By Isabelle Taft
More than anywhere I’ve been in the United States, the streets of Hanoi play host to daily life: children play, adults chat over coffee, vendors clamor to show tourists souvenirs and, on every block, people cook and eat incredible meals just feet from the dizzying rush of motorbikes and taxis. Saigon offers plenty of street food as well (not to mention traffic nearly as terrifying), but the southern hub is mostly missing Hanoi’s most famous and distinctive offering: bun cha, a meal of rice noodles, pork, fish sauce and leafy herbs served in separate dishes and combined according to the lucky eater’s preferences.
In Hanoi, enjoying the dish is as easy as heading out between the hours of noon and 3 pm (bun cha is generally a lunch food, though several higher-end restaurants we went to also offered it for dinner), finding a storefront advertising bun cha and sitting down on one of the little plastic stools crowding every sidewalk. I visited a bun cha shop at 1 Hang Manh Street in Hoan Kiem, supposedly one of the most famous bun cha vendors in the city. The men sitting outside seemed to be expecting confused and hungry tourists like us. As we approached, searching for an address to distinguish this bun cha restaurant from the one right across the street and the one right next door, they shouted “Bun cha!” and gestured inside.
The language barrier in Vietnam has been a challenge at times, but because most street food vendors specialize in just a few items, ordering is usually pretty hassle-free and sometimes just a matter of taking a seat. As soon as we plopped down on our stools, a woman put plates of vermicelli rice noodles on our table, quickly followed by a small dish of carrot shavings floating in fish sauce, a plate overflowing with flavorful basil and mint balanced by mild lettuce, and the star of the show: a bowl of chargrilled pork patties. The woman used a pair of scissors to cut the lump of vermicelli into chunks, and then it was time to eat.
There are no rules for eating bun cha, but our neighbors at the restaurant seemed to have found a good strategy. Add some noodles to an empty bowl, spoon on a bit of fish broth, rip up some mint and basil leaves and pick out a pork patty or two. After a few bites, add some crushed garlic or chili pepper or even more herbs. Intersperse bun cha with pices of nem, fresh fried spring rolls. Each component contributed something crucial to the overall taste of bun cha, yet was also delicious on its own. The warm and juicy meat, cool rice noodles, salty broth and refreshing herbs embody Vietanamese cuisine at its best—a delicate balance of simple textures and flavors that interact to create unexpected gustatory experiences. It’s hard not to see a parallel between Hanoi’s signature dish and the city itself, a mash of the old and the new, the familiar and the unexpected, the simple and the perplexing. Like the rest of Vietnam, the city’s people seem to be constantly on the move, except when they huddle around plastic tables to eat and relax while still keeping an eye on the perpetual motion of the streets.