Exotic dining in the middle of nowhere

December 04, 2022 - 10:38
Sa Mộc Restaurant is a wonderful find, and a fine place to try exotic fare from the local forest.
HIDDEN GEM: This cosy house in the forest in the mountain of Kỳ Thượng is a great destination for holidaymakers or teambuilding activities. Photo courtesy of the farm

by Nguyễn Mỹ Hà

Usually, when you think of Hạ Long City, you think of the beach, the sea and seafood. But this time, when we went up the highest mountains, which belong to Kỳ Thượng Commune, merged with the city only a few years ago, it was a wide array of mountainous food left us stunned.

TASTY: Crispy fish wrapped in fresh lolot leaves and dipped in soya sauce. VNS Photo Trương Vị

The trip alone was nearly four hours, covering only 50 kilometres of winding uphill and then going down the mountains took two. This mountainous district balances the bustling, thriving, modern city of Hạ Long.

After our work was done, we were about to return to Trới Town, a mid-size community of 12,000 people spreading over 12 square kilometres, known for its buffalo meat or find a homestay along the way.

"There nothing around here," our guide said. "The closest town is two hour drive away. You'd better stay for lunch."

Kỳ Thượng is everything Hạ Long City is not. Home to 800 Dao ethnics living scattered in the district. They plant rice and vegetables for home consumption only.

There's not even a local market. If a household produces more than they can consume, someone picks up the produce on a motorbike and delivers it around the district to order by group messages on mobile phones.

TASTY GRUB: The bee larva is not only a delicacy, but a staple food for the local people. VNS Photo Mỹ Hà

"Hey, I've got new taro harvested; I'll bring them to your restaurant," Bàn Kiên, manager of the Sa Mộc Restaurant, tells us how he got the food supply. Himself a carpenter, Kiên and his team built a dining hall of pine wood accordingly to a local architect's design. The shorter wood was used to make beds, and he created beautiful dining round tables with the smaller log ends. Nothing was wasted. The dining hall has a high ceiling, with lighting coming from creative bamboo chandeliers.

Surrounding us was the wonderful fragrant smell of the wood. The restaurant can sit up to 50 people at a time, and walking around the hall, I had the image of a small wedding, which people who dined with me laughed off. "No one around here would come here to have their wedding. They'd have it at home," they said.

RED AND CRISPY: The spring shrimps caught by hand tastes like no other you've tried before. VNS Photo Trương Vị

The food came in a whole tray for six with extraordinary local delicacies: shrimps (VNĐ200,000) and small fish (VNĐ190,000) from the crystal clear surrounding springs. Fresh vegetables locally-grown, taro root soup (VNĐ160,000), a boiled free-range chicken (VNĐ580,000), and, above all, a dish full of stir-fried bee larvae (VNĐ400,000) are available if you are a fan of exotic food from the forest.

The crispy fish is wrapped in fresh lolot leaves and then dipped into soya sauce. When cooked, the shrimp goes deep red, making it look like a lobster. These shrimps are not easy to catch, and you can only get a handful over an hour or more. The stories of how food is harvested, or how it rains so much in the valley, made the food even more delicious and a source of nutrition and inspiration.

FEAST: A full food tray for six to eight people is healthy and home-grown. VNS Photo Mỹ Hà

Every meal here is accompanied by home-brewed alcohol. Be it from maize or rice, the alcohol is potent at 40 degrees. Local community officers need to survive a homemade party to break the ice with local people, who call them up and invite them home for dinner. If you can gain the trust of local people, they, in turn, offer help and ring you up to brief you on the latest things happening in the community.

"Come back when the bamboo shoots spring up from the ground!" our guide said. "There are numerous types of bamboo, and the shoots are available for almost half a year. There are bitter shoots, natural sweet shoots, and pickled shoots. The Lunar New Year is just around the corner, and from all corners of the forest, people have been sending dried bamboo shoots to the markets in big cities, which are a must-have dish in every family for the New Year."

SOUP-ER: Delicious taro with pork bone soup.

The long and winding road to Kỳ Thượng also goes through a primitive bamboo forest and a national park that embraces five communes and is said to preserve a highly diverse pool of wild and untouched flora and fauna.

For the local community officers, winning both local approval and keeping your health safe from the devastatingly strong local alcohol is a fine balancing act you need to manage.

If you are trusted by your supervisor but fail the drinking test at communal home parties, you cannot work in the community. Winning people's approval is a prerequisite test any officer needs to pass if you want to continue working with the locals.

Sa Mộc Restaurant is a wonderful find, and a fine place to try exotic fare from the local forest. VNS

Sa Mộc Restaurant

Khe Phương Village, Kỳ Thượng Commune, Hạ Long City

Tel: 0969 828 086, 0988 290 981

Comment: exotic local food in a spacious pine wood lounge