Eating is serious business in Vietnam. Even before the sun rises, food stalls come to life, shiny plastic stools set up on the sidewalks, and the wafting aromas of simmering broths and grilled meats begin to fill the air. Soon, the office goers arrive for a steaming bowl of pho on their way to work. They return on buzzing motorcycles at lunchtime, at night, and then again for dinner. The hidden-in-the-wall restaurants and street food stalls are always packed with focused diners, choosing from a variety of sandwiches, kabobs and soups for their next meal.
Vietnam is a vast country with diverse landscapes and regional culinary offerings, but the one constant is the dynamic food scene that takes place on the streets. From the south to the north of the country, you’ll find hearty soupy bowls specific to each region, with spicy herbs and everything from meatballs to pork knuckles and fish cakes. Even the ubiquitous pho, the country’s best-known one-bowl meal, is a delicately spiced broth with meat, vegetables and rice noodles.
When American celebrity chef, TV host, and author Anthony Bourdain declared bun bo hue the “world’s most famous soup,” he firmly focused attention on the little-known city that gives the dish its name. The culturally vibrant former capital of Vietnam, Hue (rhymes with ‘sway’), was the last seat of the Nguyen dynasty, containing grand palaces and tombs. Though historically significant, Hue is often overlooked by first-time travelers to Vietnam in favor of action-packed Hanoi in the north and vibrant Ho Chi Minh City in the south.
By contrast, Hue in central Vietnam is a slow-paced city on the banks of the Perfume River, ideal for languid explorations of hilltop fortresses and ornate 19th-century imperial architecture. In fact, the imperial influence of Hue has permeated its culinary offerings, giving rise to a unique cuisine that combines local products and regional cooking styles with a long history of innovation.
Legend has it that chefs in the imperial city had to cater to royals with fastidious palates that were easily bored. Having to serve lavish, non-repetitive meals forced chefs to get creative with ingredients and combinations.
Between exploring UNESCO World Heritage monuments and the great tombs of the Nguyen kings, you can also seek out some of Hue’s unique gastronomic offerings. Fortunately, bun bo hue is a breakfast specialty, and rice noodle soup with sliced meat and vegetables is easily found at my hotel’s morning buffet.
Later in the evening, as the rain lashes down, I follow a stream of motorbikes to a simple restaurant called Hanh, where raincoat-clad locals brave the downpour at sidewalk tables, just so they can prepare their food. Under each table is a small dustbin to throw away the banana leaves and lemongrass skewers that wrap and hold the food together. The menu includes several Hue specials found exclusively in the city. As the world’s third-largest rice exporter, Vietnamese food relies heavily on the staple grain. Hue’s specialties include rice in the form of cakes, rolls and pancakes.
There’s banh khoai: crispy rice pancakes filled with a variety of seafood, meat, vegetables, and sprouts. And nem lui, delicious rolls of minced meat on lemongrass skewers, which are rolled in sheets of rice paper and assembled with vegetables and sauces. Or unwrap banana leaf packets to try banh loc: steamed cassava morsels stuffed with shrimp and pork; and banh beo: steamed rice cakes topped with diced shrimp and vegetables. Everything is generously drizzled with sweet fish and chili or peanut sauce, accompanied by bright sprigs of mint leaves and shredded fig and green salads, topped with scallions and green onions. There are elements of freshness and crunch, spiciness and chili. It’s all very elaborate, requiring a lot of assembly and deconstruction on the part of the diner, ensuring that they are completely engrossed in their food. Perhaps this is how the chefs of yore kept the Nguyen lords interested in their food.