Don’t you just love a good gorge?
Imagine arriving in a new country for the first time and getting such a fantastic feeling that you just can’t stop smiling.
We are totally smitten within 5 hours of landing. The challenge of navigating Taipei airport, purchasing a SIM card and finding the right train – on time – from a mass of platforms/train lines was no challenge at all and here we are in Hualien grinning like we have just won the lottery.
Unusually perhaps, Hualien was our first stop in Taiwan. Without doubt, Taroko Gorge is stunning, justifiably popular for all the beautiful scenery and walking trails in the national park area. What we did not expect was all the other reasons to enjoy Hualien.
1. Fun Themes
Incredibly hospitable hosts with a unique take on decoration is normal. What fun ! Surrounded by rabbits and drinking the best (oolong) tea, I felt like Alice as she slipped down the rabbit hole. Next-door paid homage to the Queen of England, down the road were cats and comic book heros. Our train here was “Hello Kitty” themed. It’s impossible not to smile.
2. That “Top Gun” feeling
3. Night markets
Great for food and interesting entertainment. And the biggest watermelons known to man.
4. Qingshi Cliffs
25km north, (just past Taroko) are the tall sheer cliffs leading down to the turquoise waters of the Pacific Ocean. Walking to the viewing point hear the tiny singing frogs and spot a wild monkey in the branches that spill down the hillside to the (wide) walkway.
5. Cycle ride to the black stone beach (Cisingtan Beach)
Only 10 mins from the city. Smooth black stones, warm enough for a hot stone massage.
6. Jici Beach
This is the locals favourite spot for swimming, surfing and romantic dates. A lovely drive down to the sheltered cove with a black sand beach.
7. The dumplings…
A little worried initially that we would not be able to read any menus (we can’t), now much more concerned we will leave Taiwan looking like dumplings ourselves – they are that good in Hualien.
Borrow a bike to work off those dumplings. Use the cycle paths in and around Hualien to enjoy the town and it’s many sights. For the energetic, there is a long coastal bike trail, dotted with campsites.
9. Scenic Coastal Drive
The roads are empty and the views stunning. Fishing villages and aboriginal towns dot the highway. The natural scenery is jaw dropping beautiful with plenty of viewing platforms to gaze upon gorges, mountains, rivers, pacific beaches, rice paddies. Car hire was easy and not expensive.
10. Photographers paradise
If your camera is not exhausted by now, the parks and temples offer plenty more opportunities to capture the colours and culture of this beautiful, diverse town. Save time for the harbor area too.
48 hours hours after arriving, we have already decided to return to Taiwan very soon. Taroko National Park and the East Coast Scenic Drive were great days out and we will post some more photos and travel information on these soon.
Sometimes you just feel an instant affinity with a new place as soon as you arrive. It was like that for us in Taipei.
Our home for the next three days would be the rabbit themed – The Holland Windmill B&B – one of the quirkiest places in which we have stayed.
Watching a fish cross the road was not something I expected to see, but there it was heading straight towards us, using its fins to ‘walk’ across the road. The streetside market vendor caught and returned it, but at that moment two giant frogs escaped and started piggybacking along the kerb. The frogs were shackled, but this did not stop them making a bid for freedom, one on the others back, hopping along the road. Entertaining as it was for us, the vendor seemed completely unperturbed. Dodging bicycles to chase fish crossing the road is just part of her working day.
Wandering around a local food market is always interesting to us. In Hue I prefer the market at Ben Ngu, to the more well known Dong Ba market. At Ben Ngu vendors finely chop the handmade noodles with large hand hewn cleavers, others patiently pick tiny leaves off of stalks or deftly strip a single (lotus) stem into 6 pieces to fill a bowl of curled pieces ready for the busy housewife, restaurants and the food stalls within the market.
