Chả Cá Lã Vọng: The Must Eat Northern Specialty When in Vietnam

cha ca la vong

Chả Cá Lã Vọng: The Northern Dish you Must Eat When in Vietnam

When guests ask me for my favourite Vietnamese foods, chả cá always challenges for a top spot. Every aspect of the 100 year-old northern specialty contributes to one of Vietnam’s most enriching dining experiences. Chả cá hasn’t reached similar global heights to its edible peers, which makes it harder to find outside of its birthplace in Hanoi. Fortunately for those who missed chả cá lã vọng in the capital can save themselves the return trip to Hanoi by visiting a new restaurant in Hue.

What is Chả Cá Lã Vọng?

Chả cá simply translates to grilled/braised fish, but its minimalist name doesn’t hint to the complexities of its flavours. The river fish is marinated with turmeric then fried with dill and scallions. The fish is fried twice, once by the chef and then at the dining table. The dish must be eaten straight from the pan and additional ingredients added by the diner moments before consumption to maximise its taste bud sensations.  Along with the dining table stove and frying pan, chả cá also comes with a plate of vermicelli noodles (bún) and several small dishes of lime, fish paste, peanuts and fresh chili. A delicate portion of each ingredient creates a dish like no other.

cha ca hue tours

How to Eat it

The chả cá dining experience can be a daunting one for those not entirely experienced with Asian cuisine. Due to the delicacy of the dish, getting the balance of flavours right is essential. Although there is never one way to eat any Vietnamese dish, my Hanoian friend gave me some invaluable advice for eating chả cá; after adding every ingredient and condiment, the result shouldn’t be bigger than a mouthful! Keep that in mind when following these steps.

  • The waiter will bring out the pan of fish and set the stove alight. Although the fish has already been cooked, this is merely to reheat the fish, dill and scallions. Your waiter may do the cooking themselves or leave you to it. Keep the ingredients in the pan moving to avoid it sticking and burning at the bottom of the pan.
  • Use your waiting time efficiently and get some quick prep done. That tiny bowl with the purple shrimp paste needs a few cuts of chili, several drops of lime and a stir with a chopstick.
  • Once complete the waiter will lower the stove’s flame and the fish will continue to simmer.
  • Take a small piece of fish along with a tiny amount of dill and a shred of scallion to your bowl. Dress with a few strings of vermicelli noodle.
  • Squeeze a drop or two of fresh lime, a couple of peanuts, a dab of purple shrimp paste and if desired, a cut of chili or two.
  • And that is chả cá lã vọng. Get the whole thing between your chopsticks and send it down the trap. Destination ngọn!
chả cá lã vong hue

Where Does the Dish Come From?

Chả cá lã vọng originates from one eatery in the centre of Hanoi’s old quarter. Still active on the street that has been renamed after the much-loved dish, the restaurant first began operating during the French colonial era over 100 years ago. Legend has it that anti-colonial revolutionary cells would frequently congregate there under the cover of the restaurant to exchange information on latest activities and findings. The name Lã Vọng belongs to a Confucian legend whose statue would sit overlooking diners at the restaurant and now lends its name to the dish.

cha ca la vong

Bún Chả Hà Nội vs. Chả Cá Lã Vọng

When Anthony Bourdain took Barack Obama to bún chả in Hà Nội, I always wondered why he couldn’t have spared a couple more dollars and took him for chá cả lã vọng instead. Maybe they got the names confused? I am certain that a serving of chả cá lã vọng may have instilled some of that age-old revolutionary spirit in Obama and could have changed the current dystopic face of global politics we find outselves in today. Don’t make the same mistake as Anthony!

 

bun cha ha noi

Despite both having bún (vermicelli noodles), their respective meats being chả and originating from Hà Nội. There are multiple distinctions between the two dishes. Firstly, bún chả is a dish based on minced pork shoulder squeezed into meat balls.  While both dishes include vermicelli rice, chả cá uses shrimp paste rather than fish sauce as its primary condiment. Vegetables for bún chả are pickled whereas chả cá’s dill and scallions come fresh and fried on the table. Finally, there bún chả is mainly a greasy affair whereas chả cá lã vọng is evened out with its side-ingredients. Oh and of course, chả cá lã vọng is much more of a table spectacle!

Where to Get the Goods in Hue...

Despite being a dish exclusive to Hanoi, recent years have seen a few locations open up in Hue and despite being almost 1,000 kilometres from home, they serve a decent chả cá lã vọng.

Chả cá Lăng Hà Nôi
254 Ngự Bình
While the restaurant is further out of town than …. The restaurant surrounds the exterior of the owner’s house and tables are set beside the garden.

