By Duncan Forgan
Photographed by Aaron Joel Santos
Jul 6, 2017
RICKETY, PRODUCE-LADEN CARTS and livestock present formidable obstacles on the road. Weather-beaten pagodas and moss-covered tombs appear through thick foliage and a curtain of drizzle, the signature weather quirk in this part of Central Vietnam.
After piloting my motorbike through the countryside on the outskirts of the former imperial capital, I’m not surprised to find my terminus, the home-gallery-eatery of artist and restaurateur Boi Tran, is imbued with a potent air of nostalgia. A garden of flowering plants and placid koi ponds, and a complex of low temple-like wooden buildings smack of timeless tradition. So too does the elegant, feminine bearing of my host, resplendent in a black ao dai, who seems to glide around her domain. But the essence of Hue, in the opinion of Boi Tran, is captured in the series of beautiful and intricate culinary creations that appear at the table in steady succession.
“Food is at the heart of everything here,” she says as a server offers plates of bo la lot (grilled beef with wild betel leaves) and banh cuon (steamed rice rolls stuffed with wood ear mushrooms). “It is part of the soul. We respect tradition very much here, perhaps more than in other parts of Vietnam. I think that’s why our cooks take so much pride in what they put on the table.”
Eating is rarely anything less than a pleasure in Vietnam. Indeed, the country’s rich culinary tradition is among its prime assets. Drawing on Chinese, Southeast Asian and even Indian influences while remaining wholly distinct, Vietnamese food is also characterized by regional differences. In Hanoi—where the clichéd pho bo always lives up to the hype—and the north, sharp and often salty flavors are the norm and use of spices and herbs is less common. In Saigon—where I crave hunkering down with a plate of com tam suon nuong Saigon, broken rice with marinated pork chop—and the south, the taste profile is sweeter and herbs are more abundant. Yet while the two extremities of Vietnam often hog the limelight, it is the country’s slim waistline that offers the broadest scope for gastronomic discovery. Options here range from the dainty imperial cuisine of Hue, the wide choice of excellent homegrown and international food in Danang—the region’s main hub—and the fine Vietnamese dining and ancient indigenous creations found in the historic port of Hoi An.
I’ve always been particularly partial to food from middle of the country. To my mind, the banh mi (Vietnamese baguettes, a word that also gives its name to those famous pork and pâté sandwiches) is crisper, seafood and vegetables fresher and tastier. Additionally, two of my favorite Vietnamese dishes— bun thit nuong (cold rice vermicelli noodles topped with grilled pork, fresh herbs and lettuce) and bun bo Hue (spicy soup with rice vermicelli and beef)—originate here.
That’s why I’ve plotted a culinary route in this region that spreads southward of the DMZ to where the country meets Cambodia’s northern border and starts to fatten up. It’s the very opposite of an arduous assignment. Neither is it a chore to be kicking things off in Hue: a regal city widely regarded as the apogee of Vietnam’s food culture.
The Nguyen Lords, the feudal dynasty that ruled from Hue and dominated much of southern Vietnam from the 16th to 18th century, chose their capital wisely, on a verdant, temperate swathe of the Perfume River, 15 kilometers in from the coast. When Gia Long unified the country in 1802, he set in motion the construction of a Citadel and a lavish wonderland of palaces, temples and tombs picked up on by his successors, the last emperors. Yet these shoguns and monarchs didn’t just leave architectural tokens of their reign. They also helped bequeath an indigenous cuisine upon Hue 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, an Art Deco beauty that was once the home of the French governor and is now by far the city’s most prestigious hotel. “These rulers were finicky eaters. They wouldn’t settle for the same humble dish day after day. So the cooks of Hue had to get creative. It’s said that the emperors wanted fifty different dishes served at a single sitting.”
Dining highlights in the city range from Imperial cuisine—a succession of dainty dishes purveyed at lavish multi-course banquets like deep fried prawns with young rice and beef in la lot (wild betel) leaves—to the homey but refined dishes served at Boi Tran Gallery including fried rice with lotus seeds and a delicate version of che (Vietnamese sweet soup), to ingenious creations like banh khoai (pan fried crepe stuffed with shrimp and pork belly) and banh beo (steamed rice cakes topped with dried shrimp, pork crackling and fried shallots) that trace their roots to a febrile climate of creativity that leaked out to the streets from the gilded royal kitchens.
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 plans. Only 21, with perfect English, she seems like an obvious candidate for a move to the brighter lights of the bigger cities.
