Vietnam

Lasting Friendships in Hue

I am at the end of a nearly two-week stay in Hue. My visa ends in a few days, and I will be traveling on to Laos. I’ve chosen to stay here in this city, rather than continue south to Saigon, which has prompted reprimand from the southern Vietnamese food advocates.

Special in Hue, a type of processed meat, similar to sausage- this one contains a mix of pork and shrimp. Eaten with gelatinous rice cakes, covered in fish sauce.

But it has been wonderful to stay in the same place for an extended period of time; I am not the touring type of traveler. I like to visit the same few cafes here, and receive looks of recognition from the owners. I picked out my favorite bun bo Hue stand, and though I think that I still pay the foreigner price (a $.25 markup), I get more meat in my soup than I used to. I know my way around without a map. And most importantly, I’m staying in a guesthouse with the most wonderful family, who share meals with me and support my mission to eat the best Hue food possible (Sunny Fine Guesthouse, if you travel to Hue).

A meal I shared with a friend at a vegetarian restaurant. There are many vegetarian restaurants in Hue, because Buddhists in Hue try to eat vegetarian twice a month. The center front plate is a salad made with a type of fig that only grows in central Vietnam, and it is extraordinary. The small bowl in the right-hand corner is fermented tofu, which I had never tasted before. It tastes like pungent cheese.

While visiting the Imperial Citadal, the center of the Nguyen Dynasty, I came upon this part of the exhibit:

Looking at the emperor, I found myself feeling lucky. For one, I am quite content to not need a poison-tester in my humble life. But on a deeper level, quite honestly, the emperor looks lonely to me. In Hue, I’ve had the fortune to eat like a king, and yet still share my meals with interesting company. Due to the couchsurfing network and lucky opportunities, I was able to meet some incredibly kind Vietnamese people. They showed me around the city and surrounding region, took me to their favorite Vietnamese restaurants, helped me create a long list of dishes to try, and then proceeded to help me cross off each item. I learned about Vietnamese history, society, and humor from long conversations over meals and bottles of Huda (local beer).

Huda- a refreshing collaboration between Hue and Danish owners

These new friends showed me the warmth of Vietnamese culture. And when I think about my time in Hue, these friendships are what I’m most thankful for- after all, what joy is there in eating like an emperor, if you’re eating alone?

Advertisements

Slow Coffee in the Street

I spot the traveling cart with a large sign, advertising “cà phê”. I hold up one finger, and an older Vietnamese woman, dressed in comfortable slacks and a floppy fishermen’s hat, pushes two small red plastic stools my way. I take a seat on one, putting my purse on the other, and call out “Cà Phê Sua Da”, or coffee with milk.

My long American legs hunched up toward my chest, I look around this quiet side street. Around me, groups of young people have pulled their small red stools close to each other, forming a flexible arrangement of social cliques. To my left, two women my age examine their phones, checking Facebook while sipping coffee. To my right, a group of high school students share brightly-colored sodas. Two of the young men are clearly talking about me, and I laugh to myself. People not-so-covertly staring at you is obvious, even through a language barrier.

My coffee arrives, with a side bowl of ice on this hot day. I stir in the milk and then add the ice, trying to water down this strong brew. I take a sip- oh, how I love Vietnamese coffee.

One of the best parts about a slow cup of coffee on the street here is the people watching. As my foreignness can hardly go unnoticed, most of the time I stare back unabashedly. I usually bring a book to the cafe, but today I leave it in my bag, because the street is exceptionally busy. I simply sit, enjoying the sunshine and the cool breeze coming off the Perfume River. I have nowhere to be for another few hours, until I meet a friend for lunch. I grin and take in the day, enjoying all of my senses. I treasure these wonderfully slow mornings in Hue.

A panoramic view of the Imperial Citadal, the home of the Nguyen Dynasty. I wonder if the emperor and the mandarins ever had quiet mornings like mine, sitting near the lakes, drinking coffee.

Introducing the Best Breakfast in Existence: Bun Bo Hue

I take breakfast very seriously. I am the kind of person that wakes up hungry, probably having dreamt about food all night long. I will sacrifice sleep, waking up early, to make sure that I have time for an unhurried breakfast.

In northern Vietnam, people typically eat phở for breakfast. I ate it almost every day while in the north- I love how the noodles fill you up, the broth rehydrates you for the day, and I think the rising steam even opens the pores of your skin.

Huế, however, has a culinary competitor to phở- bún bò Huế. Anthony Bourdain, again, is famous for his claim that bún bò Huế is the better version of its northern relative, phở. And I am here to throw my weight with Bourdain- bún bò Huế may be the best breakfast ever.

