Let’s say your mates come to Hanoi to check if you’re still alive. You’ve morphed into the proudest tour guide in town, shown your fam all the hidden gems, got yourselves some nice seats in the Obama-endorsed bún chả joint and thought you did a good job. Well done, you’ve summed up thousands of years of Vietnamese culinary art in two bowls of noodles.
Even when it’s down to noodles, bún is perhaps the most versatile Vietnamese staple and deserves a bigger spotlight.
PART 1: Hot broth and protein
Bún bò Huế
Home of Vietnam’s last dynasty, Hue is also well-known for its unique street food. Rice pancakes come in the tiniest, most adorable bowls, while bún noodles are double the size of their Northern counterpart. Bún bò Huế at O Xuân’s is a mini pond of protein with thin slices of beef as well as beef balls, a piece of slow-cooked pig leg the size of your wrist and a cube of blood pudding.
There are many ways you can spot the influences of Chinese culture on Vietnam, but if you haven’t thought of its reflection in a bowl of noodles, you’re not alone. Bún thang got its name from the way various kinds of herbs are packed into a portion (thang) of traditional Chinese medicines. It turns out this noodle soup was originally made of leftovers from the wrap party on the last day of Tet – Vietnamese Lunar New Year, before its cooking method became culinary art.
Bún thang requires around 20 ingredients, each being finely chopped or sliced and displayed like a mosaic. You might not get all of these in a modern street-side bún thang bowl due to the fast pace of urban life, but in the past an ideal serving must include stir-fried shredded chicken and fresh Vietnamese coriander covered under a blanket of rice noodles, which is then topped with some more chicken, fried egg, pork sausage, shrimp floss, mince pork and a salted egg in the centre, completed with a hot pork broth.
Bún măng ngan
Being one of the symbols of Vietnam, it isn’t any surprise that bamboo makes it to Vietnamese kitchens and turns into delicious food. Here in a noodle bowl, crunchy bamboo shoots marry the succulent meat of the domestic Muscovy ducks, with the fragrance of chopped culantro (not to be confused with cilantro) and spring onions as bridesmaids with a big cube of blood pudding as pageboy. Duck meat is often chopped the same way as the boiled chicken, the ubiquity of which expats just don’t understand, so if you’re not keen, ask for ngan xé – shredded duck meat.
It’s cloudy with a chance of meat balls. Bún mọc, named after either the Hanoi village it came from or the Vietnamese word for these ground pork balls, is often a pork-only noodle soup, although there’s a version featuring shredded chicken. Beside pork balls, pork ribs are the most common topping, previously stewed until they are so tender that the meat would come off the bone in your first bite. And hello again, bamboo shoots!
Part 2: Hot broth and fish/shellfish
Bún cá almost never fails you with its scrumptious small bites of golden brown crispy fish. And those who have been in Vietnam for a little too long and stayed for the endless glutinous feasts of Lunar New Year might also have known the intense craving for the soup of this good ole fish noodles. Bún cá is often served with a handful of crunchy and aromatic rau cần and a pinch of finely chopped fresh dills.
Snail noodle is hailed in Vietnamese literature as “the peak of the art of eating by Hanoians” (Vu Bang, Hanoi Delicious Bites). Bún ốc, being one of the longest standing Hanoian signature dishes, pleases even the pickiest of diners. You can choose your favourite snails and enjoy their chewy goodness submerged in noodles, herbs and a sweet and sour vinegar broth, in a bowl bigger than your face. On a small pavement in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, cô (aunt) Huệ whips up around 200 bowls of snail noodles per day, making enough to put her soup pots away at as early as 2pm.
And the award for the weirdest hotchpotch of noodle soup ingredients goes to… bún riêu. I wondered what was going on in the mind of the first person who put crab paste, fried tofu, pork and mushroom sausage, beef, tomato and spring onion in the same bowl and muttered “that’ll do”. But bún riêu is originally just a simple happy marriage between rice noodles and fresh water crab.
Served in a crab-based broth similar to that of bún riêu, but the noodles in canh bún are four times as big. Toppings are toned down to only pork cracklings (some places would give you a chunky pork sausage), crab paste, morning glory, stir fried tomatoes and crispy onions. This modest but delicious noodle treat goes for only VND20,000 a bowl, perfect as a light lunch or an afternoon snack. But who would have thought it can be found right in the middle of the busiest beef steak street?
You’ll be hard pressed to find it here in the North, but bún mắm is southern delicacy with the cutest coconut jelly on the side. How come no Hanoi noodle restaurant has ever given me coconut jelly?
Anyway, what makes this southern noodle dish special is the use of fermented fish as the base of the soup. A simple noodle soup from Cambodia, bún mắm was introduced to residents of the Mekong Delta in southwestern Vietnam and became their speciality. Today, bún mắm is an orchestra of ingredients in which you will find fish, shrimp, grilled pork, squid, mashed squid stuffed in half a horn pepper, Vietnamese pork sausage and various vegetables and herb. Every bite is a burst of spices, which explains the complimentary coconut jelly: to balance your taste buds after having slurped all the soup.
PART 3: Dipping / Mixing
My colleague has stopped dreaming of roast dinners, his long-term comfort food, in favour of bún chả. ‘Nuff said.
Noodle soups are the heroes of Hanoi winter weather, but the sun can peek out again on any day and all of a sudden steaming hot broth seems too much. Here come cold noodles with deep fried tofu and co. in a flat bamboo basket for you and yours. Sharing is caring!
Bún thịt nướng
People grill and sell pork skewers right on the streets irrespective of whether or not it’s barbecue weather. While we bid a temporary goodbye to anything that involves a hot broth in the country’s scorching tropical summer, you certainly don’t have to leave your beloved bún behind. Cold noodles plus marinated barbecued pork plus a good many ladles of vinegar fish sauce equals a dollop of happiness.
Bún bò Nam Bộ
Known in southern Vietnam as stir-fried beef noodle, bún bò Nam Bộ is arguably the most beloved southern dish in the north. It might look like a twin dish of bún thịt nướng with an almost identical serving style, but beef replaces barbecue pork. A filling lunch but also a comfort food, bún bò Nam Bộ has a layer of lettuce and Vietnamese mint at the bottom, a mattress of bún noodles, which is then topped with stir-fried beef, raw bean sprouts, green papayas and a generous helping of crispy onions and peanuts before adding a vinegar sauce. No wonder eating a bowl feels like snuggling in some comfy bed.
This dish isn’t originally created with bún being the core. Its sister, the glass vermicelli miến is the first choice of vedette, but eventually bún, phở and another nation’s pride bánh đa (brown noodles) joined Vietnam’s Next Top Noods. Bún trộn, like other salad-style mixtures with the suffix trộn in its name, is a bowl of meat and or fish and vegetables on noodles, in a vinegar sauce, topped with crispy onion and sometimes roasted peanuts as well. One bowl of bún trộn with fish pie and pork sausage from a street vendor can go for only VND30,000.
Before fresh spring rolls help to put Vietnam on the world’s culinary map, it has long been a well-loved family dish eaten on special occasions like Tet. What’s best about cuốn is that they are healthy, delicious and take little time to cook. A proper fresh spring roll in our family would have (and strictly in this order of construction) lettuce, bún noodles, crunchy veggies like carrot, cucumber or pineapple, thin strips of fried eggs and pork, one or two small shrimps, before it is neatly wrapped into a roll and dipped in a delicate fish sauce with vinegar and garlic. Other versions are available elsewhere, but nothing beats a family recipe.