Central Vietnam food tour

From street stalls to beach resorts, the exacting taste of emperors has left a remarkable legacy in central Vietnam. Kendall Hill eats like a king.

By Kendall Hill
Ba My’s bun bo hue.
The Nguyen emperors of central Vietnam knew how to party. Their fabulous banquets, held inside Hue's imperial citadel, routinely featured more than 150 dishes, each one prepared by a specialist chef in the sculleries of the Purple Forbidden City.
A royal decree, sadly lapsed, stipulated that guests at major feasts must be served at least 161 dishes. Smaller events warranted a minimum 50 preparations. Breakfast was a simple affair of just a dozen.
The emperors are long gone - the last abdicated in 1945 - but the fickle tastes of the Nguyen nobles have left a remarkable legacy in Hue, where even the humblest street vendors vie to perfect delicious versions of local specialties such as bun bo hue, the beef noodle soup to rival the north's pho, and com hen, ridiculously tasty rice with clams.
Thanks to this legacy it's still possible to get a taste of imperial life, as I discover on a daytrip to Hue accompanied by the earnest and food-obsessed Le Xuan Thai. Thai supervises guest tours at the Laguna Lang Co integrated resort, about 90 minutes' drive south of Hue, and today I have dragged him away from the office to guide me on a gastronomic tour of the former royal city. Our mission? To taste as many of its signature dishes as we can in one (quite long) lunchtime.
I knew Thai was the right man for the job when I emailed him from Australia to suggest the outing. He replied immediately. "Can't not wait until there," he wrote. "I love eating and love best food more." He was not fazed by the challenge of eating all day long. "In Vietnam, you can eat anything at any time," he explained. "We don't really separate dishes into lunch or dinner or main course or dessert."
On the appointed day we set out with driver Dung for a road trip north from Da Nang along National Highway 1A, a route as stunning at times as California's Pacific Coast Highway, but with more rice paddies and egrets.
Thai begins my Vietnamese food induction in the back seat, emphasising the diversity of a cuisine that has 20 types of noodle, by his reckoning, and very particular regional tastes. The south loves sugar; the north not so much. Central Vietnam is all colour and chillies and pungent sauces such as the sun-fermented shrimp paste mam ruoc, and Lang Co's famous fish sauce.
We pass countless stalls of both lining the vast Tam Giang-Cau Hai lagoon, a 70-kilometre-long inland sea.
Halfway to Hue we pull up for a pre-lunch snack at a line of rickety roadhouses all selling one thing - banh bot loc, the translucent prawn and pork dumplings sometimes called Vietnamese ravioli. Thai takes me directly to Hoa Chu's shack because, he says, she makes the choicest banh bot loc of the lot. Hoa Chu learnt from her mother how to choose the best ingredients, how to make the finest fish sauce, how to marinate the prawn and pork.
We buy 10 lozenges wrapped in banana leaves for 40,000 dong (about two dollars), including a pouch of fish sauce and green chilli. Once you get used to the gelatinous casing and the occasional crunch of prawn shell, they're quite tasty.
Hue is an easy place to love at first sight. Its setting beside the tree-lined Perfume River, crowned by the moated and rather magnificent imperial citadel, lends it a nostalgic, picture-book beauty.
The citadel is full of wonders, from the 13-metre-high Hien Lam pavilion with its memorials to Nguyen kings and their "meritorious mandarins" to the bombed remains of the Purple Forbidden City, former enclave of emperors. But Thai and I can't stay; we have an appointment with bun bo hue.
Every morning at 6.30 Ba My sets out her pots and pans in a rented carport on Nguyen Cong Tru Street and doles out bowls of goodness, scented deeply with lemongrass, until there is none left, which is usually around noon. We order her "most famous" dish, the beef noodles, but Ms My insists we also try some pork, and some beef shin, and various other delicacies I'm not altogether sure about. "Just bring me your best soup," I say.
