Photo: Classic Vietnamese fare.

Eat and meet

Given the heavy influx of tourists Hue receives, it’s no surprise a large number of dining options are available, with a good mix of Western and authentic Vietnamese dishes on offer.

Le Loi
Banana Mango Restaurant on Le Loi isn’t much for atmosphere, but gets a thumbs up from regular customers for its cheap and good dishes, some of which are well designed to please Western palates. Just round the corner on Nguyen Cong Tru, brand new Risotto offers good Italian dishes and generous glasses of decent wine at cheap prices in a relaxed setting among a multitude of local street vendors; across the road and to the left of Risotto is a great bun bo Hue stall and on the alley to the left a stall that serves concentrated Vietnamese coffee for 5,000 VND a pop – a great place for interviewing motorbike guides.

Banana Mango: 106 Le Loi, Hue. T: (054) 820 154.
Rissotto: 14 Nguyen Cong Tru St, Hue. T: (054) 0932 413 313; (0925) 002 028.

Pham Ngu Lao
Pham Ngu Lao runs parallel to Side Street 66, just a block to the west, and is the main drag on the south bank when it comes to eating and drinking. On the corner with Le Loi is DMZ Bar, one of the most popular hangouts in the evenings, but it’s under the same ownership as Little Italy, and anything they serve there is available here as well. Little Italy has moved back to its old location on Nguyen Thai Hoc, at the other end of Pham Ngu Lao, and continues to serve up good Italian fare in country kitchen surroundings.

In the middle of Pham Ngu Lao,Golden Rice is a small two-storey restaurant with lots of character and a lot of good, cheap Vietnamese food. Its next door neighbour Ushi is one of those restaurants that juggles a textbook-sized international menu traversing French, Vietnamese, Italian and comfort food as well as a grill, and somehow manages to pull off consistently good dishes at reasonable prices.

Mai Huong Patisserie serves French and Vietnamese pastries, as well as Western food, in a small shop with a pleasant atmosphere -- they don’t overcharge for drinks either, making it a pleasant and affordable alternative to the bar scene in the evenings. Fancy looking wine bar and restaurant La Campania offers ambient dining in an ancient garden house themed setting. We had some superb local food here and some awful Italian dishes, quite the opposite of La Carambole, an old stand-by in the Italian food category where we quite like the pizzas -- the atmosphere and location make it one of the most popular places on the block.

Just around the corner on Vo Thi Sau Street, Missy Roo, Kangaroo Hue is a simple cafe serving up cheap and tasty Hue specialities, including a good choice of vegetarian options. They also offer reasonably priced cooking classes with the option of a bicycle tour out into the countryside markets to collect the ingredients.

A few doors down on the same street is Shiva Shakti, a great Indian restaurant recently taken over by the owner of Ganesh, who owns seven highly recommended restaurants throughout Vietnam. The food here makes for a good alternative to the same old Italian/Vietnamese restaurant formula so popular in Hue.

If you are looking for something a bit more lively with happy hours that go on well into the night, Hot Tuna on the corner where Vo Thi San meets Pham Ngu Lao is a popular cafe with a cheap Vietnamese and Western menu. A relaxed day-time atmosphere and good WiFi make this a great place to kick back and relax for a couple of hours before the party gets started.

A block to the east, Confetti is an upscale Vietnamese fusion-style restaurant that doubles as an art gallery. It offers stylish surrounds in a quieter setting and while the food gets mixed reviews we were impressed by the seafood barbecue dishes and the hotpot you cook at the table.

A block to the west is sushi option Ta:ke, which also has a good menu of sashimi, grilled meats and other Japanese dishes along with a good selection of sake, one of which is brewed in Hue. The venue is small but attractively decorated and there are a couple of separate dining rooms where you get to take your shoes off and sit on the floor in true Japanese style.

Vegetarians should head for Grain Restaurant and Cafe on Le Loi (opposite the turn off to Hoang Hoa). It has a Western/Vietnamese menu with a vast vegetarian section. We can vouch for the $2 tacos, which come overloaded with a choice of black bean or beef. They also do 10% off for groups, making it a great place to bring a crowd.The food here is excellent – as you would expect after learning it’s owned by the same guy that runs the Stop and Go Cafe. Great food, little prices.

