Lunch with Mrs Lam - Hoi An, Vietnam
My friend bit the head off a prawn and turned to me, ‘Is it wrong that the head is the tastiest bit?’ I was chewing cautiously on my second prawn head, ‘Yes, it is wrong’. There were a lot of things ‘wrong’ with this meal. The prawns were in a light, crispy batter and they were eaten shells, head and all. When they first arrived on the table we all attempted to peel them but our host quickly set us straight. However the shell was not like the prawn shells I was used too. They were soft and easy to bite through. The restaurant’s stock of prawns could be seen in a tank inside and they were obviously treated in such a way that they flushed out all of their intestines and discarded their tough outer shell. Served with a thick mayonnaise like dipping sauce these prawns were not something that we would have ordered, or even been given the option of ordering in one of the tourist orientated restaurants in town.
We had been taken out to lunch by a tailor in the riverside town of Hoi An, Vietnam. Hoi An is a UNESCO world heritage listed town about half way between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. A town of 120,000 residents with wonderfully well preserved 15th to 19th Century architecture what Hoi An is best known for is it’s tailors. There are hundreds of tailors in town and a suit can be whipped up in a day. However if you would like a suit that fits it’s best to get a recommendation from another traveller and count on it taking at least 3 days including 3 fittings. We were recommended to Mrs Lam by a friend’s sister. Not the cheapest in town but not the most expensive either. A bit of correspondence by email before hand saw us being taken to lunch on our first day in Hoi An.
Mrs Lam (we never got to first names but we were all addressed by our first name with Mr or Mrs as a prefix) recruited her husband as our driver. After a stop at a shop to pick up a slab of beer off we went down a dirt track to an out of the way restaurant on the river bank. She did the ordering and after the prawns we were unsure of what would come up next.
The following dish that arrived on the table was baby octopus, something that I would have normally loved assuming that they would have been barbequed with herbs and oil. These however were boiled, with very little other flavours and as was the case with the prawns these were not cleaned. When I bit into my octopus the guts came squishing out. I politely made my way through the one that I had picked out off the plate. Unfortunately I had picked a big one off the plate because generally I love octopus. The rest of my friends left theirs uneaten. Even fear of offending our hosts couldn’t overcome the foulness of this particular dish.
The next course to come out was much more to my liking. A whole fish served on a bed of stir-fried rice noodles and vegetables. This dish was eaten wrapped in rice paper. This dish was a highlight. Mr Lam who spoke no English but had somehow still managed to take part in conversation over lunch gestured with a chopstick to the fish eye. When we declined he happily plucked it out of the fish’s head and ate it. This was spotted by Mrs Lam who, we can only assume, gave him what for in a flurry of Vietnamese across the table. It took a lot for us to convince her that we, in fact, did not want to eat this delicacy which as guests should have gone to us. Once conversation got back in the swing Mrs Lam herself discreetly picked out the eye of the fish at her end of the table and ate it.
When the bill arrived I could not help but sneak a look. It worked out to about $35 Australian for 6 people eating only seafood, plus a little extra for the beers. It was a good investment by Mrs Lam. I came home with two suits, 3 dresses, 3 shirts and 5 pairs of shoes from her sister’s shop up the road.
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