Fish heads in paradise

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  The spread at Bun ca Phuc is tastier than a thousand 5-star buffets

Like many of you, I have come to believe that driving a motorbike up National Highway 1 without a license in my pocket or a worry in my mind ranks high on the list of things that might kill me but still feel worth it.

My faith in the power of the 100cc vacation was shaken somewhere between Long Khanh and Khanh Hoa when I careened off the asphalt and into a slick patch of grass in an attempt to avoid a truck that swerved into my lane to pass (surprise) another truck.

I heard a crunch and some scraping. For a moment, on the ground, I had a brief existential meltdown.

Then I got up and realized that the only thing that had broken was my turn signal. As we continued, through the rain, to Phan Thiet, my passenger held me closer. Few things are as romantic as dodging death without injury.

In the morning we stopped at a mechanic who straightened out my front wheel and installed a new set of turn signals for four dollars.

The following day, we flew through the dragon fruit orchards of Binh Thuan, which looked as though someone had crushed up flamingos and sprinkled them over the earth. Black clouds gathered and chased us across the Khanh Hoa Province line, past giant windmills and into a corrugated tin cafe.

We spent an hour drinking coffee and slowly receding into the store to avoid the spattering rain that had broken out the minute we stepped in.

We got back on the highway just in time for another downpour, followed by lightning and darkness. The clouds opened just as we entered the broad, well-paved highway beyond Cam Ranh Airport.

At about 9 p.m., we arrived at the Mia Resort, a fastidious little paradise built on the coast. Clusters of bottom-lit palm trees and sleek villas led to a private beach.

No one quite knew what do when we sloshed into the lobby trailing road water and mud. They placed our sopping luggage onto a diesel-powered golf cart and puttered us down a cobble stone pathway to the beach.

(Weasel Warning: I spent a full week trying to weasel my way into every fancy resort in Nha Trang for free and only finally settled on the Mia Resort after the General Manager assured me that most professional weasels only receive free vouchers after publishing loving odes to the resort. Chances are, anything you've read about a fancy hotel in Vietnam was written by a similar weasel who received a free vacation or, at the very least, a free room upgrade and shoulder massage before putting pen to paper.)

Naturally, I found it to be a very, very nice place.

Once I had exchanged my clothes for a robe and my motorbike for a villa with a private pool, I did not want to leave.

I fantasized about stealing an earth-toned staff uniform and sleeping in unoccupied rooms, surviving on chocolates foraged from pillows and scones stolen from the breakfast buffet, until the police dragged me out by my flip-flops.

Reality set in as I signed my rather sizeable bill.

So we rolled down the winding cliff road into Nha Trang and put my bike on the train.

An incongruous diet of buffet meals (Greek salad, fried spring rolls, grilled lobster, cake and cheese don't a meal make) left us craving something cheap, intense and delicious.

So with just a few hours before our ride, we sought out a place that made one thing and made it really well.


Address: 53 Van Don Street, Nha Trang Town
Price: VND10,000 per bowl (you'll need at least two)
- Dau Ca Thu (Cod head) VND30,000
- Cha Ca sandwich VND13,000 a loaf

On the advice of a friend, we headed to Bun Ca Phuc, a small home restaurant for bowls of bun dau ca thu (cod head noodle soup).

The large and lively Ms. Hoi (pig, in Sino-Vietnamese) lorded over the place in loud purple striped pajamas. Out front, a series of tall stockpots gave off a faint ocean richness, as though she were serving bowls of the town itself. Inside the pots, thin pho-like rice noodles melded in a rich, salty seafood broth.

Hoi welcomed us into her brightly tiled dining room with great flair. When I asked to pee, she let out a booming laugh and directed me to façade of the abandoned bank next door.

I returned to find Ms. Hoi providing precise instructions on the use of her dreamy chili-loaded fish sauce.

As the rain poured outside, she came in with a plate of cha ca (fish cake, for lack of a better word), noodles and glorious fish head. The fierce-looking cod face fell apart with a poke and Ms. Hoi dispensed strong, free life advice (get married) while we sucked the gooey fat and skin off every bone.

By the time it came to leave, Hoi had packed us both fish cake sandwiches (hunks of cha ca slathered in her sweet chili fish sauce and folded into crisp bread) for the long train ride home.

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