For many foreign travellers, Da Nang is not a remarkable tourist spot but merely the name of the transit airport between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, where they would either head north to admire Hue’s imperial palaces and royal tombs or drive South to soak in the romantic atmosphere at Hoi An ancient town.
On any culinary journey, while Hue styled spicy beef and pork noodle soup bún bò Huế and banh mi shops in Hoi An have basked in the limelight, Da Nang’s cuisine has remained small, quiet niche, unfamiliar to a wide audience.
Yet, this coastal city recently appears to be increasingly popular with domestic visitors, many of whom arrive for an appealing encounter with the favored local dishes.
As the economic and cultural hub of the central region, the foods here are notably different from those of Hanoi and Saigon.
It reflects a blend of sweet-savoury tastes with complex garnishing and an abundance of aromatic herbs.
Here, you can easily find the elegant classic noodle mì quảng, the chicken-and-rice medley cơm gà, the steamed rice flour cakes bánh xèo yet the taste is strikingly distinctive from anywhere else.
It is also the destination for very exotic, original dishes.
The unusual fetal quail eggs with courgettes cút lộn om bầu or fetal duck eggs in tamarind sauce trứng lộn rang me for examples are very warming, comforting, fortifying, and fun to eat but definitely not for fainted hearts.
Da Nang is heaven when it comes to noodle with locals regularly downing them, for breakfast, lunch and supper, at homes, in restaurants or at roadside stands.
It can be eaten wet and dry, with broth or stocky sauce and comes with different shapes and thickness of cassava, rice or mung beans.
Let’s start with the most popular one – fish noodle bún chả cá which appears to be on every street corner. Family run restaurants like Madame Phien at 63B Le Hong Phong or 113/3 Nguyen Chi Thanh are often filled up with locals at any time of the day.
Bursting with ingredients, colours and flavours, this recipe is definitely reserved for those fish-craving souls.
The generous amounts of crabmeat, huge trunks of tuna, plenty of fish pies mix wonderfully with bamboo shoot stems, bean curds and most surprisingly pieces of pumpkin. The sweet and well-balanced broth would not be complete without sprigs of basil, coriander, mint and a dash of onion-pickled vinegar.
While this fish noodle soup is very refreshing on a summer day, nothing beats the earthy flavor of bún mắm nêm on a rainy night. The whole neighbourhood of Tran Ke Xuong is where you can pop in for this regional favourite.
The secret of bún mắm nêm lies in the exceptional brown and reddish paste that is made from freshly caught anchovies putting through a lengthy fermentation period. To say the truth, the stinky essence of the fermented fish can be haunting for some, yet once you get more familiar with Vietnamese palate, you will probably get hooked up easily with it.
The display of this dish is a sight to behold: rice noodle is assembled on a bed of aromatic herbs, topped up with roasted or steamed pork or even better, both, sprinkle of green papaya, jackfruit, the magic anchovies paste, garnished with peanuts, fried shallots and puffy rice crackers. Now all you need to do it to stir well and enjoy. The wholesome, rustic, electric flavors kick in the moment you devour the first spoon and very soon, you are hungry for more.
Mid-day snacks are also a big thing in the food map of Da Nang.
Watch out for those street vendors balancing long shoulder poles holding cookware and baskets who will sell a specific specialty that they, or perhaps their parents or even grandparents, perfected for years.
If you are lucky to find them, which is not so hard, you can easily nibble 10 – 15 tiny portions of bánh bèo chén, steamed rice dumplings topped with fried shallots and shrimp just for the fun of it for less than $2.
A similar name but different concept, bánh xèo is also a local treat. The crispy, airy base of pounded rice, which look a little like fried taco shells, is filled with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts rolled with lettuce and a heap of other unnamed herbs, dipped in the accompanying only-God-know-how-they-make-it sauce.
Voilà, you have sweet, savory, spicy, cilantro and salty pork, all in one. If you need a tip off for a name, bánh xèo Bà Dưỡng, K280/23, Hoang Dieu street is worth a try.
On one of those days, if you feel attracted to a savory bite, you have to look no more but heading directly to 203 Han Thuyen for a light meal and ask them for steamed mackerel wrapped in rice paper cá nục hấp cuốn bánh tráng.
This is very much a do-it-yourself dish: in no order you put a bulky piece of mackerel which was previously marinated and steamed with onion and garlic, a jumble of crunchy raw morning glory, soft, aromatic mints and corianders, stuff snugly into a feather-light rice wrapper and dip generously into a side bowl of magic sweet and sour chilli fish sauce nước mắm.
As night fell, the sun-drenched streets of Da Nang are full of flimsy aluminum tables and cheap plastic stools, typical seating for the eatery joints and shops that line up the sidewalks.
Without the bistro ambience, stylized décor of upscale restaurants; it is thrilling to take a crawl amid the choreographed chaos of street food stalls here.
Beach-side seafood dining like the busy Lộng Gió in Tran Hung Dao street serves the most mouth-watering fresh shellfish in town at an unbeatable price, just to name a few: scallops grilled with spring onions and peanuts, clams steamed in lemongrass and chili, blood cockles fried in garlic, slipper lobster steamed in beer.
The list of much loved delicacies in Da Nang can be endless and you can be sure that following the crowd to a popular stall generally wouldn’t cost you more than $15 for two.
So get out of the resort compound, jump on a xe om, engage in the first eating spot you find and be ready to absorb all the flavors you can handle.
Photos by Chi Quoc