Chả Cá Hà Nội tại Huế – NGƯ PHỐ
1 Dương Văn An
Classier dining experience than your average street food joint. Close the to centre of town and quality is to a high standard.

But it Ain't That Local

Chả cá lã vọng is a northern dish and a finer dining experience. This is the kind of dining experience for families. Don’t expect these restaurants to be full of streetlife buzz! If you’re looking for something curbside and definitively loca, take the Hue Grit Food Tour!

Things To Do in Hue: 10 Pro Tips and Activities From a Hue Resident

There’s a general misconception with backpackers on the banana pancake trail. Hue allegedly has nothing to offer it’s visitors except for a citadel and an abandoned waterpark. Let me tell you that those people are quite simply banana pancakes. There’s plenty of things to do in Hue.

Hue food tour grit
Dessert along the Huong River.

Hue is definitively the place to get to grips with real Vietnam; it’s the country’s capital of culture! Hue demonstrates the country’s past, present and future in equal measures. All of this can be accessed much easier than larger cities such as Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City.

Beachside afternoon dining

While people may argue that Hoi An is a better representation of Vietnamese culture, it simply isn’t. The town is a 21st century tourist construct, built upon the age-old orientalist perceptions of east Asia and today permeates a sculptured culture to please the tourist masses (an academic agrees with us!). Hoi An has some incredible history but all this has been swallowed up by the density of what it has become. Is Hoi An more pleasant than Hue? Disputably so. Is Hue more ‘real Vietnam’? Undoubtedly yes.

10 Things to Do in Hue

1. Serendipity in the Hue Citadel

Hue citadel can be described in three parts; the imperial city, it’s surrounding citadel and the city beyond the citadel walls. The entrance to the imperial city comes at a steep 150,000VND per person. The imperial city is impressive but information for visitors is sparse and disappointing. If you’re there for the history, it’s best to hire a guide or do some research before visiting. The Hue citadel surrounding it is equally enjoyable to investigate if you’re short on cash.

Things to Do in Hue Grit Tour
Imperial City inside the Hue Citadel

Take a stroll through the various lakes and pavements that encompass the imperial city and you can find great food, friendly people, quirky establishments and remnants of history’s presence. The 200 year-old building hosting a cafe is lavish and can be accessed without paying the entrance fee. The labyrinth of hawkers and shops in the 100 year-old Dong Ba market is fun to get lost in. There’s even a restaurant that sells seaweed in edible varieties. There might not be tonnes of things to in the citadel but there’s plenty to explore. For a detailed guidebook to the history of Hue and the citadel, we suggest picking up Exploring Hue by Tim Doling which is available from Phu Xuan/Phuong Nam bookstore (two names, same bookshop). If you’re looking for a tour guide, we can help you find one. Contact us!

1. Hang outs at Hue’s Abandoned Waterpark

Due to it’s Instagram-appeal and minor Jurassic Park vibes, Hue’s abandoned waterpark is a quick riser on every backpacker’s list of things to do in Vietnam. #wanderlust. Truth be told, what more could you ask for when making a day trip out the city? the abandoned waterpark is a great place to recreate and more so to procreate. I’m not playing devil’s advocate here but I’m pretty sure that it would top any hostel story you encounter after you visit Hue.

Things to Do in Hue Grit Tour
Thuy Tien Lake: Hue’s abandoned waterpark

Plenty of space for a picnic here. Bring sandwiches and a sugarcane juice. At the time of writing, some local fellas guarding the premises in an attempt to keep curious visitors out. Be nice and charming. If they don’t let you in, take another route.  if they ask for an entrance fee, it’s your call. Remember your actions will impact future visitors. Think local, act global, yada yada yada. Check out our article For a better informed and more prosaic piece about Hue’s abandoned waterpark. If you don’t get in. No biggy. The banana pancake hype makes it seem way better than it really is. #coldfact. Maybe try #3 for an instagram substitute.

3. Visit Vietnam’s longest Graffiti Wall in Hue.

Growing hip-hop collective Block Party hosted international graffiti jam ‘Meeting of Styles’ in 2018. The result? a 820-metre wall that now features fantastic graffiti art from all over the world. Be sure to crawl under the fencing at the beginning of the wall to get to the other side.

Things to Do Hue Grit Tour

Hue’s graffiti wall is only a few kilometres country drive/ride from the abandoned waterpark. So why not kill two things to do with one trip? Here’s our article on the graffiti wall for more information.

