Eating up Vietnam #4: Huế

 

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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.

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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

Faded Huế

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The arches of the Trường Tiền Bridge soar and dip over the Perfume River, where barges which look two centuries old chug back and forth throughout the day, towards and away from the watercolour mountains far off to the west, and where, of an evening, traders spread their goods on blankets laid out on the bank, and street food vendors light their grills and the flames dance and the smoke coils up and the shrimps sizzle and scent the air, and big neon signs flash adverts from the opposite bank, and lights along the span of the bridge sweep from white to purple to yellow to blue to red to green and white again.

Huế was the capital for the Nguyển dynasty which ruled Vietnam from the start of the nineteenth century. A matryoshka of citadels, one inside the other, led through to the Forbidden Purple City, where the emperor lived with his concubines. There were moats and bastions and multi-tiered gateways; and palaces and temples, and gilded columns and carvings and fretwork, and cylindrical tiles surmounted by dragons. It was a place of exquisite beauty.

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But the city was bombed and shelled and shot at by three different armies in the French and American wars and much lay in ruins when the bell clanged on the final round of the Battle of Huế, which the US Marines won on points.  “Did we have to destroy the town in order to save it?” asked a Marine captain, echoing what another officer had said about Bến Tre further down south a month before.

There is not a lot left of the Forbidden Purple City beyond the stumps of shattered brick which poke from the grass where palaces used to stand, and a portentous flight of steps bookended with dragons which carries you up to an anti-climactic flower bed laid out in the broken foundations.

Elsewhere in the complex, the buildings have been carefully restored and rebuilt. The work is ongoing and, while I was there, men were tearing tin sheets from the roof of a ravaged temple. Enough has been done to evoke the majesty of the Imperial City that was; but there are still dozens of buildings blackened by napalm, pierced with shells, pitted by bullets, untouched and left to decay since 1968, when the battle staggered to its wearied close.

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I spent a good two days wandering the site and – away from the parts which have been freshly restored – I was often alone and there was at least a moat and a two-metre thick wall between me and the bustle of the modern town outside the citadel and the only sounds I could hear were the chirping of birds, the chatter of cicadas and leaves gently falling from the trees.

I strayed into courtyards which time had grassed over and poked inside buildings which looked long forgotten with roofs sagging inwards and rotten doors hanging off hinges. I was not at all sure I was supposed to be there, but there was nothing to keep me out. In one quiet corner, I happened upon an elephant, chained up like a guard dog and left unattended. It huffed and stamped its foot in warning.

In the late afternoon, I left the citadel and made my way across the bridge and back to the hotel with the closing scene of Full Metal Jacket screening in my head:

“We hump down to the Perfume River to set in for the night… I’m so happy that I am alive….”

© Richard Senior 2015