After a long stay in the beguiling yellow city of Hội An, we decided to go by car to our next stop, Huế, a journey of 145 kilometres. There are two main routes to Huế: the new route, now favoured by trucks and other heavy commuters, which passes through a tunnel, a fast but boring trip, and the scenic route over the top of Hải Vân Pass, which takes a good part of a day, given the various stops along the way. The road taken, the scenic route, provided plenty of distraction, making for an amusing seven hour journey. This route also brings back haunting memories of the American War, with names such as China Beach, Danang and Lang Co indelibly etched in my memory from that era.
You can discuss your itinerary with your driver before you go or just leave it up to him. Our itinerary included a long, hot and fairly tedious stop at Marble Mountain. In hindsight, I would not bother with this stopover. The next stop was along the beach at Danang. By late morning, the intense heat and glare was overwhelming: the colourful basket boats, thung chai, nestled on the sand in theforeground, contrasting so vividly with the concrete skyline of Danang, a modern highrise city by the sea with very little appeal. Then, a quick stop at the top of Hải Vân Pass, (‘ocean cloud pass’) an important stop for historical reasons and providing great views, then down to Lang Co Beach, for a unmemorable lunch in a beach hut, and finally on to beautiful Hue.
If you go, organise a car and driver in Hội An In August, 2016, this cost us around $60 AU. Make sure that your driver has a smattering of English. Most drivers have their own agenda: if you wish to cut out a couple of these stops, the trip would take around 4 hours.
There was a story that went with this post. It appeared for a month and was then removed. I am not sure how this was done. The story, from memory, concerned the amazing resilience of the Vietnamese people. That despite everything, the French colonial period and the American war, which saw the bombing of the Purple City in Hue, the Vietnamese people still welcome foreigners into their country, and are friendly and courteous. I’m posting the removed photos again, along with this brief summary of my original thoughts. Should I be Paranoid?
If you take a stroll down the banks of the Perfume River at night, you will come across a scene of flood lit bridges, sparkling dragon boats and a little commerce as the locals, along with a few tourists, enjoy the fresh evening air after a hot and humid day. One of the delights of that stroll is watching the lights change colour on the Truong Tien Bridge, making the river shine and glow. The open space, parklands, good walkways and absence of motorbikes makes for a pleasurable night out for families and young couples in love.
In 1897, the French Resident Superior in Central Vietnam, Levecque, assigned Eiffel of France (known for the Eiffel Tower in Paris) to design and build the Truong Tien Bridge. The construction was completed in 1899. In 1946, 1953 and 1968, this beautiful bridge, symbol of Hue, was destroyed due to mines and bombings in the French, then American wars. The bridge was finally renovated in 1991-5 and the lighting system was installed in 2002.
The Perfume River (Huong) is named after the flowers from orchards upriver which fall into the water, giving the river a perfume-like aroma. The River flows to the northeast to Huế and passes the palaces and tombs of the Nguyễn emperors. After a day touring the tombs of the Nguyen emperors in the countryside, I can recommend a slow trip down the river, a relaxing end mesmerising way to end a long day.
After my trip down pizza lane the other day, you might think that I had given up on local food. This is definitely not the case. Staying in Hue, Vietnam for nine days has given me a chance to sample many of the local dishes as well as frequenting a variety of restaurants, except for those owned by large hotels or glitzy palaces. My only rule when travelling is to avoid these places. We have eaten very well. A short list of restaurants appears at the end of this post in case you ever find yourself spending time in this relaxed and refined city. Although only around 145 km north of Hôi An, via the dramatic Hải Vân Pass, the city of Hue has its own regional dishes, although in some instances, one could say they are the same, same, and not very different. The locals swear that they are only to be found in Hue!
When I’m craving something sweet, I start munching on Kẹo ĐậuPhụng, a peanut and sesame brittle treat. This double layered version, with ample toffee between the layers is a firm winner and can be found in Hue’s Dong Ba Market for 15,000VRD/Au 88c a piece. There is just a hint of residual smoky flavour left from the open charcoal cooking. Versions of this snack are probably found all over Vietnam- some come in flat rounds, others in square blocks.
Each restaurant in Hue seems to have a different take on the local dish, bánh bèo. Bánh bèo (literally “water fern cake”) is a small steamed glutinous rice cake in the shape of a disc. It features a dimple in the center which is filled with savoury ingredients including chopped fresh shrimp, spring onions, mung bean paste, crispy fried shallots or dried pork crackling, with a side dressing of fish sauce and rice vinegar. The best version in Hue can be found at Hanh, a little restaurant down a small lane, where they served these snacks in little pottery dishes. To eat them, you add a teaspoon of the dressing, then scoop out the paste with a spoon, fold the parcel in half and slide it down in one mouthful.