4. Take an Alternative Tour in Hue

It’s tough engaging or understanding a culture, especially one that is so different than the one you come from. Have you found yourself walking in squares not sure what you’re doing or why you’re even visiting an area? Undecided on what things to do while you’re in Hue? Struggling to choose what to eat or even where? You want to get out of the tourist traps but don’t know how. I’ll admit, when traveling, these are the conundrums I face regularly.

Grit Tour Hue Vietnam Karaoke
Hue Grit Tour

The Hue Grit Tour is designed with people like you and I in mind. It’s a multi-purpose tour; an adventure of firsts, several challenges and a period of cultural understanding. Join us at the deep end on the Hue Grit Tour for a plunge into Vietnamese culture.

5. Get Out of Town and Hit Hue’s Beach

Want to experience Vietnamese seaside culture? Get to Thuan An Beach! 12 kilometers out of town is a bit of a stretch but if you’re in need of some seaside adventure, the trip is worth it.

things to do in hue grit tour
Thuan An Beach. 12km from Hue

There’s a few places to check out from the public beaches, the bus cafe and the lavish Beach Bar. A few places for accommodation and plenty of seafood bites. Check out our article on Thuan An beach for things to do there.

6. Eat Hue Food: Hue’s Distinguished Range of Vietnamese Cuisine

The Jury’s still out on where the best Vietnamese food is in the country but Hue has arguably the most distinguished local food in Vietnam. Restaurants around the country try to imitate Hue food or simply gentrify it, Hue is where Hue food is best.

Hue food tour grit
Popular local dish banh khoai

Eating is the most obvious activity on any things to do list, but are you eating how it should be done? Be warned that eating  is only half the experience. We suggest taking a food tour so you know where to eat, how to eat and why the food is eaten in Hue. Don’t go to trip advisor eatery for your Hue experience. A city’s cuisine can’t be summed up into a tourist restaurant!

7. Drink a Coffee Kick to Great Music at Cafe 054

If you’ve become irritated with the constant rotation of shitty pop songs during your travels to Vietnam, then Cafe 054 is right up your street. Great music, easy vibes, pool table and great people!

Hue cafe tour tours Vietnam
the homies of cafe 054.

Cafe 054 plays a collection of hip-hop and electronic-related music that will keep you happy over a drink or two. Soft drinks, budget cocktails and beer available. Be sure to try out the cafe’s signature drink the coffee kick. The cafe is run by some of the local hip-hop community and they are more than happy to tell you some more things to do in Hue.

8. Tomb Raider: Quest for the Royal Tombs

Hue was the capital of Vietnam for around 150 years (1802 to 1945) and the monarchy went through plenty of emperors during this era. Most travel websites count 6 or 7 royal tombs in Hue but they are WRONG. Technically speaking, Hue has tombs for 11 of the 13 Hue emperors and for the 9 Nguyen lords that preceded them. There’s also Prince Nguyen Phuc Hong Cai who was neither a lord nor an emperor but has a mausoleum for fathering three of Hue’s emperors.

Things to Do in Hue Grit Tour
Tomb of Minh Mang in Hue

Most tourists buy onto package tours which only include the more popular tombs of Minh Mang, Thu Duc and Khai Dinh . All mausoleums are accessible to the public but can take up to 2 whole days to see them all. Get a motorbike, bicycle or rent a private car driver and go catch ’em all! We once again recommend a tour guide since information at the tombs is sparse. Prices for each tomb range from 40,000VND to 100,000VND. You’ll be lucky to find an ATM near a tomb so go prepared to spend heavy.

Most blogposts about the tombs seem inadequate. The best around is here. We’ll make sure to write a one soon!

9. River Wander and Boating on the Huong River

The Huong River is the soul of Hue. When the Citadel was built, geomancers recommended it’s location on the river’s bend for it’s defensive attributes and the balance in feng shui provided by Hen island and Da Vien island. Com hen is a local dish that encapsulates the history of the river with it’s blend of baby clams and local produce. Hen Island is worth visiting for it’s islet culture and fame for com hen.  Le Loi street and Trang Hung Dao street run along the river’s opposing banks. Both have numerous shops and stalls set up that bring small pleasures and things to do for their visitors.

things to do in Hue Grit Tour
a makeshift cafe overlooking the dragon boats on the Huong River.

Behind the Ho Chi Minh museum lies a makeshift cafe; a great place to watch the day pass with the river breeze. Boats are available for rent by the hour for numerous uses including karaoke parties, cultural shows or a means to get to various landmarks. If you’re exhausted, river drifting might be the perfect. If you’re looking to rent a boat on the Huong River, the Dragon Boat company are reliable, responsive and flexible.

