Spelunking gives everyone an appetite. No sooner do we return to Cong Nghia than lunch is served on the window-wrapped main deck in a wide booth, the table draped in a blue cover that almost disappears amid the flurry of dishes. First, a little dip of black pepper, red chilis, salt and kumquat juice appears. Next, some ocean crab, which a cook cracks at the table, and a plate of shrimp, which she deftly peels for us as well. Marvelous on its own, the sweet seafood, culled from the water we’re gliding on, becomes electric after a dunk in the citrusy hot sauce: big flavors from a wisp of a galley.
Vietnamese cooking emphasizes the balance of flavors and textures as well as the principles of yin and yang, or the heating and cooling characteristics of ingredients. The perfume of fresh ginger (considered hot) announces a big bowl of steamed elephant trunk clams (cool), so named for the long white meat inside the shells. Tender squid with crisp bok choy, and finely shredded cabbage glistening with oil and biting with black pepper, keep our chopsticks moving, too. A plate of carved, sliced cucumbers refreshes the palate between bites of the seafood and (there’s more?) herb-scattered butterfish.