This is how breakfast happens in Hue.
The motorcycles pull up to a giant pot of broth and meat simmering over a charcoal flame in the spot where a nondescript driveway opens onto the street. Inside, the floor is littered with a haphazard collage of pork bones, tissues, lemon peels and toothpicks. Latecomers duck in from the sun and plant themselves on tiny stools around low plastic tables.
On one of these precarious seats sits La Thua An, a Hue native and the new executive chef of the art-deco masterpiece La Residence Hotel. Born to parents who gave him an early education in Vietnamese and Chinese cooking, chef An left the country with his family when he was six years old, and eventually cultivated himself an enviable career as executive chef of five-star hotels in New Caledonia and French Polynesia.
After more than 30 years away, chef An recently returned to his hometown on a mission to reconnect with his roots and in the process, reinvent the menu at Le Parfum. The restaurant at La Residence is the only fine-dining venue in Vietnam's traditional culinary capital - a city where good food is found on every corner, and everyone has an opinion about the best way to enjoy it.
An early ride through Hue's ancient, leafy streets has brought chef An to what is reported to be the best bun bo Hue eatery in town. The easy definition of bun bo Hue is Hue-style beef with rice vermicelli. The soup is prepared by slow-boiling beef and pork bones with a combination of red, annatto seed-colored oil, stalks of lemongrass, shrimp paste, chili and a myriad of spices. Rice noodles are cooked separately and combined in the bowl with the broth and topped with an assortment of sliced beef and pork.
The bowls arrive steaming on the table, followed immediately by the self-serve components of the dish: a tangle of fresh leaves and sprigs, lemon wedges, fish sauce, chopped chili, as well as chopsticks and mugs of iced tra da (jasmine tea).
If the chipped tableware and the women eating in all-day pajamas at the next table are not a complete giveaway, there's one ingredient that gives proof of the eatery's authenticity: blood. Yes, you read that right. If you're from Hue, it's blood for breakfast.
The blood pudding sits in soft brown mounds in the red-tinged broth. Duck's blood has a gelatin-like consistency when cooked gently, where beef or pork blood tends to form a firmer, darker solid that is cut into squares, explains chef An.
And while the thought of eating blood strikes some the wrong way, for others it's the only way. "You absolutely cannot make bun bo Hue without the blood," says chef An as he digs in, thoughtfully regarding each component: the soft white noodles, the pork slices, the crunch of the greens, the vibrant broth, the texture of the duck blood pudding.
"I think if you come to Hue and you don't eat bun bo, you lose something," he says.
As a way for La Residence's guests to begin their cultural adventures before noon, chef An is planning to include bun bo Hue in Le Parfum's breakfast buffet. His dedication to authenticity is the same as that of any Hue cook, except that his vegetables will be flown in from Da Lat, and his certified-safe meat and duck blood is from the organic farm of a French friend.
"Vietnamese require blood in their bun bo, but if I put blood in front of the guests at the hotel, my God"¦" he snaps his fingers and shakes his head, imagining the complaints. "I have to put some, even just a tiny slice, to be able to say the dish is authentic; but if the guests want me to, I'll take it out."
The question of authenticity versus safety is one that chef An has encountered before, one he answers without pause. "We need to put hygiene first to meet foreigners' comfort levels," he says, adding that he is willing to sacrifice a small percentage of the food's original taste to ensure the health of his diners.
As bun bo Hue is the most recognizable representative of Hue's long culinary history, it will have a prime spot on the Vietnamese corner of the Le Parfum menu, alongside chef An's original fusion menu which will blend Hue elements and ingredients with those of French, Italian and Japanese traditions.
"I like tradition but I also like change," he says. "My two menus are there to give guests more choices. If they want something traditional I have it, and if they want something different, I have that too."
If there's anyone who can convince vacationers to step away from the routine and explore Hue's famed cuisine, it's chef La Thua An. But for the moment, it's enough for him to be sitting in a driveway, remembering and being re-inspired by flavors he first encountered in his childhood home, only a few blocks away.