10. Night Prowling on Hue Walking Street

To my own dread, Hue authorities announced the opening of Walking Street; the part-time pedestrianization on the streets surrounding the tourist area in late 2017. Comically titled ‘Pho Tay’ (westerner street) by local residents, rental prices on buildings have sky rocketed since it’s inception. Strangely enough, walking street has transformed the area into a bizarre hybrid of ‘fashionable’ Vietnamese beer drinking restaurants and a few nightclubs for local millenials. Although walking Hue street still retains numerous tourist traps, it has become a focal point for the amalgamation of Vietnamese culture and the population’s desire for modernity. This area is fast moving; restaurants and bars close as quick as they open. It’s hard to keep track on what’s happening there.

things to do in Hue Grit Tour
Sunset view from Midtown Hotel’s sky lounge

Walking Street is transport-free from 6pm until 11pm on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Not so many things to do but plenty to drink and eat. Midtown Hotel’s rooftop bar is a great place to watch the 18:00 sunset. Tevet bar is a lively millenial restaurant for barfood eats. Ta coffee shop’s balcony is fun people watching, as is the intersection between Vo Thi Sau and Chu Van An streets. Brown Eyes and Factory club for the party, burger shack for drunk food on the way home.

Hue Grit Tour

Why wait? Book now!
Want to know more? Check out the itinerary.
Looking for some gritty tips? head over to the blog.
Have some questions to ask? Contact us.

Hue Food: 10 Local Dishes You Must Try When You’re in Hue, Vietnam

Dessert Vietnamese Hue

10 Hue Foods You Must Try

Regional specialty dishes are often overlooked by visitors travelling Vietnam. While pho and banh mi are world-renowned as Vietnamese food, there are some less-discovered creations awaiting your enjoyment in every province of the country. This is especially true for local Hue food. The city’s cultural heritage and long-standing affluence has produced foods that solely belong to the area yet celebrated around Vietnam. To spare you the search and mind-boggling google translations, here is a guide of 10 local Hue foods you have to try. Although the majority include meat, There are vegan options available around the city. If you want to pack as much in as possible during your time in Hue, why not take a deepdive into the food scene with a Hue Grit Food Tour? We not only show you where Hue’s best local food is but tell you how to eat it and the social-historical context of each dish. Check out our tripadvisor if to see we’re the best Hue food tour the city has to offer!

The Noodles, the Rice & the Meat

1. Bun Bo Hue: Hearty Noodle Meat Feast

noodles hue vietnam bun bo hue best food
/>If pho vacates it’s title of ‘most famous Vietnamese noodle dish’, I’m sure that bun bo hue would be next in line. A direct translation would be ‘beef (bo) vermicelli noodles (bun) from Hue’. Bun Bo Hue is a meat feast. It’s primary ingredients, beef brisket, oxtail, pig knuckles and congealed pig’s blood are stewed in a huge pot along with lemongrass and some chili then served with veggies and leafy greens. It might seem too much for one dish but foodies find themselves ordering more. Best eaten on colder days for central heating at the back of a packed hole in the wall.

2. Com Hen / Bun Hen: Majestic and Appetizing

Com Hen Hue Grit Tour Local Food
One of the more gracious entries to the local Hue food list. Com hen translates into baby mussels (hen) and rice (com). The dish’s supporting cast include fresh produce (starfruit, green mango, banana leaf,variety of herbs) and fried treats (pork rind, peanuts). Com hen can be served dry or wet depending on your preference. Chili relish, shrimp paste and fish sauce are the usual sauces to accompany com hen. vermicelli noodles (bun hen) is also an optional substitute for rice. One serving is usually too small for a whole meal, be ready to order more. Com hen has a unique spot in the culinary history of Vietnam. Read our article about the dish and it’s relationship with the city here. Can be eaten at any time of the day and any time of the year but best on a warm day with a cooling lemon juice.

3. Bun Thit Nuong Hue: Sassy Tropical Tongue-Melter

Bun Thut Nuong Hue Food Tour
Another tasty Hue noodle dish. Unlike bun bo hue, bun thit nuong is a food served dry and cool. When hot soup-based noodle dishes don’t work in sweltering heat, bun thit nuong is the answer. Grilled pork and vermicelli noodles topped with papaya, scallions, leafy greens, herbs and crushed peanuts. An optional tablespoon or two of fish sauce. The result is an explosion of flavors perfect for a light meal. Best eaten on a scorching summer day.

