The Nguyen lords, the feudal dynasty that ruled from Hue and dominated much of southern Vietnam from the 16th to 19th centuries, chose their capital wisely. On the banks of the effortlessly evocative Suong Huong (Perfume River) they constructed a Citadel and a lavish oriental wonderland of tombs, temples and palaces, which stand testament to the dynasty’s lofty sense of aesthetics and its equally towering arrogance and disconnection with its humble subjects.
Yet these often-haughty monarchs didn’t just leave (admittedly attractive) architectural tokens of their reign. They also helped bequeath upon Hue an indigenous cuisine that is envied around the country.
“From the middle of the 1600s until 1945, nine lords and 13 emperors ruled from Hue,” says Phan Trong Minh, general manager at La Residence, the city’s most illustrious hotel. “These rulers were finicky eaters. They wouldn’t settle for the same humble dish day after day. And so the cooks of Hue had to get creative. Really creative. It’s said that the emperors wanted 50 different dishes served at a single sitting.
“The legends also tell stories of incentives the emperors provided for creativity. They would often let his concubines compete for their favour with the preparation of dessert. Whoever produced the most delicious dessert could have the emperor for the night!”
Times have changed a lot in Hue since then. The emperors are long gone and the focus of power and commerce has shifted north and south to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, respectively. The legacy of royalty, however, is easily detected in the city’s discerning dining habits.
In Hue, like elsewhere in Vietnam, the locals like to get the day in gear sharpish. Indeed, the hour errs towards the ungodly side as I make my way over the Song Huong in search of an early breakfast. Despite the time, the city is already a hive of activity.
A rowdy succession of motorbikes emerge from the dawn mist that hangs like a heavy grey curtain over the river. The streets bordering the city’s famous citadel, meanwhile, overflow with vendors tending steaming cauldrons of bun bo Hue (a hearty beef noodle soup that is one of the city’s defining dishes) and wizened old ladies practicing their tai chi moves.
In a large plaza next to the citadel a group of young boys, kitted out in Brazil soccer shirts, are kicking a football around. The bright yellow shirts may appear incongruous given the grimy state of the weather. But the scene is a fitting metaphor for the city’s multi-faceted culinary scene.
Despite recent travails of its national side, Brazil is still a byword for an effortless, flair-filled version of the “beautiful game”. Similarly, Hue is widely regarded as the apogee of Vietnam’s food culture: a place where prime produce, a fastidious royal heritage and some of the best dishes in the country combine to create something truly world-beating.
Food is the only reason I’m up so early and not still snoozing in my comfortable bed back at the art deco La Residence Hue Hotel & Spa, Hue’s most prestigious address. I’m acting on a hot tip from Andrea Nguyen, author of numerous books on Vietnamese cuisine.
Upon quizzing her on her preferred breakfast options in Hue, she points me in the direction of her favourite spot for bun bo (beef and pork with chilli, lemongrass and thick, round rice noodles). The vendor packs up by 9am and is often sold out earlier than that. Therefore, it is with some relief that I find myself tucking into a dish that many view as defining its home city.
“Pho is nuanced and delicate, a reflection of its origins in and around Hanoi,” says Nguyen. “Bun bo Hue is gutsy and earthy like the strong-willed people of its namesake city. A breakfast of bun bo Hue is a brow wiper. It awakens your senses and fortifies you like no other Vietnamese noodle soup.”
It’s a potent start to the day, but its sense of power is somehow in keeping with the former imperial capital’s regal lineage.
It wasn’t all about extravagant banquets and concubine cook-offs during the imperial era. As well as being the royal centre of Vietnam, Hue was also the country’s spiritual nexus. Its status as a hub for Buddhism led to the expansion of vegetarian cuisine. Hue chefs are known for their skill with vegetarian dishes to this day, often incorporating ingredients such as tofu and soy and mung beans to replicate meat-based dishes.
“When I think about Hue cuisine, I think of two things — royal cuisine and more complex vegetarian dishes,” says Tracey Lister, author of the book Vietnamese Street Food. “Hue continues to be a Buddhist centre and some of the best vegetarian food in Vietnam is still found there.”
One emperor in particular is given much of the credit for Hue’s emergence as a culinary powerhouse. Tu Duc certainly had his flaws — he was notoriously narcissistic and an unashamed womaniser (he had 104 wives and many more concubines). He was, nevertheless, a man of exquisite taste and a difficult guy to please. He apparently demanded a different meal every day for a year: a tough task for even the most innovative kitchen team.
His legacy, though, is writ large on Hue’s contemporary culinary scene. Dining highlights in the city range from Imperial cuisine — a succession of dainty dishes served up at lavish multi-course banquets — to creations that leaked out of the gilded royal kitchens to achieve mass popularity with locals.
There’s virtually nothing left of the once-magnificent Forbidden Purple City, a citadel within a citadel where pampered royals and their courtiers and concubines luxuriated away from the peasants. Imperial cuisine, however, is kept alive in plush hotels and upscale restaurants where the exactitude of the Nguyen era is recreated for contemporary guests.
At La Residence the main dining room takes its visual cues from the peak years of Imperial pomp. It is decked out with red and gold fabrics adorned with calligraphy. Guests are seated in ornate high-backed chairs inscribed with dragon etchings. The food is equally ostentatious. Fruit and vegetables are painstakingly carved to resemble birds such as swans and peacocks and surrounded with delicate morsels such a deep-fried prawns with young rice and beef in la lot (wild betel) leaves.
It is all suitably sumptuous, and is a fitting calling card for a property that remains one of Vietnam’s finest. Hue’s inherent elegance is showcased at La Residence, which offers a fusion of Francophone colonial chic and Asian exoticism. Located on the southern bank of the Perfume River, this former residence of the French governor is one of the finest examples of art deco architecture in the tropics. Inside it is equally resplendent. Two additional wings were added to the original mansion in 2005, and the renovation has imbued additional grandeur to the hotel’s already heady Indochinese ambience.
Although the dining options at La Residence are sublime, I’m equally happy to take to the streets to get to the heart of Hue’s tremendous food culture. After filling up at breakfast, it takes me a while to work up an appetite. After climbing the vertiginous steps at the Thien Mu Pagoda near the Perfume River, I am ready to eat again.
I do so with gusto at Bun Thit Nuong Huyen Anh, which specialises (the clue is almost always in the name in Vietnam) in bun thit nuong (cold rice vermicelli noodles topped with grilled pork, fresh herbs and lettuce).
Further encouragement to dine arrives courtesy of a food tour organised by La Residence. I am whizzed between local restaurants to sample iconic local specialties such as banh khoai (pan fried crepe stuffed with shrimp and pork belly), banh beo (steamed rice cakes, about the size of a silver dollar topped with dried shrimp, pork crackling, shallots and herbs and served with a slightly sweetened fish sauce) and com hen (rice with fresh herbs and baby mussels).
As I sit in one venue carefully assembling a rice paper roll consisting of herbs, fruit and salad leaves and nem lui (charcoal grilled pork and beef formed around lemongrass stalks), I ask my guide Lan about her future plans. Only 21, with perfect English and a wicked sense of humour, she seems like an obvious candidate for a move to the brighter lights of Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. She, however, has other ideas.
“I’ll stay here forever,” she laughs without missing a beat. “I couldn’t live without the food. You can get Hue cuisine elsewhere in Vietnam, but it never tastes quite the same as it does here.”
Lan’s opinion is commonly voiced in Hue. It is a sentiment, I suspect, that would have met with the approval of the gastronomes that once ran the show from this part of Vietnam.