Some travelers traveling north-to-south or south-to-north across Vietnam are skipping Hue, a sleepy city about mid-way up Vietnam’s slender girth. All too often those who do come often miss its greatest attraction – not the royal tombs in the hills up the Perfume River, or the bomb-blasted Citadel in town, but the food.
Known for its sleepy pace and pagodas and heavy rains, Hue was Vietnam’s capital during the Nguyen Dynasty years from 1802 to 1945, when the last king turned in his funny gold and red robe and capital duties shifted back to Hanoi.
Over the dynasty’s run, many kings spent most of their time writing poems, fathering children (Minh Mang had 102 wives, and more children), or designing their architectural legacies -- and in particular their tombs.
Kings were finicky, too, for their food. Over the royal years, nervous chefs churned out ever-changing dishes for kings who demanded 52-course meals. Most were adaptations of the dishes ‘commoners’ made outside the Citadel walls (supposedly numbering 1400 of Vietnam’s 1700 dishes).
Breakfasts for many locals mean an unusual crunchy bowl of com hen, a spicy cool-rice dish with tiny river clams (about the size of a broken-off tip of pencil lead), peanuts, pork rinds, green onion, mint, fish sauce and peppers.
Bun bo Hue is one of the city's most famous exports -- and one of the few that reach US Vietnamese restaurants' weekend menus. Like its more famous cousin pho bo, it's a beef noodle soup served with a clear beef broth but healthy doses of chili, shrimp paste and a rounded slippery noodle that slips off your chopsticks and sending dots of reddish-brown broth on your shirt.
The best place in town is Bun Bo Hue (17 Ly Thuong Kiet St), a block south of Hanoi St. And it's quite good. It's a simple concrete-floor, open-front place, with aluminum tables and trash thrown on the floor. The bowls are prepared up front -- just order, sit and await the bowl (about 50 cents).