DMZ Bar: 60 Le Loi, Hue. T: (054) 826 928.
Confetti: 1 Chu Van An St, Hue. T: (054) 382 4148.
Golden Rice: 40 Pham Ngu Lao, Hue. T: (054) 362 6938.
Golden Rice: 40 Pham Ngu Lao, Hue. T: (054) 362 6938.
Grain: 49 Le Loi, Hue. T: (054) 393 3989.
Hot Tuna: 37 Vo Thi San St, Hue. T: (054) 091 400 6847.
Kangaroo Cafe: 31 Vo Thi Sau St, Hue. T: (054) 831 923;.
La Carambole: 19 Pham Ngu Lao, Hue. T: (054) 3810 491; (0914) 079 192, F: (054) 3826 234. Hours: 07:00 to 23:00.
Little Italy: 10 Nguyen Thai Hoc St, Hue. T: (054) 3826 928.
Shiva Shakti: 27 Vo Thi Sau St, Hue. T: (054) 393 5627
Ta:ke: 34 Tran Cao Van St, Hue. T: (054) 384 8262.
Ushi: 42 Pham Ngu Lao, Hue. T: (054) 0915 815 089.

Ben Nghe
Ben Nghe is within walking distance from Pham Ngu Lao and offers some fine options. If you want to go where the locals go, try Chau Loan at the end of Ben Nghe near the traffic circle – easily spotted by the old-fashioned wooden food cart parked out front, just a noodle shop, but a cut above the rest in terms of quality, attracting a steady Vietnamese clientele.

Mid-way down Ben Nghe around the corner on Ngueyn Tri Phuong Street is a charity-run French bakery that provides jobs and training for disadvantaged Vietnamese, La Boulangerie Francais. We dare you to try and walk past the display of coronary-inducing cream cakes and pastries without stopping. The bakery is also home to a terraced cafe where they serve Lavazza coffee, house-made icecream, breakfast and a good selection of take-away baguettes; handy if you are waiting for a bus from the neighbouring Sinh Cafe.

A little further up the road is another popular backpacker spot (you might be noticing a theme here), Liberty Bar and Restaurant, where pyjama-clad staff serve up cheap and cheerful Vietnamese dishes whipped up expertly on site; they also have a Western menu if you are a bit tired of local cuisine. In the evenings this place gets going; loud music, cheap drinks and a pool table makes it a popular spot for budget travellers staying in hostels nearby.

For Indian food, Ganesh fans who don’t want to be bothered by the motorbike touts hanging around the main drag can get their fix in at their sister branch halfway along Nguyen Tri Phuong. For more family-friendly dining it’s worth seeking out the Family Home Restaurant down an alley near Ganesh. Servings here are huge and the Vietnamese dishes are good if you know your condiments, if not it’s pretty bland and service takes an age if it’s busy. If it is, you’d be far better off giving it a miss and heading for slightly more authentic, family-run Nina’s Cafe in the same alley.

Chau Loan: 78 Ben Nghe St, Hue. T: (054) 3822 777.
La Boulangerie Francais: 46 Nguyen Tri Phuong, Hue. T: (054) 383 7437. Open 07:00 to 20:30;.
Family Home Restaurant: 11/34 Nguyen Tri Phuong St, Hue. T: (054) 382 0668.
Ganesh: 34 Nguyen Tri Phuong St, Hue. T: (054) 382 1616.
Liberty Bar: 19 Nguyen Tri Phuong St, Hue. T: (054) 093 530 450.
Nina’sCafe: 16/34 Nguyen Tri Truong St, Hue. T: (054) 383 8636.

Hung Vuong
Heading a bit west, Hung Vuong has some good options The Stop and Go Cafe remains a sure bet, both to meet other travellers and enjoy a meal, with a menu featuring Western breakfasts, burgers, sandwiches, veggie dishes, hot pots, and softshell tacos with guacamole (if avocados are in season). Hue specialities like banh khoai are also on offer, along with frosty bottles of beer.

Towards the river where Hung Vuong meets Tran Cao Van you’ll find Alley Boo, a backpacker favourite (they offer free beer with food orders). They have a massive menu that includes sushi – the fact that everyone was eating burgers when we were there makes us wonder why they bother, especially as The Imperial Hotel across the road has one of the most popular high-end sushi bars in the city, Yoshihara – but maybe that’s why.

Hung Vuong Inn is a popular place among those who travel to Hue regularly. The large restaurant on the first floor is a draw in itself, offering an affable, English-speaking staff, icy beer, and a menu with Western items -- the gorgonzola pizza here had us making yummy noises.