She has other ideas. “I’ll stay here forever,” she laughs without missing a beat. “You can get Hue cuisine elsewhere in Vietnam, but it never tastes quite the same. I think it has something to do with the specific currents and weather systems that affect this part of the country: the seafood tastes fresher and the herbs are smaller and have more flavor.”
A night later and 100 kilometers or so south down Highway 1A, I hear a similar refrain from Summer Le. The difference is that it’s Danang, not Hue, with which the food blogger and operator of the Funtastic Danang Food Tour can’t bear to be parted. “Among Vietnamese, Danang is considered the food capital of central Vietnam,” she says. “Not Hue or Hoi An.”
Summer’s combative attitude can be attributed to Danang’s relative lack of fame as a dining destination in comparison with its near neighbors. A recent edition of Anthony Bourdain’s hit show “Parts Unknown” that focused on Central Vietnam completely bypassed the area’s main hub—an omission Summer mocks. “He should have renamed that particular episode ‘Parts Known,’” she quips as we tuck into bowls of mi quang, Danang’s most beloved indigenous dish, a mélange of rice noodles topped with pork, shrimp, banana blossom, herbs and peanuts and topped off with a spoonful of sweet-hot chili jam.
In fairness, though, what makes Danang stand out is not its variety of unique dishes—mi quang is its sole significant contribution to Vietnam’s culinary arsenal— but its strength as an all-rounder. A burgeoning expatriate community and more tourists have propagated a growing range of international venues like Italian/Asian fusion restaurant Fat Fish, and La Maison 1888 at the InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula Hotel, where multi-Michelin-starred French maestro Pierre Gagnaire oversees the menus. The booming city, meanwhile, is a magnet for migrants from around Vietnam, and its local dining scene offers a smorgasbord of highlights from around the nation.
There’s certainly no sign of slacking on the culinary front during Summer’s street food spectacular. Highlights include a moist and crisp banh xeo (Vietnamese crepe) at the boisterous and atmospheric Ba Duong and a delightfully light and airy banh mi with pork floss, pâté, shredded green papaya and chili from Banh Mi Ba Lan that blows expensive versions of the on-trend sandwich out of the water. In my view it’s every bit the equal of the world-famous Banh Mi Phuong in Hoi An said by many— including Bourdain—to be Vietnam’s most righteous sarnie.
All odysseys, even those of a culinary kind, must come to an end. Fortunately, Hoi An—home to Vietnam’s most vibrant dining outside Saigon and Hanoi—makes for the softest of landings. As an important port, Hoi An was once at the crossroads for trade that spanned Asia and Europe. Chinese and Japanese merchants settled here, stirring their own ingredients into the pot. And this international outlook continues to this day. In the heart of the UNESCO-listed ancient town, amid its narrow streets and yellow-hued buildings, visitors can flit between innovative restaurants like the Mexican-influenced Mango Mango, where local celebrity chef Duc Tran works his alchemy on a fusion-inspired menu, and wine and cocktail bars like White Marble and Q Bar.
More important for my purposes, the town is also the motherlode of indigenous dishes such as banh bao vac or white rose dumplings (a type of shrimp dumpling made with translucent white dough and bunched up to resemble a ower), com ga Hoi An ( fluffy rice cooked in chicken stock then served with boiled, coarsely shredded chicken) and cao lau, a noodle creation with pork and local greens that traces its roots to the soba noodles that the Japanese brought with them on trade missions.
On my final morning, I ignore the sumptuous breakfast spread at the Four Seasons Nam Hai Resort, choosing instead to commandeer a bike for an early ride to the central market for noodles. Although the sky is blue, the weather is brisk and I arrive at the stall in dire need of warming sustenance.
My efforts are rewarded. The cao lau are comforting while tender pork loin is seasoned beautifully with five spice, soy, lemongrass, black pepper and garlic.
Meal completed, I take a pew by the Thu Bon River, gaze towards old town and allow myself to drift into a food-filled reverie. I’ve learned about how demanding emperors and ancient traders all left their stamp on Central cuisine. I’ve been told about the magical alchemy that happens when currents and weather systems do their work. And I’ve reacquainted myself with the central penchant for a spot of chili jam to spice up their dishes. As Lan and Summer repeatedly impressed upon me, it’s the subtle nuances that make the delicious difference. It would be an oversight of imperial proportions not to uncover them dish by dish.