Bun bo hues in Hue

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With options galore, one can really go to town and enjoy the diverse tastes and colors of the popular spicy beef rice vermicelli soup in its native place

   Mệ Kéo, a bun bo stall that has retained its popularity for many years in Hue. Each bowl is priced at VND15,000 / PHOTO COURTESY OF TUOI TRE

In Hue Town, Vietnam’s former capital, two bun bo restaurants that stand next to each other on Ly Thuong Kiet Street (No. 17 and 19) are favored by tourists.

Not surprisingly, residents are spoilt for choice. They can take their pick from a wide range of eateries, from posh ones to cheap ones to street stalls and even boats during the flooding season.

Most bun bo sellers are open for business in the morning only, as if the soup were a breakfast staple.

The intersection of Truong Dinh and Pham Hong Thai streets is a bun bo hotspot with many famous family-run restaurants named after their owners - Bà (Ms.) Sen, Bà Thúy, Bà Lợi, and so on.

Then, there are crowded restaurants on the southern banks of the Huong (Perfume) River like Phượng (Nguyen Khuyen Street), Thủy, Bà Tuyết, Bà Mỹ (Nguyen Cong Tru Street) and Cẩm (Tran Cao Van Street).

In Vy Da Ward, along Nguyen Sinh Cung Street, there are two popular street vendors: bà Lan and bà Đỗ, who can be easily found thanks to giant trees that host them.

If you love gnawing meat from beef bones, visit bun bo sellers in the area where Nguyen Luong Bang and To Huu streets intersect.

And if you prefer lean meat and tendon, sellers along Le Duan Street is the place to go.

On the river’s northern bank, bun bo sellers on Dinh Tien Hoang, Nguyen Thien Thuat, Nguyen Trai, Le Thanh Ton and Phan Dang Luu streets are also well known.

In the old Gia Hoi neighborhood, Mệ Kéo – a stall on Bach Dang Street near Gia Hoi Bridge – has retained its popularity for many years. Its specialty is bun thit ba chi, in which bun bo is served with pork side meat. A bowl of this tasty soup is priced at VND15,000 which is the same as it was years ago.

Although Hue people rarely have bun bo in the afternoon, in recent years, some sellers have switched to remaining open late, even at night, to serve tourists and locals who want to have a nighttime meal before going to bed.

These late sellers can be found along Ha Noi Street and some of the famous restaurants are Mỹ Tâm, bà Gái, and bà Hoa.

In short, there is high bun bo diversity in Hue, catering to different tastes.

The tip is to choose those establishments which are crowded with local people, and when placing your order, do not forget to tell them how spicy and fatty you like for your bun bo.

Original surprise

My friend, a Viet kieu who hails from Hue, once treated me to her home-made bun bo which totally surprised me.

Unlike all the bun bo I’d had until then, the spicy beef rice vermicelli soup served to me that day did not have cha cua (crab paste), cha (Vietnamese pork sausage), or pork blood pudding, but pork trotters and beef shank as its only toppings.

It was eaten with a few leaves of rau ram (Vietnamese coriander), a few slices of onions, some shredded banana flowers, fish sauce, lime and chili sauce. There was no water spinach, leafy vegetables or bean sprouts that are common accompaniments of the dish.

“This is how the original bun bo Hue was,” my friend told me.

Roi, who has sold bun bo for 40 years in Hue, also spoke to me about the dish’s originality.

“The old and current versions of bun bo are different in terms of ingredients, spices and accompanying vegetables.”

She said the dish now has many toppings, but originally it only had one cut of pork trotter, or pork side, and slices of beef shank.

Its full name is bun bo – gio heo (pork trotters), but now people call it just bun bo, Roi said.

Unlike its cousins in other places, bun bo in Hue is truly spicy and less sweet.

The spiciness comes from not only the extract of lemongrass and chili added to the broth to make it red, but also chili sauce and chili pieces in fish sauce. Not to mention the chili powder that sellers habitually add to the bowl of bun bo before serving customers.

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