Just off Hung Vuong on Tran Cao Van (south side of the Imperial Hotel) is deservedly renowned Mandarin Cafe. Mr Cu is a very talented, self-taught photographer whose iconic pictures of Vietnam deck the walls of his restaurant and are available in print-outs of various sizes, including postcards. Some of the photos are so deftly composed it’s hard to believe they are all candids, taken without any direction from the photographer. The cafe itself is beautiful, if a bit touristy, but it attracts the crowds simply because it’s that good.

Alley Boo: Corner of Tran Cao Van/Hung Vuong St, Hue. T: (054) 091 707 7900.
Hung Vuong Inn: 20 Hung Vuong, Hue. T: (054) 3821 068, 3827 899.
Mandarin Cafe: 24 Tran Cao Van, Hue. T: (054) 821 281. Open 06:00 to 22:00.
Stop and Go Cafe: 3 Hung Vuong, Hue. T: (054) 3827 051, (0905) 126 767.
Yoshihara: The Imperial Hotel, 8 Hung Vuong St, Hue. T: (054) 388 2222.

North Bank
Some of the best Vietnamese food in town is across the bridge from Le Loi. Three famous places clustered together are Lac Thien, Lac Thanh and Lac Thuan. All three are run by members of the same extended family, most of whom are deaf. The charismatic leader of the pack is Trung, one of the most happy-go-lucky guys you’ll meet, and one of the most gregarious, especially considering he can’t really speak. It’s surprisingly easy to communicate with him, and the others, using hand gestures. Trung makes bottle openers out of a stick of wood and a bolt which he hands out to guests for free. They then take them all over the world and send back photos of themselves with the bottle opener -- in front of the Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tour, the Grand Canyon. The whole procedure is as absurd as it is heart-warming, and it seems to bring Trung endless delight. Participation in the scheme is highly recommended. In recent years after gathering much fame Trung’s restaurants have become so popular with tourists that locals very rarely eat there -- prices have gone up and food quality down, while motorbike touts patrolling the pavement make outside dining uninviting. Still, Trung’s a charismatic host and it’s a buzzy spot to sit with a cold beer watching the world go by. For food you’ll find better on the first road (to the right) through the citadel gate, where a row of street vendors serve up delicious soups, snacks and rice – try the com hen (baby clams with rice) and knock it back with an icy nuoc mia (sugarcane juice).

To the west of the citadel (just beyond the Nha Do gate), Les Jardins De La Carambole is incredible. Situated in a stunning colonial French villa, Les Jardin is an artsy two-storey French/Italian restaurant with alfresco and balcony dining and a pianist who plays most evenings; it’s quality fare at great prices. A decent wine and cocktail list and views out over the citadel make it a great place for a sundowner, while the light tapas and salad lunch menu and its close vicinity to the imperial city make it a good place to rest weary feet during the day.

Finally, you can’t come to Hue and not try the exotically crafted Imperial cuisine. Although there are several options in the citadel, the almost impossible to find (get a cyclo) Madame Ton Nu Thi Ha and her opulent imperial garden house, hidden down a dirt track, provides a far richer experience than those frequented by huge tour groups. You’ll need to book in advance – those turtle-carved tomatos take time to prepare -- but it’s well worth a visit, if only to meet ‘Golden Hands’ (a title she was awarded in 2013) Madam Ha. She’s not only truly engaging and a fabulous chef, but pretty nifty with a camera too. Her works are displayed around the property alongside a collection of intricate imperial antiques.

The north bank is also home to Dong Do market (next door to the main bus terminal, overlooking the river). This is where you’ll find a great selection of street food vendors and local bia hoi joints and is an excellent place to while away an afternoon or evening. It’s one of the biggest and most interesting local markets we’ve been to in central Vietnam and prices are good (we didn’t see a tourist while we were there, which probably explains that one). Things don’t usually get going until around 14:00 and there are boats available from the Nguyen Cong Thu end of Le Loi Street if you don’t want to walk over the bridge.

Dong Da Market: Far end of Tran Hung Dao St, Hue. Open 12:00 to 22:00.
Lac Thien: 6 Dinh Tien Hoang, Hue. T: (054) 3524 674. Open 08:00 to 22:00.
Les Jardins De La Carambole: 32 Dang Tran Con, Hue. T: (054) 354 8815.
Madam Ton Nu Thi Ha: 7 Kiet 28 Le Thanh Ton, Hue. T: (054) 352 2243, 351 1605.

