After a two-day whirlwind tour of sightseeing and eating in the hustle and bustle Ho Chi Minh city, we’ve decided to slow the pace down and venture up north to center Vietnam. Hoi An is a must visit in my itinerary (blame Bourdain), and to get there, either you are prepared for a long haul 10 hours of bus journey from Saigon, or better off take a 30mins flight to Hue and use it as a gateway to Hoi An, that’s what we did. Unfortunately, our 30mins flight had become a 3 hours delay nightmare, thanks Jetstar. I guess it is not all bad as all frustrated passengers are compensated with a bowl of Pho Bo at the airport foodcourt. By the time we arrived in Hue it is already well passed midday and I am in shock as this city is even hotter than Saigon!
Hue is used to be the imperial capital of the Nguyen Dynasty, now this peaceful old city is a tourist destination for its myriad of historic monuments along the Perfume River, including the Citadel which is within walking distance. Since we are only using Hue as a gateway to Hoi An plus the delayed flight, we decided to spend the rest of the afternoon to check out the Citadel and the local market.
The backpackers district in Hue is also called Pham Ngu Lao, that’s where we are staying for the night. Once we dropped off our bags, we waste no time and head out to find something to eat. While walking along the river bank, I saw these two street vendors with trolley carts which are fully loaded with deep fried on skewer sticks. Deep fry everything, I am in!
As we walked closer, only then I saw the bowl of oil that had been used for the deep fry frenzy. It is as black as tar and possibly able to run a car for a few miles with it. We stand there for a few good minutes trying to decipher what is on the menu, and also trying to think of a back up plan to sneak away without her noticing. But before I can decline the offer, the trolley lady already picks up a few sticks and dunks it into the hot oil, my heart just dropped at the sight of double deep frying, watching the “thing” I am going to eat later are slowly sinking into the abyss.
We are told to go to the naughty corner, sit on the naughty stools and will eat whatever she has prepared for us. It’s a sigh of relief when I see there is nothing too weird but chicken wings and vietnamese spring rolls in the styrofoam takeaway box. Me eating cold deep-fried leftovers that had been double deep-fried again in old black oil under the hot 37ºC muggy air, I can suddenly feel my arteries tightening up and feeling dizzy. The spring rolls are absolutely drenched in oil, it makes me feel ill with oil keeps dripping out on each bite. Thank god we also ordered sugar cane drinks to degrease and cooling off. Feeding tourists with greasy leftovers is probably also the best time to rip them off, 60,000VND that’s how much she wanted form us for the small amount of food we ate.
The Citadel is about 30 mins walk from Pham Ngu Lao on the opposite side across the Perfume (Fragrant) river. By the time we arrived at the entrance, I am already so dehydrated and exhausted. The humidity had pretty much beaten me down and I really can’t think of more food but icy cold water. Bottled water is your bestest friend, it can be as cheap as $1 for a big 2 litre bottle.
It is a huge compound inside the forbidden city with a lot of ground to cover, make sure you have plenty of water and snacks to keep yourself hydrated and replenished. Luckily we found a lady on the street selling longans (mata kucing), and we bought a whole 2kg of it for only 40,000VND. It is the best thirst quencher while strolling along the citadel, sucking on the juicy longans. I found the longans that I bought has this Sandalwood fragrance on the shell which is rather unusual. It definitely gives the longans an earthy scented after taste.
It is not just us who felt the heat, as we found most of the tourists are also taking shelter inside the buildings, sunburned like a red lobster. And I just go brown. *~Thank you asian gene!~* We didn’t stay long and decided to move on and check out the local market.
It amazes me when I finally realised that apart from the bowl of Pho I’ve had at the airport in the morning, the double deep-fries and the longans are the only food I’ve eaten since and still not feeling hungry but definitely thirsty. On the way to the market, we walk passed this street stall selling the Che drink and I instantly perk up and feel happy looking at all the pots of different toppings in vibrant technicolors that you can mix and match to make your own version of Che drink.
I am feeling a little apprehensive looking at all the different toppings that I wish I can put them all in my drink. I leave the task to the lady at the stall and let her churning up the best version of Che for us. The Che here is definitely better than the one I’ve had at the Ben Thanh Market’s foodcourt in Saigon. The glass is filled with layer upon layer of colour-coordinated toppings, almost too good to be eaten. I spend some time admiring the rainbow in my glass, taking photos while the locals looking at me strangely. Then I give it a good stir and mix all together into a kaleidoscope of happiness.
It is lots of fun trying to guess what the toppings are while chewing on different ingredients. From the bottom, there are kidney beans, coconut milk, custard cream corn, waterchestnuts wrapped in mochi balls, dragonfruit, taro (the purple layer, I had to ask to confirm), more coconut milk, roasted coconuts, peanuts and finally all gelled together in a white translucent gooey of tapioca starch that looks just like a big blob of snot. The Che drink actually makes you more thirsty with its sticky sweetness.
