Mui Ne Trip Report
Mui Ne Trip Report
Just got back from a week in Saigon and Mui Ne. I'm breaking the report down into two parts. The short answer is that Mui Ne is a culinary wasteland, and Saigon is the promised land of milk and honey. Sort of a heaven/hell experience, if you will. Assuming that hell is moderately overcooked seafood at fairly low prices. Full report on Mui Ne follows:
We stayed at the Mui Ne Sailing Club, which is great if you like kiteboarding, and kind of insanely windy if you don't. Food is basically resort food: a narrow selection of dumbed-down local foods, plus hamburgers, pizza, and other representatives of international cuisine. The crabcake wrap was nice. The Sailing Club does make an effort to provide a wide variety of foods - they list Afghan, Indonesian, and Turkish items on the menu. Overall, the food is very modern-restauranty, fish filets with fruit salsas and the like. The food isn't badly made and the service is nice. It's just not anything you need to travel to Vietnam to eat.
We made a number of attempts to leave the resort and eat good Vietnamese food, failing every time.
The first night, we were recommended to Ruang Forest Restaurant, which is a largish restaurant with musicians and a lot of “theming” - nets, boats, fish ponds, etc. The “Forest Style” crab was described as grilled crab with tamarind sauce. The reality was a medium-small swimming crab cooked to a nice degree, i.e. not overdone, and covered with a tragic ketchup sauce. Not so good.
The green mango salad with soft shell crab may have been very authentic, but was not overly tasty. Or at least was not for me. It was a green mango salad, with pieces of soft shell crab mixed in. Said crab was pickled or salt cured or something. In any event, the shell was very tough to chew through, and the crab itself had a powerfully salty, shrimp-paste like flavor. Sort of like eating a jar of shrimp paste with a tough shell mixed in. The crab gave the salad as a whole a very salty flavor. Putting the salad on the provided sesame cracker didn't really help. Not popular.
Shrimp grilled with garlic was done nicely and tasted like it claimed: fresh shrimp grilled with garlic. Probably the best dish of the night, in close competition with “flowering cabbage” in oyster sauce, which was a green vegetable sauteed in an oyster-sauce based sauce. The result wasn't just “vegetables with oyster sauce,” which I eat a lot here in China, but something a lot tastier and more complex. They used the oyster-sauce as the starting point, rather than the goal, and wound up with a very nice dish.
The second night, we followed the Lonely Planet's recommendation to Cay Bang, which was billed as a local Vietnamese seafood place for seafood. “The local Vietnamese” part of the description seems accurate, and they definitely have seafood on the menu. The crowd seemed overwhelmingly Vietnamese, and despite the English language menus, their ability to handle customers such as ourselves who don't speak Vietnamese was pretty severely limited. This might be a great restaurant if you are Vietnamese or are with someone who can speak fluently. For a foreigner such as myself, not so much. It's a very large, bare-bones seafood palace at one end of the resort strip. The prices appeared about double the prices listed at most of the foreigner-targeted seafood restaurants on the strip. I'm not sure if I was supposed to bargain (I didn't try), or if this is the difference between live seafood (at Cay Bang) and seafood on ice (at the strip restaurants) or what. FWIW, the board propped in the room with the seafood tanks (where you can pick out your meal) had the same prices as listed on the menu I was given. We ordered grilled squid, steamed shrimp in coconut water, a grilled grouper, stir-fried morning glory, and steamed rice. The steamed shrimp had no taste of coconut, but were cooked nicely, as was the morning glory. Everything else, including the rice, was noticeably overcooked. Actually, the rice was not so much overcooked as it was very dry. My daughter pulled a quarter-sized, dessicated lump out of her mouth, commenting “Daddy – dry rice!” The restaurant is the the size of a small village, so perhaps we just ran into some quality control issues. I have no idea. Ordering food and settling the bill was complex enough.
The third night we were recommended to Huong Vu, which apparently has several locations. It's one of the tourist-targeted restaurants with a tray of seafood on ice out front. We had a grilled giant shrimp, seafood spring rolls, summer rolls, “Hong Vu” fried rice, and fried morning glory. I watched them grill the giant shrimp closely, hoping to learn the secret seafood grilling techniques of Vietnamese cooks. I should have saved my time. The end result came out about the same or worse (i.e. overcooked) than the shrimp I buy from the grocery store here and grill at home, although cheaper. The shrimp was about 200g and cost about 4.50 USD. The seafood spring rolls were okay, and did taste of some sort of unidentified seafood, and the fried rice was likewise inoffensive. The summer rolls were sort of dry and otherwise underwhelming. None of the food was particularly special, and generally did not meet the standards you would find at say, the Eden Mall in Northern Virginia.
Which sums up our Mui Ne experience: not awful, but consistently overcooked seafood, and generally not as good as eating in Northern Virginia.
We also stayed in one of the resort west of Mui Ne on the coastal road for several days as a part of a month's trip in VN just past month, and while I agree with you on most what you report, we tremendously enjoyed about 10 street food stalls that were busy and packed with locals just across from the fishing market near the town in early mornings as the market was finishing up to accommodate them.
There's also a general store/cafe atop steep concrete bank that leads to the sea where local fishermen gathered to drink coffee as well as the scene overlooking the market and activity both of which we enjoyed as well, and in fact has become embedded in our lasting memory of Vietnamese coffee (and tea to follow) even after a rough trek into the central highlands.
The only drawback here was that the food vendors were only to be seen in the mornings (around 6-8am -ish) and our hope to sample them further in the afternoons or evenings were unrewarding and disappointing even with what seems to be wood-coal grilled live varieties of seafood but packed with tourists joints lined along that coastal road, and as you said consistently overcook; this wasn't the case at all in Saigon where grilled seafoods were usually perfectly cooked and seasoned/spiced that are uniquely Vientamese.
Here are some pics...