The legendary Vietnamese poet Hàn Mạc Tử once wrote these famous lines:
“Sao anh khong về chơi thôn Vĩ ?
Nhìn nắng hàng cau nắng mới lên.
Vườn ai mướt quá xanh như ngọc
Lá trúc che ngang mặt chữ điền…”
This excerpt from Đây Thôn Vĩ Dạ, illustrates the beauty of Central Vietnam. The first line is an invitation, asking the reader why he does not visit a little Central Vietnamese hamlet, so he can witness the dawn’s early rays hitting the lush vines of the the betel leaves growing in the jade-green garden, while the swaying bamboo leaves shade the eyes, the face… Hàn Mạc Tử is something of the Vietnamese Tennyson with his beautiful and romantic verses. He hailed from Central Viet Nam, and on my trip home in 2007, I was lucky enough to experience first-hand the beautiful landscapes of Miền Trung, or Central Viet Nam. Even luckier, I got to EAT all the foods of Central Viet Nam.
Lotus blossom on the banks of Song Huong.
Geographically speaking, Central Viet Nam is the worst place to habitat – the lowlands are prone to annual flooding, and as a result, the soil is constantly stripped of nutrients. In many regions, the climate tends to be harsh, veering on the side of hot and arid, and the lack of trees and other foliage really don’t help things. Even so, I find this part of Viet Nam stunning. So much of Viet Nam’s 5,000 year history occurred here, and remnants of those times are still present today. Grand tombs, elaborate temples, and majestic palaces abound. In particular, vestiges of Viet Nam’s last dynasty (1802-1945 about) are well preserved, and ever-popular for the sight-seer. Central Viet Nam’s largest city and ancient capital is Hue – where Kinh Do, or the Imperial City is located. Right through this large city runs Song Huong, or the Perfume River, which meanders through the Valley of Emperors, en route to all the Nguyen emperor tombs (Lang Minh Mang, Gia Long, Tu Duc, Khai Dinh, etc). More like small palaces for the dead.
In addition to its rich history, Hue is known for its distinct food. In a region not naturally blessed with abounding resources like Southern Viet Nam, the people of Miền Trung have learned to coax the land and make the best out of it – and it IS the best! Traditional Hue food includes rice-flour and tapioca-flour based dumplings and cakes. Banh it tran and banh it ram are good examples, filled with salted meats and mung bean, basic ingredients that are affordable and highly accessible. If they aren’t found in these dumpling forms, you can also find banh beo from any of the street vendors and restaurants lining the streets of Hue. Banh beo is a similar rice flour cake that is topped (rather than stuffed) with a thinly shredded shrimp topping, and like all Vietnamese foods, eaten with nuoc mam (fish sauce).
In addition to these lighter options, Central Viet Nam is home of the famous Banh Khoai – a fragrant (from the tumeric) rice batter deep fried until crispy and delicious. Think of it as a… crunchy pancake filled with bean sprouts, onions, and various meats. Typically eaten wrapped in a lettuce leaf, this is another companion for nuoc mam. Don’t mind the fat – just TRY it, and you will forgive the copious amounts of oil this is fried in. My mouth and tummy were soo happy to eat this that afterwards, I begged the staff to let me have a try of making it as well. Yes, I am quite a spectacle, but they are very friendly in Hue, so don’t be afraid to ask questions and well… be a tourist.
It’s been a little over a year since this trip, and the details are starting to blur a little. This entry stemmed from a weird hankering, of not being able to put this trip behind me. I all too often catch myself longing for the foods and the people, particularly in Hue. Call me crazy. The image that Han Mac Tu painted is beautiful (above), but at the same time haunting, as it forces that memory to linger within me. But I hope this short overview of Central Viet Nam whet your appetite and awakened the adventurer in you, and perhaps our paths will cross on the Perfume River, or at the Thien Mu Pagoda. Until soon, foodies and travelers!
Humbly off the beaten path,