Thursday 4th December, 2014
Today is essentially our one and only opportunity to discover the highlights of the former imperial city of Hue, which served as Vietnam’s capital from 1802 to 1945. We have an action-packed day filled with sightseeing and enjoying the cuisine particular to Central Vietnam. Unfortunately the change in geographic location also means a change in weather so our local guide is insistent that we bring an umbrella at all times.
A short drive from outside the city, the first stop of the day is to visit the royal tomb of Khai Dinh, the second last emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty. This mausoleum is built with a combination of European and Vietnamese architectural styles and is quite impressive in its grandeur. Huy, our local Travel Indochina guide, recites the history of the site and the relatively short life of Khai Dinh. The interior of the tomb is uniquely decorated with mosaics that have been created with glass from champagne and beer bottles, as well as pieces of broken china from Vietnamese crockery and cutlery.
Our education in Hue’s history continues with a visit to the iconic seven-story Thien Mu Pagoda, or Heavenly Lady Pagoda, including its beautiful garden surrounds and a sneak peak at the monk quarters at the back of the temple.
The rain has started to set in as we commence our tour of the Hue Citadel and Imperial City so our architecture briefing and exterior photographs are kept to a minimum as we seek shelter inside the palace. Kylie and I spend the next hour or so learning about the history of the Imperial City, the Nguyen emperors and life at court, and then wandering through the restored buildings, including the impressive Royal Theatre.
A fantastic morning exploring the best sights of Hue and suddenly it’s time for lunch. Huy lives in the neighbourhood behind the Imperial City and is keen to take us to a local family-owned restaurant to try a local specialty, Bánh bèo chén.
Bánh bèo chén are delicate rice cakes cooked in small, shallow dishes topped with minced shrimp and pork crackling or a pork fat crouton. I distinctly remember watching Luke Nguyen prepare this dish in one episode of his culinary journeys based in Hue, so after I got over the initial excitement of actually sampling a dish that I’ve seen being prepared on television, I crouched down beside our “chef” and started pouring the rice flour mixture into the small dishes too.
Our little party were the only customers at the restaurant which is located at the front of a small residential house, so we literally made ourselves at home at a small plastic table and braced our stomachs for the upcoming feast.
The bánh bèo chén shortly arrived at the table and after the obligatory photo opportunity, our guide demonstrated how we should eat the dish. Sprinkling a little fish sauce over the top, Huy used a teaspoon to lift the steamed rice cake from the dish and eat it whole. I didn’t need to be shown twice how to eat food, so I grabbed a dish for myself and repeated the process. Yum! With the rain pouring outside, I thought I was in foodie heaven sitting undercover devouring these little delicacies. The rice cakes were firm yet smooth to taste, with the pork crouton adding a bit of crunch to the texture. The salty fish sauce gives the dish a little extra flavour and helps moisten the steamed dumpling.
I would have been happy if that was the only dish on the menu, however Huy also ordered a few more Hue bánh dishes for Kylie and I to enjoy. Also on our table was Bánh nậm, another specialty from the central region, which are rice dumplings topped with shrimp, pork and spring onion, and then steamed in banana leaves.
Unfolding the hot parcels to reveal the steamed dumpling inside was as much fun, as consuming the dish itself. A little more substantial than the bánh bèo chén, you use a spoon to scoop the steamed dumpling away from the banana leaf and mix to combine the topping with the base, so that the flavour is evenly distributed. Delicious! In hindsight, these might have been my favourite bánh of the moment.
The next Hue specialty was Bánh bột lọc lá which are dumplings made from tapioca flour that also contain shrimp and pork and are also enclosed and steamed in banana leaves. A little more visually spectacular than the other dumplings, the tapioca starch becomes translucent when cooked to reveal the whole shrimp and prawn pieces inside.
And yet another dish arrived on the table. Similar to a dish we tried in Hanoi, cha heo can be described as cured pork meat wrapped in a small mound of banana leaves. Just when I thought that there were more than enough dishes to sustain Kylie and myself for the afternoon, the Bánh ướt, the final dish arrived.
