Head to Hue for the peace & quiet, stay for the food
Enjoy the silence
I have to admit, when I first arrived in Hue, Vietnam, I wasn’t exactly gobsmacked.
Like many others before me, I’d read up on the once majestic capital and had visions of glimpsing it’s colorful past. I’ll spare you the cliched copy about girls in white ao dais riding bicycles and multi-colored buddhist flags flapping in the breeze. To be honest, there really isn’t much color to what has survived the passage of time and the wages of war.
But, when you find yourself trying to lose the camera crowd, you can easily discover something that is rare in Vietnam - silence. In fact, a 5 or 10 minute walk in nearly any direction in Hue will reward you with peace & quiet, the true gifts of survival that other cities in Vietnam seem to have passed over. And while we’re enjoying a few quiet moments let us not forget there is another hidden treasure in Hue - the food.
You can eat Hue style food in every city in Vietnam, popular chains like Mon Hue and Tib can be found almost anywhere now. And outside of Vietnam, popular Hue dishes like the Vietnamese Spring Roll, or goi cuon, are as well known as the conical hat and ao dai.
But you haven’t really eaten Hue food until you’ve eaten in Hue.
Take com hen, for example. In Saigon, this dish is quite simple - steamed clams over fragrant rice with a clear soup stock on the side, and if you’re lucky, some fried pork skin and fresh green onions will be sprinkled on top. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? But in Hue, the dish comes alive with finely chopped lemongrass, fresh chilies and minced pork. When eaten in a quiet shaded lane off Le Duan near the citadel with an iced jasmine tea on the side it’s easy to understand why so many Vietnamese called Hue food the “real food of Vietnam.”
Banh is another trademark of Vietnamese food. In the north and south banh typically refers to a lightened version of the baguette. But in Hue, banh is steamed rice flour that comes in countless varieties - wide noodles, flat noodles, cubes, cakes, pastries, buns, the list goes on.
Two Hue dishes featuring banh that must be sought out are banh ut thit nuong and banh beo. The first is a uniquely Vietnamese dish - minced pork mixed with black mushrooms & spices rolled in rice paper then steamed and served on a bed of fresh bean sprouts, mint and basil. Of course the ubiquitous fish sauce with chiles and garlic are on hand for dipping. This dish is an amazing blend that is truly Vietnamese - collecting a variety of ingredients to appeal to every part of your palette.
The second, banh beo, is again, something that is quite rare outside of Vietnam. Think of it as tapas, done in ancient Vietnamese style. Take ground shrimp, mix with chopped scallions and green onions and place on top of a tiny saucer full of rich flour, then bake. When finished top with a cube of pork fat and douse in fish sauce. Order by the dozen and enjoy with beer to make some quick friends, Vietnamese style.
Forget the pho, go bun bo
From SoHo to Sydney, everyone knows pho. But do you know bun bo? Typically a breakfast food in Hue, bun bo hue is a noodle soup that has a beef based broth spiced with lemongrass, chilies and herbs. From there the sky is the limit. Toppings can include sliced beef or pork, pigs trotter, fried fish, fried crab or even blood pudding. That last one is better than it sounds, trust me. Always, bun bo hue is served with fresh greens and sliced lemon to add a little zing to it.
The highlight of any trip to the center of Vietnam is of course the coffee. Again, while Vietnam has become synonymous with coffee worldwide, you haven’t really had Vietnamese coffee until you’ve had Vietnamese coffee in Vietnam. Rich, sweet, smooth and earthy are the hallmarks of coffee from the central region of Vietnam. Drink it black over ice or with a dollop of condensed milk, either way it’s a unique treat.
Of course you can have coffee anywhere and everywhere in Vietnam, but nothing can top an iced coffee on the banks of the Perfume River after a day of touring the tombs of the ancient Vietnamese dynasties. Watching the boats drift down the river and listening the wind rustle the leaves, it’s enough to make you wonder why you didn’t come here sooner.