Sunday, 8 April 2012

The Good Noodles of Vietnam

Of the countless hole-in-the-wall pho joints in Hanoi, the one I really wanted to try was Phở Thinh. However, the cabbies at the hotel taxi rank had other ideas. I may be doing them a disservice, but I had my suspicions that the restaurant they wanted to take me to wouldn't be half as good, and would be at least twice as far away. After some remonstration, culminating in a threat to get the concierge involved, one of the sodding drivers agreed to take me to where I wanted to go.

phở sốt vang
I had calmed down by the time I arrived, and my mood was further lifted when I clapped eyes on the open kitchen at the front of the shop. I really can't think of a more welcoming sight than stacks of fresh pho rice noodles, baskets of herbs, various cuts of beef and a bubbling cauldron chock full of beef bones.

At the heart of the kitchen was a very assertive young woman who, in between barking orders to her assistant and the servers, rustled up bowl after bowl of noodles all seemingly from memory. Watching her assemble my order of phở sốt vang (beef stewed in wine w/pho rice noodles) was amazing. It was done so quickly that it arrived at the table before my beer.

phở sốt vang with quẩy
I loved everything about this bowl of noodles. The anise-scented broth pepped up with coriander, spring onion, chillies and a squirt of lime juice was well balanced; the slippery smooth broad rice noodles were just how I liked them; and the stewed beef in wine was nicely tender. I also ordered a side of fried dough sticks (Chinese-style you tiao known as quẩy in Vietnamese). These are more commonly added to congee, but work just as well with soup noodles.

The noodles at Phở Thinh were so good that part of me wanted to stay and try a different style of pho. On the other hand, my original plan was to go on and check out Bún Bò Nam Bộ, a restaurant eponymously named after its signature dish, which is what I did.

The making of bún bò nam bộ
Half-eaten bún bò nam bộ
And I'm glad I did, as I got to see the bún bò nam bộ made before my very eyes. I watched as the chef stir-fried some beef and beansprouts that she added to a waiting bowl of lettuce and bún (rice vermicelli). Some soup or sauce (I'm not sure what) was then ladled on top before the bowl was sprinkled with toppings of fried shallots, cucumber and crushed peanuts. I took my cues from other diners, and gave my bowl a big old stir before tucking in. This dish was so refreshing with its mixture of different flavours and textures.

I also had some great noodles in Ho Chi Minh City, where I would start the day with breakfast at Nam Giao. My first visit saw me try the bánh canh cua, a thickened soup with ground pork, crab meat and shrimps served with noodles made with a mix of rice flour and tapioca flour.

bánh canh cua
This dish seems to have Chinese influences in that the soup is similar to the Chinese-style thick soups while the texture of the chewy noodles is redolent of Chinese rice cakes (nian gao). The dish itself is quite mild, but that's not necessarily a bad thing, as it allowed to sweetness of the crab to shine through with the fresh coriander also giving it a bit of a lift. Indeed it was so soothing, I wish I had a proper hangover for it to cure!

bún bò Huế
The other dish I tried at Nam Giao was the spicy beef noodle classic: bún bò Huế. To be honest, it wasn't as spicy as I would have liked but adding some chilli rectified this. What I loved best about this dish, though, was the added pork knuckle, which is seldom seen in bún bò Huế outside Vietnam. Together with a slice of Vietnamese sausage and loads of herbs, this was another breakfast fit for a king.

I'd like to thank the good people at Bánhmì11 for recommending Phở Thinh, Bún Bò Nam Bộ and Nam Giao. The noodles at these joints were among the highlights of my trip to Vietnam.

1) Phở Thinh, 39 Tôn Đức Thắng, Hanoi, Vietnam
2) Bún Bò Nam Bộ, 67 Hàng Điếu, Hanoi, Vietnam
3) Nam Giao,136/15 Lê Thánh Tôn, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

phở bò @ Pho 24
I did try other noodle joints, but I'm not sure the places where I went are necessarily worth recommending. For instance, the phở bò (beef pho) at Pho 24 was decent enough, but being a chain restaurant, the atmosphere was slightly sterile and lacked the charm of the hole-in-the-wall joints. That said, it's a safe option with branches in Ho Chi Minh City and other Vietnamese cities including Hanoi. Pho 24 has also started to expand outside Vietnam, with restaurants opening in locations such as Hong Kong and Sydney.

bún riêu cua
On a previous visit to Vietnam, I fell in love with bún riêu cua – rice vermicelli in a soup with crab roe, tomatoes, chilli oil and a pungent shrimp paste. It wasn't as good this time round, which I put down to the place where I went being an all-rounder rather than a bún riêu cua specialist.

bún nem nướng
I also tried dishes such as bún nem nướng: a bowl of rice vermicelli topped with salad and BBQ ground pork skewers, served with nước mắm pha (fish sauce-based dressing). A similar dish is bún chả Hanoi, where rice vermicelli is added, a little at a time, to a bowl of grilled mini-pork patties and grilled pork in nước mắm pha. These were good, but I couldn't help but feel that there were better versions of these dishes out there.

And so ends my round-up of the good noodles of Vietnam. But what about you guys out there? Did I miss out your favourite Vietnamese noodle dish? And do you have a favourite noodle joint in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, or indeed elsewhere in Vietnam? I'd love to hear from you.


  1. I've never been to Vietnam, but it has always been high on my list. This has made it even more so.

  2. They all looks absolutely yummy. Intrigued by the pho sot vang with the yau char quay . It's sounds like a beef noodle version of bak kut teh, which I love.

  3. Hanoi for me had the best Pho, but no idea what any of the places were called as they were real hole in the walls that we stumbled upon.
    Totally agree with you on Pho24, and the air con was always on super max. Pho 2000 close to the central market in HCMC done a decent bowl if a tad touristy, mainly cos of Bill Clinton ate there once we found out.
    I want to return and eat my way through Vietnam again.

  4. Lizzie - by the time I've finished posting about Vietnamese food, you'll have booked a flight to Vietnam!

    J - I wouldn't describe pho as a beefy bak kut teh, as adding you tiao to this noodle soup is a recent innovation.

    Mzungu - It's funny how Bill Clinton, more than any other US president, is used to promote restaurants around the world!

  5. This post simultaneously makes me ravenous and frantic with jealousy. I want to lick my computer screen.

  6. What a trip - and what pho! So jealous my sister is currently in Vietnam as well so I feel very deprived not being there...

  7. Susan - there's more Vietnamese posts to come, so you might want to invest in a screenguard!

    Cara - your sister is very lucky! You should definitely think about visiting Vietnam, too!

  8. Ain't the Pho great up there, i also had many very tasty versions. Also, and I can;t remember the name, I had a few really good cold noodle salads with barbecued pork scattered over. Heaven. Particularly when the pork was coming straight from a wee streetside bbq!

    1. I think the cold noodle salads are collectively called bun cha, and are native to Hanoi. If they feature squashed bbq pork patties then I know exactly the ones you mean. Sadly, I didn't get to try the roadside version this time. That's the problem with Vietnam - too many noodles, not enough time.

  9. sheesh looking at this post just makes me horribly aware of how limited my knowledge of vietnamese noodles is. and growing up in singapore you'd think I'd have taken advantage of our geographical proximity more and gone there already. high on my list for sure now!

    1. You've got to visit. I need to return one day just for the noodles!