Walking fish and wandering frogs aside, the food scene in Hue is quite unique. Hue makes much noise about the local specialities, which are generally bite-sized dishes, Bun Bo Hue excepted. The reputation as a culinary center dates back a few hundred years, when the emperors of the day lived around these parts and Hue was a functioning, governing Imperial City. Sadly, poor interpretations of some fabulous specialities abound, especially in the tourist heavy areas of town. Luckily we have friends here who have guided us toward the places that the locals think are great. Mostly we found ourselves surrounding by chattering Vietnamese eating food of an entirely different quality and at totally different prices than in the big restaurants packed with foreigners. No prizes for guessing which was the tastiest and the cheapest! All prices are as at June 2017 (USD1 = VND24,000 and GBP1 = VND29,000) and should be treated as a guide. You can certainly eat a good meal for around these prices.
The Street food scene in Hue is well worth checking out too and I have included some notes at the end of this post.
Also known as Banh Xeo, Happy Pancake or Hue Pancake. Popular and available all over Vietnam, it’s essentially a fast food item. Hue holds the honor of being the birthplace of Banh Khoai and the only area in the world that grows the type of green fig (Trai Va) that is considered an essential accompaniment. Also alongside will be a warm peanut sauce, Lettuce and fresh herb leaves. The traditional way of eating is to take a piece of pancake into your bowl, add a little of everything else, mix and eat with your chopsticks. The pancake is made from rice flour, coconut milk and turmeric and is folded around a bed of beansprouts, prawn, pork slices, pork meatloaf and a pork meatball.
Where : Lac Thien, 6 Dinh Tien Hoang Street (watch out for the copycat next door). Open all day and early evening. It’s popular with locals and tourists, but, in our opinion offers the best Banh Khaoi in town (we tried loads!).
Price Guide : VND 25,000
Traditional Hue food falls into two categories, that of the royal cuisine and that of the commoners. Com Hen is a a low priced dish originally enjoyed by poor fishing families, although today it can’t be found in expensive restaurants worldwide. To call it a clam and rice salad is a blatant understatement as it is a complex dish with many flavours, including peanuts, herbs (including mint and coriander) and chili. Piquancy is added with underripe starfruit. Fermented shrimp sauce and taro are tucked in there too, along with a host of other flavours. A successful dish will have a variety of textures and the full range of salty, spicy, sweet and sour as you munch your way through. Always served at room temperature and often with Banh Trang Me.
Where : Along the riverside road of Han Mac Tu.
Price Guide : VND30,000
Banh Canh combines thick noodles and fresh crab meat in a delicious soup. An open fronted unassuming eatery is the longest standing crab noodle place in Hue, loved by the locals and still dishing up the same recipe perfected 20 years ago, by the same family. It is busiest in the afternoons, but is open all day. A big pot of very crabby broth sits by the front entrance, the only indication of what is on the one dish menu. Fresh tapioca noodles and fresh crab meat are added to the individual bowls. The proprietor here prefers the local lagoon crabs, which are smaller and sweeter than the larger more common larger sea-faring crabs seen in the market with their pincers tied together. I don’t know how many crabs are needed for one bowl of soup, but I can confirm there was plenty of the succulent crab meat in my bowl, at a bargain price.
Where : Ngas, 32 Pham Hing Thai Street (open all day)
Price Guide : VND20,000
Banh Trang Me
More of a snack than a meal, it is a giant crispy rice cracker bigger than a dinner plate, similar to a really good poppadum in texture but without the oil. It can be plain or topped with any number of things, I like the standard black sesame seeded version.
You can find them from street vendors and in bars or markets. For us, the perfect combo is to have a cold beer with a Banh Trang. Choose whether you want to overlook the river or count the motorbikes driving at night without lights. These local bars are next door to each other, so you could do both. Beer prices are among the cheapest in town!
Where : Quan Dap Da (Opens at 4pm), or next door Quan Nahum Phuong Uyen (from 6pm). 130 Le Loi Street.
Price guide : VND10,000 (Beers VND 8,000)
Nem Lui is made with pork meat, minced and moulded around a lemongrass stalk, before being grilled, preferably over charcoal. Quality and quantity varies tremendously. Sometimes the pork is mixed with beef. The lemongrass flavor should be infused into the meat, which is also seasoned with fish sauce and garlic. It is “hands on” meal. Starting with a rice paper wrap, add the greenery, the the Nem Lui, roll, grip and then pull out and discard the lemongrass. Dip in the sauce and enjoy.
