Mr Cu is an excellent photographer. The walls of his restaurant, the Mandarin Café, are crammed with his shots of the people and places of Vietnam. He is a sociable chap, speaks good English, and makes a point of chatting to his customers. He gives them all a postcard of one of his photographs.
I stayed next door, in the cheekily-named Google Hotel, and stumbled into the Mandarin Café each morning for coffee and a bowl of the city’s famous noodle soup, bún bò Huế. It is made with beef shank and pigs’ trotters simmered with lemongrass, onion and shrimp paste, then flavoured with fish sauce, sugar and a wallop of chilli powder, poured over round noodles and sprinkled with herbs.
Huế was Vietnam’s imperial capital, until the last emperor abdicated at the end of the Second World War, and there are restaurants across town offering elaborate, expensive, banquets of dishes which they claim were traditionally served to the imperial family, all arranged into the shape of peacocks, elephants and such like. It is impressive enough, but not really what I was there for. The street food interested me a whole lot more.
On the banks of the Perfume River, in the shadow of Eiffel’s Trường Tiền Bridge, there is a bustling night market with food carts and picnic tables crowding the pavements. The grills smoke, the prawns sizzle, the vendors shout, the customers jostle, and the aromas fill the air. I ate banh khoai – happy pancakes – as I nosed round the stalls.
The batter is made with rice flour, a good pinch of turmeric, which turns it yellow, and sugar and carbonated water which help it to crisp up on the hotplate. It is stuffed, then, with prawns, pork belly, beansprouts, spring onion and shredded carrot and folded like an omelette.
I happened upon a restaurant, the next day, a few blocks from the river, which looked run-down enough to be good and ordered nem lui, ground pork and pork skin mixed with garlic, sugar and fish sauce, shaped into sausages, skewered with lemon grass and grilled over charcoal.
It came with a pile of rice papers, lettuce leaves, herbs and cucumber slices and a deceptively complex dipping sauce made with hoisin and fish sauces, chopped pork liver, toasted peanuts and peanut butter. The idea is to force the meat off the skewer with your chopsticks, roll it and some of the leaves and vegetables in the rice paper, then dip it in the sauce.
I got so engrossed in poking about in the ruins of the imperial citadel that I forgot all about having lunch, but bánh bèo from a roadside stall kept me going until evening. These delicate steamed rice cakes are topped with a mixture of chopped prawns and crumbled dried shrimp, pork crackling and sliced spring onions and dressed with nuoc mam sauce, made with rice vinegar, fish sauce and sliced chillies.
Dinner, then, was cơm hến: a bowl of rice topped with tiny clams, sliced spring onion, julienned apple, crispy pillows of fried pig skin and a handful of herbs, served with a jug of clam broth to add to taste.
I had eaten well in Huế but could not help thinking, as I continued north, that I had only tried a small sample of its regional dishes. Never mind. There was Hanoi still to come.
© Richard Senior 2016