Qui Nhon in Phu Yen Province is not exactly on the beaten path. Most tourists in Vietnam usually find themselves going for the happy chaos of Ho Chi Minh, the sultry beaches of Nha Trang or the history andculture of Hanoi. Qui Nhon’s sleepy little airport gives way to an idyllic countryside of narrow roads,manicured rice paddies, mountain ridges lush with tropical foliage and the occasional herd of sprightly water buffalo causing traffic.
Between Xuan Canh and Song Cau is a small community of fishing villages with nary a McDonalds or 7-Eleven. What you’ll find instead are salt flats, fish pens and seas teeming with all sorts of edible marine life. In town, cherubic faces greet passersby with smiles past tiny roads where people gingerly avoid flocks of chickens to head for roadside stores offering rice wine fermented with snakes and lizards. It is here in this solitary place that a breathtakingly gorgeous hideaway awaits, away from prying eyes, the madness of the urban sprawl and the frantic pace of the corporate lifestyle.
Bai Tram (pronounced “Buy Cham,” meaning bay cham tree) lies hidden in a cove nestled among rolling hills, more than a hundred meters of talcum powder-fine sand and powerful waves surrounded by verdant jungles of coconut, palm and aloe vera. Seven private villa complexes line the shore flanking the main restaurant and lounge area, hidden from plain sight from the shore. Each villa was uncomplicated yet tasteful and luxurious. I could easily picture James Bond surreptitiously ensconced inside one with a stunning companion, enjoying a shared bath in a hot tub or engaged in some post-coital cuddling on a sumptuous queen-sized bed.
Fruit of the tram tree
Meals at Bai Tram were a combination of fare simple and elegant, both continental and local. Breakfasts started out with a fruit cup of dragon fruit, pomelo, watermelon, papaya, pineapple, rambutan and longan with a fresh yogurt dip sprinkled with passionfruit seeds. We were then served a bread sampler of home-baked blueberry and chocolate muffins, chocolate danishes, tiny baguettes and mini croissants served with pomelo jam and mixed fruit (the same fruits from the fruit cup) marmalade, with a juice shot of either watermelon, passionfruit or papaya. From there, it would move on to the exotic.
We sampled some bánh xèo, a Vietnamese rice flour pancake with egg, pork, squid, mushroom, bean sprouts, spring onions, shrimp, mustard leaves and served with a tomato, pineapple and fish sauce dip. The Vietnamese prefer to wrap the mustard leaves around pieces of the bánh xèo before they take a bite, much like veggie rolls. Another traditional favorite was made available–pho bo or Vietnamese slim rice vermicelli soup with braised beef slices, spring onion, bean sprouts and toasted garlic. It came with a side of lime, coriander, basil leaves and chili peppers that could be added to the soup to taste.
Lunch and supper proved quite colorful. Starters included pumpkin soup with cappuccino style lace pattern of cream on the top and fried calamari with a salad of carrot, basil leaves and papaya with passionfruit juice. We were also offered green salad with onion, tomato, arugula, olives and black vinegar as well as fried wanton stuffed with minced fish and a salad of basil, carrot and cucumber. Of special note was the chả giò or deep fried crispy spring rolls stuffed with fish and shrimp mince and the tenderness of a plate of vongole clams surrounding a huge mussel known in the area as sò mai, served up with dipping sauces of hot chili with lemon, salt and Vietnamese black pepper and chili and ginger. One of my favorites was the minced pork molded on lemongrass sticks, similar to chao tôm (shrimp pops on sugar cane sticks).
We learned early on that the Vietnamese kitchen absolutely requires fresh vegetables, which they love to prepare with everything, be it meat or seafood. We dined on grilled chicken with garlic fried rice, cucumber and tomato with saffron and ginger and ca kho to, sea bass cooked Vietnamese style, caramelized in a clay pot with chili, ginger and green onion. These went well with canh tôm mồng tơi or shrimp in vegetable soup and bò xào rau củ, stir fried beef with bok choi and carrots. Side dishes to add to our ever-widening palate (and good health, what with all the fresh greens) included canh cải thảo thịt băm or Chinese cabbage with minced pork and green onion soup, rau muống xào tỏi or stir-fried morning glory with garlic, and tôm rang me, stir-fried shrimp in tamarind sauce with coriander.
The steamed grouper in banana leaf with shrimps, eggplant, squid, onion and roast potatoes was made available but there was another steamed fish vying for our attention. The snapper with onions, chili, cucumber, beansprouts, lettuce, pineapple and coriander was served, personally wrapped in rice paper with tamarind and fish sauce by our chef beside us, making deft rolls with chopsticks and dexterous digits. All of that was quite delectable but the ingénue of the trip was the grilled lobster with butter and garlic, its meat sweet, creamy and sharpened by the garlic, having been acquired live hours before, to be cooked and plated mere minutes before it was served to us.
The desserts were ideal for cleansing our taste buds of all the fascinating and unusual flavors. There was opera cake, a layer cake of butter, nougat and mocha, soft as mousse. The humble moist flourless chocolate they served us had a hint of dark cherry and the caramel ice cream with pineapple and walnuts was like a cool kiss after a hot day.