Culinary Exploration in Central Vietnam

Hội An, Đà Nẵng, and Huế

Central Vietnam is known for its food in addition to having some historical sights. We made it a mission to try as much of the local food as possible while also visiting the main attractions. 

Hội An
Sunrise over the river

We arrived in Hội An at 5am on the night bus from Nha Trang and walked to our hostel. It was too early to check in, but they offered we could take a nap upstairs in the common space. We woke up around 10am and went out to explore armed with a map marked with must-try local food places.

Hội An is the tailor capital of Vietnam and there are tailor shops everywhere! On our way to breakfast, a woman started walking next to us asking us where we were from, how long we were staying in Hội An. She would not leave us alone to go get breakfast until we went to her stall in the tailor market to get her business card. We were not entirely convinced we needed to have something tailored, and this did not feel like the best way to choose one of hundreds of possible tailors. We took her card and went to breakfast but ultimately opted not to return.

The first place on our food tour was a popular bánh mì restaurant where Anthony Bourdain had once eaten, Bánh mì Phuong. We had eaten bánh mì a few times already but nothing like this. The bread was fresh, and the sandwich was loaded with lots of yummy meats and herbs. They have a lot of different variations on the bánh mì theme so you can go back over and over and try something different. It seems this place is popular with tourists because of Anthony Bourdain, but it is also a hot spot for locals. For $2.37 total, it was a pretty delicious breakfast!

It was very hot in Hội An, even at 10:30am, and we were tired, so we stopped in the Hội An Coffee Roastery and hid there in the air conditioning for a few hours. Eric tried a pour-over coffee, so he could taste the flavor of the locally roasted beans. Jess had coconut coffee which was a slightly sour, but still delicious, coffee drink. After a few hours in the Roastery, we continued our food tour at Cơm Gà Bà Hồ. Cơm gà is chicken with rice, which, after eating so much chicken with rice in South America, was one of the least interesting dishes we tried. It is still surprisingly flavorful for what is essentially shredded chicken on a pile of rice, and Bà Hồ is a very local spot. After lunch, we went back to the hostel to check in and take a nap. We had intended to go back out and explore, but it rained hard all afternoon.

That evening, when the rain had finally stopped, we went out to try the last restaurant our hostel had recommended, Ông Hai. Its speciality is Mì Quảng, which is a noodle dish made with wide flat noodles that have to be made in Hội An. If anyone outside Hội An wants to make Mì Quảng, they have to order the noodles from Hội An. The dish has pork, shrimp and quail eggs in it and has lots of flavor. It quickly became Jess’s favorite dish in Vietnam. 

Mì Quảng at Ông Hai

On our second day in Hội An, we took a tour to Mỹ Sơn. We would have preferred to go on our own, but it is 50 kilometers away, there is no public bus, and we were not ready to drive a motorcycle in Vietnam’s traffic. We were picked up at our hotel and taken to Mỹ Sơn by bus. Jess was fascinated by the rice-drying process that was happening out the window. When it is time to dry rice, you need a lot of flat surfaces on which to spread it out. On the way to Mỹ Sơn, every surface (roads, driveways, sidewalks, fields, etc.) was being used for rice.

Rice drying on the road

After about an hour, we arrived at Mỹ Sơn, a religious sanctuary built by the Champa people between the 4th and 13th centuries. The Champa people came from Central Java in Indonesia in the 2nd century to trade. They brought Hinduism with them. Many of the structures have statues of Hindu deities: Brahma, Vishnu and Siva, although almost all the statues are missing their heads. For some reason, the French took all the heads and put them on display in the Louvre. Despite the Vietnamese requesting they be returned, the French have not given them back.

A restored structure in Group A from the 7th Century

Mỹ Sơn, which means “beautiful mountain”, was discovered by the French in 1889 when the whole area was covered in jungle. Henri Parmentier undertook an extensive study of the area in 1899 and discovered the remains of 71 structures. He grouped the temples into ten principal groups and mapped the area. In the late 1930s, French scholars began restoration efforts of the temples in group A. In this section, the restorations look older than the original ruins.

