Hanoi’s most famous dish is Bun Cha and is served only at lunchtime. It is made of barbecue minced pork balls in fish sauce with raw papaya, carrot and cold vermicelli noodles. Vermicelli, which translates literally to “little worms” in Italian, in East Asia are different from the Italian type – bun cha is made of rice noodles. It’s a simple dish that is served on every street corner, in every neighborhood in Hanoi. On top goes all of the toppings and trimmings including cilantro, basil, and mint leaves as well as chives and torn lettuce. Sliced garlic, chilies as well as the vermicelli come on the side to be added to the eater’s taste. Like many Vietnamese dishes, Ban Cha balances meat, broth and herbs to perfection to create a savory and filling but still refreshing meal. The dish is different from one of the best-known Vietnamese dishes, phở, which is also a brothy dish with herbs and vegetables. However, phở is traditionally made with chicken (phở gà) or beef (phở bò).
Image: trippinlarry bun cha spread
Bun cha veterans say the key to the perfect bowl lies in the fine balance of fish sauce (nuoc mam) to sugar and vinegar. Each establishment will slightly vary its ratio so trial and error is the only way to find your favorite. Another unique characteristic of this dish is that the pork is grilled until finely charred. When the meat is placed in the soup, the char flecks float into the broth. Spring rolls filled with minced pork come on the side. They are meant to be wrapped in lettuce with the herbs and eaten separately. In the south of Vietnam, they give two bowls to mix the meat, broth and noodles together, but northerners are more resourceful. They’ll only serve you the broth bowl to which you’re expected to add the noodles and toppings. It can be a bit messier if you’re not careful but the portions of meat and broth are large enough to have space for additions.
Image: mahr spring rolls
A stone thrown in any direction during lunch will sail by an elementary student sitting on a stool on the side of the street slopping down bun cha. The best locations are the smallest and simplest without fancy dishes or seating. You’ll find bun cha served by cooks seated on a box on the street with their ingredients laid out in buckets all around and a pot of broth steeping over a simple one flame burner to the side. You don’t have to abide by the tour books that direct you to brick and mortar establishments – head to the streets for the best. Don’t take our word for it, just follow the locals. Although western travelers should be aware of the possible food sicknesses that can come from eating street food, consuming cooked meat and vegetables is less dangerous than raw food. If you are wary, veer towards the restaurants reviewed for cooking with boiled or safe water to avoid any waterborne illnesses. The items that can pose problems are the fresh herbs and lettuce that may be washed in water unsafe for travelers.
Bún chả – grilled pork noodle
Bún bò – beef noodle
Bún riêu – crab noodle
Bún ốc – snail noodle
Bún đậu – tofu noodle