In Hue – pronounced hway – like elsewhere in Vietnam, locals like to get the day in gear early. Indeed, the hour leans towards 7am, as I make my way over the Song Huong (Perfume River) in search of breakfast. Despite the time, the city is already a hive of activity.
A rowdy succession of motorbikes emerges from the dawn mist that hangs like a heavy grey curtain over the river. The streets bordering the city’s famous citadel, meanwhile, overflow with wizened old ladies practising tai chi, and vendors (above) tending steaming cauldrons of bun bo Hue, a hearty beef noodle soup that is one of the city’s defining dishes.
Hue is widely regarded as the apogee of Vietnam’s food culture: a place where prime produce, royal heritage and some of the best dishes in the country combine to create cuisine that is truly world class.
Today, I’m acting on a hot tip from Andrea Nguyen, an author of numerous books on Vietnamese cuisine. Upon quizzing Nguyen on her preferred breakfast options in Hue, she points me in the direction of Quan Cam (38 Tran Cao Van St, Phu Hoi), her favourite spot for bun bo Hue. The food is often sold out before 9am. Therefore, it is with some relief that I tuck in to a dish many believe defines its home city.
“Pho is nuanced and delicate, a reflection of its origins in and around Hanoi,” says Nguyen. “Bun bo Hue (above) is gutsy and earthy like the strong-willed people of its namesake city. A breakfast of bun bo Hue is a brow wiper. It awakens your senses and fortifies you like no other Vietnamese noodle soup.”
It’s a potent start to the day, but its sense of power is somehow in keeping with the former imperial capital’s regal lineage.
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The Nguyen lords and emperors, the feudal dynasty that ruled from Hue and dominated much of southern Vietnam from the 16th to 19th century, chose their capital wisely. On the banks of the river, they constructed a citadel and a lavish network of tombs, temples and palaces (below), which stand testament to the dynasty’s lofty sense of aesthetics.
Yet, these monarchs didn’t just leave architectural tokens of their reign. They also helped bequeath upon Hue an indigenous cuisine that is envied around the country.
“From the middle of the 1500s to 1945, 10 lords and 13 emperors ruled from Hue,” says Phan Trong Minh, general manager at La Residence Hue Hotel & Spa. “These rulers were finicky eaters. They wouldn’t settle for the same dish day after day, so the cooks of Hue had to get creative, really creative. It’s said that the emperors wanted 50 different dishes served at a single sitting.”
It wasn’t all about extravagant banquets during the imperial era. Besides being the royal centre of Vietnam, Hue was also the country’s spiritual nexus. Its status as a hub for Buddhism led to the expansion of vegetarian cuisine. Hue chefs are known for their skill with meat-free dishes to this day, often incorporating ingredients such as tofu as well as soya and mung beans. Today, you can try such cuisine at Lien Hoa (3 Le Quy Don St, Phu Hoi) and Thien Tam (110A Le Ngo Cat).
One emperor in particular is given much of the credit for Hue’s emergence as a culinary powerhouse. Tu Duc apparently demanded a different meal every day for a year – a tough task for even the most innovative kitchen team.
His legacy though is writ large on Hue’s contemporary culinary scene. Dining highlights in the city range from imperial cuisine – a succession of dainty dishes served at lavish multi-course banquets – to creations that leaked out of the gilded royal kitchens and achieved mass popularity with locals.
There’s virtually nothing left of the once-magnificent Forbidden Purple City, a citadel within a citadel where royals and their courtiers luxuriated away from the peasants. Imperial cuisine, however, is kept alive in plush hotels such as La Residence and upscale venues like Boi Tran Gallery (above), the eponymous restaurant and art space run by the Hue painter, where the exactitude of the Nguyen era is recreated for contemporary guests.
Decked out in red and gold fabrics adorned with calligraphy, La Residence’s main dining room (above) takes its visual cues from the peak years of imperial rule. Guests sit in ornate high-backed chairs inscribed with dragon etchings. The food is equally ostentatious: Fruit and vegetables are painstakingly carved to resemble birds such as swans and peacocks (below), and surrounded with delicate morsels such as deep-fried prawns with young rice and beef in la lot (wild betel leaves).
It is all suitably sumptuous, but I prefer to take to the streets to get to the heart of Hue’s tremendous food culture. After climbing the vertiginous steps at Thien Mu Pagoda (Kim Long, Huong Long) near the Song Huong, I am ready to eat again.
I do so with gusto at Huyen Anh (52 Kim Long St), which specialises in bun thit nuong (rice noodles with grilled pork; above).
On a food tour, I am whizzed between local restaurants to sample specialities such as banh khoai (shrimp or pork belly crepes) at Hanh (11 Pho Duc Chinh St) and banh beo (steamed rice cakes; above) at Ba Do (8 Nguyen Binh Khiem St). I also try com hen (rice with baby clams), a dish viewed as one of the city’s more humble specialities, at a stall on Tran Thuc Nhan Street, but many other versions can be found in Hue.
As I sit in Tai Phu Restaurant (8 Nguyen Hue St) carefully assembling a rice-paper roll using herbs, fruit, salad leaves and nem lui (pork on lemongrass skewers), I ask my guide Vo Thi Phuong Lan about her future plans. At 21, with perfect English, she seems like an obvious candidate for a move to the brighter lights of Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. Lan, however, has other ideas.
“I’ll stay here forever,” she says. “I couldn’t live without the food. You can get Hue cuisine elsewhere in Vietnam, but it never tastes quite the same as it does here.”
It is a sentiment that is commonly voiced in Hue, I suspect. And one that would have met with the approval of the royals who once ruled this part of Vietnam.
– TEXT BY DUNCAN FORGAN
PHOTOS: EHRIN MACKSEY
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.