Where to stay
La Résidence Hôtel & Spa (Also see Where to eat) Art deco-inspired hotel set within the former French colonial Governeur’s mansion. Impeccable service, award-winning spa and huge pool overlooking the Perfume River to the citadel opposite. Doubles from £125. 5 Le Loi Street, 00 84 54 3837 475, la-residence-hue.com
Pilgrimage Village Luxurious oasis-like boutique hotel set in lush grounds on the road to Minh Ming’s tomb. Doubles from £140. 130 Minh Mang Road, 00 84 54 388 5461, pilgrimagevillage.com
Orchid Hotel Small, well-run downtown mini hotel known for its quality amenities and great service at a budget price. Doubles from £22. 30A Chu Van An Street, 00 84 54 383 1177, orchidhotel.com.vn
Ana Mandara Hue Although it’s 15km from the main city, the stretch of deserted sand with uninterrupted sea views makes Hue’s only luxury beach resort a great choice. Villas from £78. Thuan An Town, Phu Vang District, 00 84 54 398 3333, epikurean.com
Hotel Saigon Morin Built in 1901 overlooking Trang Tien bridge, this was one of the first hotels in Central Vietnam. Doubles from £58. 30 Le Loi Street, 00 84 54 382 3526, morinhotels.com.vn
Imperial Hotel Located right in ‘downtown’ Hue, this contemporary, 194-room, five-star property is one of the city’s newest high-end hotels. Doubles from £65. 8 Hung Vuong Boulevard, 00 84 54 388 2222,imperial-hotel.com.vn
Currency is the Vietnamese Dong (£1=32,700 VND). Hue is seven hours ahead of GMT. Hue has a tropical climate, with a humid wet season (September-January) and hot, dry season (March-August). The best time to visit Hue is during the drier, milder months (February-April), when the average temperature is 25°C.
GETTING THERE - Vietnam Airlines (020 3263 2062, vietnamairlines.com) operates direct flights from London Gatwick to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city, twice weekly on both routes, with connecting flights to Hue from both cities several times daily.
RESOURCES - Vietnam Online (vietnamonline.com) has a section dedicated to Hue with details of accommodation, transport, food and festivals.
FURTHER READING - Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam by Kim Fay and Julie Fay Ashborn (Global Directions, £12.64). An account of the Fay sisters’ travels through the country. Full of anecdotes and recipes, the book also has an illuminating chapter on Hue’s distinctive cuisine.
Where to eat
Ancient Hue Imperial dining in a resplendent setting befitting the Nguyen kings. Also offers a cooking class. Two courses from £16. 4/4/8 Lane 35, Pham Thi Lien Street, 00 84 54 359 0656, ancienthue.com.vn
Boi Tran Open from 8am to 10pm, but book 24 hours in advance as many dishes take a full day to prepare. Fixed menu from £6.30, priced according to number of diners and courses ordered. Thien An Hill, 00 84 54 388 4453, boitran.com
Che Hem A popular late-night (for Hue, at least) alleyway hangout, serving up 36 types of che, or ‘sweet soup’. From 15p a glass. 29 Hung Vuong
Hang Me Canteen-style restaurant set in a typical Vietnamese town house. Serves platters of bite-sized tapioca and rice dumplings from £2.12 Vo Thi Sau, 00 84 54 383 7341
Hoa Dong Low-key house restaurant serving com hen and bun hen on Hen Islet (Con Hen). From 20p. Hoa Dong, 64, Kiet 7, 00 84 54 384 8359
Huyen Dining Held in the ancient Duyet Thi Duong Theatre of the Imperial Citadel (the oldest imperial theatre in Vietnam). Royal Court Music, inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage List, is a dinner highlight and guests are invited to wear royal costumes if they wish. nhanhac.com.vn
Junrei Spacious, exposed brick restaurant surrounded by lush tropical foliage, serving Hue specialties and dishes from across Vietnam. Despite being set within a luxury resort, Junrei’s outstanding quality and affordable price means that local diners outnumber foreign visitors at lunchtime. £3.50-£6 a dish. 130 Minh Mang Road, 00 84 54 388 5461, pilgrimagevillage.com
Khong Gian Xua Traditional nha ruong house with jackfruit-wood pillars, vaulted ceilings, red silk lanterns and carved tableaux inlaid with mother of pearl. Always packed with locals who come to fill up on the extensive menu and local rice wine. From £1. 205 Dien Bien Phu, 00 84 54 388 6788, khonggianxuahue.com.vn
La Carambole Cheerful, casual, bistro-style French and Vietnamese restaurant in the middle of town. From £2 per dish. 19 Pham Ngu Lao, 00 84 54 381 0491
Lagoon Restaurant At the Ana Mandara, an extensive menu of Vietnamese and Western dishes, fantastic seafood, and full Imperial Hue menu served overlooking the ocean on Thuan An beach. From £7, with a range of culinary experience packages available. Thuan An Town, Phu Vang District, 00 84 54 398 3333, epikurean.ws
Le Parfum (Also see Where to stay) Elegant, high-end French, Asian and fusion restaurant overlooking the Perfume River. Cooking classes, dinner cruises, Imperial banquets and candle-lit balcony dinners available on request. From £8. 5 Le Loi Street, 00 84 054 383 7475, la-residence-hue.com
Mu Doi Basic banh canh noodle soup shop, near the Citadel. From 50p per dish. 71 Nguyen Trai Street.
