After sampling a smattering of Vietnamese fare, it is fair and rather fitting to inquire, “how do you like your bun?” Bun, popularly translated as ‘rice noodles’, is a staple of Vietnamese cuisine and one of the most popular noodles, used for preparing a plethora of delicious and exotic dishes, some good and some, well, exotic.
Bun cha (bun with grilled pork), bun thit nuong (bun with grilled meat), bun dau mom tom (bun with tofu and shrimp sauce), bun thang (bun with chicken, egg and pork) and bun oc (bun with snail) can all be consumed at dusty meal vendors around the city but which one is the best?
To answer this question it is imperative to investigate with your nose, mouth and mind. First of all, you can’t just choose any bun cha or bun thit nuong place willy-nilly. You must do some research, either with your own palate, which can be fun, time-consuming and occasionally disappointing or you can ask a local to tell you what street or area makes the best particular bun dish you are coveting.
Most people agree on these areas in general but are quick to point out that there are many places where you can find delicious bun dishes outside of their famous locations. Only once you have tried several of these bun dishes at their most pristine locations can you properly answer the question, “how do you like your bun?”
More often than not the answer is, “bun cha”, especially if you are asking an Ex-Pat, tourist or western student in Hanoi. Why? Simply because it is preposterously delicious and ultimately because it agrees with even the most picky of Westerner palates.
Bun Cha is a paragon of noodle deconstruction; it is served on two separate plates and one bowl, all celebrating powerfully simple flavors, and is consumed by combining the three in accordance with your preferred taste. The first plate consists of the obligatory Vietnamese mound of herbs, the second plate is piled with pristine white bun noodles and the bowl is full of a steamy sweet broth, sliced carrots and susu, and grilled pork (cha). While the herbs and bun play integral parts in this dish it is the grilled pork that makes this dish a dynasty. The pork is seasoned with a secret family recipe then placed into a flat metal cage, which is turned over a charcoal fire until the pork is cooked. The grills used to cook the cha are sustained by small fans that simultaneously function as homing beacons, blowing the delicious smell of grilled cha into the streets and up the nostrils of passing motorists. When you get a good whiff of bun cha it is hard to keep driving.
Once all three pieces of the bun cha puzzle are in front of you it is high time to consume the traditional Hanoian dish, this is obviously the best part. Everyone eats their bun cha a little differently but the general approach is to place a chopstick full of bun noodles into the broth, gather a piece of meat and some veggies and lift the delectable morsel into your watering mouth, chew, swallow and repeat. To alter the taste of your bites, many people add their own combination of herbs, either by placing them directly in the broth or by eating them prior to any given bite. Yum! For an added bonus, order some nem ran hai san (fried sea food spring rolls) and dip them in the broth, which doubles as nem ran dipping sauce.
Pho might be the most famous dish of Vietnam but there is nothing that screams Hanoi louder than bun cha. A trip to Hanoi without at least one sampling of bun cha is like a trip to Paris sans the Eiffel Tour but make sure to seek your bun cha fix in the afternoon because it is strictly a lunch dish (although you can occasionally find it at night).
Because it is a traditional Hanoian dish, bun cha can be found all over the city. Many places around the city boast the best bun cha and because the dish is so popular many of these places concoct rather tasty bun cha to back up their claims.
However, if you are a true foodie, interested in the best bun cha in Hanoi, head to Le Van Huu, off Pho Hue by Cho Hom market, and follow your nose. I promise that you will not be disappointed./.