Sampling ten local delicacies over four hours. Mission Impossible or a couch-jumping slam-dunk? We’re about to find out as we embark on the cyclo Hue Flavor Tour with its creator Thom “as in Major”. Billing itself as Vietnam’s cradle of cuisine, the country’s ancient capital Hue (pron Hway) is about to give up the secrets of its famous street food. Hua we go……..
Taking it to the Streets
“Street food is simply local food enjoyed with the locals,” explains Thom as we stop to buy Banh Bao, a steamed pork bun and popular snack eaten throughout the day. Originally from China and adapted by the Vietnamese, China’s single ingredient dumpling now comes stuffed with pork, mushrooms, spring onions and quail eggs and is delicious.
It’s 3pm and rain has washed the morning heat away as stalls set-up along narrow suburban streets. We meet My, a third generation owner of a family-run cafe specializing in Bun Bo Hue, beef vermicelli noodle soup and another local favourite. Accompanied by a vegetable plate of banana flowers, bean sprouts and salad, a cube of pig’s blood and sprinkling of chilli is added to the soup for flavour and colour. “Locals also add pineapple or lemongrass to their broths for sweetness and flavour,” said Thom before whisking us off into Hue’s rush hour traffic.
Around 1km away, we pull up at Quan Huong, a humble cafe opposite the palace grounds of the last Queen Mother who was famous for serving up to 30 small dishes at dinner. Many royal morsels have been appropriated by the general public and are now popular street foods. “Small dishes are like ying and yang – soft and hard,” said Thom. Inside the cafe, we watch as dexterous ladies wrap steam rice discs topped with shrimp in young dong leaves to make Banh Beo. Restaurant owner Huong delicately folds tapioca flowers with shrimp into neat parcels or Banh Nam while plates of Ram It, sticky rice dumplings on a fried dumpling and the ubiquitous Banh Khoai or a Hue pancake are ferried to waiting tables.
“What do visitors think about this street view of Hue’s food?” we ask Thom. “100% like it and 90% eat everything,” he says with a grin. Passionate about local food and culture, it was Thom’s desire to share it with visitors that led him to form Hue Flavour Tours in 2013. “Guests only have a limited amount of time and I love to chose the best things for them,” he says.
Coffee and Meat Pies
Deftly avoiding the unrelenting charge of oncoming motorbikes, our cyclos swoop down quieter, tree-lined streets stopping at Paris Cafe opposite the grand Art Deco Hotel Saigon Morin built by the French in 1901 where we sip the ‘number one’ Trung Ngeuyn Coffee. The traditionally filtered Vietnamese coffee or Ca Phe Sua is served with condensed milk and costing just .75c, the taste is smooth and strong.
Decorative tour barges are moored along a gleaming silvery river and we stop near the entry gate to the Imperial Citadel to sample a meat pie or Cha that Hao Hao has been making for 20 years. This isn’t the round footie variety but a cylinder of pork, garlic and shallots wrapped in banana leaf that’s sliced and eaten as a popular party snack-with-beer – so not so different after all!
Crossing the moat, we enter Hue’s ancient Citadel where narrow streets are lined with fashion stores, food and fast tailoring joints. Evening has fallen and the Citadel, a lively local community as well as popular tourist spot is filled with children’s laughter. Parking kerbside, we stop at Hong Mai restaurant for Nem Lui, grilled meat wrapped around lemongrass skewers and slices of Cha on a Hue pancake.
Master Chef for Mini Emperors
“I want you to meet the most famous octogenarian in Hue,” says Thom as we pull up outside Quan Me Toc Bac or the ‘restaurant of old lady with white hair’. The elderly empress of sticky rice cakes is sitting outside where she’s been for the last 40 years making an average of 800 sticky rice cakes a day. That’s 11,500,000 or a whole lot of sticky rice, soya, pork, bean, peanut and mung beans. Sticky rice cakes are steeped in legend and she tells of the man who originally made rice cakes and became king. From that point, the kitchen competition was on amongst his children and whoever made the best succeeded him – a master chef for mini emperors.
Trawling the backstreets and byways searching out the many layers that make Hue’s food unique, it’s clear that a shared love of food mixed lightly with an appreciation of heritage and culture make this tour the Hue to go….
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