In all its glory,  bún bò Huế

There is something magical that lies in the combination of all its ingredients- rice vermicelli, the spicy, salty, sour beef broth, the fermented shrimp sauce that is a little bit sweet, the lemongrass, the different hunks of meat that are all steaming hot and fatty. Then there is the side plate of cilantro, green onions, thin slices of banana flower, various herbs, and all the other side vinegars, chilis, and fish sauces. The many parts combine to make a magnificent whole.

I have found my new favorite breakfast. Now, to try to find someone to teach me how to cook it!

Modern Urban Agriculture on Top of Ancient Wall

Hue is home to the famous Imperial Citadel of the Nguyen dynasty. As I mentioned before, I have not yet visited the Citadal, but it is a popular draw for tourism here. However, yesterday, with a friend I did visit the “outside wall” of the citadal for an unexpected sight- urban agriculture.

Rows of crops on top of the outer wall (it is about 100 feet across, now covered in soil)

And the opposite view

The inner wall protects the tombs and temples of the citadel, and while the outer wall was originally built next to the river for protection, today it is just another feature of the landscape, surrounded by residential houses.

Over the years, soil has been deposited on top of the wall, making plant life flourish there. Since you cannot live on top of the ancient wall, some local people have put the space to better use- growing rows of herbs, onions, fruits, and greens on top of the structure. Though the bordering trees and raised side make it difficult to visualize, the wall is about 100 feet in width, and about 20 feet tall. These pictures were taken standing on top of the wall.

Rows of green onions

Papaya tree

I do not think that this is exactly legal, but the local government doesn’t seem to disapprove. This garden is invisible from the street, requiring a short climb up a ladder to get on top of the wall. It reminds me of other urban agriculture in the United States- retaking land that is lying fallow and putting it to better use. Farmers are inventive people, all over the world.

Home Cooked Feast

There is something beautiful, and yet completely ordinary, in home kitchens. No other room in a house is so lived in, so full of everyday energy. I’ve always loved how kitchens anchor a household, how people gather in the center and give it warmth. Whenever I am given an opportunity to learn from someone in their home kitchen, I feel very lucky.

A few days ago, I cooked with a new friend’s mother, Lien, in her home. Her kitchen had that same lived-in feeling that I associate with the warm, kind families in my life.

Though we didn’t share a common language, I find that cooking often doesn’t require a translator (though, I must admit, a few ingredients remain absolute mysteries to me). Everyone has their own rhythm in preparations, and Lien was a purposeful and skilled cook. Throughout the preparations, she always made sure to pause and confirm that I was following her- how she separated the crab meat for broth, how the soup looked the moment she took it off the heat, when to add each ingredient and how much seasoning.

Crushing crabs, to add to water and sift to create a broth

Adding shrimp sauce before grilling fish to perfection

The much-spoken of “bitter mushrooms”, which are only available in a certain season with certain weather in Hue. These are an ingredient that only experienced chefs would use.

Cooks like Lien have a rhythm to their cooking that is so patient and calm, speaking to years of experience. I was so happy to be able to spend the afternoon with her and share the joy of preparing a meal.

Extraordinary!

Closeup of the crab soup, with shallots, coconut oil, and many different types of green herbs (most start with rau)- these flavors were so completely new to me, I had no words to describe them!

Grilled fish

As her son put it, Lien is always cooking “like for a football team”. It was true- I couldn’t believe how much food we had cooked and shared. I joked that I wished that I had two stomachs, so that I could finish dinner. She smiled, and then slyly gave me a bag of still-steaming bánh nậm to take home.

Lien and I, her proud of her meal, and me still in awe at what we just created.

The Royal City: Hue, Vietnam

Finally- a city that appeals to my royal proclivities. Huế is an ancient capital of Vietnam, being the center of the Nguyễn dynasty in the 17th through 19th centuries. It is a quieter city than Hanoi, with beautiful rivers and parks everywhere you go. The ancient tombs and ruins here draw in many tourists eager to see an old kingdom. However, even on my third day here, I have yet to explore any ruins- I’ve been too busy eating. For as well-known and photogenic as the Imperial Citadel is, I have priorities here.

photo taken from VietnamDiscoveries.com

Thanks to a wonderful couchsurfing network, I’ve connected with a few local Vietnamese people for different meals. I think that something about my genuine interest in authentic Huế food speaks to people here- everyone has been very kind, giving me literal lists of different dishes to try. There are more suggestions than I could ever follow.

The sheer number of Hue dishes is extraordinary. The old kings supposedly refused to eat the same dish more than a few times a year, forcing the cooks to create innumerable variations on traditional cuisine. Some people number “Hue cuisine” to contain over 1,500 unique dishes.

Anthony Bourdain traveled here a few years ago, filming an episode of Parts Unknown in Hue (these videos are quite good- I now understand his enthusiasm). Many local people have talked to me about this episode, though I have yet to find a way to watch it online. However, yesterday, I had the pleasure of visiting one of the restaurants at which Bourdain had eaten with a new friend. We arrived at the tiny building, tucked away in a residential neighborhood, for lunch. It reminded me of those restaurants in Japan that lack a sign or publicity, instead relying on word of mouth among those in the know.

As we sat down, my friend asked the most magical question I have ever heard: “so you want to eat what the kings ate?”

Bánh bèo, a steamed rice cake covered in crispy bits of beans, fried meat, and seafood. Best covered in fish sauce and chilis.

We started with the classic dish, bánh bèo, a dish that I think I could eat for the rest of my life. Then there were a multiplicity of other rice cakes wrapped in different types of leaves, steamed for hours before arriving in front of us. Again, I find that Vietnamese food contains so many different types of textures- each rice cake contained some new combination, waiting to be covered in fish sauce.

Some are steamed in lá dong, others in banana leaves

My personal favorite, with pork, shrimp, and onions steamed in la don0g

Another, filled with crunchy shrimp from the nearby river- what a mix of textures!

We finished the meal with bánh ram ít, a crunchy, steamy, bite-sized puff of deliciousness (that I somehow failed to take a picture of! It will be ordered again).

I felt so wonderfully content, leaving that restaurant, knowing that I have days left for culinary exploration with new friends in this fascinating city. Already, I have expanded my palate so much that I think it will never be the same. This must be how to live like a king!

Hmong Cooking in the Fog

Sa Pa- on the one hand, it is undeniably an overpriced tourist town. On the other hand, it has hot showers.

This town is known for its extraordinary views and beautiful opportunities for trekking. All of the hotels boast, “best view in Sa Pa!” and traveler reviews always recommend which side of the hotel to book, so that you have the best photo opportunities from your room.

Hilariously, this week, all the rooms have the same view- fog. Fog everywhere. You can literally only see about 20 feet in front of you, all day long. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. Book a guide for a trek up Fansipan mountain? Great, but you will never see the mountain. Staying in the fancy hotel on the edge of town, touting an unspoiled view of the lake and surrounding farmland? Well, too bad, you have the same view as I do in my cheap hotel- fog. Most other foreigners I meet are advising me not to go trekking while the fog is so thick.

Ah, whatta view

So, what to do? My second day here, I decided to take a cooking class taught by a local Hmong chef. I was joined by a lovely Australian couple in the class.

We started with a tour of the local market. Restaurants here, like many places in the world, use incredibly fresh ingredients. Our chef tells us that he always buys his meat early in the morning, because by the afternoon all of the meat is sold out. It seems obvious enough, until an American follows that line of thought- the meat runs out because everyone slaughters early in the morning, carrying to town what they think they can sell, and then they leave when it is gone. Meat is not packaged, preserved, nor promised.

Part of the meat market- notice that all the meat is fresh, uncovered, ready to be sold and cooked that day

It’s important to get your daily dose of chicken feet

Or take the fish, for example- live fish swim in pools on the ground, still gasping for air and flapping their tails. Our chef tells us that if the fish is dead, few people will buy it. Again, go a step further- this chef doesn’t use anything that wasn’t alive earlier that day.

I think about food-buying habits back home, and how grocery shopping once a week sometimes seems like a burden. People here are buying their food almost every day.

I love how Vietnamese restaurants will put out a bowl of different types of greens and herbs on the table- people add them to soups, or eat them on the side

After buying our ingredients, we return to the restaurant and begin to cook. Our menu: ginger, chili, and lemongrass flavored smoked buffalo, pickled greens, ginger-marinaded fried chicken, trout cooked in a banana leaf with garlic and lemon grass, banana flower salad, and fresh tofu made from soybean powder.

Buffalo, with marinade ingredients

Pre-smashed galangal, shallot, garlic, and lemongrass to spread on the trout

Banana flower, which I had never encountered before- it seems more useful in its texture than its subtle taste

It was wonderful to learn alongside the Hmong chef- I learned about smoking meat and preparing banana flowers, things with which I have no experience. I also learned new lessons about familiar ingredients- how he got the most flavor out of ginger and garlic, or how he used different temperatures of oil to fry the chicken.

