• Lac Thien
  • Lac Thien

Lac Thien

An exceprt from the magazine article Return to the Land of the Ascending Dragon

From Na Trang we made our way north through Danang and China Beach to the old imperial capital of Hue near the 17th parallel, the former DMZ. That bit of our journey was the worst experience I have ever had in Vietnam. Most of it was aboard a smoke filled instrument of abuse we came to call "the barf bus." I'll say no more about it except that when we got off the vile vehicle I earnestly proclaimed that wartime was more fun.

Having been dumped in an unlit part of town in the dead of night, we shouldered our gear and trudged toward a distant glow, like three men following a star. Near the left bank of the Perfume River we found the source of light to be the Lac Thien restaurant at 6 Dinh Tien Hoang Street. While most of Hue closes by about 10:00 PM, the Lac Thien stays open as long as anyone wants to eat or drink. Of the large family that operates it all the adults but one are deaf, though none of the children are. We arrived late, dirty, smelly and looking thoroughly disreputable, yet to them a wondrous apparition. Within minutes we were seated, awaiting the local specialty of Happy Crepes, and each of us had a child on his lap. The kids sang Frere Jaques and taught us several verses. We taught them Ol' MacDonald. I tried to teach them the theme from Rawhide, but it proved too difficult. The only part they got was the whip-crack sound and "Yah!" I did teach them the head rubbing nugi, though, and boasted that I had "brought the Nugi to the Nguyens."

The Happy Crepes we were served that evening were in a way the quintessence of Vietnamese cookery. They employ the five flavors; yield a complex bouquet of aromas; have the textures of crunch, chewiness and crispness; are as pleasing to look at as a still life painting; and the sounds they make when cooking, or breaking under a fork, are almost musical. In fact they are sometimes known as "Singing Crepes." They are made by pouring a rice-flour crepe batter into a very hot pan. The hot side forms a crust while the cooler upper side cooks to a tender chewiness. They are filled with a stir-fry mixture of ham, shrimp, onions and bean sprouts and served with a rich and spicy sauce.

We made the Lac Thien our headquarters while in Hue because it is a place that brims with love. The adults constantly caress their children and pat their customers on the shoulder. The kids have no fear of any adult and are as eager to give hugs as to get them. There is a telling little monument in the open kitchen, one not often seen anymore: a traditional Vietnamese hearth of three bricks laid in a triangle with the fire in the middle.

The legend of the hearth is that by misfortune a woman was separated from her woodcutter husband. In the course of time she married a hunter. One day the woodcutter reappeared while the hunter was in the forest. The astonished wife had no time to react before the hunter came home with his catch, a deer. "Quick!" she said to the woodcutter,"Hide under the haycock!" As the woodcutter hid, the hunter set the haycock alight to cook the deer. Seeing her first love go up in flames the wife leaped into the inferno to join him in death. The hunter, thinking he had somehow driven his wife to suicide, leaped in after her.

The Jade Emperor, i.e. the Creator, took pity on them because they had all died for love, and he appointed them dieties of the kitchen so they could be together. Their togetherness is represented by the three bricks that form the triangle. They seem to put their heads close to one another against the fire. Every year the kitchen dieties report to the Jade Emperor whether the kitchen is a place of love or strife, and the family is rewarded or punished accordingly. At Lac Thien the Jade Emperor always smiles.