We hop on our bicycles and cycle about 30km (18mi) northwest of the imperial citadel along flat, scenic roads passing emerald fields of rice and smiling school kids on e-bikes. Our destination is the tiny late 15th century village of Phuoc Tich, known for its many nha ruong or ancient houses.
In Vietnamese, “ruong cot” means “foundation or keystone”, but its literal meaning is “supports and columns”. We discover the inspiration behind this phrase in these old homes built entirely of wood without the use of nails. Each of the dark homes feature three rooms marked by giant wood pillars: one for men, one for women and one for ancestor worship. The roof encompasses gracefully arched supports.
The façade is actually a long series of folding doors, ingeniously set on pegs for easy removal to allow the cool breeze in, with sliding panels instead of windows to guard against the winter cold. Where there used to be hundreds of these quaint homes in the village, today there are only a few dozen left.
We visit with Mr. Le Trong Dao whose family has lived in Phuoc Tich for generations. He’s a retired school teacher and fills us in on the history of these special homes. “These old houses reflect the craftsmanship from the Nguyen Dynasty,” he tells us as he lights some incense for the ancestors. “Immigrants to the imperial city brought along their crafts and trades. These houses are so well built that even though they use bamboo pegs instead of nails, no rain gets in.”
Mr. Dao is typical of the residents of Phuoc Tich – old people living in even older homes. He says that 80% of the community are in their sixties or older, with most of the children leaving to be closer to the city. It’s now the older ones left to take care of the homes and to keep the incense burning on the family altars.
Surrounded by trees and water and cloaked in a deep, almost eery stillness, it feels like time has stood still here. The seniors have a sense of humor, though. The village cemetery is located across the small river, in Ha Cat, and the residents have a saying that death is always just a step away (across the river).
The elderly villagers say part of the secret to their longevity is living close to Nature, eating what you grow. To test out that theory, we stop in at another home in Phuoc Tich and see Mrs. Kieu. She zips in and out of the kitchen tending to us while an aunt makes little rice cakes for weddings as a side business.
The cakes filled with a sweet bean filling are known as phu thê or “husband and wife” cakes because they’re commonly served at weddings. The locals have shortened the name to su sê and you can see these tasty snacks sold all over Hue. Mrs. Kieu demonstrates how to make little slits in a banana leaf and fold it to form a perfect half box.
Two boxes put together make for an all-natural container for the cake, another reason why the cakes are known as “husband and wife”, because it takes a matched set to make the box.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Kieu prepares a stunning home-cooked lunch that includes a salad made from green figs plucked from the garden.
These figs aren’t as sweet as figs in the West, but they have a meaty texture which absorbs the tangy dressing beautifully and makes for a unique salad that you really only find in Hue.
For dessert, Mrs. Kieu makes us a dessert of sticky rice cake colored dark green with a local, wild leaf known in English as ramie, a member of the nettle family. In Vietnamese, it’s known as lá gai, and it’s used to add color to a sweet rice flour cake called bánh ít lá gai.
According to Mrs. Kieu, it was her great-grandmother, a cook for the imperial court, who first found this aromatic leaf growing around her home and decided to chop it up and add it to a dough of glutinous rice and sugar. These emerald green cakes are now found all over Vietnam. In Phuoc Tich, even the food has history.
Cycling trips around Hue, including to Phuoc Tich Village, can be arranged through ÊMM Hotel Hue. Completely renovated in October 2016, the bright, cheery 72-room hotel just a few minutes’ walk from the Perfume River and the Hue Citadel features a colour scheme inspired by ancient Hue itself, highlighted by imperial jade and royal purple. A restaurant and pool-side bar as well as a mini-gym, spacious reading area and two meeting rooms complete the property.