There was a special media tour organised by WilzWorkz partnering with Vietnam Connect Travel for a special feature of Hue food in support of the Department of Tourism in Hue, Vietnam.
And why Hue? We all know of the Vietnam war thanks to the proliferation of Hollywood movies. We know of Hanoi and Saigon, now officially known as Ho Chih Minh City as a remembrance to Uncle Ho, the leader of the Vietnamese Communist Party.
But Hue is of itself a significant part of Vietnam’s history. It is the Imperial capital of the country, sitting right smack in the middle of Hanoi and Saigon. Because it was the seat of governance for the whole of Vietnam, it has significant cultural influence over the country and of course the food.
The Imperial history of Vietnam is not that old, it lasted only from the 16th to mid-20th century. Emperor Gia Long, aided by the French colonists, founded the Nguyen Dynasty in 1802. But the Vietnamese clashed with the French in the Battle of Thuan An in 1883 leads to the French invasion of Hue’s Citadel or Thai Hoa Palace in 1885 effectively ending the Nguyen Dynasty’s influence over Vietnam with puppet emperors and Hue lost is status when Saigon is made the capital in post World War 2 Vietnam.
Hue gets another round of international attention when the Communist North invaded Hue in 1968 Tet Offensive. To regain the city, the Democratic South levelled Hue and destroyed most of the Citadel.
While the Imperial history Hue is not as long when compared to other Dynasties in Asia, we are blessed with the easier access to Vietnamese Imperial cuisine because the descendants of the Royal family is still a living testimony to Vietnam’s past.
Hence it is only fair to fully feature Hue’s Imperial Cuisine during our media trip there because the Imperial Kitchen’s excellent culinary skills and knowledge inform how the street food surrounding the Citadel comes to be. And from there spreads to the rest of the country.
The geography of Hue enables the city to have the freshest ingredients to prepare an Imperial feast. It sits on a plain surrounded by the foothills of the Annamese Cordillera or Giai Truong Son, the principal mountain range of Indochina and only about 8 km from the South China Sea.
The Huong (Perfume or 香) River meanders through the city bringing fresh water and produce from the mountains to the sea. The river then meets the South China Sea at the Tam Giang Lagoon, where fresh and saltwater creates another environment for delectable fresh seafood.
In short, Hue has access to the best ingredients for its special food!
Day 1: Introduction of Hue’s Street Food via the Cyclo Tour
There is nothing more ‘real’ than to experience Hue like the locals through their street food and more so via the Cyclo tour. Yes we have something similar with Singapore’s Trishaw Tours at Bugis so it does feel, touristy.
Banh Beo Ba Do (Banh Beo for short)
Some translate this as water fern cakes. For the Singaporeans I can easily describe it as chwee kway (水淉) Hue style. The difference is in the flour and uses both rice and tapioca flour. Instead of it being thick like Singapore’s, Hue’s version is much thinner and topped it off with crispy pork and dried shrimps.
Dip this in fish sauce and scallion oil and the experience is complete with cruchy sweetness dancing in your mouth.
Everytime I visit Hue, I always have stacks of Banh Beo.
This is the signature food dish for the Hue people. It might look like the Banh Xeo you know in Saigon/HCMC but it is much more crispier and flavourful. You started off making something like a pancake and then add your favourite protein into the mix along with bean sprouts or even ham.
The result is a crunchy fragrant crispy pancake that will make you have more.
It is a rice (Com) bowl topped with locally sourced small river clams (Hen) matched with peanuts, fried noodles, crispy pig skin and greens. The power comes from the soup that is at once light but still flavourful. Top it with the chilli and the whole bowl of goodness can be described as unique. It is not an acquired taste and is definitely better tasting than our similar looking ‘mui fan’ or ‘thunder tea’.
This is very close to how we Chinese pronounce coffee or 咖啡 (ka fei). We all know of the drip coffee of Saigon but somehow we do not encounter them much here in Hue. Instead we have expresso machines we see often in Starbucks and Coffee bean.
The beans used however are definitely Vietnamese. It is strong, aromatic with a hint of cocoa that you cannot really get elsewhere. I still could not understand why they can’t drink it hot and instead love to pair it with ice cubes.
I get it that the Viet coffee can be very thick and needed to dilute it somewhat especially when sweetened condensed milk is added to the mix. I may have to bring my hot water bottle next time. Then again, that wouldn’t be that Vietnamese would it?
The location we had the coffee is opposite one of the gates of the Citadel. Quite a relaxing place to drink coffee
Bun Bo Ba Bot
The locals called it Bun Bo Hue or Beef Noodles Hue Style. Bun is quite similar to what we call Hoon as in Bee Hoon or 米粉.
