ADAM Bishop discovers the delightful range of culinary offerings in Vietnam’s seaside city of Nha Trang.
An exuberant young man spiritedly signals for me to sidle closer, his manic waving of metallic spatulas tempered by a warm smile I instantly trust. Fretfully brushing past several street hustlers thrusting an assortment of fresh durian fruit in my face, I draw closer to the man’s strange culinary dance, transfixed by a small bright sign pinned to his table advertising “Ice Cream Rolls”. With a brief exchange of polite nodding, the man’s smile promptly disappears behind a wall of steely concentration. Creamy batter is poured onto a cold press before it is hammered at a furious pace by a barrage of spatula strikes, the clanging of metal on metal punctuated by the sprinkling of hundreds and thousands of slices of fresh banana. When the batter can be battered no longer, it is smoothed out and pressed into a colourful Jackson Pollock-esque shape before being rolled and served. Handing me my new favourite treat, the vendor-turned-artisan looks slightly chuffed, perhaps confident in the knowledge that it will not be the last time I frequent this Edward Scissorhands of chilled confection.
Cheerfully, this is no isolated experience on the lively streets of Vietnam’s Nha Trang, home to a never-ending flurry of culinary delights of every ilk, the purveyors of which showcase their specialist cuisine via makeshift street stores that often sprawl onto the city’s stony streets. Food is never pre-packaged, rather it is sliced, diced, skewered, roasted, sweetened and salted in front of your eyes. A pleasant pastiche of aromas gently wafts through the thick moist air, the collective product of seasoned chooks rotating on spits over open flames, fragrant soups being swished around in giant copper pots, and juicy tropical fruit expertly carved up with sharp cleavers en masse with purposeful thrust.
Where the locals go
Beyond the plethora of diverse street stalls in Nha Trang, visitors on the prowl for some local treats can also choose from a seemingly endless supply of bricks-and-mortar restaurants and bars. Many of the shop fronts display multilingual signs, testament to the coastal destination’s broad cultural appeal. Unsurprisingly, the frontages with the brightest colours and flashiest veneers tend to offer the most western-style of food, so if it is an exploration of the truly local Vietnamese palate you are seeking, it’s best to take the time to search out where the locals eat. Often these hidden gems are discretely tucked away up dimly lit laneways or located above unexceptional shopfronts at the end of narrow, coiled stairwells. When these cherished treasures are finally unearthed, you can expect your reward to manifest both on the plate and in your wallet.
The top picks on the local’s menu include the country’s signature bun bo xao beef salad dish, a satisfying concoction of marinated wok fried beef, rice noodles, fresh Asian-style lettuce, roasted peanuts and garnished with subtle amounts of fresh chilli. The golden rule with bun bo xao is to give the ingredients a generous stir before you tuck in to ensure the flavours can mingle and deliver the brightest flavour punch possible.
Capitalising on the abundance of local tropical fruit, the Vietnamese-style cashew chicken stir-fry served inside the body of a fresh pineapple is another absolute must for food-lovers. Infused with a delectable coconut sauce and layered on a bed of steamed jasmine rice, tender strips of marinated chicken frolic with fresh pineapple chucks, vibrant red capsicum and thin slices of fresh lemongrass stalk.
Travellers would be a committing a heinous foodie crime of sorts if they depart Vietnam without consuming ample quantities of the ancient country’s iconic soup, pho. Typically made with either thin slices of chicken or beef, the aromatic broth brims with an ensemble of traditional Asian herbs and spices such as star anise, fresh ginger, Thai basil, coriander, and Saigon cinnamon. A healthy bunch of flat rice noodles are added before being embellished with a scattering of bean sprouts and a splash of hoisin sauce for added zest.
View from the top
When the trawling for culinary delights throughout the windy streets and rustic alcoves has your appetite calling for a short hiatus, reward your weary legs with a trip to Skylight’s 360 Skydeck, a restaurant and entertainment space located on the observation deck of the Nha Trang’s tallest building. Open throughout the day and night, there is no better vantage point in which to absorb all Nha Trang’s staggering tropical beauty, the urban sprawl hemmed in on both sides by long golden beaches and lush mountain ranges. During the heat of the late morning, spoil yourself with a traditional iced coffee. Vietnam is one of the largest coffee-producing nations in the world, so you can always expect the Robusta beans to be freshly ground and bursting with rich nutty and spicy flavours. The chilled incarnation is made by combining crisp filtered coffee with two tea spoons of condensed milk and then pouring over a layer of ice cubes. One vigorous stir and it’s bottoms up. Good morning Vietnam!