The vegetarian version at Lien Hoa Restaurant came steamed on a plate and was not so exotic in presentation but still made a fine starter. Lien Hoa is packed with locals on the weekend so time your visit with this in mind. The menu is exciting, cheap and radically different. The main challenge is to not over order. I want it all!! Below, the little nem rán or vegetarian spring rolls, differ from the usual: these seem light and airy, as if made from flaky pastry and resemble little sausage rolls. The small grilled banana leaf parcels contain glutinous rice stuffed with a tasty bean paste. The hot sauces and chilli add another dimension to each mouthful.
After a few days wandering around Hue, you begin to notice the prominence of vegetarian restaurants in this city. The key word to look for above restaurant doorways is Chay. They are scattered throughout the city, on both sides of the Perfume River, to serve the locals who have a strong tradition of eating vegetarian food twice a month as part of their Buddhist belief. Another feature of the local cuisine that sets it apart from others in Vietnam is the smaller serving size and refined presentation. They can often be more spicy than other regional foods, though chilli concoctions are generally served on the side. It is still mild compared with Thai food.
Banh Khoai is a crunchy rice flour pancake, not unlike a taco, made bright yellow with turmeric and extra-crispy due to sugar and carbonated water in the batter. It is a smaller and thicker version of the Banh Xeo, the version found in Hôi An discussed in my post here. The rice flour mixture ( there are no eggs used) is cooked in a frypan with ample oil, then stuffed with shrimp and pork belly or sausage, then when the pancake is crispy and golden on the bottom, spring onions and bean sprouts are added to the top. It is then folded and left to drain. The Banh Khoai is served with an abundant serving of lettuce, cucumber, mint, rau ram, coriander, perilla and a small pickle, along as a peanut sauce that is dark and a little challenging, given the touch of pork liver. To eat, break the crispy pancake into edible chunks, add to your serving bowl, cover with lots of herbs and lettuce, and then add a little peanut sauce. Eat with chopsticks, making sure you get lots of mint, which is the main counterbalance to the fried morsel. It is possible to ask for the meaty elements to be removed when you order Banh Khoai. We had them with prawn at Hanh Restaurant.
The Vietnamese have embraced a few French staples: not only the ubiquitous baguette, which can be found all over the country and on every street stall, but my favourite little dessert, creme caramel. Kem Flan can be found in most restaurants throughout Hue and is very much a local food. The bakeries across the river near the citadel churn out mini tubs of them daily. I ate a double whammy plate full at Hanh restaurant. They are baked on the premises daily and come with a huge slurp of passionfruit on top.
A few restaurant recommendations. Each one offers something delightful and not necessarily the food.
Hanh Restaurant. A great local restaurant with interesting local dishes and a very small but authentic menu. One English-speaking waiter will help show you how to assemble your dishes. 1 Phó Đức Chính, tp. Huế, Phú Hội
Lien Hoa Vegetarian Restaurant, very busy with locals on the weekend, serving unusual and exciting vegetarian food. Đôn, Thiêh, 3 Lê Quý Đôn, Huế, Thua Thien Hue
Zucca, the best restaurant in Hue. Great Pizza, pasta and fusion food. Cheap local beer and wine. See my review here.
Risotto. Has a similar menu to Zucca but the food is disappointing. Free bruschetta seems to appeal to the crowds. Handy to the hotel precinct.
Serene Shining Restaurant. 57/5 Nguyen Cong Tru street, Hue. This restaurant is attached to our hotel and makes lovely soups. The crab and lotus seed soup is very comforting after a long day. The staff are a happy crew and keen to assist with anything. This hotel is small, comfortable and the staff make you feel very much at home.
Bo De Vegetarian restaurant. 11 Le Loi, Hue, Vietnam. Great eggplant dishes. Many things were unavailable during our last visit and I suspect the food comes from a bain marie. Close to the river at the Museum end of Le Loi.
Lac Thien, 6 Dinh Hoang, Hue, Vietnam. On the Citadel side of the river and handy if you are strolling about in that older neighbourhood. Simple food, nothing special, except for the large extended family running the place and the 92 year old grandmother who still helps out.
There comes a time, every two weeks or so, when my body screams for pizza. This tends to happen more often in Asia. The scenario goes like this.”Where do you want to eat tonight? What do you feel like?” Local food options are considered, followed by an hour of walking along hot, busy streets, reading yet more menus, all delightful but strikingly similar, when finally my inner Strega rises to the fore and growls, “I would kill for a pizza”. Can we go back to Zucca restaurant? My guilty acquiescence is abated when Mr Tranquillo admits to the same desire.
Don’t get me wrong: I love the local Vietnamese cuisine here in Hue and have tried some excellent local restaurants in our nine-day sojourn here. The cuisine of Hue is a lot more varied and spicy than the usual Vietnamese offerings in Melbourne. But a good pizza washed down with a glass or two of wine is a heavenly thing, even when the wine in this divine coupling is the local Dalat wine, an acquired taste to which, through necessity, I have succumbed.
