This old couple currently serves my favorite Saigon Bun Bo Hue in the shadows of a crumbling colonial complex at 7 Ngo Thoi Nhiem Street
Bun bo Hue feels everywhere and nowhere in Saigon.
Bowls of fat fermented rice noodles, banana roughage and boiled pig feet seem to appear on every corner of the city for at least a few hours of the day. But few offer a flavor that approaches the soup I had at a small tin-table café just north of Hue’s Town wall.
The old man who recommended Lan’s place (326 Nguyen Trai Street, Hue) said it wasn’t the best.
Where was the best?
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t have enough money to know where the best one is.”
When I arrived during naptime on a hot day in July, Lan’s daughter rolled, grumbling, from her lounge chair next to the stockpot and put together a bowl.
Small, pepper-dusted herbs hovered on the surface of the bowl like a Central Vietnamese volcano. The broth below had the color of molten lava and burned with citronella, chilies and mam ruoc (a potent shrimp paste the color of molasses).
I took a taxi directly to the airport from Lan’s place and couldn’t find anything remotely close in Saigon.
After months of whining about it, my food guru set aside an entire weekend to reconstruct a proper bowl in her mother’s kitchen in District 6. After a day of pressure-cooking beef shin and playing with the mam tep (yet another fermented shrimp paste) an
aunt brought back from Hue, she nailed it.
In the time it took me to inhale two bowls, I was back at
Those flavors haunt me every time I order bun bo Hue in a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, where the best broths typically taste a little salty, a little porky and that’s about all.
These dishes don’t take me anywhere, and I can only compare them to mediocre pizza, a loveless substance designed only to satisfy one’s craving.
For this, you can head to Dong Ba (110A Nguyen Du Street, District 1) or Co Do (3A Ton Duc Thang Street, District 1). If you mix enough sate and lime into these bowls, you’ll at least get a buzz on—something akin to a so-so slice of pizza doused in Sriracha.
Saigon’s exception, I’d say, is served by an old married couple who have been operating a breakaway noodle cart in a crumbling colonial complex in District 3 for a little over a year.
They share the space with an ice factory, a motorbike wash and Café Vung (Sesame), an adorable second-story hideaway where students from the Marie Curie High School listen to piano music on tiny wooden chairs.
The whole structure is known as house number 7.
For the past 20 years, scores of customers have made their way here around 2 p.m. for bun bo Hue. Last Sunday, I arrived early and was served by a nervous-looking tattooed teenager whose only other customer was a pair of traffic cops.
The soup proved rather boring and was redeemed only by soft chunks of pigskin and tendon.
Unable to finish my bowl, I wandered around the corner, dropping my bike off for a wash and sat down for a bowl at the rival noodle stand in a shaded garage space.
Last year, Khach (literally, “customer”) and his wife Nga decided to ditch their all day rice stand in the parking lot to set up an all-day bun bo Hue cart just a few yards from their former neighbors.
Nga takes care of the soup; Khach takes care of the clie
| While their noodles lack the delicately boiled meats of an air-conditioned restaurant, their broth packs a powerful, fruity dose of mam ruoc (a potent shrimp paste the color of molasses).
During a recent visit, he took it upon himself to replace my muffler mount while I ate.
In his downtime (which is most of the time), Khach usually squares himself off in a corner to read the papers while his wife stoically boils pig feet and chops sinewy beef in preparation for the next wave of students.
Khach dresses like an old poet (berets, a silver mustache and ponytail) but he says he’s never written any.
Instead, he’s spent his life following danger.
At the age of 15, he became a roadie for a traveling cai luong troupe, following them through the countryside where farmers cut holes in the curtain to watch their shows.
“If they didn’t sing well, we didn’t eat,” he said.
Life has progressed in this fashion ever since.
While dating Nga, he offered to teach her to drive a motorbike; she immediately crashed them both into a wall and never drove again.
“I was born in the Year of the Dragon,” he says. “She was born in the Year of the Tiger,” both zodiac animals born to fight.
They have managed to stay together throughout it all because, he says, they both want to win the next argument.
I don’t know quite how, but you can taste all of this in the soup—an honest, bitter sweetness that cancels the toughness of the meat and takes you somewhere at once crazy and loving.
|Address: 7 Ngo Thoi Nhiem Street
Hours: 8 a.m.-10 p.m. every day
Price: VND25,000 for a bowl and
a free glass of iced tea. Motorbike repairs and washes are extra.
Most of its flavor comes from a nearly reckless use of fermented shrimp paste.
“She doesn’t use any chemicals,” he said, pointing to the nearly purple broth. “Just bones.”
Then he squinted and looked around.
“The kids love chemicals these days.”
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By Calvin Godfrey, Thanh Nien News (The story can be found in the November 9th issue of our print edition, Vietweek)