Princes and paupers

Princes and paupers

Luke Nguyen
19 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Alan Benson


The lovely, historical city of Hue is nestled in an ideal location between the foothills of Bach Ma National Park, the coastline of central Vietnam and the picturesque Perfume River. The town spreads over both sides of the river, and feels quiet and peaceful — until peak hour hits, when the roads and bridges are drowned in the sounds and exhaust fumes of tens of thousands of motorbikes. The entire population en route, it would seem!

The city is known for its imperial ruins. These beautiful remains of architectural estates from 200 years ago suffered greatly from neglect and damage during the several wars that have been fought in Vietnam since.

The best way to explore the ruins, relics and emperor tombs of Hue is by xiclo, or cyclo — Vietnam’s version of a rickshaw. You’ll have no problem finding one. Bit of advice though: always discuss and agree on the fee prior to hopping on. I pay my driver 100,000 dong for the hour, which works out to be about $5. As he takes me down a pretty tree-lined street, I pick up the sweet scent of lemongrass. I follow my nose and end up at a local restaurant, where a young girl stands outside chargrilling the most aromatic lemongrass skewers, with the fragrant smoke drifting through the entire area.

I stick my head into the restaurant; all the tables and chairs are stacked towards the back, with the main dining floor area covered with piles upon piles of mint, lemongrass, coriander, spring onion, chilli, star fruit, bean sprouts and young green mustard leaves. It is the day’s prep, and it looks daunting, but five ladies sit on tiny plastic stools, each with a knife in hand, plucking, slicing, shredding and cleaning, all in deep conversation, with lots of smiles and laughter. Yes this is hard work, with long hours, but this is all part of cooking, and instead of complaining about the amount of work to be done, they are engrossed in chatter, making the heavy prep load enjoyable, not a chore.

Outside, the young chargrill girl, Hien, tells me she has been working at the restaurant for three years, and that their specialty is their succulent meat skewers. A seasoned mixture of pork skin, pork paste, pork fat, minced beef and garlic is wrapped around sticks of lemongrass, then chargrilled and served with rice paper, fresh herbs, star fruit and a dipping fish sauce. They are so popular that each day she needs to make over a thousand skewers! At any one time, Hien has several dozen on the grill, and as the fat drips slowly and gracefully onto the charcoal, it releases an incredible smoky aroma back up onto the meat. I can’t resist. I take hold of two skewers, slide the meat in a baguette roll and go for it. The tenderness and flavour of the meat, together with the scent of the lemongrass and the smokiness of the charcoal, is just awesome…

After my very enjoyable breakfast, I make my way to the biggest market in Hue, the Dong Ba, where you can find anything from fabric and gold to fake watches, fresh flowers and street food. But what catches my eye is a laneway behind the market, scattered with a deep layer of red shallot and garlic skins. The skins are coming from a large market stall that sells heavy sacks of shallots and garlic by the tens of kilos. What I can’t believe is that this stall peels and preps every bulb before it goes to sale.

Shockingly, the workers in this stall have been peeling the bulbs for 20 years, and are all gradually losing their eyesight due to the strong compounds in the shallots and garlic. Such hard-working people, risking their vision just to earn a dollar, and after all their gruelling work, they still welcome me into their workplace and offer to take me to their favourite local eateries. One lady suggests I check out Ba Do, a tiny place run by the very well known ‘Lady in Red’, who specialises in varieties of steamed Hue savoury rice cakes.

The kitchen is miniature, filled with five chefs sitting on low wooden stools, each with an enormous marble mortar between their legs, filled with kilos upon kilos of peeled prawns. With both arms, they each raise a large heavy wooden pestle high over their heads, then pound the prawns as hard as they can into a paste. Fragments of prawn paste shoot past my face, onto the walls and ceiling. Unfazed, the chefs continue to smash and pound until the paste becomes smooth and elastic. The paste is then moulded, steamed, brushed with egg wash, and then steamed again. This prawn terrine is just one of many dishes that is prepared for the day; another four dishes follow. Large pots filled with super-thick glutinous rice batter are stirred, then distributed into small parcels of banana leaves with prawn, or folded with pork into slender bamboo leaves. Tapioca flour cakes are steamed until translucent and sticky.

The final dish, which catches my interest, is rice cakes steamed in little ramekins, topped with pork crackling, prawn floss, chilli and sweet fish sauce. Agreat little snack that I just have to learn how to make.

The Lady in Red kindly allows us to film in front of her home — a beautiful traditional Vietnamese home with wooden doors, painted sky blue and green.

As we start filming the making of the recipe, I feel a dark shadow hovering over my shoulder. It is the Lady in Red’s mother — a toothless, grumpy 85-year-old woman standing right behind me, watching every move I make. As I begin to combine my batter of tapioca flour, corn flour, glutinous rice flour, rice flour, water and salt, I can hear Mrs Grumpy mumbling something to herself. As I start to pour the batter into the ramekins, she barks in my ear, ‘You are making such a mess! Who taught you how to cook?’