Tha Om Traditional and beautifully maintained garden home, cooking classes and meals on request. £20 per person, minimum of two. 12/12 Nguyen Phuc Nguyen, Kim Long, 00 84 54 352 7810
Y Thao Quaint house filled with Hue ceramics, carvings, art work and other local paraphernalia flanked by two authentic nha ruong in a garden setting. Serves typical Hue food. From £1. 3 Thach Han, 00 84 54 352 3018
- Banh beo
- Steamed bun stuffed with pork and vegetables.
- Banh bot loc tran
- Tapioca flour dumpling with a shrimp filling.
- Banh canh
- Rice noodles, served with soup.
- Banh khoai
- Crepe with a savoury pork, shrimp and beansprout filling accompanied by salad and a peanut-based sauce.
- Banh nam
- Rice dumpling stuffed with pork and shrimp, wrapped in a banana leaf.
- Banh uot thit nuong
- Barbecued pork in steamed rice paper.
- Bong the
- Boiled fish with fish sauce and vegetables.
- Bun bo Hue
- Hue beef vermicelli soup.
- Bun hen
- Clams with rice vermicelli.
- Bun thit nuong
- Rice noodles with vegetables and barbecued pork.
- Ca ri cuu
- Curried lamb seasoned with Vietnamese spices.
- Com hen
- Clam rice.
- Small shrimps.
- Mam ruoc
- Fermented shrimp paste.
- Nuoc leo
- Sweet and salty dipping sauce.
- Tom chua
- Pickled shrimps.
- Va tron
- Savoury fig salad, a local speciality.
Food and Travel Review
Hue is the Vietnamese artist’s muse. Set on the fertile banks of the Perfume River, named for the fragrant blooms that fall from the trees to float downstream as summer slips into autumn, it is a city of seasonal extremes, scenic landscapes and distinctive architecture that has inspired poetry, songs and stories since Nguyen Phuc Anh, later Emperor Gia Long, first chose the valley as the seat of Vietnam’s ruling dynasty in 1802.
The Nguyen kings prized order and perfection in all things, attracting the nation’s top craftsmen, artists, religious figures and eminent scholars to the city during their 150-year reign. This included the food – traditionally, Hue dishes balanced tastes and ingredients with colours and designs, but the royal kitchens took culinary adornment to the extreme. Their creations were intended to impress and amuse – braised carp and chicken might be decorated with foil fins, scales and tails, and lacquered bamboo in the form of a dragon or phoenix – and were often served during lavish, 30-dish banquets.
However, a meal in the royal palace could also be as simple as one found on any commoner’s dinner table. Fig salad and boiled vegetables or river smelts braised in pepper and mint were typical, and Emperor Thanh Thai’s eldest sister was said to have craved pickled shrimps, tom chua. The grand princess is said to have shelled them with her own fingers.
Hue’s glorious monument complex is noted on the Unesco World Heritage List for representing the power of the vanished Vietnamese empire at its height in the early 19th century, and as an outstanding example of an eastern feudal capital. But, following Bao Dai’s abdication in 1945, rule reverted to Hanoi, and once the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the citadel was barely standing. The city had seen the bloodiest battle of the 1968 Tet offensive, when attacking North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces captured the city. During the 25 days that the Communist flag flew, 10,000 people died and many neighbourhoods were completely levelled. Of the 1,200 monuments built in the Hue valley under the Nguyen dynasty, only 300 remained.
Some, like Hon Chen temple, Emperor Minh Mang’s Tomb and the seven-storey, 400-year-old Thien Mu Pagoda, 5km from the city centre, are accessible by boat. As well as exploring the citadel and the Forbidden Purple City (built by Emperor Gia Long within the stone perimeter walls, and said to be modelled on Beijing’s Forbidden City), a cruise along the Perfume River aboard one of the luridly decorated fishing boats is an essential part of any trip to the city.