4. Nem Lui: Aromatic Grilled Beef Spring Rolls

pork skewers best food Hue Grit Tour

Grilled ground pork skewers are nothing new but when those skewers are made from lemongrass, nem lui holds itself up pretty well. Another Hue food now found nationwide. As with all Vietnamese street foods, Nem Lui isn’t a one-trick pony. Straight from the grill, you should take the meat off the skewer, wrap it in rice paper with greens (to make something akin to a spring roll) and dunk into it’s accompanying sauce before taking a bite. Only after taking these steps, you’ve reached Nem Lui nirvana. Best to eat as an evening snack, street food straight from the BBQ. Nem Lui can be found with the sense of smell, most BBQs selling Nem Lui waft the aromatic combination of lemongrass and grilled eat through the street. We can’t find a vegetarian Nem Lui in Hue but Lien Hoa has mecan on bamboo which is mildly similar and damn tasty.

The Banhs (savoury cakes)!

5. Banh Khoai: the Hue Pancake

Banh Khoai Vietnam Hue pancake
If you’ve tried banh xeo and loved it, banh khoai is it’s local hue food cousin and you don’t want to miss it. A rice-flour savoury pancake filled with pork, shrimp and beansprouts. Sometimes with quail eggs too! Served sizzling hot from the frying pan with a side of starfruit and local herbs. A spoonful of peanut sauce on top of the banh khoai adds the 4th dimension to the flavour-packed dish. Experiment with the quantities of the condiments to get the balance right. Unlike banh xeo, these aren’t rolled up. Eat them straight from the bowl. It’s a greasy affair so roll up your sleeves. Best eaten as a sundowner/evening snack.

6. Banh Beo Chen: Your Edible Beer Buddy

Hue Grit Tour Banh Beo Chen
Banh beo is quite simply a jelly-like savoury cake consisting of rice flour and tapioca. Topped with pork rind, grated shrimp and finely chopped onions. Servings usually come in batches meaning it’s best shared with a friend or two. When eating banh beo, drip some onion oil on top then dig it out from it’s dish with a spoon. Best eaten as a snack any time of the day. Always great with a shared conversation and a beer to compliment the spice.

7. Banh Ram It Hue: Devils’ Delight

Banh Ram It Hue Grit Tour
This one is a personal favourite. Banh ram it is a triple-layered circular stack of varying textures. At the cake’s base is a crispy, deep-fried rice cracker. Sitting above is a rice dumpling stuffed with pork and shrimp. Topped with scallions and minced shrimp. Not so different from banh beo chen but more filling, more crisp. All in bitesize pieces, that’s if you have a big mouth like me. Best eaten as a snack at any time of the year.

8. Banh Trang and Banh Ep: Vietnamese Pizza

Vietnamese Pizza Hue Grit Tour
Two local hue foods that are highly popular with students are banh ep and banh trang. Banh ep is a soft thin pancake with vegetables and spicy condiments to be rolled up into a spring roll and eaten fresh off the smoker. Banh Trang is a fried rice cracker topped with herbs luminous sauces and meat. People refer to this as Vietnamese pizza but prepared to be heart broken because this thing doesn’t include a doughy base or elaborate cheeses. The best street-food stalls selling banh ep and banh trang are usually sat beside student dormitories and open until very late at night. Although Hue claims it as it’s own, banh ep actually comes from nearby Thuan An beach.

The Sweet and Fruity

9. Va Tron: Exclusive Local Fruit

Vietnamese salad Hue Grit Tour
There aren’t many fruits and vegetables on this list of Hue foods but this entry makes up for it. Trai va (fig) is particularly special because it only grows in Hue and rarely outside of the region. It’s an unusual fruit since it doesn’t has the properties you would associate more with a vegetable. It’s freshy and savoury. Sometimes brown and sometimes pink. It is used in local salads, soups and even as a meat alternative. Lots of restaurants with larger menus have Va Tron. If you’re feeling unsure, go to the vegetarian address below. I dare you, carnivore.

10. Che & Chè Bột Lọc Thịt Heo Quay: Sweet Dessert for All the Family

che hue grit tour best local food in hue

The only Vietnamese pudding on this list. Che is not only a popular Vietnamese dessert but all over South East Asia. While Che comes in plenty of varieties, Hue has it’s own take on the regional favourite. Chè bột lọc thịt heo quay is a sweet flour dumpling topped with ginger and a porky surprise within! Certainly one of Hue’s stranger local foods. Nevertheless, if you’re not keen on the meaty addition to your dessert, try another of the many che varieties on offer. Some stands boast more than 20 varieties. If you’re a sweet-toothed kind of human being, challenge yourself to try them all. Me? I would rather take a cigarette to conclude a food gorge. Excuse the cough.