When I begin to make my prawn floss, she demands that I first pour some oil into the wok — but I wanted to dry-roast my prawn floss, not fry it in oil, as it will become too moist. But she persists, grabbing the bowl of oil and pointing it in the direction of my wok. So I pretend to put lots of oil in, but really, I only allow a few drops to make contact with my wok. That keeps her happy for an entire two seconds.

When I place my pounded prawns into the wok, she shouts, ‘You need more heat! Turn the fire up, more oil, put garlic in, put shallots in, more oil!’

My prawn is no longer to be prawn ‘floss’, just stir-fried pounded prawns. So I ask her just to take over and do it her way. She jumps at the chance, ripping the ladle from my hands. I finish the dish as quickly as I can, to give her a rice cake to sample. Thankfully, she gives me the nod of approval. I am extremely relieved it is over. This old lady is the ultimate Rice Cake Nazi!


As the birthplace of Ho Chi Minh, Vinh was once a town full of historical sites, and was even said to hold the remains of an ancient citadel, but all have been destroyed and lost after the battering it received during the French and American wars of last century.

Vinh is now an industrial town, with transport, factory and agricultural industries set within a scene that takes its lead from 1980s-style Soviet architecture. Many passers-by would probably not spend much time in Vinh, stripped as it is of its cultural relics and original features. I’m here with the sole purpose of trying a local delicacy — rice-paddy eel.

En route from Hue to Vinh, we stop off at an in-between town called Quang Ninh. I’ve been told that these parts are some of the poorest in the region. Certainly during my visit, the sun is so hot, the grass is dry and the water levels low, making it seem somewhat bleaker than it may usually be.

I stop at a roadside store for a pot of tea and begin to talk to the family there.

They tell me that in wet season, the water from the coast rises so high that itcomes up knee high, right across the flat, filling their home and flooding the highway that they live next to.

‘So what do you do, then?’ I ask.

‘Well, we pile all our belongings onto our wooden bed, and just have to wait for the water to go down, which usually takes about four days.’

I gaze across at the traditional Vietnamese-style bed, which looks like a king-sized frame, but with no mattress, only a platform made of heavy timber. I glance around their little place, set by the roadside on Highway 1, and find it hard to imagine it filled with water — and even more incredulously, try to imagine the family hanging out on a bed for four days, waiting. What else can they do I suppose, but wait?

On their mantelpiece, I notice some fish carvings made from wood. ‘Are they good luck charms?’ I ask the wife.

She replies, ‘This area of Quang Ninh is one of the poorest in Vietnam. When times are tough, we cannot afford to buy meat or fish. So we can only supply rice for our children. Come dinnertime, we set the table with steamed rice and our wooden carvings of fish to make out that as a family, we are having a fulfilled meal.’

As she tells me this story, tears run down my face. It is incredibly sad, but also such a great symbol of courage and resilience.

We finally make it to Vinh, where I head directly to meet my young expert eel-catcher, by the name of Dung. He walks me to an area surrounded by rice paddy fields that are submerged in water.

He tells me he had placed eel traps in the fields the night before. We both roll our shorts up and head in to retrieve the traps. As my feet squish into the wet mud, I quickly sink in, thigh high. I’m not feeling too confident, as I can’t see where my legs are, or what other species live in these fields.

Dung reassures me by saying, ‘Don’t worry Luke, there are only snails, eels, crabs, snakes and rats in these fields — they’reharmless.’ I thank Dung for putting me at ease!

As we walk towards the centre of the field, I see a trap sticking vertically out of the mud. The eel trap is made from a 50 cm (20 inch) length of bamboo; the closed end is filled with worms, and the open end is enclosed by a cone-shaped trapping device, also made from bamboo, which allows the eel to slither in, but prevents it slithering out again. In the ten traps, we find twelve eels — a very successful day indeed.

I wash the eels in salt and limestone, marinate them in fish sauce, lemongrass, turmeric, curry powder and tiny red shallots, then cook them over some glowing charcoal. The smoky aroma lures in some passers-by, so I buy a case of beer and share my chargrilled eel with the friendly locals and listen to their stories of Uncle Ho himself. All of them are so very proud that their fearless leader was born in their small town of Vinh.

It is most unexpected, I have the most fantastic time filming in Vinh. Again it is the locals that make the experience so memorable.

We notice some black rain clouds rolling in; we’ve already had such great luck in catching some really interesting local specialties, such as rice paddy eel, and netting up school prawns in the river, that we decide a bit of rain won’t do much harm and continue on with our plans.

The market floor soon turns into a soupy mess and the sky darkens further with fat droplets of rain. As I talk with vendors and farmers, discussing a good dish to cook, we begin to draw a crowd of locals, some of whom are the most rambunctious lot of people I’ve met on any of my travels.

I guess I should have known that pulling up to the markets with a film crew in tow would cause quite a commotion!

What transpires? Well it’s hard to describe the energy, but my film crew are in fits of laughter, trying desperately to hold back their delight at the raucous mob that have surrounded my cooking cart. They are all poking fun at me, laughing and helping me cook my pork ribs braised in young coconut juice, being as cheeky for the camera as they can be.

