Vietnam has been united for more than 40 years now, but there are still many differences between the north and south of the country. One of the most obvious is the cuisine. The north is home to hearty staples like pho and bun cha, while sweet and sour dishes like hu tieu rule the roost down south.
One thing people from both ends of the country do share is fierce pride in their country and region’s food. To prove my (bias) opinion that Hanoi rules and Ho Chi Minh City drools, I set out to find a hu tieu joint in the capital that would put any in the south to shame. I be unreasonably accused of such northern bias, so I got in touch with Saigon-based food writer Thuy Ca who tried to find good bun cha in Ho Chi Minh City, if such a thing exists outside of the capital.
Heavenly Hu Tieu
First thing’s first though, what is hu tieu? The answer to that question could be an article of its own as the dish has many varieties, but generally speaking, it’s a noodle soup dish with a pork-based broth, shredded pork, shallots, garlic and some other vegetables.
And where can you find the best hu tieu any side of the Red River? At Mi Van Than Duy Anh, located at 98 Tran Hung Dao Street in Hoan Kiem District, cooked by Le Thi Cuc.
Don’t let the street food spot’s humble appearance fool you, Cuc’s hu tieu is delicious and a dish fit to grace any high-end restaurant, and for only VND35,000 a pop to boot. Cuc, a Hanoi native, has been cooking in this same location for the last 30 years and has grown the business to become one of the most popular street food joints in the area. One only need show up after 6pm at Mi Van Than Duy Anh to see this, with even the parking area in front of a nearby bank used as space for extra seating. Cuc taught herself how to make hu tieu, and while she’s been to Ho Chi Minh City, she didn’t try the dish down there, making it even more remarkable that’s she’s perfected it.
The version of the dish she serves features sliced pork, ground pork, peanuts, beansprouts, some salad leaves and a little bit of broth in the bottom of the bowl. What separates this hu tieu though, is the bowl of broth on the side. Cuc said the hu tieu places in Saigon would have the broth in the bowl with the noodles, whereas she has it in a separate bowl. This means the dish isn’t too hot and the ingredients don’t become one big, soggy mess in a bowl. This also gives eaters the option of adding the broth if they so choose, and who doesn’t want more choice?
To further flex all over hu tieu cooks in the south, Cuc tops her version off with a couple of ludicrously tasty dumplings in the little bowl of broth. Take that Saigon.
While Cuc was far too humble to say her hu tieu was the best in the country (though she did cop to cooking the best in Hanoi), she does think it is unique. “You couldn’t get my hu tieu in Saigon.” Pity.
Bun Cha Beckons
Anyone who has lived for some time in Hanoi before heading south soon finds themselves on a quest to settle their cravings for bun cha in Saigon.
Nguyen Lien Huong, the owner of Bun Cha Pho Co on Phan Xich Long, Phu Nhuan district, was no different when she moved to Saigon five years ago. She did have somewhat higher standards, having owned a bun cha stand on Le Dai Hanh Street in Hanoi.
“My family has been making bun cha for many generations,” explained Huong. “My grandparents and parents did it. My daughter was taught how to make it. I learned the trade when I was a teenager myself.”
After trying bun cha made by many of her future competitors in Saigon, Huong concluded that theirs were not as good as her family recipe. A few months in, she opened up her own place. “I feel like the meat in bun cha here is more steamed than roasted and nowhere near as aromatic.” At Bun Cha Pho Co, Huong is very particular about what types of meat are used. She only uses bacon for the sliced meat and pork shoulders for the patties. The meat, after seasoning, is roasted using two large charcoal ovens, sealing in the spices the first time and the second time to fully roast the meat. “It’s the best way to do it,” insists Huong.
Although Huong tries to keep it as traditionally northern as possible, she has made some changes. “In the north, we used the rind, but since the rind here has lots of hair, we have to remove it. Otherwise, the meat would be tough and unpleasant.” The herbs, also, are prepared the Saigon way. “If you cut up the herbs and mix them up on a plate here like you do in the north, people will think that they’re leftovers. You have to keep them apart on the plate here.”
The two ovens used to roast meat in Huong’s restaurant are certainly superior to the small charcoal oven she used for her Le Dai Hanh stand once upon a time. “Back then, when it was crowded, I could only roast the meat once. Only when it was easygoing did I roast the meat twice. Here everything is grilled twice.” But does her southern bun cha stand up to a rigorous taste test from notoriously picky northerners? Apparently yes, and with flying colours, according to the chef. Huong boasts that, among many northerners, Thuy Hanh, a famous MC and model, often visits her place with family and friends.
Well, if it’s good enough for the rich and the famous, it should be good enough for any picky gourmand from Hanoi.