Mỹ Sơn

Like the Tháp Bà Ponagar we saw in Nha Trang which is from the same Cham culture, the buildings in this sanctuary were built with clay, lava and sandstone bricks without any adhesive or mortar. The dark orange color of the original bricks has remained throughout the years, and somehow the original bricks do not get covered in moss the way the newer bricks do. In some parts of the sanctuary, more recent restoration and reconstruction efforts have been made using bright orange bricks from a local brick factory with tree resin adhesive which can withstand the hot, humid climate at Mỹ Sơn. The original bricks are darker because the bricks were fired after they were joined together. In other areas, the temples remain in ruins because the structures were destroyed before the war and no one knows what the originals looked like.

Library tower dating to 7th Century with newer restoration

As many as 50 buildings of the 71 buildings were destroyed by US bombing in 1969 because it was believed the Việt Cộng were using the structures as hiding places. Bombs and landmines the Việt Cộng placed in the area still remain in some places, so at least two sections of the sanctuary are closed to visitors.

Mỹ Sơn is effectively in the Vietnamese jungle, and it was incredibly hot and sticky walking around. After two hours exploring the temples, we were ready to head back to Hội An. The tour offered an option to take the boat back instead of the bus. We opted to take the boat back for a change of pace and were served a vegetarian meal on the boat. As we boarded, it started raining. It was still raining when we got off so we put on our ponchos and found another coffee shop to hide in.

That evening we had tickets to the AO Show at the Hội An Lune Center. It was one hour of pure entertainment! There were incredible acrobatics involving long bamboo poles and woven baskets, followed by hilarious skits about Vietnamese culture. Many of the scenes we could already recognize from our first few weeks in Vietnam!

Hội An is a beautiful city recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (in 1999) for its old town and historical trading port. The architecture is an eclectic mixture of cultures from colonial French to Chinese to Vietnamese. There are lanterns hanging everywhere and beautiful lighting at night. In the evenings you can take a boat ride on the river amidst a sea of glowing lights. It is no wonder that lots of tourists flock to Hội An, but it is clear the city is straining under the weight of them. As early as 2008, UNESCO published a report about the impact of tourism on Hội An, which revealed that more than one million tourists visited the city at a time when the population was 83,000. Having visited a few UNESCO World Heritage cities, we are starting to wonder if the UNESCO label might be a double-edged sword. While we found Hội An charming, we did not enjoy it as much as some other less beautiful cities because tourism dominated every street corner.

Đà Nẵng

To go from Hội An to Đà Nẵng, our hostel recommended a taxi or a shuttle bus, but we had read it was possible to take public bus #1. Lots of people have written about the public bus conductor trying to get more money from tourists even though the published fares online do not say anything about foreigners paying more. Armed with the knowledge that it should cost đ20,000 ($0.86) per person, maybe đ30,000 ($1.29) if you have big backpacks, but not more, we walked a mile and a half to the bus station. When we got there a yellow bus was leaving and the conductor yelled to us to get on. We climbed on and paid the requested đ30,000 ($1.29) per person and rode the 45 minutes to Đà Nẵng. Our hotel was in the north of the city, so we stayed on the bus as long as possible and then walked 20 minutes to our hotel. 

Our hotel was remarkable. For $12 per night we had a private room with en-suite bathroom, a pool, breakfast included and bicycles free to use. The bicycles ended up being key because the hotel was a bit far from the center of the city. Eric remarked that this hotel was definitely setting his creature comfort reset back somewhat. He was getting more comfort for fewer dollars instead of the other way around.

The pool at Night Sky Hotel

The first afternoon, we took the bicycles to explore the city. Our first stop was at a nearby restaurant for lunch. The menu was on the wall with photos of each dish on the opposite wall. We ordered two things from the list – Bánh bèo and Bánh ram ít – and decided to try to eat the rest of the things on the list while we were in Central Vietnam. Bánh bèo, translated as “water fern cake” arrived in 15 tiny dishes on a tray. Each dish held a small pancake, made of a sticky rice flour with shrimp and a puff cracker. Bánh ram ít, which we liked better, was a small dumpling also made of sticky rice flour, and also with shrimp and a puff cracker. We were definitely discovering a theme to the Central Vietnam specialties.