When you first encounter it, you might be mistaken it for Pho but is much more fragrant as the stock is cooked with pork and beef bones adding lemongrass into the mix. It is served with meat, bean sprouts, banana flower, cabbage and lettuce.
Che Hue from Che Mo Ton Dich
We ended our first dinner with desserts. Called Che Hue or Sweet Soup, we see similar ways of showing off all the sweet desserts as our hawker centers but with a bit more variety.
With so much variety (as many as 36!!) I can choose based on colours or I go with An’s recommendations. There are some usual suspects so you can at least have an idea what you are eating.
che bap / sweet corn
che hat sen / lotus seed
che troi nuoc /sticky rice ball (like our tang yuan) and green pea paste
che khoai mon / purple sweet potato
che dau do /red bean
che buoi / grapefruit
Day 2.1: The Royal Food X Boi Tran Garden House
Today we are visiting a pretty famous person in the arts world. Miss Boi Tran is a painter whose works did not represent anything that represents the School of Fine Arts in the rest of the country. Unencumbered, her style as described in her website, that her painting transcends itself into something with its own characteristics.
I would say, it is the uniqueness formed by her own experiences living in Hue which suffered from the tumultuous political events in the 20th century, that informs her style which to me wants to convey a sense of serenity in the present through the beauty of the women of Hue in their Ao Dai in her paintings and lacquer.
And to that, her style got the eyes of the Art Collectors even to the point of being auctioned at Hong Kong’s Christie’s and Sotheby’s. If we do want to know how famous Ms Boi Tran is, her photo with Anthony Boudain would put that doubt at ease.
With such background, you would naturally wonder where has this got to do with the Royal Cuisine? Ms Boi Tran was born into the royal family and the access to the kitchen gave her deep understanding of Hue cuisine and culture. So here is an artist who is both at home with the easel and the frying work.
Goi Hue / Hue Salad
Ca Sot Chanh / Fish with Lime Sauce
Chao Tom Nuong Mia / Grilled River Shrimp on Sugar Cane
Xao Bo Banh Uot / Beef Soup with Rolled Rice Pancake
Day 2.2: Local Restaurant Bo Ao Restaurant
After a very atas (or what we called high socio-economic status in Singapore) lunch, I find the environment at Bo Ao a bit more relaxed. Bo Ao has every feel of a kampong restaurant that you would encounter in Pulau Ubin and some unknown parts in Malaysia and Indonesia.
The food here is better than the street food where preparation speed is important. In Bo Ao, it is like our Zi Cha corner of our neighbourhood Kopitiam, better ingredients with more servings that the street food.
Singaporeans who understood Zi Cha will understand Bo Ao almost immediately. However, one thing we don’t understand quite readily is how fresh the ingredients can be. Want a plate of BBQ chicken? Okay! Scissors out, cut the chicken head off, soak the bird into hot water for the helper to get rid of the feather and prepare the meat with seasoning before going over the fire. That’s the definition of fresh!
Again…yes it is that good. Oh yes eat all the food with their local Tiger Beer which tastes much much better than what we have in Singapore.
Com Chien / Fried Rice
This is the three chopsticks (in makansutra speak) worthy. It may look simple but the flavour that comes out from this plate is not just the ingredients but how well the wok hei is infused into the rice and the crispiness with every bite just completes nirvana in the mouth. Uncle Roger will be impressed. Fried rice will never taste the same again.
Ech Nuong / BBQ Frog
We have our fair share of claypot frog and to have BBQ version is somewhat a new experience. For those who do not really eat frog with porridge, this BBQ version will bring out the flavour of the meat that is pretty close to the chicken.
Ga Nuong / BBQ Chicken
My favourite is anything Chicken and Bo Ao’s freshness and seasoning is just out of this world. Coming out from the BBQ pit, the crispiness of the skin and then juiciness of the meat melts right into your mouth. Must eat this with their chilli.
Dau Hu Huong Nam Hai San / BBQ Seafood with mushroom and tofu
The only way this dish can outdo whatever I had in my life is the freshness and on that count, this dish got everything you would expect from fresh produce. Not saying Singapore does not have fresh seafood but when you have seafood that comes out from the Tam Giang Lagoon has that sweet SWEET hint that still leaves that impression. Never thought lemongrass in this aluminium foil would make such an impact.
Luon Um Choi / Stewed Eel with Banana
Unagi or BBQ Eel is what we encounter most of the time. This is somewhat an acquired taste and stewed along with Banana strips to add that sweetness.
Ca Loc Um Mang / Snake Head Fish with Bamboo Shoots
And again, the seafood sweetness just gets you here. The lemongrass soup and Snake Head fish are matched perfectly. The soup may look clear and without any hint of flavour but like those clear tom yum gong, it will hit you hard – in a good way.
