Not far north of Nha Trang, a landscape of rice fields gives way to salt-fields and aquaculture ponds. This region of Ninh Hòa receives a paltry number of visitors; only those on route to Doc Let beach, a shining white expanse backed by pine trees where blissful malaise is only interrupted by the odd motorcycle sand-blasting past. In vista and atmosphere, it's a million miles from main beach Nha Trang. The coastal and inland settlements we pass through are completely lacking in tourist infrastructure, wracked by a poverty line of drying clothes permanently stained and a haul of clutter discarded but never really thrown away. In between these towns on national highway 1A, a handful of seafood restaurants sit on rickety stilts over hectares of man-made ponds containing some of the very creatures they serve.
Quán Gió (Wind Restaurant) is a long established one, known by all natives of Nha Trang, about 24km from Khánh Hòa's capital. Looking out over the nearby hills and across the mangroves, the wind (of the restaurant's title) wafting up off the water is little more than a breeze, albeit a welcome one in this region's never cold climate. The tranquil open-air setting is punctuated only with the the yelping of a litter of puppies chasing the tit of their mother along the pond embankment. A fish flips out of the water, too, at intervals.
The restaurant kitchen, in contrast, is a clatter of knives on chopping boards, wooden clubs across fish skulls, spatulas scraping against woks. The term 'fresh' gets accentuated here, for the first step in getting lunch on the plate is holding creatures down to their demise. There are no frozen prawns coming out of the freezer to thaw at this fish house. These prawns' swimmerets are still scuttling as they go across the coal brazier to take their colour. Squid attracted by the lure of fluorescent light at sea just last night is getting hacked at with cleavers today.
There are no complicated recipes. Not a book, pen nor slip of paper is in sight. Flash cookery and kitchen gadgets? No. One wall of the kitchen is made of odd bits of fence paling crudely hammered together, daylight clear between them. Pots blackened by woodfire hang on pliered nail tips. The mise en place is comprised of a simple set of plastic jars containing salt, sugar and pepper and a metal tray with a carrot, some onion halves, tomatoes, chilies and limes. The cooks are unstressed, working in tandem with no necessity to speak. What they're doing, they've done a thousand times before.
The seafood comes to table unadorned but startling, the prawns in shining salmon jackets, the squid cleancut and edged in delicate charcoal. Because we are starved of such pleasure for much of the year in Hanoi, our order is not far short of gargantuan. There is squid done two ways - fried twice, first deep in oil then quickly in butter, and grilled over hot coals (above), served with a swirl of mayonnaise and chili sauce and a paste of salt, pepper, chili and lime juice respectively. We take a triple order of prawns, grilled over the coals, steamed with garlic cloves and coconut water and stir-fried with pork in a dish called tôm rim thịt
On holidays, gluttony is allowed. A simple roadside stop can sometimes turn into a quiet affirmation that life is good. Cheers to that we say, as the celebration fish is delivered to our midst. On a paraffin fuelled burner, a large grouper is almost cooked, accompanied on the platter by glass noodles, mushrooms, tomatoes and spring onions, a coriander crown the finishing touch. Easy to eat, we use chopsticks to lift large chunky flakes from the carcass, touch it in fish sauce and convey it to our palates. Moist and flavourful are the prevailing signals transmitted.
After the seafood, green tea is sipped and candied ginger nibbled. This is definitely a table and a setting to dwell at.
National Highway 1A
24km mark from Nha Trang
Another branch of the restaurant is in town, at 86 Trần Phú.