Hue: places to dine and take coffee like an emperor

(No.9, Vol.2, Sep 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

The principal reason for a visit to the ancient capital of Hue has to be to see its historical attractions. Secondly, the city is renowned for its culinary delights. If you are seeking to combine these two activities I can recommend a brace of venues which are under the same family management. Together, they provide settings to enjoy food and beverage that combine traditional architecture with original buildings and ornamentation. One has the loveliest riverside setting in the city and is a great place for a true Vietnamese breakfast or to drink coffee or tea with family and friends throughout the day or at evening time. The other is an ideal location to enjoy lunch or dinner in a hall fit for an emperor.

Photo: Vy Da Xua Cafe

First there is Vy Da Xua. Vy Da is the name of a city ward slightly away from the main areas a visitor is likely to frequent. It is connected to the central south bank area by a causeway that blocks the confluence of the pretty Green River with the Perfume River. ‘Xua’ could be translated as ‘of former times’ or ‘the olden days’. It could be a good place to get in contact with locals other than those who are out to earn your tourist dollar. It is divided into three sections. First there is a traditional community house of around two hundred years that has been restored and rescued from a country village. This is surrounded by an outdoor rock garden with stone statues and large bonsais in glazed ceramic pots. Then there is a hardwood pillared hall with open doorways that takes right back to the glory times of the Emperors in their citadel. Finally, at the rear, chairs and tables are arranged at the leafy waterfront. This is the place I personally like to sit at the most. Here you see only half the Perfume River as you face a wooded islet in its middle. This for me make for a darker and more intimate river view then one gets from the central areas of town. There are steps down to a mooring and one day I should like to arrive here by launch.
There is usually a lively scene at Vy Da Xua at breakfast time. Breakfast is the only full meal catered for here. All the famous Vietnamese breakfasts are on the menu from the various rice noodle soup dishes (Pho) to famed Hue beef noodle soup (Bun Bo Hue) which despite its name, should include a pork chop. If you want something closer to a Western ‘brekkie’ try the ‘Banh mi op la’ or fried eggs with baguette which traditionally comes with soya and chilli sauces. If you are in Hue as a tourist, there can be no better way to put you in the mood for sightseeing of the Hue Citadel or Royal Mausoleums. If I lived in Hue this is where I would hold business breakfasts or even in Pickwickian style have my Breakfast Club.

Khai Hoan Com Nieu Restaurant
Photo: Pip De Rouvray

Leaving Vy Da ward and shortly after crossing the causeway back into the more familiar tourist parts of the city, you will shortly come to the Khai Hoan restaurant. This is the place to enjoy lunch and dinner in replica Ancient Imperial Hue decor. From the street you see a modern wedding/function hall. The actual restaurant is behind. Just take the alley to the side and you will soon find yourself stepping back in time. You pass under an ornate ancient gateway and into a garden with rockery, bonsais and a fountain similar to the one at Vy Da Xua. There in front of you is a majestic hallway that looks as if it has been transposed from the forbidden Purple City. This houses the restaurant. With its clay tile vault and its lofty colonnades of black hard wood pillars (I counted forty two of them) it has a cathedral like feel. It also tastefully decorated with large china jars and intricate wood carvings on the walls. There is traditional music here and if you really want to go the whole hog you can request to dine in regal robes.
I sat down to an early dinner here. The menu is extensive and there are plenty of Western dishes. Listed to name were ‘Fish ‘n Chips’, ‘Saltimbucca a la Romana’. ‘Filet Mignon’ and ‘Hamburgers’, to name but a few. However in such surroundings I felt only Vietnamese cuisine would be appropriate.
For a starter I had a sour catfish broth cooked with herbs known by the long name of ‘Canh ca bong the nau thom’ for VND60,000. I continued on the fish note with steamed salted mullet (Ca doi hap). This was cooked with scallions shredded carrot and parsley at VND65,000. It contained roe, which I love, and in this fish is particularly delicious. For further vegetable accompaniment, I had stir fried water morning glory with garlic at VND35,000. For the cereal element, I chose the ‘com nieu’ - rice cooked in clay pot really packing in the flavour and compact enough to eat easily with chopsticks. I was delighted that they had Tiger beer on draught. Three of these at only VND18,000 a glass was enough to satisfy my thirst. I had dined and drunk for around a very reasonable VND200,000 in total or roughly $10 only!
I am pleased to report that this is, as is the case of ‘Vy Da Xua’, a place favoured by local people. A Vietnamese family was there celebrating a birthday. Everybody seemed to be present in a group of about twenty from grandparents to maybe a month old baby and they all appeared to be having a rollicking good time.
These two then are my recommendations of where to go in Hue to enjoy food and beverage in a truly Ancient Imperial ambiance. Service, food and drinks are all excellent and the prices are amazingly reasonable. This no kitschy, glitzy show put on for the tourists. Everything is authentic and in the best of taste. Real local people patronise these two gems and this could be a good place to meet some or least watch them at play. They are just a little bit hidden away from the more obvious places to please your palate and stomach in this wonderful old Vietnamese city.

Vy Da Xua Cafe
131 Nguyen Sinh Cung St, Hue
Tel: (054) 3827-131
Hours 6.30 to 23.00

Khai Hoan Com Nieu Restaurant
90-94 Le Loi St, Hue
Tel (054) 3837-827
Hours 9 a.m. to 10.30 p.m.

By Pip de Rouvray
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