A COUPLE OF DAYS AGO (APRIL 2 2007) I FOUND MYSELF WITH A LOT OF HOURS TO KILL INSIDE HO CHI MINH CITY AIRPORT, AND TO PASS THE TIME, I BOUGHT A LITTLE BOOK ON SALE THERE CALLED THE CUISINE OF VIET NAM (Nourishing a Culture). A nourishing little book it turned out to be indeed -- it got me through the layover at Tan Son Nhat, and provided me ample food for thought, regarding the rich world of Vietnamese cuisine. One essay in the collection, by Nguyệt Biều, concerned one of the greats of Vietnam food, the spicy relative of phở -- I am talking of course about Bun bo Huế, otherwise known as Huế noodle soup. Of course, Huế is the food capital of Vietnam, and represents the culinary perfection of the nation. Nguyệt writes: "If one had to pick a single food which is reminiscent of Huế, it would be rice noodle soup with beef and pork. Huế residents prefer to buy their bun bo from street vendors, rather than in restaurants. Street vendors carry soft, thin white noodles (bun) and slices of beef (bo) and pork with them in two bamboo baskets hanging from a pole balanced across their shoulders.
"Consumers eat this noodle dish on the sidewalk, squatting on small stools right next to a pot of boiling broth. The intense fragrance rising from te pot is the greatest advertisement for this dish.
"Most street vendors in Huế come from villages outside the city... In these villages, each household has one or two street vendors. Selling rice noodles is both a way of earning a living and of carrying on a family or village culinary tradition. In the morning vendors sell to regular customers, usually in small side streets or alleys. When lunchtime is almost over, they stop selling and shop for the ingredients for the next day.
"Street vendors carry one pot of broth that they can put on a portable charcoal stove, to be heated immediately. Another pot contains additional ingredients such as stewed pig trotters, grilled ground pork, beef and pork tendon, grilled crab, pig and duck blood, and thin slices of beef. On the other side of the bamboo pole is a container of fresh rice noodles and seasonings like onions, scallions, chili pepers, fish sauce, bean sprouts, banana flowers and diced lettuce. Finally, the baskets contain bowls, spoons, chopsticks, a basin for washing, napkins, toothpicks, a tank of green ginger tea, and a few stools: truly a moveable feast.
"Bun bo Huế is completely unpretentious. Its charm lies solely in its fragrance. According to the women who sell rice noodles at Ben Ngu Market, the broth must be delicious above all else: clear in colour with a balance between the salty and sweet flavours of stewed beef bones, pork bones, and chicken.
"Vendors tailor each bowl to the customers' desires. In the winter, customers sit next to the red-hot stove and the boiling broth, covering their bowls with their hands, slurping the broth, skewering the noodles with their chopsticks, and biting into pieces of meat. Even food connoisseurs in Ha Noi and Ho Chi Minh City admit to a love of Bun bo Huế, especially when it is served in Huế."
There are plenty of places in Ho Chi Minh City to eat Bun bo Huế, among them:
Bun Bo Hue Hanh: 135 Banh Van Tran St., Ward 7, Tan Binh district. Phone: 08 865 4842. Map/price details: click here.
Said to be one of the famous shops that serve bun bo Hue in Ong Ta area.
There are fifteen tables in this shop; however, the food is delicious enough to satisfy all difficult customers.
The menu includes: bun bo Hue, banh canh.
Hu Tiu Hong Phat: 389-391 Vo Van Tan St, Ward 5, District 3. Phone: 08 839 0187. Map/price details: click here.
This is said to be one of the best hu tieu restaurants in Saigon, with air-conditioning, wide rooms and a "good sanity condition", according to the vnnavi.com.
Hu Tieu Nam Vang Ty Lum: 93 Huynh Man Dat St, Ward 7, District 5. Phone: 08 923 5904. Map/price details: click here.
This place has been serving native Cambodian Hutieu flavors ever since the 1970s.