A Journey Through Vietnam’s True Food Capital: Hue

Asia, Travel, Vietnam, Vietnam

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.

Meridian Gate of the Imperial City

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).

Bun Thit Nuong

Banh Beo

Banh Beo

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.

Bun Bo Hue

Bun Bo Hue

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.

The Must-Have Dish at Lien Hoa

The Must-Have Dish at Lien Hoa

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.

7 Fun Facts About the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Europe, Italy, Travel

PRESS PLAY ABOVE TO FIND OUT 7 FUN FACTS ABOUT THE LEANING TOWER OF PISA!

We hate to ruin our undoubtedly cool image (!), but Big & Small are, well, history geeks. So, when we were deciding on a place to settle down for a few weeks in Italy, we chose the cozy, historical town of Pisa. Of course, staying in Pisa for more than 24 hours isn’t your typical itinerary. There’s usually only one bullet point on most tourists’ checklist: a peek at the world’s most famous architectural screwup, the Leaning Tower. Admittedly, this is what Big & Small did on our first trip to the town in 2015. But upon our return, we found there was much more to love about Pisa and much more to learn about its most popular attraction.

Piazza dei Miracoli, Pisa, Italy

The Leaning Tower, and the Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles) in which it precariously stands, is far from a tourist trap; it’s a fascinating window into the rich history and stunning architecture of this beautiful corner of Tuscany. Finding ourselves drawn to the tower far more than we had ever imagined—tourist hordes be damned—we were inspired to learn more about its origins and its ability to stay standing for so many centuries. In this video, Big & Small share 7 fun facts that we discovered about the Leaning Tower, including how far it actually leans and how in the world it hasn’t yet fallen. And did you know it’s not the only thing in Pisa that stands at a tilt?

Hoi An, Vietnam: Travel Tips

Asia, Travel, Vietnam

Watch our travel tips video above on Hoi An for more detailed and colorful explanations.

The historic town of Hoi An may just be the most charming city in Asia. Located in central Vietnam, just south of the country’s third largest city Danang, Hoi An is a growing tourist destination. The Ancient Town is a UNESCO Heritage Site and it’s a stunning place in which various cultures collide—see lasting remnants of the strong Chinese history and influence, the Japanese Bridge and merchant houses, and French colonial architecture. And don’t forget the incredible Vietnamese cuisine. It’s a wonderful destination to eat, relax, and soak up traditional Vietnamese culture. If you’re planning to visit, here are 7 quick tips to enjoy Hoi An to the fullest.

coffee

Coffee by the beach at Sound of Silence Coffee in the Hidden Beach area of Hoi An.

1. Skip An Bang Beach and Head South
An Bang Beach is the main beach of Hoi An, but it can be a bit of a tourist trap. But it’s easy to get away and find your own private patch of sand. Just head south along the beach. A good spot to stop is Sound of Silence Coffee, which specializes in espresso-based drinks (which aren’t easy to find here in Hoi An). If you order a drink, you have free access to a beachfront seat. Nothing is better than having a fresh cup of coffee with toes in sand and the sea as your backdrop. Check out Sound of Silence Coffee for the best beach experience.

2. Enjoy the Local Cuisine
The cuisine of central Vietnam is fresh and flavorful. Our personal Hoi An favorites are the Cao Lau (a noodle and pork dish) and Banh Xeo (a savory, crispy pancake that’s rolled in rice paper). There are also a few spots where you can order an egg coffee, a Hanoi specialty.
bike

Take the time to bike through the vegetable village outside the ancient town of Hoi An.

3. Take Your Bicycle to the Fields
Escape the manic roads and take a bike ride through the tranquil rice paddies. Most hotels, villas, and homestays in the area offer free bikes to rent—definitely take advantage of this. It definitely takes some nerve to get on a bike in Hoi An, but once you reach the rice fields and Vegetable Village (Tra Que), you’ll find some serenity amongst the plants, cows, and water buffalo.

4. Visit the Hoi An Museum
The main museum in Hoi An is small, but has some interesting artifacts, especially from the Vietnamese/American war. Because of its location, Hoi An was somewhat neutral during this time, as it sits near the demarcation line between the north and south. Still, there was plenty of fighting going on in this region, and the chilling artifacts at this museum—including missiles recovered not long ago by the Vietnamese—remind you of the recent and dark history here in Vietnam.

5. Protect Your Valuables When Biking

Petty crime can be a problem in Hoi An. We have heard stories of cyclists being bumped into and robbed during all times of the day. If you’re carrying a bag, the best way to avoid any potential problems is to simply strap your bag around the bike’s handlebars. Keeping your bag attached to the bike makes it much more difficult for quick-handed scooterists to snatch your stuff.
boat

The Vietnamese Hat known as Non La is together with Vietnamese dress, one of the most recognizable symbols of Vietnam.

6. Get Lost and Explore
Even within the busy Ancient Town, you can find plenty of small streets and quiet alleyways to sneak into and explore. Outside the main town, take your bike through the rice fields and around the quaint neighborhoods of Cam Thanh and Cua Dai.
7. Loosen Up with a Yoga Class at Nomad Yoga
Yoga can be hard to come by in this part of Vietnam, but Nomad Yoga offers a great selection of classes daily (except for Sundays) for all levels. The studio is in a beautiful setting, located just near the rice fields in Cam Ha. Classes on offer include Ashtanga, Hatha Vinyasa, Gentle Flow, and Yin Yoga. You can also take an early morning class right near An Bang Beach.