“People are put on earth for various purposes; I was put on earth to do this. Eat noodles right here,” said the late, great Anthony Bourdain while slurping down a bowl of noodles in Vietnam.
The irreverent chef made dining on noodles, preferably while perched on a low plastic stool on the street, into a rite of passage for any self-respecting visitor to the Southeast Asian nation.
While in Hanoi, he famously took then-US president Barack Obama for a bowl of bun cha – chargrilled pork patties with vermicelli noodles, vibrant greens and a bowl of chilli, lime and fish sauce for dipping.
Bun cha is rightly famous, but is only one of hundreds, if not thousands, of different noodle dishes eaten around a country that today has a population of around 100 million.
While noodle dishes such as pho, bun cha and bun bo hue are must-eat dishes when visiting Vietnam, it pays to also seek out lesser-known but equally thrilling bowls that are specific to certain towns and cities.
Our noodle journey through Vietnam starts in Hanoi with bun ca – not to be confused with bun cha. Bun means “rice noodle” and ca is “fish”, but that’s not all there is to this stellar local favourite.
Like many Vietnamese soups, the deep, sophisticated bun ca broth is made by simmering pork bones for a long time.
After this, ingredients are added to the mix including tomatoes, wine vinegar and fresh dill. They impart light and fresh herbal notes and acidity to a dish which beautifully combines sweet and sour.
Toppings can include crunchy fried catfish or bouncy fishcakes, along with mounds of fresh herbs like coriander and basil.
Among the best bun ca vendors in Hanoi is Bun Ca Huong Thuy, which is well-known for its generous serving of fish in every bowl, as well as toppings including crunchy taro stems and even fish stomach.
Despite bun ca‘s ubiquity in Hanoi, Vietnamese-American chef Peter Cuong Franklin, who is chef-patron at the award-winning Ho Chi Minh City restaurant Anan Saigon, prefers a take on the dish found on the coast in southern Vietnam.
“I think the best version of this dish comes from Nha Trang, where it is fully loaded with all the bounty of the sea: a variety of fishcakes, fried fish and fish balls, large chunks of fresh tuna and the wonderful bouncy texture of really fresh jellyfish,” he says.
Marcus Meek, executive chef at five-star hotel Capella Hanoi, recommends two other local Hanoi noodle dishes.
“Bun ngan are noodles with duck in a broth that is aromatic and light, very well-balanced with a clean finish. Then there’s bun oc, noodle soup with snails; a local classic,” he says.
“The broth has an intriguing profile, with intense flavours coming from the Vietnamese herbs, the snails which are poached in it, and a very interesting aftertaste of aniseed.”
Another worthy noodle destination is Hoi An, the beguiling merchant town that has become one of central Vietnam’s biggest tourist draws thanks to the atmospheric, lantern-filled laneways, waterways, ancient bridges and temples of its well-preserved old town.
Hoi An’s fantastic cao lau noodles tick all the flavour boxes when it comes to Vietnamese cuisine; they’re sweet, sour, salty, spicy and bitter.
At Quan Cao Lau Thanh, a restaurant in the city, you’d be forgiven for thinking upon first bite that the thick noodles were Japanese udon. The similarity makes sense considering the city’s history.
Back in the 17th century, Japanese silver traders were some of Hoi An’s most important merchant visitors, and they brought their knowledge of noodles with them.
While Japanese udon are made from wheat, the thick strands of cao lau noodles are made from rice.
According to tradition, these rice noodles can only truly be called cao lau if they are made with water from Ba Le, a local well.
The noodles are then mixed with turmeric and lye from ash trees that grow on the nearby Cham Islands, about 20km east of Hoi An, resulting in their faintly golden-orange tinge and chewy texture.
What helps make cao lau such a brilliant dish is the layering of all the ingredients: a soup base of slow-simmered pork bones with notes of star anise and cinnamon, five spice pork that has been steeped in soy sauce and fish sauce, a verdant tangle of basil, mint and coriander, and the crunch and freshness of bean sprouts.
It’s still incomplete without golden rice crackers, the finest examples of which are still made by hand in Hoi An, and left out on woven bamboo mats to dry in the baking sun.
There are also two more final flourishes that complete the dish: a squeeze of calamansi and a generous spoon of smoky, sweet and sticky Hoi An chilli sauce.
“Cao lau is special because it has influences from three major countries, which reflects the rich history of Hoi An as a trading port,” explains Cuong Franklin.
“Chinese with the soy and five spice pork, Japanese with the noodle texture and flavour similar to udon, and French with the fried ‘croutons’, which gives the dish another layer of texture.”
Back at his own restaurant, Cuong Franklin riffs on cao lau by cooking bacon sous vide for 24 hours before charring it and then adding his own XO sauce and egg yolk, to take the Hoi An classic somewhere altogether different.
Finally, the island of Phu Quoc off Vietnam’s southwest coast is home to bun quay, or “stirring noodles”, and Kien Xay is one of the area’s most famous purveyors.
It started out as a family soup house, but quickly grew in popularity.
Today, Kien Xay is a chain with restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.
Bun quay at Kien Xay affords patrons an interactive dining experience because every diner prepares their own nuoc cham dipping sauce. This makes it a popular choice for families.
First, diners head to a counter under a hanging sign which directs readers, in English, to “make your sauce”.
Here you can spoon together your own mix of chilli, fish sauce, calamansi, salt, sugar and MSG, balancing sweet, salty, umami and sour as you see fit.
After this, patrons can watch their rice flour noodles being made.
Chefs take a piece of dough and cut it directly into boiling water, before dividing the cooked noodles and broth between bowls, to which are added a slick of shrimp paste and a choice of proteins such as shrimp cakes, baby squid or beef.
A big fan of Kien Xay is Spanish-born Bruno Anon, the executive chef at the nearby Regent Phu Quoc hotel, whose love of noodles stems from many years of living in Asia.
“The soft, chewy white rice noodles are perfect with the shrimp, fish paste and simple, clear, slightly sweet broth. The noodles and the seafood are so fresh that all they need to cook is a splash of hot, hearty broth poured over them in the bowl,” he says.
“However, really the dipping sauce makes this soup stand out and hits all the taste buds. [It’s] sweet, sour, salty, spicy, and umami.”
To Anon, noodles are not just a dish, but a tradition and a ritual – he likens it to eating a paella dish in his hometown of Valencia.
“It’s the whole experience,” he explains. “Sharing a bowl of noodles with others [is like] sharing stories, a way of life.”
The Kien Xay restaurants were so busy on our visit that we had to visit three branches before we could get a seat with less than an hour’s wait.
But as with all of Vietnam’s sensational noodle dishes, just one taste showed exactly why they are worth the wait.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.