The Centre – Miền Trung
Huế’s old name, Thanh Hóa, means “peace” or “harmony.” However, Huế did not always live up to its original name. When the first emperor of the Nguyễn dynasty took the reign in 1802, he moved the imperial court from Hà Nội and made “neutral” Huế the capital of the country. He also named the recently unified country Việt Nam, leaving behind its former name before Chinese occupation, Nam Việt. To add symbolism, the emperor took the name of Gia Long- a combination of the old names for Sài Gòn (Gia Định) and Hà Nội (Thăng Long). For about one hundred and fifty years, the city was a hotbed of political intrigue until Việt Nam’s last emperor, Bảo Đại, went into exile to French in 1945.
Meanwhile, on the southern side of the Hải Vân mountain pass, Huế’s rise turned the once thriving port of Hội An into a provincial backwater. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Hội An was a busy entry point into Việt Nam for Portuguese, Chinese and Japanese traders, but later lost out politically to Huế and economically to Đà Nẵng. In hindsight, however, this was Hội An’s luck, as the wars against the French and Americans largely bypassed the town. This preserved Hội An’s traditional merchant houses, pagodas, colourful Chinese assembly halls, temples and the famous Japanese covered bridge. As a result, Hội An, with its rich heritage, is now bustling with visitors from around the world.
In a reversal of fortune, Huế, which suffered greatly during the Việt Nam War, now has the air of a sleepy country town. Huế does not lacks attractions of its own, the Royal Palace with its magnificent main entrance, the Ngọ Môn gate, has become the symbol of the town eager to capitalize on its royal past. In fact, it is used in the unofficial “Made in Huế” brand adorning labels of virtually anything the town produces, from CD covers to beer bottles and rice-paper packets. Huế’s other drawcard is the emperors’ tombs along the Perfume River. The emperors carefully select the sites themselves with a little help from the court geomancer. The tombs look rather more like a summer palace than your ordinary family plot, complete with lotus ponds, paved yards and frangipani trees.
The emperor’s attention to detail did not only concern itself with the afterlife, but also with the very earthly delights of good food. They were fussy eaters and also get easily bored, it was a challenge to the royal chefs to provide the culinary entertainment. Variety was the name of the game when it came to royal banquets, which consisted of a great number of small courses, each beautifully plated to be both pleasing to the palate and the eye. To add to the degree of difficulty for the imperial kitchen brigade, no dish was supposed to be repeated within the course of the year.
In contrast, food in Hội An is about simplicity. The town’s most famous dish, cao lầu, is a humble soup with a particular type of rice noodles that were introduced to the town by Japanese traders.