Hue is a slow-burn town. While Vietnam’s former imperial capital is certainly beautiful (the flame trees lining the boulevards could make a grown man swoon), it’s also sleepy and standoffish, more village than city. There’s an upside to this: a short bike ride out from the center will bring you into unkempt wilderness, where only cicadas break the silence. But even downtown isn’t much livelier. And though Hue figures into plenty of travelers’ itineraries—for its magnificent Citadel, pagodas, and imperial tombs—many find it tough to crack.
In all my visits I never really “got” Hue, until I met Vo Thi Huong Lan, a friend of a friend who offered to show me its elusive charms. Lan is something of a professional enthusiast (her three favorite words: “I love it!”) and is positively mad for her hometown. “They say Hue is a place you leave, so you can miss it when you’re gone,” she told me, “but I never want to live anywhere else.” Most of all, she’s crazy about the food. Hue is renowned for its elaborate cuisine, developed by the skilled cooks of the royal court. Legend has it that the Nguyen kings, who ruled a united Vietnam from Hue in the 19th century, refused to eat the same meal twice in a year, so their cooks came up with hundreds of distinct, visually arresting dishes (most using the same few dozen ingredients). This tradition endures in the local craze for dainty, flower-like dumplings and cakes such as banh beo, which aesthetically owe much to China and Japan. Banh beo is an acquired taste (“I love it!” Lan says), a bit too gluey for my own; it may be the only Vietnamese food I don’t enjoy.
But I was knocked out by Hue’s other specialties, from com hen (a spicy clam-and-rice concoction) to banh khoai (a fajita-size rice-flour crêpe similar to the Southern favorite banh xeo). Lan, it turns out, eats like a five-foot-tall Anthony Bourdain, reveling in the bottom of the food chain: pig intestines, chicken heads (“I love the brains!”), and shrimp eyes (“My mother says if you eat them, your own eyes will brighten”). For breakfast at Quan Cam, we tucked into a stellar bun bo Hue, the city’s signature dish: a fiery broth of long-simmered beef bones, suffused with lemongrass and stained red from chiles, ladled over a bowlful of umami: paper-thin strips of beef, crab-and-pork meatballs, pig’s trotters, and huyet—quivering cubes of congealed pig’s blood. (These are way, way better than they sound.) The bun bo is served only until 9:30 a.m., so early mornings are the busiest time. Some customers grabbed takeaway portions in skimpy plastic bags tied with a string. Lan, meanwhile, gobbled up huyet like so many Snickers bars (“I love it!”), then cast a still-hungry eye on my bowl: “Are you going to finish that?”
In the leafy enclave of Kim Long, we lunched at the open-air canteen Huyen Anh, which serves two dishes only: banh uot thit nuong and bun thit nuong. The former, dim sum–like ravioli stuffed with grilled pork, are terrific. But it’s Huyen Anh’s bun thit nuong that sums up everything that’s simple and delightful about Vietnamese cooking. Bun means noodles—in this case a bowl of vermicelli—that arrive still warm and soft, with a moistening drizzle of nuoc cham (fish sauce and lime juice infused with clove, chili, and garlic). Shaved banana blossoms, shredded lettuce, bean sprouts, peanuts, cucumber, and green papaya provide a textural counterpoint, while sprigs of cilantro and aggressive peppermint fill in the high end. The crowning touch: glistening slices of char-grilled pork. At home in New York I used to order bun thit nuong twice a week at our local Viet kitchen; alas, Huyen Anh has ruined me for anyone else’s.
The highlight in Hue, however, was a three-hour dinner at Hoang Vien (“royal garden”), opened in March by the painter and chef Boi Tran in a restored French-colonial house. In an open-walled dining pavilion, long teak tables are set with vases of yellow roses: an ideal setting for a modern take on Hue cuisine, presented with appropriate flourish, like Vietnamese kaiseki. “Shrimp with five tastes” was reminiscent of Thai tom yum koong, with a single, plump pink prawn swimming in a consommé spiced with Kaffir lime leaf, lemongrass, chili, shallot, and ginger. Each flavor came through brilliantly. Hoang Vien’s nem ran (pork, shrimp, and mushroom spring rolls) were shrouded in wispy golden threads of fried rice paper and accompanied by a salad of rose petals. Across five more courses, all presented on exquisite china from Bat Trang, the famed pottery village outside Hanoi, Boi Tran and her chefs took the precious formality of Hue cuisine to a new place, where the pleasure of pure flavor, not mere visual dazzle, was primary.