torrential downpour. To me, it was epic. For the locals it was just part of everyday life…no big deal.
Sensing the deluge wasn’t ending anytime soon, I decided to risk hotel grub.
Hội An is famous for it’s regional fare. They offer several dishes that are distinct to the area. One of which is their Chicken Rice. The chicken should be pedigreed fighting cock for it’s firmness, so they say. The rice steamed in chicken broth instead of water. The rice and chicken are tossed with ginger, garlic, lemon juice, scallions, chili and banana flower. You wind up with a crisp and refreshing plate. Damn impressive for hotel fare.
Another delicious, local dish is White Rose.
White Rose (Bánh Bao Bánh Vạc) are translucent dumplings stuffed with shrimp and ground pork. Sprinkled with fried garlic and shallots and served with an amazing fish-sauce based dip, these are extraordinary. A great couple of dishes to start my visit.
Later on, still somewhat peckish, it was time to head out for some more great local fare. The rains were still heavy but I was undeterred. In one of those weird and sort of foreboding moments, my cabbie hit a cul-de-sac. Having only large-denomination Vietnamese dong, the cabbie jumped out seeking change at a road-side food stall. Seeing their menu sign lit up by the headlights, I jumped out as well.
Three of my favorite Vietnamese words…Bún Thịt Nướng. Granted, I should have tried one of the other two local specialties, but I needed me some grilled meat and noodles.
This was pretty cool. Under a bulging tarp, three (maybe four) generations putting together some great grub. I can’t get over the resourcefulness of these folk.
While waiting for my bowl of goodness I got to meet the latest generation. This little person was fascinated by my camera and tried to grab it every time I put it down. Luckily her mom came by and took of few pics of her own. I was fortunate enough to get this great photo.
I know I’m generalizing, but one of the most striking things about the Vietnamese people is how genuinely happy they are. It’s very infectious.
I had me a pretty darn good bowl of Bún Thịt Nướng in Huế so I wasn’t expecting too much at a riverside stall. Turns out I didn’t have to worry much about quality here.
As it was late in the day, I really didn’t anticipate this level of freshness. Everything about this bowl was pertnear perfect. Tender rice noodles topped with sweet, chewy pork and crisp, paper-thin cucumber drenched in a fishy, salty and garlicky sauce. The serving sizes over here aren’t North-American-sized but that’s a good thing. They put up a near perfect portion for a buck.
A great beer, a unique lighting source and a whole buncha heat.
Hội An is a fascinating, ancient city. About 500 years ago, it was the largest port in Asia. Back then it was called Faifo by the Spanish and French.
The two biggest traders, the Chinese and Japanese, have left their influence virtually everywhere. In the 17th century a bridge was built to connect the two nationalities. I had planned to seek out this historic bridge the next day. On a major fluke, after my meal, I only had to wander 50 yards and there it was!
The Japanese Bridge, or Pagoda Bridge.
From the Oriental Architecture website:
The bridge doubles as a temple, with shrines to several deities located inside. One theory of the bridge’s religious purpose is that it was built to subdue a world-spanning ‘mamazu’ dragon monster, whose head was located in India and its tail in Japan. The movement of the tail was believed to cause earthquakes in Japan. As Vietnam was located in the area of the mamazu’s back, the bridge was intended to pin the mamazu down, thus preventing any earthquakes.
Another cool feature of Hội An are the hanging silk lanterns. They are virtually everywhere throughout the town. It makes for a very beautiful nightscape.
After an evening of good grub, some sightseeing, wandering through a monsoon, a good night’s sleep, it was time to hit the breakfast buffet!!
More often than not, if you’re paying $40 for a hotel room, you might be offered a “continental breakfast”. At the Long Life Hotel it’s the exact opposite. There’s fresh pastries, fresh orange and watermelon juice, noodles & soup. To boot, there’s made-to-order banana pancakes, fried eggs and omelets. Quite the array.
Fresh, crispy baguettes are everywhere in Vietnam. They should be an option on every breakfast menu, anywhere! Tucking into a warm, crunchy baguette is the perfect start to the day.
Omelet With Everything.
A very well made omelet. The only thing missing was some aged cheddar.
This is what ten bucks gets you in Hội An.
Another famous Hội An dish is Cao Lầu.
Cao Lầu is somewhat hard to describe. There’s noodles, some pork, a whack of herbage, crackers and “sauce”. Unfortunately, I ventured into a rather “downscale” establishment and got a shoddy version. It wasn’t bad. Just, I dunno…cheap.
Due to a rather large intake of Vietnamese ice, I was starting to feel none too good. My appetite dropped off the charts and the humidity drained my energy considerably.
After a day or so of trying to recuperate, I called room service in hopes of revitalization. Unfortunately, the hotel’s restaurant was closed. Fortunately, the bus boy offered to go out and get my order from a nearby spot. That there is some service.
About twenty minutes later this unexpectedly large amount of food was delivered. An absolute feast for a small group. How much do you tip this kind of service? 30%? 50?
There’s Chicken Rice, White Rose and Prawn Spring Rolls. Alongside are rice paper, a sack of herbs and sliced cucumber to wrap the spring rolls.
Speaking of, I’d expected a couple, maybe three rolls. There’s ten rolls each with a huge prawn!! The whole lot…five bucks.
Could be that the tastiest snack I had in Hội An was possibly the least expensive.
Right outside the hotel was an inconspicuous Bánh mì stand. This is the Bánh mì find that Kim from I’m Only Here For The Food has asked about. For 75 cents I scooped up a crunchy baguette stuffed with caramelized pork, a big slather of pâté, mayo, cilantro, slivers of daikon, carrot and cuke. There’s also a dollop of mystery sauce I’ve yet to figure out. It was dark, fishy, garlicky and absolutely perfect.
The impossibly light and crispy baguette made this sandwich exceptional. Considering how hot and humid Vietnam is, I’m thoroughly perplexed how they keep their baguettes so damn fresh. Bread this good is a rare find…even in Vancouver. In Vietnam, it seems commonplace.
If there’s one word to describe Vietnamese cuisine, it would have to be “fresh”. The average street food vendor amasses his/her ingredients before dawn hoping to sell out before dusk. The food is meant to be eaten…not saved for later. From soups to sandwiches and everything in between, ingredients here are, more often than not, top quality.
Vietnam is filled with friendly, hard-working folk putting up some amazing food. Virtually everywhere you go you’re guaranteed high quality fare. I’ll definitely be back.