After lunch, we visited the Cham Sculpture museum. It was closing in an hour, but we figured that would be enough time to see it, so we paid the entrance fee of đ60,000 (2.58) per person. First opened in 1919, it is the largest collection of artefacts from the Cham culture in the world. The museum houses lots of beautiful sculptures by the Champa people. There are many representations of Siva, Brahma and Vishnu, as well as many “lingas” – phallic sculptures with three layers that honor the three deities and their powers: Siva (destruction), Vishnu (protection), Brahma (creation). There are also a lot of statues of Garuda, a bird-like entity, and a sculpture of an elephant with a lion’s body. One piece Jess found most interesting was a large Buddha statue – the largest single example of Cham sculpture. It looks complete now, but it is actually three separate pieces which were found in separate areas. Two heads were found separate from the torso. Only one head seemed like it could be the right one, but the possibility remains that neither is correct and the real head remains to be found. In any case, the head on display is a replica of the supposed real head which is being displayed in a museum in another part of Vietnam. It was here we realized Mỹ Sơn and Tháp Bà Ponagar were from the same culture as many of the sculptures came from these two sites.

That evening, we continued our food tour at Ẩm Thực Hà Nội 58. In a matter of two days, Jess discovered both her favorite dish (Mì Quảng in Hội An) and, here, her least favorite dish in Vietnam. We ordered Bún Chả Hà Nội after reading in a food blog that it was one of the best places for it. Everybody loves Bún Chả, but we have to say we did not really understand it. We received a bowl of like warm liquid with some shredded papaya in the bottom and some grilled fatty pork and pork patties floating in it, a plate of rice noodles, and a plate of leaves. It looked like a deconstructed soup, except the liquid was meant to be a sauce. The “sauce” tasted sort of like sweet pickle juice, and Jess was really not a fan. On top of that we had ordered deef juice (yes we mean “deef”) because it sounded unusual, and we were right about that. We are still not sure what it was, but it tasted almost like pickled cherry juice. We suppose we should not be too surprised we ended up with something we did not like after trying so many different things, but it was unexpected that the thing we disliked was such a popular dish. After a pretty disappointing dinner, we biked back to our hotel along the river walk admiring Đà Nẵng’s lit up bridges.

Đà Nẵng‘s dragon bridge

The next day we went to the Marble Mountains. The public bus that goes to Marble Mountain is the same bus that goes between Hội An and Đà Nẵng, so it was familiar. We got on the bus, paid đ20,000 ($0.86) each (no backpacks this time) and rode the bus for roughly 20 minutes.From the bus stop, we walked down the hill to the Marble Mountain entrance and paid the entrance fee of đ40,000 ($1.72) each. There are five marble and limestone mountains each named after an element, but only the Water Mountain (Thuy) is open to visitors. There are lots of Buddhist and Hindu temples and caves hidden in the mountain, which are fun to explore. There are also beautiful views over the city.

When we were done, we caught the bus back to Đà Nẵng. This time the conductor told us the fare was đ30,000 and gestured at another tourist’s large backpack. We told her we had paid đ20,000 on the way there and she relented an accepted our money. We got off in the middle of the city which was pretty far away from our hotel. Now that we did not have bicycles, we realized how long a walk it was. We walked back to the hotel to enjoy the pool and cool off and then borrowed bicycles to go out for dinner.

For dinner we decided to go without recommendation given how the previous night’s recommendation had gone. After bicycling around in circles looking for something that looked good, we found a place with 3.8 stars on Google, which was good enough for us. It was a barbecue place where they bring a small grill to your table and then you cook your own food. We ordered frog and spicy pork. It must have quickly become clear to the waiter that we did not know how to cook frog on a little grill, or otherwise, and he came over to help us. Of course, he also took this opportunity to show off and wanted to show us video of Đà Nẵng in which his restaurant was featured. He insisted on showing us the whole video even though we could not understand any of it; it was in Russian! His restaurant did not appear for at least five minutes, and while he was showing us the video, he also accidentally flipped one of our frog legs on to the floor! Eventually our frog leg was replaced, and we decided we maybe did not need help after all.

Frog takes a shockingly long time to cook. We had cooked all of our spicy pork and ordered another round of not spicy pork before our frog was done! Worth the wait, because it turns out BBQ frog is absolutely delicious! We were supposed to eat the frog on its own while the spicy pork came with a plate of leaves which we were supposed to wrap around the pork and dip in a spicy green sauce before eating. In South America we tried hard to avoid uncooked vegetables, particularly lettuce, but in Vietnam almost every meal comes with a plate of leaves, and they are an integral part of the dish, so you really cannot skip them. Luckily it does not seem to have hurt us any, so we have let go of many of our food rules.

