For all of Vietnam’s escalating expansion in the last few decades, there is still a defiant resistance to the tentacles of mass industrialisation in the heart (or should I say stomach?) of its society, especially when it comes to food. Cồ Chử is one of the countless family-run noodle factories in Hanoi that live and breathe this Vietnamese spirit of locally produced ingredients. The factory isn’t registered on any fancy online map – there is no need for it to be. Wandering around the maze-like alleyways of Dong Da district, Cồ Chử was surprisingly easy to find (no thanks to the logic of Vietnamese road construction) but because of the help of nearby residents. Everyone we asked knew exactly what and who we were looking for, and after a few old-school gesticulated directions we came upon our destination.
The factory is fittingly named after its owner, Cồ Văn Chử , who has been running the business for over 40 years. The production site for the noodles is also Cồ’s family home, where he enlists the help of relatives and friends to produce the colossal volume of noodles that the factory regularly pumps out. Cồ explains that a lot has changed since the early beginnings of his business:
“When we first started making rice noodles most of the machinery had to be hand operated, which means that it took a long time to make them. Now we use electrical equipment and that helps us to make up to 500 to 700kg of noodles every day.”
The rice noodles are shipped out to surrounding restaurants, local markets and even individuals if they wish to purchase them for their own cooking.
Despite the implementation of more technology, there are always five or six people working on different parts of the process at all times. There are two main working shifts: one from around 6pm until midnight and another in the morning until noon and the final product never stays in the factory for long. As soon as the rice noodles are ready, they are speedily shipped out to their forever homes to ensure maximum freshness. Cồ says this is common practice for those in his business, and most likely the phở noodles you are eating at lunchtime were made only a few hours ago.
Cồ takes us on an impromptu walking tour of the factory – energetically explaining each part of the process from start to finish. The first step is to soak the grains of rice in large tanks of constantly swirling water – this is probably the longest part of the operation, as they remain here for about ten hours.
They are then moved to an automated sieve-like contraption that helps to drain the water from the rice and churns out a thick white paste with a similar texture to pancake batter. The liquid gets funnelled on to a row of moving electrical conveyor belts, where the rice paste gets flattened and stretched as if it were fabric and steamed with heat, so that by the time it comes out on the other end of the machine it is already cooked.
The result is a never ending sheet of rice paste, which can meet its fate in two ways: either get cut into smaller sheets for its use in dishes like spring rolls, or an mechanical rolling pin of sorts with sharp edges shapes them into perfect bunches of noodles. In the final stage, the rice noodles are hung on circular railings as if they were pairs of socks, and a couple of industrial fans underneath them aid in cooling them down.
The end product is then methodically packed into bamboo woven baskets, each able to contain around 25 kg of rice noodles, and go for as little as VND8000 a kilo for the rice sheets, and VND9000 for the pre-cut noodles. Finally, the baskets are packed onto the back of a waiting motorbike where often drivers will deliver them to their customers in the dead of night so they are ready to be eaten first thing in the morning.
It’s a mesmerising process to watch, each clog working harmoniously in an unrelenting manner to produce one of the country’s oldest and most popular products. With millions of people chomping down on rice noodles every single day, Cồ Chử certainly won’t be running out of business any time soon.