There are plenty of places to grab a bite between sights. Not far from Thien Mu Pagoda in the Kim Long district is Huyen Anh, a cheap and cheerful restaurant along a leafy alleyway that specialises in two simple snacks. First, pork chops are marinated with garlic, shallots, lemongrass, green onions, coriander, sugar, honey, fish sauce, soy sauce and fresh cracked pepper. Then they’re flame-grilled and either loosely rolled in steamed rice sheets with cucumber, coriander, basil and smashed peanuts for banh uot thit nuong, or served with the greens over vermicelli noodles, in a dish known as bun thit nuong. Both variations come with a side bowl of chilli-sweetened fish sauce accompanied by whole garlic cloves.
Also in the Kim Long area, which stretches from the westernmost wall of the citadel along the bank of the river, is where you’ll find many of the court mandarins’ garden houses, or nha vuon. Several are well preserved, and culinary expert and direct descendent of the royal family Huyen Ton Nu Cam Tu offers informal cooking classes and wholesome lunches and dinners on request at Tha Om, her peaceful, well manicured home.
On an adjacent alley, Ancient Hue offers a distinctly more regal culinary experience. Once through the ceremonial gate and its protective shield of pillars – according to the principles of phong thuy, a shield must protect the entrance of all buildings against bad winds and spirits – guests are transported back in time to become a guest of the imperial court. Tables are arranged around jackfruit-wood pillars decorated with elaborately carved wooden tablets inlaid with mother of pearl. Chefs serve typical ornamented dishes, such as chicken soup with black mushroom and lotus seeds; soft, tender snapper stewed in a sweet, citrus ‘royal sauce’, and banh khoai – thick, half-moon pancakes with a crispy, lightly browned outside. Stuffed with boiled prawns, sliced pork flank and crunchy bean sprouts, they are served with a special sweet yet salty dipping sauce called nuoc leo.
But feasting like a king in Hue doesn’t mean you have to stand on ceremony. Most Hue people prefer instant gratification over the delay and normality of a sit-down restaurant. They buy freshly cooked food on impulse from their favourite hawker stalls, street vendors or lowkey restaurants. Quan Hang Me is one such place, specialising in delicious, simple dumpling dishes that purportedly graced the tables of the Nguyen kings, but are served without the fanfare. One of these is banh beo – steamed rice paste dishes with a central mound of fried pork and boiled shredded shrimp. Their name means ‘bloated fern-shaped cakes’ because their form resembles the water lilies that float in the citadel’s innumerable pools, moats and ponds. They are best enjoyed with a sprinkling of sweetened fish sauce.
If you are after something more substantial, noodle shops abound on every street, and bun bo Hue – Hue beef vermicelli soup – is arguably the city’s best-known culinary export. ‘Traditionally, bun bo Hue is made by boiling beef bones with spices to create a rich beef stock, which is then ladled over rice noodles, pork leg, beef fillet or beef shin, cooked with spicy shallots, fish sauce, lemongrass, and chilli,’ says Hoang Thi Nhu Huy, lecturer in Hue culinary culture at the local university and one of six national culinary specialists recognised by the Vietnamese government. ‘But if you just want a quick, simple bowl of noodles without the extras, try Mu Doi.’
This otherwise unnamed noodle shop earned the nickname Mu Doi (which means ‘Madame Wait’), because of the length of time patrons had to hang around for their fresh banh canh during busy periods (originally there was only one outlet, but the dish became so popular that ‘Mu Doi’ has now expanded her operation to three, perhaps rendering the moniker inaccurate). The restaurant nearest the Citadel has no sign and is known merely by sight and reputation: an indeterminate time after ordering, a bowl of quail’s eggs and smaller pots of sliced chilli, salt, pepper and monosodium glutamate are placed on the table, followed by a plate of sliced leek, onion and banana flower shoots. Then the banh canh noodles arrive: long, fat, slippery rice ribbons – akin to Japanese udon – served in a plastic floral-rimmed bowl of clear, hot broth with four boiled shrimps and slices of pork. A bowl of banh canh is just 50 pence, but quail’s eggs, the fragmented shells of which are left scattered across table tops like an epitaph, cost five pence apiece.
Gia Long’s decision to build his mighty capital at the confluence of river, sea, mountains, flood plains and lagoons ensured that his subjects and their descendents would not want for food in any season. Hue’s topography and seasonal changes, which range from 10°C during its damp, chilly winter to over 40°C during the summer, dictate the availability of certain ingredients throughout the year.
Stallholders at Dong Ba market do a roaring trade, their vegetables and fruit nourished by the nutrient-rich deposits from the river. A stroll around the potholed market lanes, dodging stern-faced fishwives in heavy-duty Wellington boots and clapped out Honda Cub motorbikes driven by chain-smoking, weather-beaten men, reveals at every turn outlandishly proportioned, vibrantly coloured produce, offered by sellers who unconsciously seem to coordinate their outfits with what they have for sale.
