Barcelona has its colourful La Boqueria, Budapest has its atmospheric Great Market Hall, San Francisco its beautiful Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, whilst over here in Hue, there is the unmissable Chợ Đông Ba. This is where it’s all at, where market producers and farmers from all over the regions surrounding the former imperial city of Hue converged upon this one bustling spot on the south-east corner of the old city outside the Citadel, to sell their wares. And this is where we came last Friday morning to seek sustenance. There was so much activity as the vendors streamed in, most with their wares in baskets borne on shoulder yokes:
Everything looked so fresh and vibrant!
The obligatory Ho Chi Minh lookalike which we seemed to run into every now and then:
The crowd started to build up as the morning wore on, reaching a crescendo at around 8am to 9am:
We were told that we could find the best street foods at Chợ Đông Ba in the mornings, for that was when the sampans from Cồn Hến (Mussel Isle) rowed over, carrying the famed women vendors purveying the city’s famous cơm hến (rice with baby clams), whilst their counterparts from the An Cựu district would come bearing the best bún bò Huế in town.
Bé Tố for bún bò Huế - this popular little stall was run by a one-woman tour de force - she hummed along with quiet efficiency: pouring hot broth onto the noodles for bún bò Huế, grilled the nem lụi (pork on skewers), garnished the bún thịt nướng (rice noodles with grilled pork).
The bún bò Huế was more-ish, lightly spiced and with a pronounced lemongrass flavour that we liked. Particularly enjoyed the blood pudding, which was firmer than the ones we get in Malaysia. You couldn’t find blood pudding anymore in Singapore since the govt. ban back in 1999. The pork balls here were supple, much firmer than the ones I had elsewhere.
Her nem lụi, freshly-grilled off the brazier, was dripping with flavours. There’s no beating street food here in Hue, where everything’s big in flavour.
The bún thịt nướng actually suited my palate more than her more popular bún bò Huế - the grilled pork was aromatic, the nước mam fish sauce deliciously dull & heavy, with the fresh crunch from the vegetables and peanuts complementing the moist, softness of the rice noodles perfectly.
Bún nghệ, turmeric noodles with pig’s intestines, pig’s liver and fresh basil leaves. THIS dish was my food discovery for this Hue trip, and was the most memorable dish I’d had for the past week. Appearance-wise and taste-wise, it was almost exactly like something out of Penang’s Nyonya cuisine repertoire, and so unlike the rest of the Vietnamese fare I’d had thus far.
The blanched noodles were coloured yellow using turmeric, and looked like the Hokkien noodles of my food culture. The delicious pig’s liver and intestines (two of my fave pig parts) were stir-fried with spices with chilis and basil: when it came to street food here, if it ain’t got chili, then it AIN’T Hue food, simple as that.
But the clincher for this dish was that big dollop of orange dressing which the vendor nonchalantly plopped atop the bowl of noodles, to be stirred in by the diner, besides fresh basil leaves and a smear of tongue-searing chili paste. That orange dollop was like the essence of Penang Nyonya cooking: fresh turmeric, fresh galangal, fresh lemongrass, chilis, fermented fish (or maybe fermented shrimp paste, I’m pretty sure she’s not telling), The flavours danced on my tongue, it awakened olfactory senses long dormant, my palate was like Krakatoa which just came alive again!
After the bún nghệ, we walked around the market to give our tummies a respite before we resume our food safari. The variety of stuff they sold in there was astonishing. Émile Zola called Les Halles “The Belly of Paris”. I wished for Monsieur Zola to have seen Chợ Đông Ba - he would have been mightily impressed. This place was not just “the belly”, this was like the entire digestive system of Hue, from the tongue to the salivary glands to the bladder!
One of the parts which impressed me the most - and perhaps the part with the most assertive odour (malodour to some) was the section dedicated to the different kinds of mắm (fermented fish) and tom chua (sour shrimp).
Mắm has a special position in Hue cuisine. There are various kinds of mắm and different ways of cooking it. There are mắm made from mullet, crab-roe, mackerel, or tuna - expensive delicacies created for royalty and the aristocratic classes during the Nguyen dynasty. Today, these are regarded as the luxury food specialities of Hue.
Then, there are the more common mam used in everyday dishes like mắm thinh ca chuon, mắm môi, mắm nem, mắm muc, mắm ruoc, etc. Mắm and fish sauce can be found everywhere in Vietnam, but no one could process them into various delicacies better than the people of Hue.
We’re now onto dessert - there were three competing chè stalls here side-by-side, the rows of little plastic red stools belonging to the three stalls have some sort of invisible demarcation lines. Step into the area of the stall you are not patronising and be prepared for a tongue-lashing from the annoyed proprietress!
Anyway, I plonked down (delicately, I must say, to prevent the plastic stool’s 4 tiny legs from splaying outwards in four directions, leaving me sitting flat on the floor!), and pointed out to the vendor which chè I wanted her to mix-and-match for me: banana in coconut milk, yellow lentils and creamed corn. She added an extra spoonful of thick coconut milk atop the concoction for me - this is what sets Hue’s chè apart from the ones you get up north in Hanoi, for you won’t get coconut milk-enriched chè up there. The Hanoians don’t know what they are missing!
The mixture was suitably mucousy and slimey, but hit all the right spots for me!
The carb-heavy meal began to take a toll on us. We decided to end our sojourn with a glass of local iced coffee (cà phê sữa đá). The tiny little pushcart purveying the coffee was wedged between two marinated-snail-vendors. Interesting, but we did not have any more stomach space, save for the coffee.
Chợ Đông Ba is the kind of place one can come again, and again and again, and have a different experience each time. There was so much going on every other minute. And I really need to come back for more of its street food.
Opening hours: 6am to 6pm, but try and come in the early mornings, where more things are happening.