First time around our visit to Hue was all about the sights and “must do’s” of this city, built either side of the Perfume River. I was a kid in my early 20’s still grasping the concept of holding a passport and pretty chuffed that somewhere like Vietnam was my second (or third?) trip overseas.
We cruised the river in a sampan, had lunch on board and stopped at several temples. Loads of fun and a great way to get a sense of the surrounding geography. The only thing I remember, other than some fantastic fried spring rolls at Lac Thien, was getting lost in the Imperial City.
Home for the next couple of nights was La Résidence, a boutique riverside hotel and spa built in and around the former official residence of the French governor in the 1930’s. The Art Deco building has been lovingly restored inside and out, retaining the colonial fabric of the former residence.
Splashes of modern furniture mingle with beautiful artworks and vintage bric-à-brac in the light and airy communal areas and cosy rooms. Thanks to the annoying drizzle we never quite made it into the salt water swimming pool but at least fit in a wander around the grounds between trapsing and exploring the city.
Not much time had passed from checking into the hotel and dropping our bags in the room. Before we knew it we were out on Le Loi Street aimlessly walking along the riverside parkland. Well, not quite aimlessly as I already had plans of sussing out a little backstreet that has a few eateries offering a local specialty. My partner just didn’t know it yet and I needed a post-breakfast snack.
Truong Dinh Street runs parallel to Le Loi, just near the Saigon Morin Hotel, and is a quiet strip simmering with locals sipping coffee and tucking into delicious plates and bowls of goodies. Not a tourist in sight. Ba Hoa, on this particular visit, was the busiest place on the street. Judging purely on visuals, it’s just like any run-of-the-mill local eatery across the country.
Bare concrete walls, plastic chairs, a bit grotty and that ubiquitous condiment caddy on each table. Additional to the condiments is a small plate of banh lot loc and a bulb of fresh garlic, just in case you feel like messing up your breath for the rest of the day.
This is what we’re here for. Com hen. Just look at it. Of all the things I ate on this trip, this ranked as my favourite. Translated it simply means rice clams. It’s a complicated layering of rice, crispy noodles, toasted peanuts, fresh local clams, bean sprouts, coriander, peppermint, chilli and pork crackling. That’s not all. Finely shaved banana flower makes it in there, two types of fat, sesame seeds and a couple of things I couldn’t identify.
Clam broth is served on the side, a little mixed in with the rice if you wish, and we’re encouraged to try the little banana leaf-wrapped banh lot loc on the table. I did try one and was taken aback with its pungency and very intense flavour of something akin to rancid pork fat mixed with fish. No thanks.
As for the com hen, it’s served at room temperature and is a jumble of textures and flavours ranging from slightly sweet, salty, buttery, bitter and sour. Another specialty of the house, and of Hue, is the banh beo. Small discs of steamed rice cake topped with minced cooked and then wok-dried shrimp, a mixture of fish sauce and rice vinegar and crunchy bits of pork crackling. Ooooh yeah! Less than $2 for two dishes. You’ve gotta love that.
A couple of hours after a bit of snooping and schlepping we end up at An Binh, a place listed as being a top choice by Lonely Planet. Somehow the guide failed to mention it is also a hotspot for sizeable tour groups. Pity it had just started raining, otherwise we’d have found another place.
The restaurant host didn’t want us sitting downstairs in the quiet dining room and instead ushered us upstairs to a room loaded with folk fresh off a tour bus. I insisted we sit out at the lone table on the balcony, away from the noise.
It’s a nice enough restaurant, very clean and service was attentive only when they were done waiting on the bus load. After being told the luon xao sa ot (boneless eel) wasn’t available I settled on banh Hue (55K), a plate of banana-wrapped rice patties filled with finely chopped spiced shrimp. We were both confused when the heo nuong (90K) was delivered. What was meant to be slices of pork, skewered and char-grilled took on the form of a rather saucy tangle of pork that never quite made it onto a skewer or anywhere near a barbecue. Even when questioned, we were told that is what it is.