She ladles a consommé of clear, vibrant flavours, including a dash of Lang Co's shrimp paste, into a plain white bowl, adding spicy orange balls of pork and prawn, boiled beef strips, more pork, coriander, bean shoots and lettuce. Add an extra dash of chilli and you've got a brunch of champions, consumed at toy tables on a concrete floor.
Ms My won't reveal her broth recipe - it's her competitive edge - but the method is easy: "You must taste it many times until it becomes delicious."
To reach our next snack stop we swap the van for a motorbike to zip through crowded city streets. Thai discovered Suong Ho's dirt-floored com hen stall when he was a student and he's adamant I must try her com hen. "I have been here 1,000 times and it's really good."
Ms Ho has run out of rice (com) today, so she uses noodles instead. She packs them into a bowl on top of shredded taro and coriander, then adds fried pork skin (oh yes), peanuts, chilli, banana flower, fried noodle bits and a minuscule black dice of mussels from the Perfume River. Mix it all together and it's fantastically tasty. I'm craving it now as I write this. At just 7,000 dong, or 36 cents, this is considered a poor man's dish. I can't think of a better illustration of the richness of Hue cuisine. From fancy restaurants to the most humble food stands, it is difficult to eat anything less than memorable.
In bustling Dong Ba Market, stallholders in conical "poem" hats spruik star apples, baby jackfruit and a dozen different shrimp pastes. Enterprising women hawk hot plates from gas burners. I'm on the verge of succumbing to a hypnotic, neon-yellow galangal curry when Thai whisks me away for lunch. Again.
The orchid-scented Y Thao Garden is an imposing family mansion in the Imperial City that houses a 150-seat restaurant popular with tourists. The food, arresting confections such as a pineapple peacock skewered with spring rolls and a flourish of marzipan-style green-bean "fruits" to finish, is typical of the decorative cuisine favoured by high-ranking Hue families, as restaurant manager Truong Thi Minh Thu explains.
Thu's mother-in-law, Truong Thi Cuc, runs the kitchen. "She takes care of everything, cooking from family recipes," Thu says. (Ms Cuc's name is pronounced Ms Cook, which sounds apt to English ears, but even nicer to Vietnamese ears, which hear "Ms Chrysanthemum".)
Ms Cuc and her husband, Nguyen Xuan Hoa, see themselves as custodians of Hue's noble heritage. They have co-authored a book, Hue: Remarkable in History and Culture, which vividly documents daily life in the Imperial City (including the royal decree quoted above). Their restaurant aims to be a window into this lost culture, though Thu says it does not appeal to modern Vietnamese tastes. "The atmosphere is not for local people," she says. "It's not noisy enough, and the flavour is not what they're used to or like.
"The idea of the Hue people is very careful with food, and very serious. You see, the cuisine in this area is not just for eating. It's for feeling and enjoyment."
After a six-course banquet at Y Thao we head back to the streets for one last lunch - at another basic garage diner, seated beneath altars to ancestors and laneway spirits, listening to the hiss and squeal of banh ep being squished in jaffle irons over hot embers. These tiny, crisp rice-flour crêpes are flavoured with egg, spring onion and a smattering of pork and prawn and then wrapped around herbs and shredded papaya, and seasoned with a diabolical-looking chilli caramel.
It strikes me these bite-sized treats could become dangerously habit-forming, so it's a bittersweet relief when Thai signals it's time to go.
Lang Co is not an obvious choice as a holiday base in central Vietnam, but it's a sensible one. The designer beach resorts of Da Nang and the fairytale charms of Hoi An, both to the south, are more so, but the beachfront resort of Laguna Lang Co has three things in its favour: location, location, and location.
First, it's within 90 minutes' drive of three UNESCO World Heritage sites: Hue, Hoi An, and the ancient Hindu temple complex of My Son, with its sacred relics of the Champa empire that date from the 4th century BC. Second, it's handy to attractions that have so far escaped the attentions of UNESCO, such as the tombs of the Nguyen rulers in Hue and the charming seaside village of Canh Duong, where fishermen take visitors for spins in basket-shaped coracles.