Grilling frog and spicy pork

On the way home, we stopped at a yogurt place with a view of the river that Jess had seen earlier. It was a luminous green restaurant with a balcony, and yogurt sounded good. Jess ordered avocado yogurt and Eric ordered a custard apple smoothie. The avocado yogurt looked exactly like it sounded with a few ice cubes in it and was delicious. Eric’s “smoothie” had tons of ice and chunks of custard apple mixed in with some cream. He was confused enough about how this could be a smoothie that he asked if it needed to be blended. The waitress took it away and came back with it blended, so we are not sure if they forgot to blend it or if they are in the back shaking their heads at the dumb tourist who does not know what a smoothie is.

On our third day in Đà Nẵng, we borrowed the bicycles and biked across the bridge to the Sơn Trà Peninsula. The Sơn Trà Peninsula is known for its views of Đà Nẵng, the red shanked douc – a very rare monkey – and the giant Lady Buddha statue that looks down over the city. The free bicycles, while excellent for getting around, were pretty rickety and definitely not the right size for us. This seems to be fairly common in Vietnam as we saw many small children riding huge old bicycles. In our case, the bicycles were too small, which made going uphill rather challenging. The Sơn Trà Peninsula is made up of a spiral of roads that lead uphill to Sơn Trà Mountain, which meant our bike ride was getting progressively more difficult. We stopped at the Linh Ung Pagoda to see the 220-foot Lady Buddha and had to walk our bikes up the steep hill. We visited the pagoda and admired the views of the city and then hopped back on the bikes. We decided we could not continue upwards, so we turned around and headed to the beach.

View from Sơn Trà Peninsula

Đà Nẵng’s beach is described as one of the most beautiful in the world. When we got to the beach it was surprisingly empty. Every time we visited the beach in Nha Trang there were tons of people swimming and sunbathing, but in Đà Nẵng there was almost no one. It was pretty nice having this beautiful white sand beach all to ourselves. We took off our shoes and waded in the water. The water was surprisingly warm and not very refreshing on this super hot day. Eric dug a hole in the sand and waited to see how long it would take before the ocean covered it up again (less than three minutes). We watched two people paragliding off the back of a boat. We admired the cute blue penguin trash cans lining the beach. Eventually we were hot and hungry and went in search of lunch.

We stopped at a random place on the way back for no particular reason. There were tons of empty restaurants in this area, which is usually not a good sign, but since there did not seem to be anyone anywhere, we were not sure it was a sign at all. The restaurant was more expensive than the places we had been eating, so we chose two cheap dishes: frog sauteed with chili and lemongrass, and water spinach with garlic. Both were delicious. Somehow the food was actually cheaper than the menu said (we are not sure how that works, but maybe there is a lunchtime discount), so our meal was only đ180,000 ($7.74) including four beers.

Fish being dried on the river walk

Afterwards we biked back to our hostel to enjoy the pool and cool off again. Have we mentioned how nice it was to have a pool? That evening we went out for a final meal in Đà Nẵng. We did not want to venture too far, so we were aiming for a restaurant with four stars on Google just a few blocks from our hotel. When we got there, we decided it was really more fancy than we wanted, so we chose the place on the opposite corner instead. We were the only non-Vietnamese people in the restaurant, which had only a Vietnamese menu. We got out our Google Translate apps and were pointing our cameras at the menu reading the translation when the waiter came over to watch what we were doing. He was so impressed with the translation app, he asked us to show him how to download it. His phone was in Vietnamese, so we had to do a lot of gesturing and pointing on Eric’s phone to show him how to get it. The translation of the menu was not the most helpful, as evidenced below, so we used Google Translate to ask him if he had a recommendation.

He suggested a chicken special for đ140,000 ($6.02) for two people, so we agreed. When the food arrived, it was two dishes. The first was a phở-like soup with chicken gizzards. The second was a plate of fried chicken, but just the unusual parts of the chicken like necks, back, and feet. Both dishes were delicious and we really enjoyed the very authentic experience. We got a few $1 beers as well, and even though they came from the fridge, there was a very helpful waitress who came around putting ice cubes in our glasses to keep the beer cold.

