Though rice is the main staple food of Vietnamese people, noodles are often their favorite choice of food. From breakfast, lunch, and dinner to late-night snacks, you can easily spot locals slurping noodles at any time of the day. They are simply the thread of daily life.
No one really knows what time or age noodles are introduced to Vietnam. The only thing we know is that they are fervently enjoyed across the S-shaped country, from the worldwide popular phở, the irresistible bún chả, to the peculiar cao lầu. Some people like to make noodle dishes at home, while others relish the time at their familiar food stalls or restaurants.
Similar to rice, there are a dozen types of noodles in Vietnamese cuisine. They vary in terms of shapes, cooking, and serving methods. For example, noodles can be fresh or dried, milky white or transparent, flat or cylindrical. They can be served in broth, mixed with vegetables, or woven into bundles. And even though the principal component is rice flour, other ingredients might be added to achieve unique color, flavor, and texture.
Arguably, phở is the most famous Vietnamese dish overseas. It looks simple, consisting of flat rice noodles, boiled beef, broth, and sliced green onions. Yet making a good bowl of phở, especially the clear and aromatic broth, is an elaborate process. Very often, the soup is made by simmering beef bones and herbs for hours or even overnight. It is then flavored with grilled ginger, star anise, cinnamon, and black cardamom. A cook only assembles a bowl of phở just before eating. It is shrouded in clouds of steam and accompanied by fresh lemons, chili, Thai basil, and especially saw tooth herb.
Phở is said to originate from a humble dish called xáo trâu which consists of water buffalo meat, soup, and rice vermicelli. By the end of the 19th century, Hanoians perfected this dish, making it more tasty and balanced. They switched buffalo meat with thinly sliced beef. The broth, on the other hand, was refined with beef bones and other spices. Over the years, phở has evolved. Various cuts of meat are added, including flank, brisket, tripe, and tender sinew. An alternative to beef was also founded in 1939, which is chicken. The light flavor of chicken meat matches so well with the delicacy of phở.
Please note that there are some disparities in the way phở is served between regions. Phở in Saigon often comes with mungbean sprouts, chili paste, and hoisin sauce, whereas in Hanoi, it is served with bagel twists and chili sauce.
2. Bún (Rice Vermicelli)
In contrast to the flat rice noodles that are mostly seen in phở, bún (rice vermicelli) appears in a wide range of dishes. These thin and circular threads are extremely versatile and can combine with many ingredients in Vietnamese cuisine. They can be served in a soup like phở, stir-fried with herbs and meat, filled in fresh spring rolls, or simply eaten as a staple food along with a meat dish.
By and large, bún is made of rice flour and water. But depending on the ratio, the noodles can have a translucent to white color. They are available in both dry and fresh forms and should be soaked in warm water for a few minutes before cooking. And despite the same appearance, bún is totally different from miến (glass noodle) which is made of arrowroot starch or sometimes mungbean flour.
2.1 Bún chả
Though phở might be Vietnam’s signature dish, bún chả is the real obsession of many people (myself included). It is believed to be the oldest dish in Hanoi, thus reflecting the culinary tradition of the capital. There are three elements to this irresistible dish: charcoal-grilled pork, vermicelli, and a bed of fresh herbs. When served the meat is dipped in a bowl of fish sauces combined with vinegar, sugar, chili, garlic, and thinly sliced pickled green papaya and carrot.
The final result is an intricate mixture of flavors and textures: savory and tender pork, chewy vermicelli, sour and crunchy pickled vegetables. Adding to that is the refreshing taste of herbs and the sweetness (with a little bit of spiciness) of the dipping sauce. Due to this complexity, bún chả has attracted fans not only in Vietnam but also across the globe, including star chef Anthony Bourdain and former US President Barrack Obama.
- Bún chả Hàng Mành and Bún chả Hương Liên (where Obama dined) are popular adresses among visitors to Hanoi. They serve decent portions and often include spring rolls made of crab meat.
