There’s something about that first whiff of salty sea air that gets me all giddy. Then come the maddening slivers of blue and green that you can barely make out through the trees, like a harbinger of pleasure. Just being near the beach, I can practically feel the tension easing out of my shoulders.
At some point in my life, I simply must live by the seaside. Until then, my quick trips to Nha Trang, Vietnam’s premier beach destination will have to suffice.
And even if I can’t always stay at a secluded island retreat like a rock star, at least I know I’ll always be able to eat like one. While I love the beaches of southern Thailand, my beach foodie pick is still Nha Trang, for its great balance between Western comfort food (borscht, anyone?) and local fare.
On my last trip, I headed 20kms past the town on my way to Ninh Van Bay, past lobster farms and fishing boats plying the coast. On my way back, I stopped by one of the roadside stalls selling live seafood seemingly in the middle of nowhere and picked up a few kilograms of crab. I pretended to nod wisely as I listened to the back-and-forth between the cheery seller and my motorcycle driver about when during the month the crabs were supposedly the meatiest. I dutifully pressed the underbelly to test the firmness, like I knew what I was doing, and in the end, left with a bag full of crab as a peace offering for the friends I left behind in somewhat less posh accommodations. (Don’t worry, I made sure to send them real-time photos of me lounging by my plunge pool and swinging in the love seat suspended in my huge spa bathroom.)
Towards the back of the restaurant, tanks and basins are filled with all manner of clams, crab, shrimp, sea urchins and lobsters, ready for the picking. The seafood is weighed on the spot and you let the staff know how you want it cooked. I’ve heard rumors across Asia of unscrupulous restaurants going through the motions of letting customers pick out the best seafood, only for it to be substituted for lesser quality or even dead animals in the kitchen. Unfortunately, there’s no real foolproof countermeasure, other than standing there the whole time watching them cook which is no fun for anyone.
The Vietnamese have a million ways of cooking seafood and we were happy to work our way through each one. There’s the popular “steamed in beer” (hap bia) with the only accompaniment being a bit of lemon squeezed into a dish of salt and pepper and stirred into a simple paste, totally unadorned, designed to bring out the sweetness of the seafood. You can also get seafood steamed in coconut juice. Some dishes, especially clams, are grilled and served with a topping of scallion oil and peanuts. And there’s always the ubiquitous dipping sauce made of fish sauce, sugar, some type of acid (lime or vinegar) and chili to be had.
But my all-time favorite is definitely wok-fried crab in tamarind sauce which has me licking the tangy sweet and sour sauce right off the shells when all is said and done. This is the original finger-lickin’-good. I handed over my prized bag of roadside crab to the kitchen staff who were happy to cook them up for a couple of dollars.