What Other Local Food is Out There?

Finding Hue restaurants is only half the challenge. Knowing how to eat them can be just as difficult! Want a guided culinary adventure? Join us on the Hue Grit Tour! We’re more than happy to show you around and how these foods are eaten!
These aren’t the only dishes available in Hue. In fact, this is just a cornerstone of the Hue culinary experience. If you’re an adventurer. Get out to the streets of Hue and dive deep into the endless amounts of restaurants and street food available.

Looking for a homely lunch? Check out Nha Cafe.

More inclined to some buddhist-leaning vegetarian food? Visit our list of best vegetarian restaurants in Hue.
There are also plenty of fantastic seafood restaurants. Others also serve some very bizarre dishes. Both of these will be covered in future articles.

Have you visited Hue already? Which foods did you try? Which dishes were unforgettable? Are there any you’re trying to forget? Comment below.

Hue Grit Tour

Why wait? Book now!
Want to know more? Check out the itinerary.
Looking for some gritty tips? head over to the blog.
Have some questions to ask? Contact us.

 

Photos by Ana Fortuna.

Beach Of Hue: Thuan An Fishing Town. The Allure of the Sea

beach hue grit tour thuan an

Thuan An Beach for 2019

Thuan An is Hue’s closest beach. Around 15KM from the city centre, it isn’t as tourist-convenient as the beaches that serve Hoi An or Danang but it’s charm and the variety on offer makes it a worthy day trip. Thuan An is a small fishing village with a population of around 21,000. While a resort and some villas have cropped up, Thuan An has retained it’s strong cultural identity tied closely with the sea. Ultimately, this means cheap seafood, cheap beer, strips of sparsely-populated beach and an authentic culture to discover!
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Cafe Nha: Fantastic Homemade Lunch in a Rustic Hue Cafe

Homemade lunch hue grit tourHow Authentic is Your Lunch?

Visitors to Vietnam will tell you that local food is a divine exploration of the palate. Although flashpacking foodies travel with a golden bucketlist of dishes, it is easy to forget that no culinary experience can be more authentic than one in a home. Unless tourists stop in an intimate homestay or are invited to eat with a Vietnamese family, they may not have the opportunity to eat homemade food. Cafe Nha in Hue is changing this. In contrast to the fast-turnaround noodle shops and beer-centric restaurants, Cafe Nha have brought the household culinary experience back for lunch. Read more “Cafe Nha: Fantastic Homemade Lunch in a Rustic Hue Cafe”

Com Hen Island in Hue: Majestic Home of Com Hen and Bun Hen

Com Hen Hue Grit Tour Local Food

Com Hen: Signature Dish of Hue

Hue is famous for being the pinnacle of ‘traditional’ Vietnamese food. Com hen, bánh khoai, Bún bò Huế and bún bò Huế are among some of the city’s most famous dishes. Hue cuisine is so popular that restaurants specializing in the regional delicacies are often high in demand. Mon Hue, a big-city chain restaurant, has found success with their fast-food approach to Hue food. However, as most Vietnamese people will tell you, the best-tasting Hue food is only found in Hue. If that maxim rings true, then surely the best foods come from their origin.

What is Com Hen?

Com Hen Bun Hen Hue Grit Tour
Com Hen is arguably Hue’s finest export. It’s medley of rich textures and flavours means there’s something to everyone’s liking. The dish’s versatility comes in it’s unanimous appropriateness, there is never a wrong time to eat it. Breakfast, lunch, dinner and any time in between. Bowls can cost between 10,000VND – 20,000VND, it’s economical price allows people to eat as many bowls as they possibly can. Hueians who have left the city for work or study often return home to binge on the hen. One person now living in Danang once told me he would eat five bowls of com hen on return to Hue. It’s primary ingredient is hen (baby clams) that are caught off the muddy banks of the rivers and estuaries around the central region. Served on a bed of rice or bun (vermicelli), The dish’s supporting cast include a combination of saints and sinners. Fresh produce consists of starfruit, green mango, banana leaf and a variety of herbs. It’s indulgences are fried pork rind and peanuts. Chili relish, shrimp paste and fish sauce are the relishes frequently found on the table tops of com hen restaurants. Be warned! These sauces can be challenging for foreign visitors. Ask for ‘hen nuoc’ if you want a dish with a soupy warmth or ‘com kho’ if you prefer your dish more akin to a dry summer-salad. Everyone has their favourite place for com hen. Invite all hen fundamentalists to discuss the dish’s best restaurant and a conclusion is less likely to be reached than the reunification of Korea. Nevertheless, we’ve decided to focus this article on a restaurant where the setting is equally as majestic as the dish itself.

