Vietnam’s third largest city is second to none when it comes to homegrown cuisine, as a tour of eateries both here and in nearby Hoi An reveals.
Vietnam famously enchanted both the author Graham Greene and his protagonist Thomas Fowler in The Quiet American. Four decades later, the contemporary chronicler Anthony Bourdain similarly fell under the country’s spell the first time he visited: “The food, culture, landscape and smell; they’re all inseparable. It just seemed like another planet; a delicious one that sort of sucked me in and never let go.”
He’s not alone. Visitors (myself included) frequently cite food as the principal reason for their journey, and on this trip, I’ve come to eat my way through Da Nang, the country’s third largest city. Located halfway down Vietnam’s long, S-shaped coastline, Da Nang is a big and bustling port town with a bayside setting that gives its palm-lined waterfront an occasional air of Miami, even if it lacks the sights and sophistication of Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi. In common with those places, however, Da Nang also boasts a fiercely proud and unique culinary tradition, making it one of the most compelling food destinations anywhere in Asia, especially when you add nearby Hoi An into the mix.
My first stop after settling in is Mi Quang Ba Vi—Mrs. Vi’s Noodles—a 40-year-old establishment whose octogenarian owner is something of a local legend. This is explained to me by Viet, a Da Nang native and 28-year-old economics lecturer whose time studying in Melbourne makes him the perfect guide for my Funtastic Da Nang Food Tour. As with almost all small businesses and restaurants in Vietnam, families tend to live above where they work, and Ba Vi is no exception; it feels like you’re eating in someone’s front room. The plastic stools are so low that we’re almost squatting on our haunches, but Viet says this is a good sign. “The lower the stool, the cheaper the food! The cheapest comes sitting on the pavement.”
Ba Vi specializes in what is arguably Da Nang’s favorite and most iconic noodle dish, mi quang. Every family makes it, sometimes every day for every meal, and each has their own recipe. Mi quang is all about the layering of textures and flavors—fresh greens, banana blossom and herbs, rice noodles and shrimp—even before the broth, a slow-boiled stock of pork, beef, fish, and chicken bones, is poured over top. Lime is liberally squeezed for sourness, spring onion and coriander are added for extra zing, and peanuts and broken rice crackers provide a crunch. It’s the epitome of Vietnam’s culinary DNA, namely that food should stimulate all five senses.
Viet introduces me to some other local specialties, including cha bo, a delicious sausage made from ground beef and steamed in banana leaf. Although it’s not the prettiest thing you’ll eat in Vietnam, it’s sweet and subtle and stupidly moreish. Nem chua is fermented raw pork, not half as terrifying as it sounds, with heat from the chili peppers, pungency from the garlic, and sour notes from the curing. And then there’s tre, a ubiquitous street snack of marinated and ground up pig snout, face, ear, and skin. That may sound like the crunchy Filipino favorite sisig, but it’s actually more like jellyfish in its surprisingly chewy, stringy consistency.