Hue: The (secret) king of Vietnamese cuisine
National Geographic Travel's Digital Nomad?Robert Reid shares his insider knowledge on the food of Hue. Grab those chopsticks and soup spoons, hungry readers.
All you need to plan your next destination is a love of food. Often that leads to Vietnam. Certainly, its cuisine is already a huge draw, particularly for its pho beef noodle soups, ch? giò spring rolls, canh chua fish soups, and the always present nuoc mam fish sauce.
But sadly, most Vietnam visitors miss what’s often considered the “most Vietnamese of Vietnamese foods.”
Math backs up that claim at least. Of the 2,700 Vietnamese dishes, 1,700 (or nearly two-thirds) hail from Hue, the country’s royal capital from 1802 to 1945. Nervous chefs churned out dishes as part of a rotating mix of 52-course meals for the kings. Very few of the dishes have ever been served outside this central Vietnamese city of 135,000.
Hue’s already a popular place to visit, situated halfway between Ho Chi Minh City in the south and Hanoi in the north. Most visitors come to ride boats to royal tombs along the Perfume River, see the bomb-blasted Citadel, and sit on the nearby South China Sea beach.
They should do that. But food should be first. Hue’s cuisine is served from villa restaurants and sidewalk stands, but alley eateries with tarps for roofs and plastic stools for seats are often the best choice.
Here are a few highlight dishes.
“Foreigners can’t eat this,” I was told off-handedly when I first tried c?m?h?n, or “clam rice,” a decade ago. “They get sick. People from Hanoi and Saigon get sick, too.”
I braved it anyway. And quickly became a fan of the spicy yet cool-rice dish made with tiny stir-fried river clams. Added are fried shallots, peppers, green onion, mint, pork rinds, peanuts, and — this being Vietnam — nuoc mam (fish sauce). It’s excellent. (And I never got sick.)
You’ll find this at several food stalls and open eateries on Truong Dinh Street or nearby Pham Hong Thai Street on Hue’s south bank.
Bánh bèo & bánh n?m
Many of Hue’s dishes are small bite-sized dishes, often made with glutinous rice rolls coated in dried shrimp. Think “Vietnamese tapas.” They’re tasty and cheap; most go for well under a dollar a serving.
One of the standout survivors of the dynasty days is bánh bèo (or “water fern cake”), a steamed rice pancake served on small saucers, and topped with dried shrimp, pork rinds, shallots, herbs, and a dollop of mung bean paste.
Also watch for bánh n?m, which is like a flattened cousin of bánh bèo, with a little pork tossed in and wrapped in banana leaves as a thin tasty rectangle.
Bánh khoai?& Nem loi thom
One of my favourite anecdotes during my time living in Vietnam in the mid-90s revolved around a simple Hue restaurant known for its noodles and the family running it. Lonely Planet championed Lac Thien (at Dien Thien Hoang and Tran Hung Dao Streets), run by a “deaf-mute” family, and it soon turned into a backpacker staple. (Still is.) But as business soared, a restaurant soon opened next door, with an identical menu and nearly the same name — and run by a staff pretending to be deaf-mute. (That’s so Vietnam, I love it.)
One of the Lac Thien favourites — and perhaps best served from street carts at the Dong Ba Market — is the bánh khoai?(or “happy cake”), a yellow crepe, fried till crispy and served with shrimp paste and a peanut-y hoisin sauce.
It’s great, perhaps no Hue cuisine satisfies my palate more than nem lui tom, essentially a shrimp salad heavy on garlic and fish sauce that’s grilled and served with figs, cucumbers, carrot, green onion, and rice paper for DIY rolls.
Bún bò Hue
That bún bò Hue in its namesake city is excellent is understood. Where to sample Hue’s best bowl is where the debate starts.
This is the one Hue delicacy that’s been successfully and widely exported: a beef noodle soup served with a bigger kick than a bowl of pho. The round noodle — slippery on the chopsticks — coils in a spicy red-brown broth of chili, shrimp paste, green onion, lime, and mint.
I used to prefer a place simply called Bun Bo Hue (17 Ly Thuong Kiet Street), but it’s become more touristy over the years. Soup celeb Jodi Ettenberg, of the Legal Nomads blog, enjoyed a good bowl served on a sidewalk under a bridge towards Dong Ba market. While Anthony Bourdain champions the bowl he had on a fishing boat.
There is certainly no shortage of options for it. Try a few. And let us know what you find to be best.
To eat Hue food, ask for it. Often. It’s everywhere. Cheap and delicious. Try vendors at Dong Ba Market on the south bank, look for c?m?h?n and bún bò Hue around Truong Dien Street on the south bank. Some homes have been transformed into full-course meal restaurants (like Tinh Gia Vien) that pay tribute to the city’s royal past. Serious fans can consider cooking courses, such as with Villa Hue or Hue Cooking Class.
G Adventures runs a number of departures in Vietnam encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater to different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.
Header image courtesy Legal Nomads.
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