The rain would not let up, but Quyen insisted on making the trek from Đà Nẵng to Huế.
“Do you want the fast route or the scenic route?”
Quyen grew up in Việt Nam and after a few years working abroad, he returned as an adult with three hundred dollars, his backpack, and no clear destination – back to what Joe calls, the motherland. Our first morning in Đà Nẵng he walked along the beach and straight into the sea and came back with a smile. I love when someone loves a place, it just makes me want to love it too, even up scary windy roads and into mountains covered in dense layers of fog. We chose the long route.
When we made it through the Hải Vân pass and safely into the town on the other side, the driver told us that we would take a break at a rest stop. When we arrived, cars lined the front, someone was juicing large green oranges on the side, and red plastic chairs were filled with people sitting along narrow metal tables. .
“We have two choices – boiled pork or roasted pork.”
If only life were this simple all the time. When I returned from washing my hands, plates of food lined the table.
Ribbons of soft steamed rice cake topped with fried shallots – one heaping serving per person. Roast pork belly neatly sliced and coiled on several plates. Sides of bean sprouts, lettuce, whole chilis and garlic bulbs. Bowls of nước mắm and chili paste. It was an incredible bite – savory, crisp, and soothing all at the same time. We descended into a happy, quiet meditation.
When we arrived in Huế, it continued to rain but we pressed on. At the Imperial Palace, we put on our ponchos, opened our umbrellas, and walked very slowly – a great excuse to stay close to Joe the entire time. It was all beautiful. Even in the rain the earthy reds and royal yellows managed to shine through.
Quyen and Joe knew the history without the guides. We never found the bullet holes but the damage this Imperial City endured from the French, the Americans and the Việt Cộng is still visible.
For many, a trip to Huế consists of visiting the Imperial Palace or taking a ride along the river that runs through the city – the water a little too close to the edges of the banks and beside the roads we crossed. We drove through small streets.
One street was filled with barber shops, one with a large American flag hanging inside as decoration, another with nothing but a barber’s chair, a boy, and an old man by his side. Usually, I try to find the best place to eat ahead of time, but I was too tired to look. Before leaving Huế we had to have one more dish – all I could do was trust that our driver would find it. If there’s a street filled with barbers, surely there is one dedicated to Bún Bò Huế. And like magic, there was.
A corner of restaurants each with pots of meat simmering, sending soft clouds of steam into the cool air, the light bouncing off the different colors each one was painted, beckoned us to step in from the rain. We picked the shop with the most people, a faint faded blue glow, and a waiter with a shock of bleached hair.
I picked out the block of boiled blood from my bowl and shared it with Quyen and Mini. They both couldn’t stop raving about how fresh it was. Joe and Quyen decided Bún Bò Huế is better in LA – it was clear to me with every bite that they were wrong.
The soup was sweet from the pig hocks and pungent from the fermented shrimp paste. Maybe pineapple? The meatballs were my favorite and they were airy and light until I bit into something unexpectedly crunchy. I made a face and freaked out for a moment about what it could be. Quyen jumped in and assured me it wasn’t anything unusual – peppercorns, he explained.
“Peppercorns – Việt Nam is famous for it.”