Hue’s famous, brilliant red chilli peppers lie heaped everywhere in varying degrees of preparation: powdered, crushed, chopped, sliced, and whole. Poultry, pork and beef are hacked into manageable slabs on top of wooden blocks. Stacks of live crabs, claws tied with twine, peer dolefully at potential customers. Around them, shallow plastic buckets glisten with the flicking bodies of shrimp and prawn and the undulations of gasping catfish.
Hue dishes require a great deal of preparation, and each ingredient in every dish may be subjected to several cooking techniques. One of Hue’s lesser-known but best places to experience this is at the gallery and kitchen of oil painter Boi Tran. I was treated to a small banquet of dishes that exemplified balance and consideration for her guests’ health: shrimp with five tastes – a single, succulent estuarine shrimp swimming in a delicious clear lemongrass soup made with lemon, onion, chilli, lemon leaves and ginger; warming beef consommé – accompanied by batons of steamed rice-paper rolls secured with dainty bows; va tron fig salad, a local speciality, made using fruit from Boi Tran’s own garden; and her father’s favourite, red rice soup with bong the fish.
While not actually descended from the Nguyen kings, Boi Tran is now proud to be their neighbour: she built her wooden H’Mong tribal house home along the road to the royal tombs of Minh Mang and Khai Dinh, two Hue’s former emperors. According to Hoang Thi Nhu Huy, Khai Dinh was particularly partial to com hen, or clam rice, a Hue speciality prepared using shellfish collected from Hen Island in the middle of the Perfume River. This is now best enjoyed at one of the many house-cum-restaurants on the island itself. Behind the crumbling wall of Hoa Dong, the lady of the house and three lissome teens clad in matching floral pyjamas ladle clam stock from bubbling pots over cooled rice. They top it with boiled clams, mixed greens, peanuts, a sliver of fried pork loin crackling, basil and coriander, and curly strings of young banana root. The seasoning is DIY, so small plastic pots of pickled chilli, chopped chilli, fish sauce, and pungent pink mam ruoc – a local speciality made by fermenting khuyec, (small shrimp) with salt – are scattered on every table. There’s a steady stream of patrons from early morning until well after dark.
‘Even in a small dish, the balance of yin and yang is very important,’ says Nhu Huy. ‘The ginger is “hot”; the clams “cold”. Hue people like their food salty and spicy, so we add mam ruoc and chilli.’
Like most Hue people, Nhu Huy is both romantic and hospitable, and she intersperses her commentary on the finer points of Hue cuisine with stories about her life, as well as key places along Hue’s wide, leafy streets – the school she attended, where she later taught cooking as a discipline, and the Saigon Morin Hotel, where Charlie Chaplin is said to have spent his honeymoon, and where Nhu took her first kitchen job.
Although the ancient architecture is the overriding influence, Hue’s cityscape has also been fashioned by the French, who effectively controlled the country from 1887 until emperor Bao Dai abdicated in 1945, ending Vietnam’s feudal rule. Many of the French colonial mansions located across the river from the citadel are now restaurants, museums and art galleries. One of the best ways to explore these leafy boulevards, streets around the citadel, the ancient tile-roofed Thanh Toan bridge and surrounding countryside, is by cyclo, a bicycle rickshaw powered by gentlemen that hail potential customers with a loud ‘cyclo, you!’
Alongside shallots, potatoes, tarragon and asparagus, the French also introduced baguettes to Vietnam, which are stuffed with a range of delectable delights to make Vietnam’s fastest food, the banh mi sandwich. As dusk falls and night steals over Hue, hundreds of people stop on their way home from work at the end of Truong Tien Bridge, which spans the Perfume River from the intersection of Le Loi and Hung Vuong street to Dong Ba market and was constructed by the Paris-based Eiffel company. Here they grab a charcoal-toasted baguette – the stallholder slices the bread lengthways, then adds a slathering of chilli paste and a garnish made from knotweed before stuffing it with nhan, or filling: ham, omelette, pâté, grilled pork, fermented ground pork, chicken jerky or banh bot loc tran.
But nowhere is the French influence more evident than at La Résidence Hotel & Spa, an art deco boutique hotel set within the magnificent home of the former French governor. Its Le Parfum restaurant overlooks the gardens and river; tables are laid with pristine white tablecloths and sparkling silverware, and the wine list has been matched to a menu of local and international dishes with a French accent. From ca ri cuu, curried lamb seasoned with Vietnamese spices and served with steamed rice or a baguette, to cinnamon duck breast and chocolate fondant with basil ice cream, it’s a sensory journey. Here you can experience Hue as the colons did, and taste the opulence and indulgence of a bygone era.
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