I would be concerned if travellers to Vietnam omitted Huế from their itinerary. While much of the historical architecture is listed under UNESCO's World Heritage Convention and is described as "an exceptional specimen of late feudal urban planning", the frail decline of Vietnam's old capital is also very 'walk-on-able', so tangible that I can run my fingers along its cracks. There is an obvious majesty to the four citadels and the tombs of the Nguyen Emperors that deserves a place on postcards and package tours. But the aesthetic of universal dilapidation - of mould and atrophy, of weeds emerging from broken tiles, of warped tin awnings and rusted iron trellis - is the second best attraction of this city.
The first, of course, is food, for which Huế also provides a monumental itinerary.
And for one stop on that itinerary, a taxi ride slightly out of town is required. Much of everything else on Huế's streetfood tables can be acquired on foot. Regardless of your mode of transport, vestiges of the city's history punctuate the journey to any next food stop. Out along the Perfume River, on route to noodles, oriental archways and temple structures in various states of disrepair go by in a blur.
Out of the taxi and up a neighbourhood alleyway, one of Huế's most renowned noodle houses - a blue and green space that extends into an airy courtyard out back - puts food on immovable concrete tables that dazzles in appearance and taste. The dish that the establishment gets most of its kudos for is a southern and central Vietnamese standard, bún thịt nướng.
In a vague way, this dish is a central and southern iteration of Hanoi's lunch favourite, bún chả, albeit fully constructed and the pork substituted for beef. The compelling feature of both dishes is smoky-flavoured charred protein. Lemongrass figures prominently in the marination of the beef here, and is a characteristic aromatic of central Vietnamese food in general. In Hanoi's bún chả, grilled pork is served submerged with thin wedges of young papaya and carrot in heated nước chấm, vermicelli (bún) noodles, lettuce and herbs on the side. It's a dish that the eater reconstructs. With bún thịt nướng the dish comes ready to eat with all components in the bowl, though some vendors will serve the nước chấm on the side.
In this bowl here in Huế, the vendor's 36 year mastery of the dish means it is set down in front of the customer confidently perfect, sauce already in. I take the first bite with my eyes. The aesthetic of the dish promises much; I see leaves of mint and lettuce, crunchy pickled strings of radish, papaya, carrot and banana flower, bean sprouts white and sweet, rounds of cucumber, noodles glossy and loosened with sauce and the juice of the beef. And that beef has a fatty sheen and a dusting of pulverised peanuts. After tossing, the first bite with the mouth more than matches that taken with the eyes.
It would have been a two bowl sitting if it weren't for the plate load of bánh ướt thịt nướng already gone south. Similar to another Hanoi dish, phở cuốn, sheets of soft rice noodle are loosely rolled around the same grilled beef, lettuce and herbs to form a Huế version of a fresh spring roll. As with all spring rolls, sauce is essential to the experience. A standard nước chấm is given Central Vietnam treatment with lemongrass and searing green chili. I add garlic, too. And I dip and double-dip my rolls, dousing each mouthful liberally. This is allowed in Vietnam.
Missing these dishes, this eatery, missing Huế in a trip to Vietnam is most definitely not allowed.
Bún Thịt Nướng Huyền Anh
52/1 Kim Long St