Bánh ướt, loosely translated as “wet cakes”, are thin sheets of rice noodles, topped with Vietnamese basil, bean sprouts and fried shallots. The wet texture and fresh ingredients was a change from the meat dumplings and were quite filling on their own. Lunch at this small family restaurant was a rare treat and unfortunately I can’t find the name of the place on TripAdvisor to share other than it is located at 109 Le Huan, Hue and the words “Quan 109” are at the top of the outside sign.
One of the highlights of this particular tour when compared to other similar group tours to Vietnam, is that Travel Indochina include visits to not-for-profit organisations such as the Spiral Foundation’s “Healing the Wounded Heart Shop”, where local deaf and mute workers make and sell products that have been made from recycled materials. Our guide gave us a crash course in sign language so that we could communicate a few greetings and what country we had come from. When we arrived at the centre, we met the director who explained what the organisation was about and how they provide work for disabled artisans. Kylie and I were then introduced to two resident artisans, who helped us to make our own rings from electrical wire to keep as a souvenir. As we wandered around the gift shop afterwards, there were framed photos of famous celebrities such as George Clooney and Angelina Jolie holding their own purchases, so we were obviously in good company.
That evening we met our local guide again to enjoy the local Hue cuisine. Huy took us to a popular Hue restaurant, called “Hong Mai” that specialises in Bánh khoái , otherwise known as “happy pancake” or “Hue pancake” and Nem lui, aka “Hue lemongrass skewers”.
The Bánh khoái was the first dish to arrive at our table and I was salivating at all the wonderful fresh ingredients inside the pancake as well as its perfectly formed crispy exterior. Banh khoái is a essentially a Vietnamese rice flour crepe cooked on one side in oil until crispy, filled with prawns, pork belly, pork sausage, egg, bean sprouts and spring onion and then folded in half to make it “smile”. Cut into quarters the pancake is also accompanied with fresh herbs, chilli and slices of star fruit for contrasting flavour. I loved the crispy texture of the pancake and the filling was moist and full of flavour. This experience is definitely one of my favourite food memories although with the amount of oil and heat required to make a crispy crepe, I think I will limit my Bánh khoái consumption to restaurants only.
The lemongrass skewers is another Hue favourite that I saw Luke Nguyen prepare on his culinary journey to Central Vietnam on SBS one dark winter’s evening. Made with minced beef and pork, the meat is shaped around stalks of lemongrass and cooked on a chargrill, giving the meat a smoky aroma and flavour. The skewers are traditionally served with a “secret” dipping sauce which is made with glutinous rice flour, sweetcorn flour, peanut butter, hoisin sauce, pork liver, black pepper, fish sauce, sesame seeds, sugar and water. I sampled some of the accompanying sauce and although it wasn’t too bad, I swear I could detect some of that liver flavour!
When our skewers arrived, Huy demonstrated how to create a rice paper roll by removing the meat from the skewer and adding some of the fresh ingredients on our table. The wraps were easy to create but I preferred to enjoy the lemongrass skewers on their own.
Having enjoyed another Hue culinary adventure, we grabbed our umbrellas and rain coats and slowly walked back to our hotel along some of the back streets. Along the way, Huy came across a 100,000 VND note lying on the street so Kylie and I were treated to Chè dessert at a nearby street vendor.
Just like our experience in Hanoi, there were several large pots filled with all manner of weird and wonderful substances. Huy ordered two desserts to try, Taro and coconut milk and Fried pork in tapioca in sugar syrup. Taro is a starchy root vegetable with a unique purple colour, so the Taro and coconut milk dessert had thick and creamy texture, mixed with broken ice and coconut milk and was unusually delicious.
The Fried pork in tapioca in sugar syrup was also a rather unusual mixture but actually quite sweet to taste. The pieces of fried pork were enclosed in clear tapioca balls, so to the naked eye they almost looked like large eyeballs floating in a glass of iced water. The sweet syrup was made with sugar, water and pandan leaves and was really quite tasty. Fried pork wouldn’t be my usual choice for dessert but this weird concoction wasn’t half bad.
Disclaimer: All entries regarding the Vietnam Culinary Discovery tour within this blog reflect my own personal insights and experiences throughout my holiday and I was solely responsible for meeting all travel expenses incurred.