The first stop of the night doesn't look like much.
Summer and I are on the side of the road in Da Nang, and like many of the narrow, motorbike-clogged back streets of the city, the cacophony of sights and sounds near-indecipherable to foreigners all blur together. But good food is to come, I'm told, so I follow along.
Da Nang, perhaps best known by travelers for its beach resorts, is Vietnam's fifth largest city, and its feet stand in two worlds. Look up and your eyes fill with views of glistening skyscrapers, their sides adorned with garish neon. But the streets are full of flimsy aluminum tables and cheap plastic chairs, seating for the family-owned shops and restaurants that line the sidewalks.
It's these back streets in central Da Nang that I wander with Summer Le one sticky night in July. Though the city is a haven for traditional Vietnamese cooking, it's not the easiest place for travelers. Signs are only in Vietnamese and shopkeepers don't go out of their way to make tourists happy. But the steaming noodles, aromatic chicken rice, and crackly banh mi you pass on every corner are too enticing a cipher to ignore. So if you want to eat well—and you will, if you know where to look—you need a guide. That's where Summer comes in.
A former foreign affairs professional turned food blogger, gastro-tourism guide, and hostel owner, Summer is one of the only names in English language food writing in Da Nang, where she's been covering the local food culture for nearly five years. She and her website, DanangCuisine.com, have been featured in media all over Asia, including Vietnam's largest broadcasting network, VTV, as well as in the New York Times as an ambassador of Central Vietnamese cooking.
In addition to chronicling the best food Da Nang has to offer, Summer conducts street food tours by request. She structures her tours to show off what she considers to be the best and most unique dishes in Da Nang. "I like to show very local, original dishes. Not just the good food, but what's interesting."
"I base my tours around my top 10 favorite dishes in Da Nang," Summer tells me before we begin. "It's easy to pick the best restaurants because everyone here knows where they are." Our tour will take us to shops scattered around the central district, some within walking distance, others a short cab ride away.
We hop out of a cab and I pause for a moment on the curb of Hoàng Diệu Street, soaking in the kind of sweat you only get from Southeast Asian humidity. But Summer's already started down a narrow alley behind me. At the end of a 200-foot corridor is a bright sign marking our destination, Ba Duong. Locals know Ba Duong as one of the best places for banh xeo, a crackling fried rice flour crepe filled with bean sprouts, shrimp, spring onions, and mung beans.
In the absence of crowdsourced review sites like Yelp and Foursquare, restaurants in cities like Da Nang thrive on old fashioned word of mouth. When I ask Summer how I would have found this place on my own, she responds that "you just need to know the name. You don't need an address because everyone knows it."
As we make our way inside to a table in the back, we pass an open kitchen brimming with busy women helming a curved, smoke-blackened grill set up with circular cutouts for frying the rice pancakes integral to banh xeo. Cooks pass ingredients over and around stacks of shrimp and pots of broth, a choreographed chaos characteristic of many of Da Nang's small restaurants, which frequently eschew larger menus in favor of a single specialty. Summer and I barely utter a word before our banh xeo is brought to us—there's nothing else to order.
The banh xeo is accompanied by pork skewers, rice paper, and a pork liver and peanut sauce with an irresistible savory funk. "The secret to this place is how crispy the pancake is," Summer tells me. "I can make it crispy at home, but it doesn't stay crispy. I think they fry it once and refrigerate it overnight and refry it to make it stay crispy." Summer takes a sheet of rice paper, places the rice pancake inside, and fills it with the accompanying vegetables and pork, rolls it all up, and dips it into the pork liver sauce before taking a bite.
That bite encapsulates so many of the defining flavors and textures of Vietnamese cuisine: sweet, savory, herbal, and spicy, cilantro and bean sprouts balancing salty pork and chilies. The final touch is a dip into the pork liver sauce. "It's the thing that makes the dish. Ba Duong is famous for it." The recipe is a secret, but Summer ventures that it contains puréed pork liver, hoisin sauce, peanuts, and chilies. It's a blast of flavor that feels like the porcine equivalent of caviar. I'd buy bottles of it if I could.
Once we polish off the banh xeo, Summer dials a number and a cab meets us at the curb within minutes. Da Nang might not have Uber, but cabs are plentiful and a phone call away. She speaks a few words and we once again join Da Nang's unending current of cabs and motorbikes to seek out Summer's favorite dish. At Ba Vi on Lê Đình Dương, Summer introduces me to the signature dish of Da Nang: mi quang. 'Mi' means noodle; 'Quang' refers to Quang Nam province, which included Da Nang until it became an independent municipality in 1996 (mi also means noodle).
Summer describes mi quang as half noodle soup and half noodle salad. It comes in a bowl filled with thin rice noodles, a shallow pool of broth, and pork, shrimp, or chicken. Other toppings include chilled jellyfish or eel, but the dish is best defined by the use of raw peanut oil and cu nen, a local ingredient like garlic, which is fried in the oil before joining the bowl. The dish is then finished off with cracked rice crackers, crunchy banana blossoms, green chilies, and lemons. "It's a lot of ingredients, but it has to be the right ingredients or it becomes something else." According to Summer, mi quang is only really popular in Central Vietnam, where there's so much variation that it's hard to effectively define it at all.