You know the feeling when a shared energy pulses through a crowd of people — this moment is one of them, with the rain and storm building, the shoppers riding and darting in and out of cover while the market vendors are laughing all around me.

It’s one of my fondest memories and a great example of the spontaneity and playfulness of Vietnamese people.

Ninh Binh

Ninh Binh, the ancient tenth-century capital of Vietnam, seems to have it all — royal relics, caves and pristine rivers. It has to be one of the most beautiful areas I have seen in Vietnam.

Travelling by road, five hours from Vinh, the landscape changes from wide rice-paddy terraces to tall limestone hills. The Ninh Binh region is littered with caves, hot springs, limestone karsts, and shallow rivers splitting through lush rice paddy landscapes which run to the foot of the surrounding mountainsof Cuc Phuong — the first forest area in Vietnam to claim national park status; it also happens to be the place my mother was named after.

With its rich culture and history, Ninh Binh is considered one of the original sacred lands, with many of its ancient sites being heritage listed. This area had been a secret location outside the shores of Vietnam, but with its vast unadulterated beauty it couldn’t remain secret for long.

Ninh Binh is often referred to as an ‘inland Ha Long Bay’. It is a rural town in development, growing from a purely agricultural economy to encompass industrial sectors such as cement quarries and steel factories, and also tourism.

Both local and foreign tourists are attracted to the unique landscape of Ninh Binh and its main river, Ngo Dong, which winds gracefully through the small village of Tam Coc.

One of the main incomes for the Tam Coc locals is rowing small boats along the picturesque Ngo Dong River for tourists. At the dock, there are so many boats jammed next to each other that I can’t even see the colour of the water. As chaotic as it seems, it is nevertheless fairly organised. Local tourists flock to the river by the busload, so I decide to go for a bicycle ride through the quaint village until things quieten down a little.

As I ride past vast greenery and beauty, I notice two ladies wearing conical hats, knee-deep in a shallow pond. They look like they are picking bright pink flowers that are just in bloom. When I stop to get a closer look, I’m amazed to see that the pink flowers are actually thousands of fluorescent pink snail eggs, clumped together on green leaves — the ladies were on the lookoutfor snails! I jump in and join them and pick out about a kilo of plump, juicy snails, which I plan to cook up while floating down the Ngo Dong River.

By the time I return to the dock, the crowds have thankfully subsided. I grab my ingredients, then negotiate my price with a rower named An Hai, who has been rowing for a living for the past twenty or so years.

The ride along the river is incredibly peaceful, pretty and romantic. We row past rice paddy fields, tall limestone karsts and through dark mystical caves — the perfect place to bring your sweetheart… but instead I get to prepare my snails.

As I cook my snails in a clear broth of ginger, lime leaves, lemongrass and chilli, An Hai decides to change his rowing technique by using his feet instead of his arms. I see all the other passing rowers switching to their feet also. Apparently, the rowers in Tam Coc are famous for this unusual rowing technique, so we have a bit of a chuckle and continue on.

I then notice, high up on the tallest peak, a small pagoda overlooking the entire Tam Coc area. So I ask An Hai how we get up there.

No cars can get to the peak, it’s too steep. The only way is by foot — but you have to climb 1000 big stone steps!’

I look at my cameraman in excitement. ‘What an amazing view we would have from up that high!’ I exclaim.

His response: ‘No way am I lugging all my camera gear up 1000 steps, mate!’

So off we go, up those 1000 steps, with each crew member carrying either a tripod, light stands, camera gear, cooking equipment or fresh ingredients.

The crew are not happy! I haven’t seen such grumpy faces during the entire trip. The steps are extremely uneven and wide, making them harder to climb. After fifty steps we are all exhausted, struggling to catch our breath — and it doesn’t help that it’s a 40ºC day. Before trekking up here, we were all so focused on not forgetting any cooking or camera gear that none of us remembered to take any drinking water, so we are dehydrated aswell.

Nobody is talking to me, hating every part of me, for making them climb up this steep mountain. So I put on a brave face and make sure I’m the first one up there, so I can prove to them that it wasn’t all that bad. But truthfully, it is tough; my knees are shaking uncontrollably from pain.

An hour later, I finally make it up to the highest peak. All of a sudden, the pain instantly disappears. The 360-degree view of Tam Coc is just spectacular — absolutely breathtaking! It is a surreal moment. I stand there for a good twenty minutes looking out at its beauty, following the river snaking its way through small villages, ancient buildings, caves, paddy fields, tall trees, limestone karsts and majestic mountains.

One by one, the crew make it to the top, their shirts soaking wet from the heat. I tell you what, if looks could kill… but as soon as they look out onto the view, their disgruntled faces transform with smiles of joy.

No one says a word; we all just stand there in silence, enjoying the moment. After everyone catches their breath, we set up the camera, and I make my citrus-cured goat salad in front of the most picturesque backdrop ever.

I urge everyone to visit this beautiful town and do the trek up Dancing Dragon Mountain, known by the locals as Hang Mua.

You will not regret it, as the view makes the hike worthwhile. Just remember to take some drinking water…

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