Very local restaurant for our last night in Đà Nẵng

Even though the pictures of it looked cool, we skipped Bana Hills – one of the main attractions in Đà Nẵng. We had thought it was a nature hike, but it turns out it is really more of an amusement park attraction with cable cars to take you up the mountain. At $35 per person to enter and approximately $26 car service fee to get there, it was pretty pricey, especially by Vietnam standards, and we decided to save our splurges for a cool diving trip we might appreciate more.

Huế

The next morning we walked to the Sinh Tourist office which was only a few blocks from our hostel to catch the 8:45am bus to Huế. We arrived in Huế in the early afternoon and went out in search of lunch.

Jess had marked a few recommended places to try local specialties on the map, and we happened to walk by one of them. We ordered three local dishes: Bún Thịt Nướng (Grilled pork noodle), Bánh lọc (tapioca dumplings in banana leaves), and Bánh Cuốn Thịt Nướng (rice paper pancakes with pork). The Bún Thịt Nướng and the Bánh Cuốn Thịt Nướng both came out very quickly and were delicious. Jess had ordered Vietnamese pancakes for breakfast at our hotel in Đà Nẵng and was expecting to receive something like Bánh Cuốn Thịt Nướng, but instead she received a plate of lettuce topped with a pile of moist rice paper and a few pieces of pork. The dish was way better at this local restaurant where the meat and leaves were already rolled into the rice paper. We thought maybe they had forgotten about our order of Bánh lọc, but it seems it just takes a lot longer to prepare. Bánh lọc is tapioca dumplings filled with pork and shrimp then wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed. We unwrapped the banana leaf to find an edible translucent pouch inside. It was a pretty unusual texture that was almost slimy, and the shrimp inside had their tails on, so there was an unusual crunch inside. Bánh lọc is a popular snack in Huế, but it was a little too slimy for us.

Bánh lọc

After lunch we went to explore the Imperial City which is the main attraction in Huế. The Imperial City was constructed beginning in 1804, a few years after Nguyễn Ánh proclaimed himself Emperor Gia Long of Vietnam and Huế the capital of the empire. The Imperial City remained the seat of power until the French protectorate was established in 1880. There were a series of subsequent emperors who were primarily figure heads until the Nguyễn dynasty ended in 1945 with final emperor, Bảo Đại. Some of the previous emperors had struggled against the French, but by the time of Bảo Đại’s rule, Vietnam had lost virtually all autonomy, and on August 30th, 1945, he renounced the royal authority and ended the monarchy in Vietnam.

An entrance through the fortified wall surrounding the Imperial City

In the 20th century, the Imperial City was the site of a few destructive battles. One, in 1947, in which the Viet Minh seized the citadel and were repressed by the French, destroyed many buildings and resulted in the core of the city being burned. Another in 1968, during the Tet Offensive when the Viet Cong and a division of the People’s Army of Vietnam seized large portions of the city, resulted in such widespread destruction that only ten of 160 buildings remained. The US Army, which had initially held off bombing the site due to its cultural significance, gradually lifted the restrictions as casualties rose, and ultimately targeted anti-aircraft weapons mounted on the walls.

Imperial City

The Imperial City is inside a 1.3 mile by 1.3 mile walled enclosure surrounded by a moat. Not many buildings remain, but it is still an impressive complex with intricate designs on the structures that still exist. The entrance fee is đ150,000 ($6.45) per person which does not include a guide. We would recommend getting an audio guide as there are not many written explanations of the historical significance of the site.

In case you are not sure what else to do in the Imperial City, you can feed the fish. For đ5,000 ($0.22), you can buy a small bag of fish food to sprinkle in the many ponds around the walled-in city. There are tons of large colorful fish who race to get the food and flop all over each other in the process. It is a crazy sight.

Imperial fish

For dinner we went to Kangaroo Huế which was definitely a restaurant catering to tourists in the backpacker area, but they were offering cold draught beer for đ9,000 ($0.39) – who can pass up that deal – and an opportunity to try Bún bò Huế, another local specialty. Bún bò Huế is a soup with rice vermicelli and beef that has a heavy lemongrass flavor, and it is quite delicious.