- Those seeking more local flavor might want to try Bún chả Bà Sâm on Mai Hắc Đế Street. I hadn’t known about this vendor until my Hanoian friends treated me to it.
2.2 Bún bò Huế
If bún chả represents Hanoi’s cuisine, then bún bò Huế symbolizes the food of the former royal capital. Containing vermicelli, meats, broth, and aromatic herbs, this noodle dish might remind many people of phở. But instead of the light flavor, bún bò Huế boasts a sophisticated mixture of spicy, salty, and umami flavors. The broth which is prepared by simmering beef bones with lemongrass is the key element here. It is then seasoned with fermented shrimp sauce and fiery chili oil.
Traditionally, the broth must be cooked in a specially handcrafted aluminum pot. But these days, any aluminum pot works. Before pouring the hearty soup into the bowl, large chunks of pig trotter and beef shank are placed over a bed of thick vermicelli. The noodles tend to absorb the spiciness, making the whole dish more palatable. Sprinkle on some coriander, bean sprouts, and banana blossoms, and you will have a sumptuous meal.
2.3 Bánh hỏi
In bánh hỏi, the vermicellis are made ultra-thin and woven into intricate bundles. They are steamed and then topped with chives sautéed in oil and crispy fried shallots. This noodle dish is mostly served alongside rich foods such as roasted pork or boiled pig’s offals.
3. Mì Quảng (Quang Noodles)
As its name suggests, this noodle dish originates from the South Central Coast region. To be more specific it is the soul food of Quảng Nam province. Through the course of time, mì Quảng has followed migrant workers and become popular across the country. It is somewhat related to phở, consisting of flat rice noodles, clear broth, porks, shrimps, and plenty of vegetables. Yet there are three features that make this noodle dish standout.
Firstly, only a small amount of broth is served in a bowl of mì Quảng. By doing so, people can enjoy both the flavor of the soup and the texture of the ingredients. Secondly, the noodles have a distinctive yellow color which is the result of dying in turmeric. Last but not least is the garnish. Mì quảng is eaten together with roasted peanuts, sesame rice crackers, and especially spearmint. All are mixed together to create a symphony of flavor.
4. Cao lầu (Hoi An Noodles)
Also in Quảng Nam province, you can find cao lầu – a unique noodle dish that is associated with the ancient port town of Hoi An. There is no concrete evidence of where this dish initially comes from. Some suggest it has roots in Champa, while others say it is related to Chinese or Japanese noodles. Regardless, cao lầu is an unmissable food of today’s Hoi An.
Typically, cao lầu incorporates rice noodles, sliced char siu-style pork, bean sprouts, lettuce, and the sauce from barbeque pork. A small amount of broth is also added. When served, the bowl is topped with chili, herbs, and some crispy squares made of fried cao lầu noodles. However, what sets this dish apart from other Vietnamese noodles dishes, including its cousin mì Quảng, is the springy noodles.
A unique dish from Hoi An.
According to local lore, authentic cao lầu noodles are made of rice soaked in special lye water, giving them a distinctive chewiness and a grayish-brown color. The lye can only be made by leaching the ashes of certain plants from the nearby Cham Island. Additionally, water to cook the noodles and the broth must be drawn from the local Bá Lễ well. Hence, you can find this roasted pork noodle nowhere else, except in Hoi An.
5. Mì hoành thánh (Wonton Noodles)
A specialty of the Cantonese residing in Saigon, mì hoành thánh is the Vietnamese version of wonton noodle soup. This dish was supposedly introduced to Vietnam in the 1930s. It contains noodles, pork and shrimp dumplings, slices of char-siu style pork, bok choy, and chives. Mì hoành thánh can be served with a clear, meaty broth, or soup separately.
Unlike other noodle dishes in Vietnam which are made of rice flour, the main components of mì hoành thánh are wheat flour and egg. Therefore, it is thin and yellow in appearance and has a ramen-like texture. The broth is also slightly different. It is prepared by simmering chicken or pork marrow with Chinese medicinal herbs. Sometimes shrimp stock is added to give the soup an extra sweet touch.