Former culinary enfant terrible Anthony Bourdain isn’t an obvious statesman. Yet the brusque American chef and TV personality has somehow emerged as an unofficial envoy for Vietnam, frequently citing both the country and its cuisine as among his favourites. And when former US president Barack Obama decided that he wanted to sample some dollar beers and bun cha (pork patties and vermicelli noodles) on a visit to Hanoi in 2016, it was Bourdain he famously chose to chow down with.
While piloting a motorbike around Danang, I discover that the feel-good factor engendered by that well-publicised street food summit is still evident. As I potter along the coast to the picturesque Son Tra Peninsula, I spot a restaurant named after the former US president, its signage emblazoned with his grinning face. Yet while affection for the politician seems undimmed, Bourdain’s reputation has taken a hit among foodies in Danang.
A recent episode of his show Parts Unknown, which focused on Central Vietnam, completely bypassed Danang – an omission that Summer Le, a New York Times-featured food blogger, tour operator and something of a screen personality herself, was none too thrilled about.
“He should have renamed that particular episode ‘Parts Known’,” she quips as we hunker down at a table at Mi Quang Ba Vi. We are about to tuck into bowls of mi quang, a riotous melange of broad rice noodles with pork, shrimp, banana blossom, herbs and peanuts – finished off with a spoonful of sweet-spicy chilli jam. “Instead of eating bird’s nest soup and lobster in Hue, he should have visited the traditional villages making rice paper and fish sauce near here.”
Few items symbolise Danang’s humble yet generous food philosophy better than mi quang, which evolved in the surrounding province of Quang Nam. It is just one of several delicious specialties – both indigenous and from elsewhere in Vietnam – perfected at venues around the city, many of which are pit stops on Summer’s Funtastic Danang Food Tour.
Born and bred in Danang, my guide is laid-back, friendly and quietly feisty, not to mention fiercely proud of her hometown. Her tours are lovingly curated to showcase old and new favourites alike. We plot our way through busy Honda-packed avenues to street-side vendors, and down narrow alleys to thronged eateries littered with empty beer cans and alive with excited conversation. It’s a truly local experience that feels totally removed from the swanky five-star hotels that line the city’s famous beaches.
Highlights from our excursion include the moist and crisp banh xeo (savoury crepe) enjoyed at the alleyway eatery Ba Duong (23 Hoang Dieu) as well as a delightfully light and airy banh mi (baguette sandwich) stuffed with pork floss, pâté, shredded green papaya and chilli from Banh Mi Ba Lan (62 Trung Nu Vuong), which blows expensive versions of this distinctly on-trend sandwich out of the water. I end my evening odyssey sated and sympathetic to Summer’s incredulity at Danang’s lack of foodie fame.
Part of the city’s problem is its status as a relative upstart. Although its roots can be traced back centuries, it was not until the 1800s that Danang usurped Hoi An as the region’s most important port. By then, Hoi An and the country’s imperial capital, Hue, 100 kilometres to the north, had already established themselves as centres of culinary excellence. Hue was where the best cooks came to serve the notoriously fussy emperors, while Hoi An benefitted from long-term contact with regional trading powers. Faced with such competition, Danang suffered in comparison.
Vietnamese food can be humble, but it is always cooked with love
Nowadays, its two rivals largely use their former glories to appeal to visitors, while Danang has established itself as one of the most dynamic cities in Vietnam. Its investment-friendly climate means that it’s a thriving business hub, while new luxury hotels and championship golf courses make it a viable alternative to tourism powerhouses such as Bali and Phuket.
It’s little wonder then that prominent players on the food scene, such as Summer, see a bright gastronomic future. “A new city on the rise means new restaurants, new food, new chefs,” she says. “That is why the Vietnamese consider Danang the food capital of Central Vietnam.”
What makes the city even more mouth-watering is the fact that it’s not just Vietnamese food that is whetting appetites. When I first visited around eight years ago, the city’s culinary scene was still relatively localised. A meal of grilled shrimp with a simple dip of pepper and salt mixed with lime juice, washed down with an iced La Rue beer, was certainly a memorable experience, but more sophisticated fare was thin on the ground.
These days, discerning diners are increasingly spoilt for choice. The city has serious culinary credentials in the shape of La Maison 1888, the fine dining outlet at the spiffy InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort. It’s overseen by French maestro Pierre Gagnaire, whose eponymous Paris restaurant has three Michelin stars.
Another standout is the innovative fusion cuisine at Fat Fish – a marriage of culinary sensibilities engendered by local restaurateur Duc Tran and his fellow chef and co-owner Alberto Colombo from Italy. Here, I wash down signature dishes like the five-spice, pan-fried duck breast with soba noodles, and seabass with ginger jam, with glasses of Pasteur Street IPA. The effervescent Duc – whose ponytail and wisecracking manner attest to long periods working in kitchens in surf spots across the US and Central America – explains why he feels the Danang dining scene is gaining strong momentum these days.
“There’s some fantastic produce here,” says the 48-year-old owner of acclaimed restaurants Mango Mango, Mango Rooms and Mai Fish in Hoi An. “We source everything we use from within a 50-kilometre radius. Not only do we have seafood from the ocean; there’s also a growing focus on organic farming in this region. And with a bigger demand from young, increasingly wealthy locals as well as tourists, Danang is fast becoming the place to eat, drink and be merry in Vietnam.”
For my last meal in the city, I act on a tip from Summer and take a stroll to Thanh Hien seafood restaurant, just round the corner from the A La Carte hotel where I am staying. “They do the best crab in the world,” she enthuses. Like many of the top local places in Danang, its utilitarian metal tables and erratic service likely won’t win it any charm awards. However, the plump, meaty chunks of crab in tamarind sauce are worthy of the most salubrious surroundings.
As I lift the sticky, succulent morsels to my mouth, a quote from Gagnaire comes to mind. When he was interviewed about his role at La Maison 1888, he waxed lyrical about the wonders of Vietnamese food. “It can be humble,” he said. “But it’s always cooked with passion and love.”
Bourdain may have missed a trick by overlooking Danang in the past, but you can’t help suspecting that he’d get behind the sentiments of his fellow chef.
Food for thought
A bowl of broad rice noodles with pork, shrimp, banana blossom, herbs and peanuts, mi quang is the quintessential Danang dish. Turmeric is often added to the noodles, as are extras like hard-boiled egg, chilli pepper and banh trang me (toasted sesame rice crackers). In Danang, a rendition with punchy soup stock, tender pork and juicy shrimp make Mi Quang Ba Vi (105 Le Dinh Duong) a perennial favourite with locals.
Funtastic Danang Food Tour
Run by local food blogger Summer Le, this tour takes visitors to five of her favourite spots across the city, including famous eateries Ba Duong and Mi Quang Ba Vi. summerle.com
Danang Food Tour
A Danang resident since 2009, Shaun Stevens’ morning tours include market visits, while his evening excursions can be rambunctious, beer-fuelled affairs. danangfoodtour.com
Central Vietnam food tour
For an overview of Central cuisine, this culinary journey sees guests feast their way south from Hue via Danang before ending in Hoi An. backyardtravel.com
This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine.