Saturday, November 22, 2008

Hue and Gastronomy

Prior to our first trip to Viet Nam, I spent about a month and a half doing research in order to have some kind of idea what not to miss where. Of course, Hue is where you can find the glory of past Imperial Viet Nam, to the extent that it is still on UNESCO's list of world heritage sites. But it is also the center of where a lot of the destruction took place during the American War. Additionally, it is known for its amazing cuisine, and has the best University in the entire country. 

Luckily for us we stayed at a hotel that was abutting the Center for Gastronomic Service . It does not look terribly fancy or elegant, but don't let appearances get you down. The food is out of this world. This was the place where we had breakfast the day after we arrived and did most of the sightseeing. It was extremely crowded, and the restaurant is "al fresco" for the most part. While you wait for your food, you will be either charmed or annoyed by vendors, depending on your mood. One other thing that can ruin your meal, if you allow it, is the smell of smoke. Viet Namese are smokers, like most other Asians. And even when you are outdoors, you'll still get several whiffs of it, as the smokers outnumber the non-smokers. 

This is the view from the eating area where we sat, 
which looks quite charming with a lovely fountain in the center, and tropical plants all around.

So if you don't mind sitting on rickety aluminum table and chairs, and spotting a running chicken pecking at the ground, have a seat and enjoy the meal, because you will. This is a good time to explain the coffee filter situation, since I have a photo of it, and as I mentioned in an earlier post, once you have this coffee, it will be difficult to negotiate other ones. It can be served to you hot or cold, and in order to have the hot version, you should ask for 'cà phê sữa nóng', literally hot milk coffee or café filtré. This will be made with sweet condensed milk. For the iced version, ask for cà phê sữa đá, and it is basically the same recipe, with added iced cubes and that you'll stir vigorously with a long teaspoon and enjoy.

If you look closely, you see the glass which has the filter mechanism on top of it also has a thick white lining at the bottom. That is the condensed milk which has not yet been mixed. When enough coffee has made it into your cup, just set aside the filter until you are ready for more. The glass in the forefront shows the coffee has been mixed and some of it already consumed. On the other side is the same operation going on with another glass containing ice cubes. I think you have now been initiated. I remember when they first brought us these utensils to our breakfast table in Sai Gon, we looked at each other like idiots, because we had no clue how these things worked. 

A banana crêpe was beckoning me from the menu and I didn't resist. I had no idea though that what I would later be served and eating was art work. Chuck ordered eggs (at the time of our travel, there was much to do about nothing regarding bird flu, and not eating fowl or eggs). Baguettes are always served at breakfast, and they are crisp and tasty, and have slightly more dough than I am accustomed to. When our food came, my jaw dropped at the sight of the crêpe as I was expecting a pancake stuffed with bananas. I will shamelessly admit that I ate the whole thing. 

With the sunny side eggs came the bread, a few slices of cucumbers and tomato, and the portion was quite generous. This restaurant is a keeper. 

The evening before, after we returned from an exhausting tour of the Forbidden Imperial City, after we crossed the Truong Tien Bridge back to the other side, we got out because we spotted a very large outdoor eatery that served iced cream. It sounded like a wonderful idea, and refreshing, and don't expect vanilla, chocolate and strawberry. These folks learned the art of ice cream from the French, and will have you lick your chops no matter what flavor you choose. Learn that "Kem" is ice cream, and short for "crème" which is the French word for cream. If you want to find it, it is on Le Loi Avenue, right across the street from the Viet Nam Airline ticket office. You have a wonderful view of the Perfume River , and it was almost sunset, which made for a very soothing and romantic mood. 

The Perfume River gets its name from the fragrant flowers that grow alongside its banks.

The menu is in Viet namese, but there do have English translations, and we were happy to get one of those from our waiter. I'm a red bean fan, but I saw "green bean" and was intrigued, and ordered it. Chuck, on the other hand, went American, and selected the banana split with one scoop each of 3 flavors (the ones cited above, of course), which was served with a fluted cookie and walnuts. The first teaspoon of green bean was spectacular, and the ones that followed, no less spectacular. The cookie was light as air. And since my cup was small, I started tasting some of the ice cream in the banana split boat. They use real cream!! Also, remember, you must slow yourself down as much as possible because service takes forever. And this, - with the venue not crowded at all. I think we saw one other family with children in total. 

There was a very large building which looked like a theater of some sort, and after we left "Kem", we started walking around. Again. We went into the building which was completely empty, and there was no one around. Parked alongside the river bank were these adorable duck boats, which I assumed people rented out to glide around on the river. There are also performances which take place on the river, but we unfortunately did not have the time to catch one. 

As the sun was setting, we realized that once back in the hotel, we would not be able to move. So our walk to us to an outdoor restaurant, with tables at seaside. You could see the trees around the tables had been decorated with hundreds of mini-lights that would go on as soon as the sun disappeared. It was very quiet, but as I looked up I saw speakers, and music began to emanate. This might sound bizarre, but the man singing sounded exactly like Engelbert Humperdinck in Viet namese. Since our server did not speak English, there was no way for me to know. But it was lovely and memorable. And we were given menus and started peering at the offerings; here's a sample:
· #61. My (pronounced me) y Sot Bo Bam : Sauteed spaghetti with beef
· #62. My y Sot Hai San : Sauteed spaghetti with seafood
· #63. Vu De Neong : Grilled teats of goat (this one triggered a half hour conversation)
· #64. Tho Hon Banh My : Stewed rabbit with break ( I think they meant bread here)
· #65. Tho Nuong : Grilled rabbit
· # 66. Ca Com Chien Bo : Deep-fried small fish with butter
We settled on a vegetarian dish that was spiced to perfection and quite fragrant. It went down without a hitch. It was a noodle dish with curried vegetables, but you really could not distinguish any heavy curry flavor. It was so subtle, and mixed probably with other aromatic spices. 

And of course, it would not have been as memorable an evening, if it weren't for two young boys who were trying to get some money for polishing our shoes. I was saved, since my shoes were suede boots that could not be touched. So they naturally turned to Chuck, and it became comedic as we realized the tins of shoe polish they had brought with then were empty. Nevertheless the younger of the two boys was earnestly scrubbing away. The other boy had his hand on my camera at one point, and I gave him a look that must have encouraged him to let go of it. All the pictures of the day that I had taken were in that camera, and at that point, I would have killed anyone who would take the camera. 
There is a fabulous dialog going on between the man and the boy in the photo. It turned out that the shoe polish had at some point in its lifetime contained black, and Chuck's shoes were brown. So the man is trying to tell the boy not to shine his shoes because he's got the wrong color. You can see the pained look on the child's face, because he is looking to make some dong this evening. 

At some point, the conversation will have stopped because the grown up realizes that the child is so persistent, he might as well let him have his way. We did manage to find some coins to reward all that hard work. At least they did leave us when the food was served. 

A barge gliding on the Perfume River at Sunset

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Both the Boy and The Man, are taking this VERY serious. I re-live this every time I see the picture. It's like a video that can never be forgotten. Being serious about the shoeshine, when the kid had no polish, was really a heartbreaker moment. Thanks for bringing back, as you do so well
The Man