At sunset, the southern edge beside Tra Khuc bridge (the bridge bookended by Son Tra and My Tra Riverside Hotel) comes alive with a night market and a near-endless row of pop up restaurants. It’s a pleasant place to watch the sun setting over the river, whose grassy banks offer a spot of greenery in a concrete city. It also has a welcome cooling breeze. Seafood hot pot (lau) seems to be very popular. Whether you want a meal or a drink, it’s the spot to see what the locals get up to after work, so long as you can squeeze into those plastic chairs. To get away from the crowd, head to My Tra Riverside Hotel’s restaurant which has individual huts along the water. The hotel is lifeless, the views are not. Watch the sun setting behind the bridge as motorbikes rush home for dinner.
Speaking of dinner, Phan Boi Chau Street has many bricks and mortar restaurant options. We noticed Hoa Vien was packed and the locals were onto something. Cheerfully bright and with proper wooden tables and chairs, this restaurant is a bit fancier than the typical mom ’n pop shop. It’s the kind of place where coworkers and families go to celebrate or someone treats a friend, and cold towelettes and peanuts are automatically brought to the table (you’re only charged if you consume them). Service is spot on, with the server attentively filling glasses with beer and bending over backwards to please.
The menu is a book, your choice of meat prepared every which way, as well as soups, seafood and hot pot available. The server recommended “cai mam tron thit bo” or vegetable and beef salad. It was tasty, with slices of beef and vegetables mixed with la lot leaves, topped with crunchy peanuts and deep fried slices of garlic and shallots (70,000 dong). The portion was huge, well presented and the dressing compliments the fresh food rather than overwhelm it. Another winner was nuong lui, grilled fatty slices of pork flavoured with lemongrass, 35,000 dong. Dishes are meant to be shared, however, even for a solo traveller it remains affordable.
For vegetarians or those who can enjoy a meatless meal, it’s well worth seeking out Viet Chay Sala. This covered restaurant is extremely clean and refreshingly peaceful, with comfortable wooden tables and chairs and fans. Enjoy soups, spring rolls, stir-fry vegetables, tofu, mushrooms, noodles and hot pot. The menu has everything listed in English, often with wonky translations. We took a chance on the “chilli fried gluten discharge” and it was in fact delicious. The vegetable sautéed with famous local Ly Son garlic was also a hit—the skin of the garlic is so thin and the wok so hot that the cloves are thrown in whole, unpeeled.
The best part about vegetarian (chay) restaurants is the price. Each dish is only 20,000 to 55,000 dong. Another bonus for female travellers: you wouldn’t be out of place here, unlike some of the cafes and barbecue joints that are a men’s club. Eat comfortably without curious stares. In accordance with Buddhist principles, chay restaurants don’t serve alcohol, so if you want to try the local lager Dung Quat or aren’t satisfied without carne, there’s an endless row of meat/seafood barbecue and hot pot (lau) joints nearby lining Pham Van Dong Street.
Hoa Vien: 150 Phan Boi Chau St; T: (055) 383 7379; open daily 10:00-22:00.
Viet Chay Sala: 83 Cach Mang Thang Tam; T: (055) 3620 097; open daily 06:30-08:30, 10:00-14:00 & 16:00-21:00.
Cindy Fan is a Canadian writer/photographer and author of So Many Miles, a website that chronicles the love of adventure, food and culture. After falling in love with sticky rice and Mekong sunsets, in 2011 she uprooted her life in Toronto to live la vida Laos. She’s travelled to over 40 countries and harbours a deep affection for Africa and Southeast Asia. In between jaunts around the world, she calls Laos and Vietnam home where you’ll find her traipsing through rice paddies, standing beside broken-down buses and in villages laughing with the locals.