After the cool, pleasant temperatures of Hanoi, Sapa, and Ha Long, the heat of Huế when we got off our 11-hour overnight train felt downright oppressive. Knowing that it would only get worse (108 F that afternoon), we made our way to our hotel, checked in, and immediately put the air conditioning as high as it would go. We’d have to build up some coolness, since we had one of those rooms where the room key had to be present to run any electricity. After a short cooldown, our second priority, of course, was food.
On our junkboat tour through the Ha Long Bay, we’d made friends with a Vietnamese-American traveler who had given us a restaurant recommendation for a place called Quán Hạnh, where we would be able to get a sampler of all the famous Hue regional delicacies. Some we had seen in the powerful No Reservations episode in the city, some we had never heard of. Luckily, the restaurant was just around the corner from our hotel and no more than a five-minute walk.
Being a terrible baby when it comes to heat, I was disappointed to see the restaurant was open in the front and only had a few fans circulating the air in the dining room, but I quickly forgot about the heat after we ordered the local food sampler and a few cold Huda beers.
Shortly, the food began to come out: first, a tray of bánh bèo—small steamed cakes made of rice and tapioca flour, topped with shrimp and fried shallots, and with a fish sauce to top them. I probably could’ve eaten a dozen platters of these little snacks. While the cakes weren’t much more than a vehicle to eat other things, the toppings were bursting with flavor and the fish sauce added a much-needed zing.
Next out was the nem lui, which is ground pork wrapped around lemongrass and grilled. You pull the pork off the lemongrass and wrap it in rice paper with lettuce and herbs, pickled vegetables and cucumber and dip it in an accompanying pork and peanut sauce. I had to abandon our Western ideals of cleanliness, as I had watched a worker sitting in the open-air dining room with a bowl of ground pork wrapping the stalks of lemongrass, and guess what? I didn’t get sick. As a matter of fact, it all combined to make a delicious little summer roll.
As part of the meal, we were also brought bánh khoai, a crispy fried pancake made of rice flour, water, and eggs and stuffed with shrimp, hunks of pork, and various herbs and vegetables. This is very similar to bánh xèo found in the south of Vietnam, but is just different enough (and slightly smaller) to make it a Huế original.
If that wasn’t enough, there were also fried pork spring rolls (nem rán) and bánh cuốn thịt nướng —barbecued pork and herbs in boiled rice paper with a garlic ginger fish sauce. They were kind of like floppy spring rolls, and incredibly tasty. Of all the dishes we had, the bánh cuốn is the only one I’ve been able to find back home in Philadelphia, though it seems I was pretty lucky as the restaurant doesn’t often have them (but they do have solid Bún bò Huế—check out Café Diem if you’re ever in the city).
As the one-time imperial capital of Vietnam, Hue has a long and storied culinary history, and is absolutely worth visiting to explore it—especially if you can get all the hits in one place. There is also the eponymous Bún bò Huế and plenty more treats to be found at the Dong Ba Market—and if you’re not a meat eater, the heavy Buddhist population of the city guarantees there will be plenty of vegetarian and vegan food. The city should not be skipped.
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