Com Hen Island: Microcosmic Serendipity

River Huong Com Hen island
Con Hen, meaning baby clam island, is joined by one solitary bridge from Hue’s Vy Da ward. The island’s social-economical make-up mainly comprises of generations’ worth of hen fisheries, farmers and restaurants selling hen related specialties. Hen island is inundated with restaurants selling the same dish, it’s hard to dispute that the home of com hen is anywhere but here. Com Hen Island’s size makes it ideal for walking around. Traffic is less troublesome than in other parts of the city. While there are plenty of restaurants to choose from , the island’s north side provides a few cafes to spend idling under shade while watching boats pass on the Huong river. In recent times, Com Hen island’s inhabitants have been under pressure to relocate as estate agents court hospitality groups to buy the land and develop resorts there. As for now, the island continues to receive a steady flow of Vietnamese tourists who go there to try the famous dish. It’s hard to pick a definitive com hen restaurant on the island without going through and trying every single one (I will do it! One day!) However, there is one restaurant that domestic tourists and denizens generally favor that has a few additional dishes of note. After speaking with the owner, It was hard not to include her restaurant in the article.

Hoa Dong: Com Hen Restaurant on Con Hen

Situated halfway down the west side of Hen island is Hoa Dong restaurant. The owner, Mrs Hoa, serves hen and other Hue-related dishes at a budget price with all the condiments and trimmings. Ingredients are prepared in the back of the building then stored at the restaurant’s front counter where you can watch your meal being put together.
The đặc biệt (specialty) includes extra large clams for an extra 5,000VND. Other dishes on the menu are hen chao (hen porridge), hen xao (hen salad with cracker), banh beo chen (rice cake topped with prawn and pork rind), cha (fish and pork cakes), nem (cured meat), banh loc (shrimp and pork dumpling) and trung cut (quail eggs).
As always, there’s an assortment of soft drinks and Huda beer available. Most interestingly are two homemade drinks that are slightly harder to come by in Vietnam. Firstly, a personal favourite, Ruou Nep Hue, a sweet wine made from sticky rice. Low in percentage and includes some spongy sweet fermented rice. The perfect afternoon drink on a hot day. Another drink worth investigating is sua dau phong, which translates as peanut milk!

Mrs Hoa of Hoa Dong Restaurant

Hoa Dong Com Hen
Hoa Dong restaurant is in it’s third generation on existence. Opened by her grandparents in the 1960’s, Hoa has grown up among a community whose livelihood is the popularity of com hen. As with most family-owned businesses, there is apprehension whether the next generation are willing to continue the family trade. As I spoke to Mrs Hoa, I couldn’t help but notice the Buddhist swastika tattooed in the centre of her collar bone. She explains that as a child she suffered from continuous head-splitting migraines. A local monk advised that she should have the swastika tattooed to remove the pain. Around 6 or 7, she followed the monk’s advice and the pain ceased to continue. Com hen has a debatable history. Some say it was once the food of the kings that resided here during the Nguyen Dynasty. Others believe it was the food of the working classes since clams were so widely available. Nevertheless, it’s a food with conflicting histories and enjoyed by the majority of Hue’s population. We asked Mrs Hoa about the origins of Hen in local cuisine but she seemed unsure: ‘I think…a man and a woman were on a boat and landed on the island. Upon liking the island, they began to search for forms of food and came across the clams in the river’s banks.’ Noticing the doubt in our facial expressions, she encouraged us to sought the knowledge of island elders who could give us a better insight.

Consulting the Village Elder

Con Hen Hue Grit Tour

After we left Hoa Dong restaurant, we darted down alleyways in search of a man called Duc, an octogenarian born and raised on the island. It took a lot of hunting but we eventually found Mr Duc taking his post-lunch nap. A lot of the information in the following paragraphs was what Mr Duc told us and while it seems sometimes conflicting, we interpreted our conversation with other resources in a vain attempt at accurate reporting. God save us.

The mythology of Com Hen Island

Hue grit Tour Ruou Nep
Hen Island lies to the east of the citadel. Further up the river sits Da Vien island. During the Nguyen Dynasty, the last reign of Vietnamese emperors, royalty and citadel dwellers believed that the two islands represented a dragon and a tiger. According to ancient the Chinese belief of Feng Shui, these animals embody the polarity of gendered energies. The physical might of the two animals push against each other in stalemate, creating harmony around them. In this case, Con Hen (the dragon) and Con Da Vien (the tiger) represent these forces and provide spiritual prosperity for the citadel which sits between them both.