Where : Tai Phu, 2 Dien Bien Phu (open all day to 10pm)
Price Guide : VND 40,000 (10 sticks)
These little delicacies are part of the Royal Emperor legacy. Steamed in tiny dishes, the full name is Banh Beo Chen. The base is a rice paste, which is cooked in steam in the individual dishes, then topped with shredded dried shrimp, crispy pork crackling and a sprinkle of herbs. The sauce for seasoning is Nuoc Mam Pha, a sweetened fish sauce.
Where : Ba Do restaurant, 7 Nguyen Binh Khiem (Open day and evening)
Price Guide : VND50,000 (12 dishes, half portions available)
Bun Bo Hue
Finding the best bun bo Hue in Hue is either an early morning start or a evening excursion to hunt down a bowl of the delicious spicy broth that the town gave its name to. Street vendors and small “quans” win hands down for quality of the stock, simmering great huge vats of bones for 6 hours minimum – sometimes all night/day in order to get the depth of flavour in their broth. I don’t make the rules : I just want my Bun Bo to be as fabulous as I know it can be. There are so many variations – I am told the old and current versions of bun bo are different in terms of ingredients, spices and accompanying vegetables and all kinds are available in Hue. The only constant, and strange fact, is that “bo” (Beef) is not the basis of the stock, which is mostly pork. The vermicelli in your soup will likely be joined by cha cua (crab paste), cha (Vietnamese pork sausage), along with blood cubes and meat.
Unlike its cousins in other places, bun bo in Hue is more spicy and less sweet. The spiciness comes from not only the extract of lemongrass and chili added to the broth to make it red, but also chili sauce and chili pieces in fish sauce. The sellers often also add a large pinch if chili powder to the bowl of bun bo before serving too. There is such high diversity in bun bo in Hue, trying them is a education in itself.
Where : Mornings – Quan Cam, 38 Tran Cao Van(6am-10am) is popular. The intersection of Truong Dinh and Pham Hong Thai streets is also a good spot – many excellent local ladies here. Or try the perimeters of the Dong Ba market – just look in the pot and choose a busy stall. Or under the trees
Evening – (after 7pm ) Street vendor on Tran Hung Dai, between Dinh Thi Diem and Phu Xuan Bridge.
Price Guide : VND15,000-20,000
Street Food Markets in Hue
As with many towns, development is rife and street food is being slowly edged outwards from the central locations. A couple of my favorite vendors have had to relocate as the builders move in and start work. However, all is not lost. There are still good street food places to be found selling some great local and national dishes, all within easy walking or cycling distance. As for the frogs and fish, I mentioned earlier, look for hotpots in the markets, at street stalls and family run local restaurants.
There’s a stretch of road leading down to the Big C Supermarket that is home to a small food market in the afternoons, selling local snack food and soups. Here you can try many favorites such bot chien, as well as rice wrapped parcels filled with a surprising variety of choices (located on Ba Trieu, between To Hun and Trong Chinh).
At dusk, a night food market sets up under the eaves of the Trong Tien bridge, south side. Here is a great spot by the Perfume River to try Bun Thit Nuong, Com Hen (clams), Fresh Spring Rolls, Oc (snails) and the fabulously colored purple sticky rice and other interesting desserts which are collectively known as “sweet soups” (Che).
Another good area for street food is about 30 minute walk into the local residential area of Hue along the road Pham Van Dong until you get to thetriangle park area T the junction with Luu Huu Phuoc.
It has taken us several visits and many weeks to start to understand where we could find good food in Hue. Let us know how you get on!
One last thought : For a bit of fun with a snack, chase down a mobile street vendor. Usually with a charcoal brazier attached to a bike, the food is always super cheap and often great way to try something new.
My thanks to Pham Thi Thu Hien, at Phong Nha Farmstay who spent 4 years at university in Hue and helped enormously checking this post.
Arguably Vietnam’s most evocative Cham site; certainly it’s most famous.