Vietnam: A hue of flavours ranging from pho to bun bo hue

Hue in Central Vietnam is home to a unique cuisine influenced by its imperial history. The legend goes that the imperial city’s chefs had to cater to easily bored royals with discerning palates.
Soft rice paper rolls and banana leaf wraps stuffed with meat and veggies
Soft rice paper rolls and banana leaf wraps stuffed with meat and veggies

Eating is a serious business in Vietnam. Even before the sun rises, food stalls spring to life, bright plastic stools are set up on pavements, and the wafting aromas of simmering broths and grilled meats begin to fill the air. Soon, office-goers arrive for a steaming bowl of pho on their way to work. They return on whizzing motorbikes at lunchtime, in the evening, and then again for dinner. Hole-in-the-wall eateries and street food stalls are always buzzing with focused diners, choosing from an array of sandwiches, skewers 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 dining scene that plays out on the streets. From the south to the north of the country, you’ll find hearty soupy bowls specific to each region, featuring zesty herbs and everything from dumplings to pork knuckles and fish cakes. Even the ubiquitous pho—the country’s best-known meal in a bowl—is a delicately spiced broth with meat, greens and rice noodles.

A bowl of the city’s signature dish, <em>bun bo hue</em>
A bowl of the city’s signature dish, bun bo hue

When the late American celebrity chef, TV host and author Anthony Bourdain famously declared bun bo hue the “most famous soup in the world”, he firmly turned the spotlight on the little-known city that lends 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 travellers to Vietnam in favour of action-packed Hanoi in the north and vibrant Ho Chi Minh City in the south.

In 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 1800s’ imperial architecture. In fact, Hue’s imperial influence has permeated into its culinary offerings, giving rise to a unique cuisine that blends local produce and regional cooking styles with a long history of innovation.

The legend goes that the imperial city’s chefs had to cater to easily bored royals with discerning palates. Having to dish out lavish, non-repetitive meals forced the chefs to get creative with ingredients and combinations.

Between exploration of the UNESCO World Heritage monuments and the grand tombs of Nguyen kings, one can also hunt down some of Hue’s unique food offerings. Luckily, bun bo hue is a breakfast speciality, and the rice noodle soup with slivers of beef and vegetables are 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 no-frills eatery named Hanh, where raincoat-clad locals brave the downpour on pavement tables, just so they can get their food fixed. Under each table is a tiny dustbin to chuck the banana leaves and lemongrass skewers that wrap and hold your meal together. The menu includes several Hue specials found exclusively in the city. As the third largest exporter of rice in the world, Vietnamese food leans heavily on the staple grain. Hue’s specialities include rice in the form of cakes, rolls and pancakes.

There’s banh khoai—crunchy rice pancakes filled with an assortment of seafood, meat, veggies and sprouts. And nem lui—delicious minced meat rolls on lemongrass skewers—which you roll up in rice paper sheets and assemble with greens and sauces. Or, unwrap banana leaf parcels to sample banh loc—steamed cassava morsels stuffed with shrimp and pork; and banh beo—steamed rice cakes topped with bits of shrimp and veggies. Everything is doused liberally in sweet and chilli fish or peanut sauce, accompanied by bright sprigs of mint leaves and shredded salads of figs and vegetables, topped with scallions and green onions. There are elements of freshness and crunch, tang and chilli. It’s all very elaborate, requiring lots of assembly and deconstruction by the diner, ensuring you’re wholly engrossed in your meal. Maybe this is how the chefs of yore kept the Nguyen lords interested in their food.

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