Huế to Go: Huế to Hội An Via the Hải Vân Pass

Since the trip from Huế to Hội An wasn’t as long as our previous trips, we wanted a little more than the train rides we’d been having (especially since they were all overnight trains).  We briefly considered riding on the back of motorbikes, but it seemed like having our packs on a 2.5-hour motorbike trip might be a little excessive.  We opted to hire a car for the drive, which the receptionist at the Jade Hotel in Huế worked out for us.  The cost came to about $65 USD.

car beers
Shitty Asian lager during the ride? Don’t mind if we do!

There were two immediate benefits to the private transport: one, there was no shortage of air conditioning.  Two, we were allowed to drink in the car.  While the driver stopped and picked us up some water, we also took along some Huda beers for the ride. The first part, leaving Huế and hopping on the highway, was pretty unremarkable.  Well, as unremarkable as it can be driving around in Vietnam.

After about an hour, we pulled into a small hotel/resort kind of spot and the driver, whose grasp on English was loose at best, told us we could use the restroom there and walk around.  We were at Lang Co Beach, which was very nice (but using the restroom was nicer).  Not being much in the way of beach people, we took a gander and walked around to stretch our legs, but would have rather been back in the car.

bunker
The Bunker at the Hải Vân Pass

Soon after our beach stop, we made it to the Hải Vân Pass with its winding road along the mountainside.  We stopped at a popular look-off to get pictures, and then pulled in to a small rest area to check out a bunker on the pass.  Originally a French fort, the bunker was then used by the Americans in the Vietnam War as a lookout, as it offered views all up and down the coast.  After perusing the site, we stopped at one of the stands for some ice cream bars.  I picked up one that I thought was pineapple, but realized too late (in the car, driving) that it was actually durian.  I had no place to put it, so I had to eat it.

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Views from the Pass

Soon after, near Da Nang, we were able to stop at Marble Mountain.  I didn’t think much of it at first, and was hoping we could actually skip it in order to get to Hội An more quickly, but as it was paid for as part of our ride and our driver apparently wanted a break, we hopped on the large elevator to the top and were immediately glad we’d gone.

In addition to the many marble statues and figures on the mountain, there are many Buddhist sanctuaries and grottoes, many within the mountain itself.  Going down into the cave and being in this hushed sanctuary while sunlight streamed in from various holes in the mountain was awe-inspiring and turned out to be one of the best parts of the trip.  Inside the mountain was cool and calm with everyone being reverent and speaking in hushed tones.  The most impressive part may have been the statue of a woman carved directly out of the side of one of the cave walls.

After exploring some more and then walking down the many steps from the top of the mountain (we only got a ticket up the elevator), we found our driver.  No, we didn’t want to purchase any massive statues of Buddha or dragons—no matter how cheap they were, they would have cost a fortune to get home.  Plus, I’m not a souvenir-buying kind of guy; I want the least amount possible in my pack.

mm light

The rest of the trip into Hội An was unremarkable, past the beaches and the resorts popping up in Da Nang.  We arrived at our homestay with enough time to track down the best banh mi we’ve ever had—but that’s another story.

This trip, if possible, is highly recommended—either way you do it.  Whether you go from Hội An to Huế or the reverse, make sure to get private transport and at the very least stop at Marble Mountain.  If you enjoy a relaxed trip that gives you plenty of incredible scenery, the $65 is an absolute bargain.  Just make sure you don’t accidentally get the durian ice cream.

The Best Huế To Eat: Sampling at Quán Hạnh

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.

huda
Huda beer: close enough to my last name to be mildly entertaining

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.

banh beo
Small, shallow bowls of bánh bèo

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.

banh khoai
Bánh khoai ready for some accoutrement

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).

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Everything in its place, including fried nem rán and, above them, bánh cuốn thịt nướng

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.