Chicken frying, with julienned ginger to add in at the end

After the lesson, the Australian couple and I shared what we had helped prepare. It was lovely to share such an extraordinary meal with such interesting people. Both had traveled extensively, providing me with a lot of perspective on my own trip. I couldn’t have found a better way to spend a rainy day.

Banana flower salad

Fresh tofu, made out of soybean powder and corn starch (without the usual added rice powder to give it firmness). It has the consistency of scrambled eggs.

For me, the most incredible part of the meal- the delectable, chewy, mouth-watering smokey spicy buffalo. What a color! Served next to pickled greens.

Incredible

Connections in Mu Cang Chai

I’m sitting in a cafe in a small town in the northern mountains, sketching out the draft for this blog. There are fake flower garlands strung everywhere, blinking electric Christmas lights, and a guitar rendition of Pachelbel’s Canon playing quietly when I enter. The music has since been changed to a louder station of Vietnamese pop sung half in English (they know my taste).

(picture taken on my cell phone at night, diminishing the charm of this little cafe)

I am in Mu Cang Chai town, the capital of Mu Cang Chai district, in Yen Bai province. It is known best for its extraordinary terraced rice fields. Unfortunately, I have chosen to visit in the “ugly” season, where there is no rice harvest. It also happens to rain my whole visit, which makes the countryside brown and damp. It may not be a photographer’s dream, but the area is still exceptionally beautiful to me.

the “ugly” season

This town, which I heard of based on a new friend’s recommendation, is definitely off the tourist trail. I see only one foreigner in my few days here, and I am communicating through a combination of Google translate, exaggerated body language, my few Vietnamese phrases, and the grace of the people here. Still, I find that food and drink bring me a bit of company- eating lunch alone, I soon find myself surrounded by a noisy family. After realizing that I only know a little Vietnamese, they stick around anyway, eating loudly and writing down new words for me in my notebook. Walking down the street during the only sunny afternoon, some motorcycle mechanics invite me over to drink tea and watch them play some sort of chess. Even the rain conspired to bring me company- on a long walk out of town, it unexpectedly began to downpour, and I ended up being invited into a karaoke bar for refuge. I am not entirely alone here.

I don’t know what makes these people want to include the outsider- some innate kindness or sympathy for someone traveling alone, or perhaps just boredom with the people that they see every day. Whatever it is, I remain grateful for the kindness extended to me, and I look for ways for pass it on in the future.

But for now, I’m heading toward the big tourist town of the north, Sa Pa. I can’t wait to take a bus through these mountains again- even through a dirty bus window, these views are breathtaking!

Eating in Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi- the capital of Vietnam, a city of four million people and 5 million motorbikes (the first lesson for foreigners- how to cross the street safely. Check out this video).

It has been a busy, loud few days. My ears are filled with calls between vendors and almost incessant honking. Vietnamese people seem to be early risers, compared to most of the world- the city starts its noise at 6:30 or 7:00 am.

There remains some beautiful Confucian architecture around the city- this is from the “Temple of Literature”

There are many sit-down-in-a-booth-and-order-from-a-menu places in Hanoi, but most of the good eating comes from small street restaurants that specialize in one certain dish. Small plastic chairs and tables spill out into every sidewalk and street. I usually take a seat, point to whatever my neighbor is eating, and then it arrives, steaming and perfect, in front of me. I am also lucky to have some friends of a friend here, which means they are showing me the best places to eat for different dishes.

The food is, as I expected, extraordinary. There are so many different textures are in the same dish- crunchy fried bits, slick noodles, cooked vegetables, pickled vegetables, grilled meat, and steaming-hot broth. The flavors meld together very well, and the texture makes the dish especially satisfying.

Bun bo nam bo- grilled beef and noodles, with fresh vegetables, roasted peanuts, broth, and other unnamed crispy bits

But this traveling around is a new experience for me. During my last time abroad, I spent 6 months in Dakar, Senegal. I stayed in one place, learning the language, working a job, living in the same neighborhood. Now, “traveling around”, I don’t speak anything but the bare bones of the language, and perhaps most startling for a recent college graduate, I have nothing to “do”. My days are my own.

I’m finding that in this new situation,  my meals become the centering part of my day. Finding breakfast, lunch, and dinner is what gives me a schedule, or habits. Food is grounding me here.

Hanoi is a crazy, interesting city, but I cannot stay in this hectic place for very long. In a few days, I’ll be heading to some smaller places north and west of Hanoi. I want to spend significant time in a quiet area, where I can see the same people every day, and really start to get to know a place. And, hopefully along the way, I’ll learn more about these delicious dishes that I’m eating!