The Dong Ba market is also the main transportation hub in Hue. It is the main market for the locals in Hue city but the size of it is not as big as the one in Saigon and also not as hygienic. I decided not to take the risk of a sitting down meal in the market, and just bought some fresh fruit to bring it back to hotel. There is a shopping mall right next to the market and it would be silly for us not to walk inside to take the advantage of the air conditioning. Surprisingly the shopping mall is as dead as, hardly anybody inside and rather prefer to stay outdoor in the hot sun. Perhaps it is not such a good idea after all by coming inside to enjoy the cool air, as my brother-in-law soon spotted the KFC and suddenly has the urge for western fast food. I succumbed to peer pressure and eventually found myself eating two pieces of dry chicken with the meat in odd darkish colour, which makes me believe that even the KFC in Hue likes to double deep fry their chickens. Never again.
As the sun slowing sinks in the west, we are pestered by the river village people and convinced that it is the best time for an hour boat ride along the Perfume River for a mere US$1. We agreed and jumped onboard, but soon it turns into a hard sell regime, pushy lady selling us craftwork, beer, or extend our boatride to 2 hours for another extra dollar. Eventually we managed to escape and back on land without a scratch. We head back to hotel for a quick rest and get clean before heading back out again for dinner. And since I didn’t get the chance to do my homework on where to eat in Hue, so we just best to settle in a restaurant called Ushi on the same street for some local meal.
Ushi is in the backpacker street among the other restaurants that most offer both local and western cuisines. Mind you we are staying right in the middle of backpacker district, the authenticity of local dishes are questionable and am not having high expectations. I thought it would be a great chance to try a few Hue specialties, but the annoying brother-in-law strikes again. Right away, without even looking at the menu he orders a bowl of Pho while the waitress was meant to take our drink order. He carries on telling me that he just want a bowl of pho as starter and then share whatever I am going to order. This annoys the hell out of me as I have to split most of the entree-size Hue dishes in half, which also means I hardly eaten that night.
The Mi hoac pho voi bo he has ordered is a little bit different from the usual Pho Bo. Instead of thick flat rice noodle, yellow curly instant noodle are used for the dish, with a tomato based soup broth like the one used in Bun Bo Hue, another Hue specialty. The raging inferno is boiling inside me as I have to sit there watching him slurping up the noodle with the loudest noise could ever produced, while I still have to wait for my orders to arrive.
The Banh Khoai comes next. Banh Khoai or Banh Xeo are literally the same thing. It is a savoury Vietnamese rice flour pancakes which usually with pork, shrimp and beansprouts fillings inside. The plate size Banh Khoai is pan fried then folded in half and a bowl of peanut sauce for dipping. I found the pancake is a little oily and also still a little undercooked inside. It is also missing the herbage which is usually come with the dish and used as garnish. My first taste of Banh Khoai, a highly regarded specialty of Hue is disappointingly bad. I am still in the backpackers district after all.
Two more Hue specialties I’ve ordered are Cha Gio Re and Nem Lui. Cha Gio Re is a rare kind of spring roll that uses banh hoi, a thin sheet of woven rice vermicelli for the skin. I actually quite like this version of spring roll, the crispy fragile skin just shattered into thousand crumbs on each bite and definitely much crunchier than the normal spring roll.
The Nem Lui is another definitely MUST try in Hue. With the outlook like a kebab stick, a thin layer of pork mince is wrapped around the lemongrass stalk then grilled using charcoal for that caramelised smokey flavour. I find myself having a great time DIY-ing, by putting the pork meat inside a thin sheet of rice paper skin, along with lettuce and a dash of peanut sauce. It is simply fantastic. I also found the rice paper skin here is thinner and you don’t really need to dip into water to soften it. Just give the skin a good bush of peanut sauce is sufficient enough and soft enough to be eaten.
Hue is not just famous for its own specialty food, they do serve a damn fine beer as well! Huda beer, has to be the best beer I’ve ever tasted in Vietnam. The beer has a refreshing crisp, and nothing too peculiar in the taste, kind of remind me of Asahi beer from Japan. No smelly socks, no granny knickers after taste that’s for sure. I like Huda!
The meal comes to 143,000VND which is not too bad for a restaurant in the busy tourist center. After the meal, we have a quick stroll around the block, and the muggy air is already started to bugging me with the shirt sticking to my body. I decided to call it night and head back to hotel for another cold shower as we have another early morning journey ahead of us. Next Stop — Hoi An.
(to be continued… this post is getting too long, Hoi An will have to wait.)
Address of restaurants I've visited: USHI restaurant 42 Pham Ngu Lao Steet Hue, Vietnam P: 054 3821143