Some travelers I meet traveling north-to-south or south-to-north across Vietnam are skipping Hue, a sleepy city about mid-way up Vietnam’s slender girth. All too often those who do come often miss its greatest attraction – not the royal tombs in the hills up the Perfume River, or the bomb-blasted Citadel in town, but the food.
I always try to fit Hue in on any trip back to Vietnam. Known for its sleepy pace and pagodas and heavy rains, Hue was Vietnam’s capital during the Nguyen Dynasty years from 1802 to 1945, when the last king turned in his funny gold and red robe and capital duties shifted back to Hanoi. Over the dynasty’s run, many kings spent most of their time writing poems, fathering children (Minh Mang had 102 wives, and more children), or designing their architectural legacies — and in particular their tombs.
Kings were finicky, too, for their food. Over the royal years, nervous chefs churned out ever-changing dishes for kings who demanded 52-course meals. Most were adaptations of the dishes ‘commoners’ made outside the Citadel walls (supposedly numbering 1400 of Vietnam’s 1700 dishes). You won’t find many outside Hue – even in Hue-themed restaurants in Saigon or Hanoi – but the legacy still lives on in family-run alley spots here.
Breakfasts for many locals mean an unusual crunchy bowl of com hen, a spicy cool-rice dish with tiny river clams (about the size of a broken-off tip of pencil lead), peanuts, pork rinds, green onion, mint, fish sauce and peppers. ‘Foreigners can’t eat it,’ I was warned by a local, holding his belly with a grimace. ‘They get sick. People from Hanoi and Saigon too.’ I already had my belly full of it — and was feeling fine. It’s not too fishy, and no spicier than some of your more milder Thai dishes. For 45 cents a bowl, and a shocked crew at Ba Hoa (Truong Dinh St, just east of Hanoi St) who interfered to mix my bowl when I hadn’t mixed it adequately, it’s hard to not take a chance. I’ve not seen this elsewhere.
Bun bo Hue is one of the city’s most famous exports — and one of the few that reach US Vietnamese restaurants’ weekend menus. Like its more famous cousin pho bo, it’s a beef noodle soup served with a clear beef broth but healthy doses of chili, shrimp paste and a rounded slippery noodle that slips off your chopsticks and sending dots of reddish-brown broth on your shirt. The best place in town — I heard over and over — is Bun Bo Hue (17 Ly Thuong Kiet St), a block south of Hanoi St. And it’s quite good. Like the other cheapies I found, it’s a simple concrete-floor, open-front place, with aluminum tables and trash thrown on the floor. The bowls are prepared up front — just order, sit and await the bowl (about 50 cents).
Hue takes Buddhism a bit more seriously here than most of Vietnam — with more monasteries than anywhere else, and the nation’s most famous monks. Famously in 1963, Thich Quang Duc drove to Saigon to protest anti-Buddhist policies of the South Vietnamese government and set himself on fire on a Saigon street. Beyond the pagodas nowadays, where robed monks and apprentices break in the afternoon for volleyball games you’re welcome to join, Hue’s vegetarian scene is more developed than anywhere else in the country. Com chay, or vegetarian food, places pop up on riverside locations and alleys. The best though is right in the heart of the backpacker ghetto (of sorts). Tinh Tam Restaurant (24 Chu Van An St), run by a Buddhist family, serves fake meats — the grilled ‘deer’ with lemongrass is superb, and only $1.50; as is the mixed fig salad served with fake-shrimp cakes to scoop it up (60 cents) — that attract monks and a few Lonely Planet holders.
The power of guidebooks has long been known at the corner of Dien Thien Hoang and Tran Hung Dao Sts, north of the river near the Citadel walls, where two bustling-with-travelers (and locals) restaurants with ‘deaf mute’ owners set up with similar names (and billboards lined with quotes from Lonely Planet and Routard guides). Both are welcoming places serving cheap, Hue-style food — and can be walked to after a tour of the Forbidden Purple City of the Citadel. The original, Lac Thien (6 Dinh Tien Hoang St) is slightly better, to my taste. They serve banh khoai (about 40 cents), a shrimp and bean sprout ‘pancake’ served with peanut sauce, and the (tastier) nem lui tom, a delicious shrimp salad dunked in fish sauce and served with cucumbers and rice paper you roll yourself. It’s also made with vegetables, beef or chicken and costs about $1.25.
Far better (and more remote), is Cung An Dinh (177 Phan Dinh Phuong St, off the alley at 148 Nguyen Hue, several blocks south of the river), which serves bite-size banh beo, banh uot and banh nam — variations on glutinous rice rolls coated in dried shrimp and wrapped in banana leaves. At $0.40 a pop, it’s easy to try them all.
Hue does have a few fancier — and Western-style — restaurants too, generally at the upscale hotels. One good exception is Y Thao Garden (3 Thach Han St), a French villa locale a few blocks northwest of the Citadel’s inner walls. Y Thao goes for royal-style set meals, with several local delicacies served at $8 per person. A popular start are the lightly battered eggrolls served with pomp atop a peacock-style dishes carved out of vegetables and fruit. It’s good, and busy with tour groups, but for the real deal — as the locals have always eaten it — you have to go ‘poor but luxurious,’ as the local mantra dictates. Simple places, cheap prices, rich taste.