Hue is a slow-burn town. While Vietnam’s former imperial capital is certainly beautiful (the flame trees lining the boulevards could make a grown man swoon), it’s also sleepy and standoffish, more village than city. There’s an upside to this: a short bike ride out from the center will bring you into the unkempt wilderness, where only cicadas break the silence. But even downtown isn’t much livelier. And though Hue figures into plenty of travelers’ itineraries — for its magnificent Citadel, pagodas, and imperial tombs — many find it tough to crack.
Hue is renowned for its elaborate cuisine, developed by the skilled cooks of the royal court. Legend has it that the Nguyen kings, who ruled a united Vietnam from Hue in the 19th century, refused to eat the same meal twice in a year, so their cooks came up with hundreds of distinct, visually arresting dishes (most using the same few dozen ingredients). This tradition endures in the local craze for dainty, flower-like dumplings and cakes such as Banh beo, which aesthetically own much to China and Japan, Banh beo is an acquired taste, a bit too gluey.
The highlight in Hue, however, was a three-hour dinner at the royal garden (Hoang Vien), opened in March 2010 by the painter and chef Boi Tran in a restored French-colonial house. In an open-walled dining pavilion, long teak tables are set with vases of yellow roses: an ideal setting for a modern take on Hue cuisine, presented with appropriate flourishes, like Vietnamese kaiseki. “Shrimp with five tastes” was reminiscent of Thai tom yum koong, with a single, plump pink prawn swimming in a consommé spiced with Kaffir lime leaf, lemongrass, chili, shallot, and ginger. Each flavor came through brilliantly. The Hoang Vien’s nem ran (pork, shrimp, and mushroom spring rolls) were shrouded in wispy golden threads of fried rice paper and accompanied by a salad of rose petals. Across five more courses, all presented on exquisite china from Bat Trang, the famed pottery village outside Hanoi, Boi Tran took the precious formality of Hue cuisine to a new place, where the pleasure of pure flavor, not mere visual dazzle, was primary.