Towards the end of our ordinary meal half of the old German dudes decided to come out on the balcony and light up cigars a metre from our table. Typically oblivious of their actions, we took that as our cue to pay up and get the hell out.
Later that day we discovered a restaurant teeming with locals just near our hotel. The split-level space takes a corner possie that’s open to the street madness outside. Families, friends and young couples all jostle for a seat to get their fill on local food and beer.
Seven items grace the Ngu Uyen menu; a simple formula covering a few of Hue’s unique dishes. It’s casual, a bit rough around the edges and a definite step up from the tourist bus dumping ground we endured earlier. A couple of dudes sit outside on the footpath and turn nem lui (40K) over charcoal whilst the ladies take care of the main kitchen tasks.
Of course the skewers of grilled pork were ordered, as was the banh khoai (40K); a crispy rice cake loaded with shrimp, sprouts and other goodies. As with much of Vietnamese street food, it’s all about do-it-yourself at Ngu Uyen. Grab a sheet of rice paper, layer it with the crispy rice cake and a few provided herbs and pickled veg, or the grilled pork, dunk it in nuoc cham and scoff it down. A sip of warm beer and it’s time to roll another.
Crossing one of the bridges from the south side to the north, you find yourself in Imperial territory. This side of the Perfume River is where things began, the Old City and where the Citadel is located. The biggest attraction in Hue has to be the Citadel, a sprawling complex of pavilions, walls and intricate gates.
Thanks to its tumultuous past – fighting in the late 1940’s between the French and Viet Minh and then slapped around twenty years later by the Viet Cong and the Americans – much of the Citadel was lost. Many of the walls remain, as do several pavilions, palaces and moats and thanks to the tourist dollar, restoration is an ongoing exercise.
It isn’t just the Citadel that can be found on this side of town. Taking a wander about the maze of streets on the Citadel’s peripheries provides glimpses of everyday life in the Old Town. Tailor shops, fruit and vegetable sellers, even a dude with his mobile aquarium for any fish enthusiasts. The city’s Dong Ba Market is also on this side of the bridges, a hive of crazy activity.
For old time’s sake we took ourselves back to Dinh Tien Hoang Street, one of the only parts of town I remember from our previous visit. The strip between the Citadel moat and Tran Hung Dao has a few restaurants that have been trading for years; a magnet for locals and visitors alike.
Some cooling cà phê sua dá (15K) were in perfect order and my first real taste of bún bò Hue (30K). Yes I’ve had it in Vietnamese restaurants in Sydney but none of them compared to the beauty I tried on the footpath here in Hue. Predominantly flavoured with lemongrass, it’s a delicious bowl of rice noodles, shaved beef and pork cake, chunks of blood cake, julienned banana blossom, herbs and chilli oil. Wowza!
It didn’t stop there. We ended up heading into the thick of Dong Ba Market for more snackages and after that came back to Dinh Tien Hoang Street for a few more. Just next door Restaurant Bun Bo Thuong Tu is the ever-popular Lac Thien, somewhere we ate almost two decades ago. It looked pretty much the same, just with visitors messages scribed up on the walls (I also couldn’t resist). Nem ran heo (30K) – a plate of crunchy and lacy pork spring rolls, average at best, made way for some gorgeous banh chuoi (15K) – banana fritters doused in chocolate sauce.
With our time in Hue quickly diminishing I felt it completely necessary to return to Truong Dinh Street for another com hen (15K). Who knows when the next Vietnam visit will be so it just had to happen. Just to mix it up a little we tried a place across the road and found it equally delicious as the one at Ba Hoa. Same size, same deal, just as good. Perhaps a little more pork crackling than the first.
If anyone’s planning a trip to Hue I’d strongly suggest stopping by this “com hen” street. A visit to this town wouldn’t be complete without it.