The next morning, Eric was tired of sightseeing and wanted a day in. Jess does not like to miss out on anything, so she offered to stay in until lunch time but then head out on her own. We tried to find a restaurant that was hidden in the alleys behind our hostel, but we were stymied by workers who were repaving and had closed off the alleys. We did wander down one alley where we though the restaurant was only to be told by a local there was no restaurant there. Instead, we had lunch at a local spot, Quán Chay Thiên Phú, a few blocks from our hostel. Eric was intrigued by a dish translated as “eight treasures”. We checked the Google translation, and it confirmed that Bắt bưu means “eight treasures”. We asked the waitress what it was and she said “banana, mushroom, tofu”. No clearer on what it was we were going to be receiving, we decided to wait and see. What arrived at the table was a plate with lots of little bundles (treasures) and a salad of sorts in the middle. We are still not exactly sure what it was, and although we think we can safely say there was no banana, it was pretty good.

Bắt bưu

Afterwards, Jess borrowed a bicycle from the hostel and went out exploring. Consistent with our previous bicycle experience, the bike was the wrong size – this time way too big. Jess could sort of reach the handlebars if she stretched out in a funny way, but she had to drop down into the handlebar drops to pull the brake. Riding like that was pretty exhausting, so she dropped down only if she anticipated a need to stop. Besides the Imperial City, the main attractions are the imperial tombs, but they are mostly at least five kilometers outside the city over a few hills. Jess decided she was not up for that kind of adventure, solo, on this bicycle without a helmet, so she biked all over Huế instead. Biking with all the mopeds and a few cars was a little bit intimidating. There were people zipping by, honking, constantly. Intersections where you would think the traffic lights would make things better were even hairier because the motorbikes go in so many directions. It was not unusual for someone on a motorbike to make a left-hand turn hugging the corner and then ride the wrong way down the road until he saw an opportunity to cross into the correct lane. After a while, she started to get the hang of it. Just keep moving with the flow of traffic and get ready to brake if someone might dart in front of you.

First she visited the Thien Mu pagoda, also known as the Pagoda of the Celestial Lady. It was built in 1601 after the first Nguyen lord, Nguyen Hoang, heard a local legend in which an old lady foretold that a lord would build a pagoda to pray for the country’s success.

Thien Mu pagoda

Later Jess crossed a bridge into Vỹ Dạ, a neighborhood on the other side of a branch of the Perfume River which flows through Huế. Then thinking she could cross another bridge from there to the Imperial City, she crossed a small bridge that led to Cồn Hến, a small island in the middle of the Perfume River. There appeared to be only one bridge off this island, the one she had crossed to get on it, so after biking down some very local residential streets, she turned around again. She kept feeling like there was always more to see until she was finally so tired of riding the extra large bike around. Her phone recorded she walked 7.5 miles while she was biking, so she is pretty sure she went at least twice that far.

Sunset over the Perfume River

We enjoyed a final meal in Huế at Cozy Restaurant which was hidden down an alley roughly a mile from the backpacker district. It had very well-deserved high praise on TripAdvisor. We tried the last Huế dish we had not had yet: Bánh khoai, a vietnamese fried pancake which you cut up and roll in rice paper with lettuce, papaya and cucumber. We also had two curries which were some of the most flavorful food we tried in the region. The staff at Cozy was very nice and one of them chatted with us for most of the meal about the differences between Vietnam and America.

On our way back from the restaurant, we encountered the Mid-Autumn Festival which was being celebrated on September 13th (the 15th day of the 8th month in the lunar calendar). There were crowds of people in the streets and lots of lion dances being performed. The legend behind the Mid-Autumn festival involves a magic tree which was discovered to heal all wounds. A woodcutter who found the tree took it home and cared for it but was warned never to water it with dirty water or it would fly away. One day his wife was jealous, thinking he loved the tree more than he loved her, so she watered it with dirty water and it started to fly away. The woodcutter came home and caught the tree just in time, and it took him to the moon. On a full moon, you can see the image of the man and the tree. The celebration involves bright lights and music to help the woodcutter find his way home. It was a fun way to spend our last evening in Central Vietnam.

Lion dances in Huế

2 Replies to “Culinary Exploration in Central Vietnam”

    1. Good question! They look like paper from afar, but I think they are actually made of fabric. They don’t fall apart in the rain but some of them do look a bit worn out if you look at them closely in the day time. Still beautiful and night though.

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