Day 3 : The Imperial Food X Tinh Gia Vien
The Royal Food at Boi Tran is simple in its presentation and at Tinh Gia Vien the opposite is true. The food presentation is elaborate in style but thank goodness it has the goods to go with its looks.
The head chef is none other than Ms Ton Nu Thi Ha – a renowned Chef in her own right who was under the tutelage of the court ladies to the high ranking mandarins of the Hue Imperial Court.
Her knowledge and skills quickly shows through as she went through hours of preparation using shrimps, a pork leg and a rather huge cuttlefish to create a tree of shrimp balls that looks like kum kuat, stuffed pork with soup and a cuttlefish that looks like a pineapple. With such rich reserves of knowledge, it is of little wonder she was invited by European universities to present Hue Imperial food to their students.
Cha Tom Tren Canh Quat / Shrimp Ball on Tamarin Tree
Gio Lon Ninh / Stewed Pork Leg
Muc Hap Hinh Tom / Steamed Squid
Day 4.1 : Home Visit and Lunch
Although we had our street food on the first day we reach Hue via Da Nang, getting the same food from the home kitchen is a totally different experience altogether.
Unlike the time constraints faced by the street hawkers, home cooks have a bit more time in their hands to perfect the food. The result is a better version of what you will have on the streets.
What’s more the ingredients are sourced directly from the backyard!
Day 4.2: Tea Ceremony At The Citadel (Đông Khuyết Đài)
Unlike the Chinese and Japanese, the Viet tea culture is not as famous because the popularity of its coffee beans is well known through the world. The fact is they do have their own tea thanks to the highlands around the region.
Do take time to enjoy the ceremony with delectable sweets to go along with it.
My fellow traveler Mr Peter Yeoh did a very good introduction to the Viet Imperial Tea culture in his own report.
Day 4.3: Dinner Cruise on the Perfume River with Huong River Services
With a visit to Hue, you can never miss the Huong River that cuts through the city in half. Naturally, the river will be an attraction not to be missed. When I was in Hue for the first time, I took the local river ferry to visit the Thien Mu Pagoda for the Sun Rise.
This trip we took the more upscale, well endowed river boat that comes with a proper dining table and was served with Vietnamese dishes.
The cruise itself will give you a nice glimpse of Hue city life at night, having to pass under Hue’s main bridges including the Cau Trong Tien.
Day 5 Visit to the Local Market and Hue’s Excellent Vegetarian Food
Dong Ba Market is the oldest market in Hue and naturally the center of Hue city life with fresh produce and street food being sold in and around the area. For a long time the market served the needs of the palace, hospitals, universities and even the army camps in Hue.
It is located right next to the Huong River and right smack in the center of Hue you really cannot miss it as we pass by the place whenever we move about town.
Even though the market is as local as it gets, some stalls are catering to the tourists too so some parts felt a bit more touristy for me with all the souvenir gifts lying about the floor but I still can experience the local feel in other parts which is a good thing.
Eating inside the market takes a bit of EQ. You may see a lot of small plastic chairs in an area shared by some food stalls. But do take note to occupy the chairs owned by the stallholder you are doing business with otherwise you will get an earful from the neighbouring stall owner.
Don’t think that Hue is not vegan friendly. Hue is the center of Buddhism in Vietnam so there is a healthy number of vegan eateries. The best part is that they are all very delicious and that helps with healthy eating too!
We ended the whole trip on a high with a visit to the local seafood restaurant located at Nha Hang Hai San Truong Ha. This restaurant is located in the outskirts of Hue City and next to the huge internal lagoon that the locals harvest seafood from. The stuff here is definitely fresh and eating at Nha Hang Hai San (海鲜) transport you back to the time when there are still fishing villages around Singapore just like the old Punggol Point seafood restaurants of old.
The Places We Stayed
The Imperial Hotel at Hue is the first 5-star hotel in the city. Located very close to the Truong Tien bridge it is a stone throw away from the Citadel to the watering hole of around Pho Di Bo Hue.
If you stay on the upper floors, you can get a majestic view of the Huong River. Even if you do not have such a view, just take the lift up to the top floor and enjoy the view from the roof. There is even a temple, a unique oddity that most tourists should visit.
I must also say that the western food being served at the roof top restaurant is also good helped by the freshness of the seafood.
Alba Spa Hotel
With Spa in its name naturally there is spa facilities within the hotel itself. Yet this spa is also unique because the jacuzzi water is delivered from its sister property, the Alba Wellness Hotspring Resort located in the hills outside the city.
The facilities is modern and well appointed with rain showers and should be in line with the tastes of Millennials. The food on the 2nd floor is said to be more health conscious than the competition. Not bad actually.
If you are curious to visit the Alba Wellness Hotspring Resort, there is a daily shuttle commute that you can hop on and enjoy the hotspring there.
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Tony Boey/Johor Kaki