Southern Hue
There is one far flung option worth seeking out if you’re an adventurous carnivore. Huong Lua is set just behind the southern gate of Nam Giao, 2.5 kilometres south of Le Loi. It’s an attractive, sit down place made of old wood with an adjacent garden and specialising in meats grilled on the table, hibachi-style. It’s a great place to head with a group, and you can always stick to the beef, chicken and fish if you like. The thit nai (deer meat) comes recommended, and you can go nuts from there: chon (weasel), ba ba (turtle), ky da (lizard), tho (rabbit), and nhim (porcupine), to name a few. To get here, head south on Dien Bien Phu (opposite La Residence on Le Loi) for 2.2 kilometres, take a right and an immediate left on Minh Mang. Take the first left on the far side of Nam Giao and it’s on the right. A good thing to bear in mind if you are whizzing around the south side temple touring is that there are realms of local cafes dotted around the most popular sites; these serve far more interesting (and cheap) countryside dishes than the tour bus favourites where overpriced, bland food is the norm. The best of the local vendors close down for a couple of hours around 12:30 though, so do bear that in mind while you are out and about.

Huong Lua: 2/1 Minh Mang (behind Nam Giao), Hue. T: (054) 3887 961; (0914) 019 950. Hours: 06:00 to 23:00

The south-bank bar scene is where it’s at in the evenings in Hue, with a number of places to choose from. The old stand-bys are mostly along Pham Ngu Lao, including DMZ Bar, with a decent pool table at the centre, and garden seating in a courtyard where you can order up Italian food from Little Italy, which is under the same ownership.

Folks who don’t take a shine to the DMZ Bar often head to the Why Not Bar at the end of the block, across from Little Italy. They play a decent selection of Western rock and hip-hop on the sound system, and when things get cooking it can be a fun place to hang out. They have a tiny kitchen and there’s more of an emphasis on eating than drinking, but we had some satisfying plates of pasta here, and the batter-fried squid or shrimp goes down nicely with a generous glass of Huda beer on tap.

Another favourite on Pham Ngu Lao is Hue Backpackers Bar, drawing in the crowds early with some good happy hours deals, good music and pool table. Further up is quirky Vietnamese nightclub, Victory Bar, set in a turn of the century villa and complete with two fireplaces and a long mirrored corridor. Pop art hangs from the walls and cosy corners are fitted out with leather chesterfield-style sofas from where you can have your eardrums assaulted by incredibly loud live music while being served premium spirits by scantily clad dancers.

There are a couple of good options you won’t necessarily happen across just strolling around: Brown Eyes is a great place to go for the bar, the pool table and the dance floor -- you’ll find it on the road running parallel to Pham Ngu Lao. Further out, Oasis Bar is down an alley off Le Loi Street and pulls in a good crowd to its ‘beach in the city’ with beer games, buckets, games and a good sound system where guests can choose from some decent playlists or hook up their own music device.

Still within walking distance of Pham Ngu Lao is Liberty Bar on Nguyen Tri Phuong, a family-run bar restaurant that come nightfall attracts a party-hard crowd with some great drink deals, a pool table, loud music and the optional activity of tagging "I was ere" on the wall.

The Beer Garden at the Romance Hotel on Nguyen Thai Hoc is a more grown up venue with a Western-style bar that serves more than 30 brands of pricey world famous beers.

To spend the evening with hard-working Vietnamese blowing off steam at the end of the day, you can do no better than to seek out Dong Da between Le Hong Phong and the traffic circle. There you’ll find a line of down and dirty bia hoi joints, selling two-litre jugs of fresh local beer on tap. They all sell eats designed to compliment the beer -- few have menus in English, so we’ll help you out with some important bia hoi-related food terminology: Luon= eel. Ech= frog. Oc= snail. There are a couple of bia hoi places at the end of Le Loi, before the Dap Da bridge, but they get too many foreigners because of the location and lack a truly local atmosphere.

Brown Eyes: 56 Chu Van An, Hue. T: (054) 382 7494
DMZ Bar: 60 Le Loi, Hue. T: (054) 826 928.
Hue Backpackers: 10 Pham Ngu Lao, Hue. T: (054) 382 6567.
Liberty Bar: 19 Nguyen Tri Phuong St, Hue. T: (054) 093 530 450.
Oasis: 4/42 Le Loi, Hue. T: (054) 933 991 236.
Victory Bar: 7 Pham Ngu Lao, Hue.
Why Not: 21 Vo Thi Sau, Hue. T: (054) 824 793.

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