I’ve been dying to write about Vietnamese food from the other cities aside from Hanoi and a recent trip to the above places gave me this opportunity. This is more exciting as Hanoi is incredibly homogenous in culinary terms. If you love your Phở and Bun Cha then you’re in heaven, these places are absolutely everywhere. If however you like a multitude of choices for your evening Vietnamese street food then options are pretty limited as far as capital cities go.
My inner child was definitely in a sweet shop as a drove into Hue and Hoi An. These cities on the mid-eastern coast are known for their Royal cuisine – small dishes named after and appealing to men and women of repute from days gone by.
We arrived into Hội An at an awkward time – Tet (or Lunar new year) celebrations were in full swing, and half the residents of the town had left to be with families in the outlying provinces. As such, eating options were limited and the place seemed populated by equally bemused tourists walking through what looked like the unopened Asia section of Disneyworld. Looking for something to sustain us as we prepared to traverse the Hai Van pass on the three hour bike trip to Hue, I stumbled upon a Cao lầu place off a main street and walked in.
In Vietnam, if you’re remarking about ‘going out for a Cao lầu’, you’re going out to have an expensive and privileged time. Such was the high status given to this dish in previous times. I received initial bad press about Cao Lầu – that it was greasy and had given my girlfriend a bad tummy. But those fears dissipated as I tucked into my first bowl. Tender slices of pork belly melted alongside mint, coriander and beansprouts. But the noodles themselves were the standout performer – nutty and udon-like, their rough texture clung to the densely-flavoured broth and had just enough bite to satisfy. I destroyed the bowl in two minutes before ordering another. Prior to paying, the owner said I was đẹp chai (handsome). As far as I could tell from the bill, this self-esteem boost didn’t form part of the bill.
The motorbike drive up to Huế got such a good press in Top Gear – the presenter described it as ‘the best coastal road in the world’. It certainly was dramatic – the mist at the top lent the mountain an apocalyptic feel. And driving on cliffs while looking down into the sea made you wonder which car advert you were inadvertently in. It was an exciting drive, but the glamour quickly faded as rain fell on the potholed lanes past the mountain and we swerved to avoid blasthorned coaches, deep mud and lethargic water buffalo.
Four hours later, we arrived into Huế shivering and delirious. Before visiting the Forbidden city the next day, the Bún bò Huế in my stomach was the perfect tonic to the damp and grey weather.
I confess I’d already eaten this in Hanoi. But as always with these things, there’s no substitute for the real thing. the noodles in pork and beef broth were good enough but the beef meatballs put the dish on a next level. It was also served with a side condiment of pieces of rendered pork fat (similar to pork scratchings) covered in dry chilli.
On our last day in Đà Nẵng before flying back to Hanoi we couldn’t leave without trying Mì Quảng, a dish we had seen on street stall signs all the way from Hội An up to Huế. As a regional specialty it represented well. Bone-in stewed chicken with dense broth on noodles with bean sprouts, shallots, peanuts and interestingly, rice crackers to top it off. The side condiment was a sweet chilli jam I’ve not encountered before in Vietnam. And yes, it was delicious.
The holiday was beset by non-food-related illnesses and other mishaps, but the food was one of the highlights of the trip. For most of my life I’ve lived in cosmopolitan cities where world food was easily accessible.
But sometimes its best to meet food in its natural habitat, made by those who have no clue (or interest) on how to make anything else. You can’t get more authentic than that.