And the resort grounds are sandwiched between the jungled hinterland of the Truong Son Mountains and a three-kilometre strip of East Sea coastline on Lang Co Bay, a gorgeous crescent of white-tipped surf and rose-coloured sand. Staying here is like being in a Vietnamese rice-paper painting, a study in serene beauty.
Laguna Lang Co belongs to the Thailand-based Banyan Tree Group, which currently operates a 229-room Angsana hotel, a 49-villa Banyan Tree resort and an 18-hole championship golf course on the site. When completed, the 280-hectare property will house eight hotels and entire hillsides of holiday homes.
For now, however, the scale is sympathetic to the surroundings and it's the natural beauty of the setting that wins me over. That, and a beachfront villa.
Typically of Banyan Tree, villas are furnished in deluxe materials such as marbles and silks, and guest comfort has been considered from every angle. Fruit bowls are curated to personal tastes; bath towels are almost as big as blankets; the shampoo is scented with frangipani and capacious beds are dressed in white linens.
The villas, 17 beach-facing and 32 lagoon-side, are set on house-sized plots of tropical gardens, private pools, hot tubs and pavilions.
The resort architecture manages to be thoroughly modern while referencing traditional features, such as raftered ceilings and latticework, and incorporating bronze drums, embroideries and Hoi An water puppets. A man-made canal, hung with filigreed lanterns that blaze in jewel colours at night, connects the resorts and the golf course by water.
Laguna Lang Co's isolation leaves guests little choice but to dine on-site, so it's reassuring to discover there are first-class Martinis and Negronis mixed at Banyan Tree's extravagantly lacquered Thu Quan library bar, very good contemporary Thai at the hill-top Saffron restaurant and, in the Water Court bistro, a lavish breakfast buffet that could pass for a Nguyen banquet.
If guests hunger for more variety there are three restaurants next door at Angsana, including the atmospheric Rice Bowl with its eclectic Oriental design.
The resorts run tours to Hoi An and Hue but, as my experience with Thai proved, taking a private tour with a guide can be much more rewarding. (It's also more flexible. Coming back from Hoi An on a Saturday evening, we can stop to witness the spectacle of Da Nang's Dragon Bridge spewing fire and smoke and bringing the city to a spectacular standstill.)
In Hoi An there's more great eating to discover, but also much to admire aside from platters of white rose dumplings and chicken rice. Beyond the troops of tourists thronging the old city and the unseemly crush for photo ops on the picturesque Japanese Bridge, the pleasure of Hoi An, for me, is escaping all that to find a seat somewhere quiet (rooftops are good) to gaze upon its loveliness.
The old city is ridiculously pretty with its painted terraces beside the Thu Bon River and a kaleidoscope of coloured lanterns twinkling like captured stars. The cultural melting pot of Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese and French influences is reflected in the architecture, which in turn offers a window into the city's illustrious past as a key port on the spice and silk routes between India and China. Its heyday lasted for 200 years until the late 18th century, and 200 years hence it's almost as though the old city has been preserved in aspic.
South of Hue, set in the hills beside the Perfume River, are the tombs of the Nguyen kings. Seven of the 13 emperors rest in peace here in various states of extravagance. Perhaps the most grandiose is Emperor Khai Dinh's mausoleum, a cast-concrete wonderland of dragons and elephants, equipped with an entire retinue of stone officials to attend to his highness in the afterlife. Presumably many of them are chefs.
The 12th king of the Nguyen dynasty is entombed in the inner sanctum of the Thien Dinh (meaning heaven decider) palace, a flashy pavilion of marble and mosaics, ceiling frescoes and ornate columns. A framed portrait of the emperor shows him in a traditional khan dong hat and looking faintly like Gloria Swanson.
It's an odd place but, like many of the attractions in central Vietnam, it's surprisingly rewarding. And it's an eternal reminder that the Nguyen emperors not only knew how to live, they knew how to die, too - always with tremendous style.
A view of Angsana resort at Laguna Lang Co from Banyan Tree resort
  • undefined: Kendall Hill