Running an Italian restaurant in an Asian tourist area is a licence to print money. These restaurants are always packed with expats, travellers and backpackers, some seeking respite from the local cuisine, while others, especially the younger travellers, needing food that is familiar and non- challenging. Asian versions of pizza and pasta are generally lost in translation. The pasta is often overcooked or drowned in Dolmio or Raguletto bottled sauce or the pizza is disappointing. Not at Zucca in Hue. The food here would rival the best Italian offerings in Rome or Melbourne.
After eating a couple of their excellent pizzas, we returned one night to try the pasta, in particular, the spinach and ricotta ravioli. The pasta is freshly made on the premises and the serving size is generous, topped with a home-made tomato sauce or cream. There is a tiny topping of basil ( Vietnamese basil- the only local touch). There are sadly no pics of this remarkable dish.At VND 70,000/AU$4.12, I am keen to return to try the pumpkin ravioli version.
After we sated our lust for Italian food, we began to notice that Zucca also offers local food as well as fusion food. The grilled calamari spiedini are marinated in aromatic lemongrass, then threaded with capsicum and onion slices and grilled on charcoal. They are served with a large salad and rice. VND 100,000/AU$5.88
The Melanzane Parmigiana is a slab of crumbed and fried eggplant, layered with mozzarella, home-made tomato salsa and parmesan. It was very sustaining, but a little dry due to my taste due to the crumbing. VND80,000/AU$4.71
The calamari entrée comes with a generous salad, VND 80,000/AU$4.71, making it a great little snack to go with a glass of fresh beer on tap at VND10,000/AU$.59c. ( yes- 59 cents! a glass). Mr T claims that the local beer is the safest and most economical drink in Vietnam. The local chilled white wine, which is made in the cooler district of DàLat, is a bargain at VND120,000 /AU$7.06.
Before travelling to Vietnam, my vocabulary was limited to phở, that famous Vietnamese bowl full of slurping goodness, and Nguyen, the 13th most common name in the Australian phone book and soon to become the top family name in the urban areas of Melbourne and Sydney. Not a lot to go on you might say.
The locals around Hue (pronounced hway) are keen to teach the language and correct your pronunciation: they write things down, demonstrate the tonal stresses, ask you to repeat the sounds and urge you to practice. This is good language teaching in action. Although the phonology is difficult to master, at least you get to read the language (unlike with Thai or Mandarin for example) and the diacritical marks give you some indication of the tones. I am constantly being corrected and that’s good. Words are coming fast, but today I need to practise cài baò càrôt, before heading off to the huge market across the Perfume River to begin my hunt for those magic graters.
As it turns out, my other well-known word, the name Nguyen, pronounced nwen, turns out to be quite handy in Vietnam. It is estimated that around 30 million Vietnamese, or 30 percent of the population, have this family name. Hue is the home of the Nguyen Dynasty. Established as the capital of unified Vietnam in 1802, Hue was not only the political but also the cultural and religious centre under the Nguyen dynasty until 1945. In that year, the last Nguyen emperor Bao Dai abdicated the throne and transferred power to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam led by Ho Chi Minh.
A tour of Hue’s monuments, because of their spread throughout the countryside, is most easily taken with a tour. A bus tour, taking in the tombs of the Nguyen emperors Minh Mang, Khai Dinh, and Tu Doc as well as the Citadel, Royal Palace and the Thien Miu Pagoda, takes around 8 hours. The trip includes a Vietnamese banquet lunch and concludes with a forty minute cruise down the Perfume River. Most importantly, it includes the service of a well-informed tour guide. The tour costs 255 VND /AU$15. Entry tickets to the various monuments is an extra 360,000 VND /AU21.23. You will walk around 8 kilometers during the round trip and climb many stairs. To survive, you need comfortable footwear, a good sunhat and lots of water. Our tour guide remained cool, calm and totally charming in her apricot polyester Ao Dai and 6 inch high wedged sandals. The temperature reached 36ºC on the day of our tour and I noticed that the price of cold water increased along the way.
As mentioned in a comment by Maree in an earlier post, the Vietnamese are very forgiving people, though around Hue, one of the hardest hit cities during the French colonial period and the American War which followed, they still harbour some distrust of the foreigner, at least at the official level, when it comes to preserving their heritage. In 1885, French forces stormed the Royal Palace, burning the imperial library and removing every single object of value. This was followed by the American bombing and napalming of the ancient complex of the Purple City. Only 20 of the original 148 buildings survived. The diorama on display inside the second palace representing the Royal Complex in the past, enables one to imagine its former grandeur. The Royal Purple City of 500 hectares was dotted with ornate buildings, moats, lakes and walls before the area was severely damaged. One could say that it was comparable to the palace and gardens of Versailles.
The city of Hue became a UNESCO world heritage site in 1993. The estimated cost of restoring or rebuilding the Purple City is around US$35 million. Consequently the project is very slow as funds are short. I have a few suggestions as to who should pay.
For Mark M, lover of Hue city.
Our tour was organised by MotorVina Travel, near 42 Nguyen Cong Tru st, Hue.