The History of Com Hen Island

Extra dishes at Hoa Dong Com Hen
The Nguyen Dynasty relocated the country’s capital to Hue around 1802. It’s first emperor, Gia Long, ordered the construction of the Citadel on the grounds of Phu Xuan village. The villagers were pushed out of the construction’s boundaries. On demanding compensation, Emperor Gia Long offered the villagers some land surrounding the citadel. Some of these villagers made residence upon Com Hen island and began farming water buffalo there. The island also hosted rituals when livestock was slaughtered for sacrificial offerings to deities. The Phu Xuan villagers would eventually use the banks of Con Hen for fishing and came upon the benefits of clams as a food source. The alluvial deposits in the island’s banks provided the perfect habitat for shellfish to breed. Given that The villagers were peasantry, they were resourceful in their creation of com hen; using local herbs, fruit and rice leftover from previous meals. Over time, the popularity of com hen spread throughout Hue and eventually across the country.

Com Hen Island Today

Com Hen island Hue Grit Tour

The construction of the nearby Thao Long dam has deprived Con Hen of the brackish waters once used for clam farming. Nowadays, Com Hen Island imports it’s mussels from nearby fisheries. It is also the primary distributor for the city’s hen restaurants. However, the island’s restaurants keep to true to com hen’s original recipe. Chefs cook the rice early in the morning to imitate a ‘leftover’ texture. Local herbs and fruits dress the dish and continues to be affordable for everyone in the city.

Where to Eat Com Hen

Hoa Dong restaurant Com Hen epicentre as mentioned above, a popular restaurant for locals and tourists alike. Mrs Hoa is a great host. Some great side dishes on the menu like banh beo and drinks like ruou nep. Always my ‘go to’ when showing friends and family around. Includes English menu Hoa Dong Restaurant Open 6:30-20:00 64 Kiệt 7 Ưng Bình, Quan Gai Backpacker’s Reach Attached to a side of a house. Plastic chairs and tables. Cheap as it gets. Just off the backpacker area and a stone’s throw fro Cafe 054 and Thanh Lieu vegetarian restaurant. Good taste and as real as it gets. Plastic roof keeps you safe from the rain. Quan Gai Open 06:00-15:00 53 Nguyen Cong Tru Quan Nho Undiscovered Grit Gem I was really surprised when a visiting friend showed me Quan Nho. Dingy shack with a rapid turnaround of local customers. Many highlights including: a menu with Japanese translations, the ability to eat right up and close with the cooks and a beautiful condiment blend of shrimp and chili paste. Strictly a morning affair. Quan Nho Open 06:00-10:00 28 Pham Hong Thai Special thanks to Grit brethren Phuoc Tai for taking to time translate some articles and speak to Mr Duc for the purpose of this post. Fab photos by Ana ‘twinkle toes’ Fortuna Have tried Com Hen yet? Where is your favourite restaurant? Comment below.

Mi Op La 33: Best Vietnamese Breakfast Restaurant in Hue

Mi Op La 33: The ‘Full-English’ Vietnamese Breakfast!

best Vietnamese breakfast Hue Grit Tour
Birdseye view of the first floor during Tet Holiday.

Any visitor who likes a drink will find out that Vietnam has some of the cheapest beer in the world. Following that evening of small serendipity will be the second realization that tropical hangovers are brutal. Read more “Mi Op La 33: Best Vietnamese Breakfast Restaurant in Hue”

Five Fantastic Vegan and Vegetarian Restaurants in Hue

Updated October 2018: We’ve found a few new places that definitely deserve to be on the list.

Vegetarian Restaurants in Hue

Vegetarians and vegans  travelling Vietnam may be surprised that the country has a plethora of restaurants to suit all meat-free diets.Twice a month, the population will go to their local meat-free restaurant to gorge on vegetables and tofu. Restaurants on the ‘pancake trail’ serve some really shitty meat-free dishes, fact. After living in Ho Chi Minh City and Danang, Hue has provided me with the variety I desire and a few surprises too. I’m not sure why there are so many vegetarian restaurants in Hue, maybe something to do with the city’s age-old culture and affluence from both the upper and middle classes. A large percentage of street-side restaurants also turn veg every month on the 1st and 15th of the lunar calendar. Look for signs including ‘chay’ (with absolutely no accents on the word) on these days to get a budget fill.

vegetarian restaurants in Hue Grit Tour
Despite his clean-living lifestyle, Buddha has been unable to hit the gym for some cardio since being trapped behind a barricade of potted plants.

Read more “Five Fantastic Vegan and Vegetarian Restaurants in Hue”