Big & Small are excited to introduce Jazlyn Trent, a dear friend and our first guest writer! Below she gives her mouthwatering account of the food of Hue, an historical city that she believes is Vietnam’s True Food Capital. See more from Vietnam on our YouTube.
There is something almost therapeutic about eating hot noodle soup in 100-degree (F) weather at 90% humidity. Maybe it’s because as soon as that steaming bowl is placed in front of you, all vanity vanishes as your senses immediately take over. Your nose starts running like mad; beads of salty sweat drip out from every crevice, matting your hair and soaking your shirt. But none of this matters when that soup hits the tongue. If you’ve never experienced this sort of indulgence, you’ve probably never been to Vietnam, and definitely not to the city of Hue.
The food of Vietnam varies drastically throughout the country. What you eat in the South is significantly different than what you will eat in the North. Every region has its own signature flavors, dishes, and customs. Even cities within the same region have their own particular tastes and specialties. Central Vietnam is a perfect example of this. Three of its most visited cites — Danang, Hoi An, and Hue — are easy day trips from one another, yet they are widely different when it comes to food.
[Follow Big & Small as they visit Hoi An’s Central Market and take a Vietnamese cooking class HERE!]
How Hue Became Vietnam’s True Food Capital
Many have declared Hoi An to be Vietnam’s food capital, but I found that Hue offered a far more exciting and incredibly diverse cuisine. Notorious picky eater Emperor Tu Duc (who was seemingly not as picky with his wives — he had at least 104 of ’em) was rumored to have refused to eat the same meal twice for at least a year. Because of this, Hue’s food culture became strongly influenced by a wide array of flavors from around Asia, just to please the emperor. Today, we have the pleasure of enjoying the fruits of his fussiness.
Tourists most often come to Hue to see its Imperial City, where they can catch a rare look at an empire long gone. The citadel dates back to 1362 and took over 200 years to complete. It has amazingly stayed relatively intact through the centuries. Hue was the capital of the Nguyen dynasty until 1945. The city has historically found itself caught up in wars for little reason other than its central location. Two Indochina wars and the Vietnam/American war have severely slowed down the city’s development. In fact, Hue is still recovering from the war in the ’60s and ’70s, when it was essentially leveled from bombing and napalm. The rubble is still being cleaned up from both domestic and foreign armies.
While the landscape has significantly been altered, the food has (thankfully) stayed the same. It’s something the city is proud of. Hue’s incredibly friendly locals want to show you the right way to eat their food so that you get maximum satisfaction with every bite. There isn’t one dish that defines Hue’s food culture, but there are plenty you must try, including Bun Bo (beef noodle soup), Banh Beo (a type of rice pancake), Com Hen (clam rice), Bahn Loc Goi (tapioca dumplings), and Bun Thit Nuong (vermicelli noodles with grilled pork).
Love at First Sweat: Bun Bo Hue
In Hue, I found a lot of meals worth sweating it out for. Upon arrival, my first meal, Bun Bo Hue (pictured below), lived up to its mighty reputation. Unless you’re vegetarian (and don’t worry, Hue’s got you covered there; just keep reading), you can’t come to this city — this country — and not try this dish. Like most Vietnamese dishes, Bun Bo Hue is rather simple on paper, but has myriad variations. The basic soup includes chunks of pork, beef, pig’s foot, and white rice noodles. How the rest is assembled depends on the cook, but every Bun Bo must have one thing: a hell of a kick to it. It must be spicy, otherwise it’s not the real deal. The combination of red pepper flakes and lemongrass are essential and complement the meat and noodles perfectly. I knew this going in; I was fully prepared. And as soon as my bowl was presented before me, I completely forgot what I was doing. I dug in and plowed through that soup so fast I forgot to take a picture of it until I was halfway through.
Always Eat As The Locals Eat
While my first meal in Hue was memorable, my last left the biggest impression. I had a mid-afternoon flight that day and didn’t plan on doing much beforehand. Since the temperature was already reaching 90, I didn’t want to venture too far from my hostel. Fortunately, I was close to Lien Hoa, a popular vegetarian restaurant. The place was quite large and spread out, but completely packed. I wasn’t sure where the front door exactly was, so after wandering around, a waiter led me to the middle of a long table full of workers, monks, and other locals.
I pointed to the menu at something that looked like vermicelli, a dish I was quite familiar with. He simply shook his head “no.” I laughed before realizing he was being totally serious. He nodded his head toward the rest of the table: nearly everyone was eating the exact same meal. I couldn’t tell what it was, but I got the message; this is what you eat here, so how could I possibly refuse? I hadn’t yet been steered wrong by the locals’ suggestions.
Now, I’ll be honest, I’m still not totally sure what I was eating, but sometimes you can’t explain greatness. I can tell you that the dish (pictured below) consisted of white rice and an assortment of vegetables topped with a type of fried tofu that had been marinated in an incredible sauce that made me nearly weak in the knees. Seriously, I was half-considering breaking into the kitchen and demanding the recipe just for that sauce.
Like every other meal I had in Hue, this one offered an assortment of flavors that were both familiar and totally unique to anything I had ever eaten before. A piece of cooked and sweetly seasoned tofu sat atop a hefty amount of soft white rice and steamed bamboo. Several dishes holding ingredients like red peppers, seaweed, tofu, and fish sauce were placed on the side. I added a bit of everything and dug in.
I only got two bites in before the waiter came back and once again shook his head “no.” This time he was pointing at my chopsticks. He pulled out a spoon and handed it to me. I had worked so hard on my chopstick skills, so I was ready to prove that I could handle this. But, alas, it wasn’t the way to experience this meal. The lady in front of me smiled in amusement. I smiled in embarrassment and retired the chopsticks.
With that, my trip to Hue ended as it very much began: with profuse sweating, runny nose, and no care in the world — this intense blend of flavors had completely taken over all of my senses and my sense of rational thought.
A Taste of Hue
I think it’s impossible to pick out one city in Vietnam that is representative of the whole country. Like the food, every region has its own unique history. The South is heavily influenced by modern Western culture; the North remains more traditional and conservative; and the central region, especially Hue, falls somewhere in between.
The citizens of Hue have seen some of the most tragic parts of Vietnam’s history, including war, colonialism, and economic hardship, yet they still stand steadfastly proud. They’ve adapted as needed, but never sacrificed their culture. They are Vietnamese through and through. Leaders both native and foreign could never take that away. I thought about this every time I had the pleasure of eating a meal in Hue. I was enjoying centuries-old recipes that were being recreated and served by people who took pride in their traditions — and were always happy to share them.