The broth and noodles drink in all those toppings and bring them together. That raw peanut oil and cu nen lend a strong nuttiness while all the greens and chilies keep the dish fresh. Summer tells me that historically, Da Nang was a poor region, and it cooks often couldn't afford the beef bones that make up rich soup broths like pho. Lighter, shallower broths like mi quang's offer a taste of soup's richness while also allowing for a grab bag of aromatic toppings.
We walk off our mi quang down a few blocks of Lê Đình Dương Street before turning off onto a side street for a taste of bo tai chanh, which translates literally as "rare beef lime." You can find this rare tartare at Hoa Tu.
"We don't have a lot of rare food in Vietnam. People have a reluctant attitude toward it." But clearly Hoa Tu's doing something right. The beef is first marinated in salt, pepper, and chicken stock before curing in lemon juice to "cook" the meat like ceviche. It cures until it loses its raw glossiness and takes on the pale body of rare beef in a bowl of pho. Then it's seasoned with soy sauce and garnished with shallots. The flavor is sour, citrusy, and slightly funky with a sweet finish, but like a good ceviche, it doesn't taste too cured. The beef practically melts in my mouth.
In our cab on the way to our next destination, Summer explains that a number of stalls are popular for their proximity to local schools. We're on our way to one—Suan Trang, which lies across the street from the largest high school in Da Nang and specializes in goi bo kho (literally: salad beef jerky). A dish of shredded papaya, mint, spicy dried beef, and that amazing pork liver sauce I first encountered at Ba Duong, goi bo kho is a favorite after-school snack among Da Nang's high schoolers.
The jerky is cut into thin, chewy strips that have a potent kick, but it's cooled down by the papaya and mint. Summer advises me to mix the beef and papaya with the rich liver sauce at the bottom. It beats the hell out of the 7-11 taquitos I downed after high school back home.
After our meal at Suan Trang, Summer and I have to part ways. But armed with some more of her recommendations, a basic glossary of vital terms to know, and tips like how to tell which restaurant has fresh ingredients, I strike out on my own for more.
My first solo stop technically has no name. It's a Chinese street stall referred to as Mi Total because it's across the street from a gas station of the same name. Mi Total is actually one of the only honest-to-goodness street food operations in Da Nang. The entirety of its outfit sits on the sidewalk, including the makeshift kitchen, and it has been that way for what Summer estimates is 30 years.
While Mi Total serves Chinese food prepared by the same Chinese family that opened it 30 years ago, it also offers Vietnamese-influenced dishes like pho ap chao, essentially noodles packed into a disk and then deep fried. The disk is then cut into chunks and served with beef, carrots, mushrooms, bok choy, and soy sauce.
The noodles have a substantial crunch that gives way to softer steamed chewy noodles inside. Beef and bok choy recall Chinese cooking, but a dusting of cilantro brings some Vietnamese flavor. It's a subtle but compelling culinary mashup.
I couldn't do a street food tour of Vietnam without some pho and banh mi. So I head off to Pho 75 on Ngô Gia Tự across from the Chi Lang Stadium. You may have a Pho 75 in your town (the name comes from the year of the end of the Vietnam war), but you can't beat getting pho from its source.
Da Nang's Pho 75 offers a spectacular southern-style pho, which has a clearer, cleaner broth than its beefier northern cousin. Southern pho is also more heavily seasoned with salt, pepper, and spices. Pho 75's broth needs little fussing with condiments like chili or hoisin. The noodles are tender and flavorful, the beef sliced thick.
You'll find banh mi carts all over Da Nang selling sandwiches for as little as 30 cents each. The city even has its own unique style, the banh mi ga, which translates to 'chicken bread.' Beware the misnomer—in Da Nang, chicken is more expensive than beef, and this "chicken" sandwich is actually made with cottony pork floss.
At a little stand called Co Chi, which is on the southeast corner of Pasteur and Phan Chau Trinh with at least two other stands named identically (be sure to head to the southeast one, she points out), banh mi ga is served on a round toasted bun as opposed to the traditional baguette and with the aforementioned pork floss (called 'cotton meat' in Da Nang), which is made by stewing pork in soy sauce and sugar and then drying it in a low oven.
That pork becomes sweet, meaty cotton candy, and it gets topped with green papaya pickle, carrot, and mayo for a sticky-sweet sandwich with a slow burn of chili. "I can't resist the sweet and salty taste of cotton meat, the sourness of carrot and papaya pickle, the spiciness of chili sauce, and the fatness of mayonnaise."
By the end of my stay in the city, I realize I've done little with my free time besides eating my way through the streets, rarely with any regrets, and rarely for more than $5 US. It's a shame that most travelers to the city stay locked up in their resort hotels, never taking a risk and following a crowd to a popular stall. But if you're willing to take the plunge? Da Nang will give you all the flavor you can handle.