It makes a nice change.
As does what is on the table. Like the local holiday-makers from Hanoi and elsewhere in the country, I go all gah-gah about seafood when I'm on the coast. Along Danang's main seafront road - the part that hasn't been appropriated for resort development, the part that still seems to belong to the people - there are dozens of open-air shelters where seafood gourmandising and beer swilling occur. For the most part it is good-natured and family-friendly.
The most renowned of these seafood houses is 'Bé Mặn' (a literal lyrical translation of which is 'Salty Baby') which has the capacity to accommodate a rollicking 300 people. Filled with mostly big family parties ready to devour after a late afternoon of beach frivolity, the stainless steel tables are turning over fast, their empty vessels and discarded crustacean bits being swept into big plastic tubs to make way for the next sitting. Crates of La Rue beer and eskies of ice are shoved under table's end as new customers are escorted to the far end of the shelter to select their live sea creatures for treatment in the kitchen.
Aerated tubs and tanks containing prawns, crabs, different kinds of clams and other shellfish and, of course, fish are subject to close scrutiny. Wrangling over weight, price and preferred cooking technique take place before beer drinking and anticipation begin. To soak up the rush of beer on an empty stomach, freelance local snack purveyors roam the aisles between tables with plate sized rice crackers, fermented pork rolls wrapped in banana leaves, cut fruit and peanuts - all of which we go easy on. Filling up on this fodder is not the reason we're here.
In gentle over-lapping succession, our choices come to table. As does an accumulating puzzle of dipping sauces. For charcoal-edged grilled squid, we mix a rich paste of chili sauce and mayonnaise. With steamed crabs and grilled prawns, there is salt, pepper, lime and chili to dab at. An elaborate piquant version of Vietnam's sour fish both (canh cà chua) is set over a paraffin-fueled flame, grouper swimming in a hot-pot with under-ripe pineapple, tomato and okra. On a side plate, we have sloshed a shallow puddle of fish sauce and scattered chili and, once the fish is cooked through, we lay it there, turning it over to souse it in salt and heat. The broth is ladled over rice. This kind of end to a meal is a comfort to the Vietnamese, a perfect climax.
And a further comfort to those staying more than one night is that there is no doubting a repeat episode the very next night.
Hoàng Sa, Mân Thái, Sơn Trà,