Banh xeo is another dish beloved in Da Nang, and to sample one of its finest renditions we walk a couple of minutes down a narrow, nondescript alleyway to Banh Xeo Ba Duong. The xeo in the name (pronounced “say-o”) is culinary onomatopoeia for the sound that the savory pancakes make as they sizzle in pans. Made from corn-flour batter and embedded with shrimp and spring onions, they get their golden-yellow hue from turmeric, but the secret is most definitely in the sauce, one that includes pig liver, peanuts, chili, garlic, and shrimp paste, all ground into a heady mix. Viet gives me a lesson in banh xeo etiquette: you lay the crispy pancake on some rice paper, add in your fresh herbs, slide off one or two skewers of grilled pork, and roll up the whole gorgeous concoction before dunking it—no polite dipping here—into the sauce. One bite brings the five senses into action all at once—the textural interplay and mouthfeel, the aroma, the sights and sounds of the clamorous kitchen, and of course the brilliant harmony of flavors. They are so multilayered that it’s difficult to discern which is providing the most enjoyment.
Arguably the most famous iteration of banh—meaning any food made from flour, usually ground rice flour—is banh mi, a culinary reminder of France’s intrusion into Vietnamese history. At a street-side stall called Ba Lan, just one of seemingly thousands across the city, the baguettes are baked on-site and kept warm in an ancient black mini stove, removed only when it’s time to fill them with a prodigious combination of cheese, meats, pâtés, vegetables, herbs, and sauces. Wrapped in thin white paper, they’re the definitive Vietnamese takeaway.
The contrast in surroundings and cuisine couldn’t be greater just a 20-minute drive away, up over Monkey Mountain to the InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort, a mouthful in its own right. The breathtaking property hugs the cliffs, its white villas and suites blending seamlessly into the mountainside. Among the resort’s dining options is what many consider the finest international restaurant in Vietnam, La Maison 1888, where Pierre Gagnaire has lately taken the reins from another French culinary legend, Michel Roux Sr.
Here, Gagnaire’s team marries the best of French and local Vietnamese produce in dishes such as sublime poached Brittany oysters with champagne and local banana blossom, the symbiosis of two cuisines and the 65-year-old chef’s philosophy writ large. Though not around during my visit (he’s based in Paris), Gagnaire later tells me in an email that what excites him most about his latest venture is the way Vietnamese cuisine uses herbs and vegetables, like banana blossom. “It’s an elegant cuisine—fragrant, light, and aromatic. We try to translate the essence of this through my own sensibility.” When one of the world’s most renowned chefs feels inspired, it’s no surprise to learn that he’s not the only one.
A short drive south lies the beachside haven of The Nam Hai, a luxurious but understated hideaway of villas 15 minutes up the road from the historic port town of Hoi An, where another international chef is pushing local produce. Indeed, New Zealander Richard Wilson seems most at home in his herb and vegetable garden, where he grows everything from lemongrass to peanuts, pineapples to bitter gourd for the property’s award-winning restaurants.
One of many bowls in which they feature is cao lau, a Hoi An–style noodle dish with roast pork and coriander, mint, basil, and more unfamiliar leaves joining noodles and fried squares of dough. The real hero, however, is a unique local sauce made from chili, tomato, sesame, and garlic. Sweet and sticky and dark all at once, it’s the ideal accompaniment to any dish, but goes especially well with Wilson’s muc nuong calamari, which arrives at my table perfectly charred from the poolside grill. The chef explains Vietnam’s extraordinary food diversity by pointing out that even though Hoi An is barely 30 kilometers south of Da Nang, its specialties are utterly distinct, and its chili sauce is hard to find anywhere else.