I recently wrote a story for AWOL about the Vietnamese foods that you may not have heard of, but should try. As I was going through my long list, I realised that it was quite a challenge to not include too many Vietnamese noodle soups into the list. It was the absence of Pho in my diet while I was travelling through Central and South America in 2013 that brought me to Asia eventually. However, when I arrived, I realised that was more to the noodle soups in Vietnam than just Pho Bo.
Thinking back to my time living in and exploring around Vietnam, mostly in Hanoi and Saigon, I’d find myself craving and devouring at least one bowl of noodle soup per day – it’s that good! So here are ten of my favourite Vietnamese noodle soups that you should try if you’re ever in an authentic Vietnamese restaurant, or even better, in Vietnam. Be sure to clean up after yourself once you’ve finished drooling over the images.
Pho Nam & Pho Dac Biet
I said there’s more to pho bo (beef), but have you also tried the other variations? Most places will serve the standard Pho that comes with beef fillet, but why stick with a cut of meat that has the least amount of flavour? Pho Nam includes thinly sliced cuts of beef flank that is full of flavour, which serves as a reminder of what meat should really taste like.
If you are a little more adventurous with your food, ask for the Pho Dac Biet which means “the special”. Most places have different variations on what they included, but it should include: beef filet, beef flank, braised tendons that are soft to the point where they feel like jellied lollies and tripe. Some places will also include beef balls.
Bun Rieu Cua and Bun Rieu Oc
Bun Rieu is a tomato and crab base soup that is distinguished by its vibrant red broth. It’s also a soup that is packed with fillings such as chunks of braised tomatoes and fried tofu. It was the first dish that I had during my first morning in Hanoi. I can recall that it was a Bun Rieu Oc (snails) from a street side stall, lined along the table were huge mounds of snails that the owner and cook would extract each rice paddy snail from their shells one by one. My favourite Bun Rieu though is the crab variety where rice paddy crabs are pounded and used in the broth.
There are numerous incarnations of the soup as you move around the country. I’ve had it with sliced pork, braised pork joints, crab and pork balls as well as with a big cube of blood jelly. A mandatory condiment for me is to add a teaspoon of fermented shrimp paste to turbo charge the umami levels.
Bun Ca (Fish noodle soup)
I didn’t see many of these places around in Saigon this dish, but there were a couple of them, tucked away in the alleyways of Hanoi. Pieces of fish are pre deep-fried until crispy and golden and added to a broth with a hint of sourness that is similar to canh chua: fishy, with sour notes from the tomato and the pineapple segments. One addition that I haven’t seen in any other noodle soup is dill and chervil.
Originating from the central regions of Vietnam, you could probably classify it as half noodle soup and half salad. The amount of soup is quite minimal, just enough to lather every strand of noodle in a rich broth and leaving a shallow pool in the bowl; just enough soup so you can dip a rice cracker soften slightly. It also comes with a side of baby leaf salad and shaved banana blossom that you can eat along with the dish, or mix the entire contents in. The main ingredient used tend to be the classic surf and turf combination of pork as well as prawn.
The rice noodles used are broader, slightly chewier and are infused with turmeric, adding an earthy colour and flavour. Mi Quang became my favourite noodle soup dish because of everything about it just falls into place as a dish. It’s a true case of the whole dish being greater than the sum of all the individual parts: the richness in the broth, combined with the freshness of the salad, crunch of the peanuts and rice cracker, to the hint of spice that would linger on my lips for the hour following completion of the dish.
Hu Tieu Nam Vang
I don’t normally drink the entire soup contents of a noodle soup, but give me a Hu Tieu Nam Vang and it’s something that I will happily do, because it’s a lighter bodied soup. The origins of the dish come from Cambodia (Nam Vang means Phnom Penh) because the south of Vietnam was once part of Cambodia prior the the expansion of the Nguyen Empire. The distinctions between Hu Tieu Nam Vang and other noodle soups in Vietnam is the exclusion of fish sauce in brewing the broth, and the inclusion of garlic chives, fried shallots and the distinct zing of chinese celery as garnish.
It’s probably a dish with the most number of variations; from the use of thin egg noodles, pork bones and ground pork. However, my preference is to be chomping down on the firmer white tapioca noodles with thinly sliced pork and prawns and the richness of a couple of quail eggs.
Ok, by now you can probably tell that I love anything with pork in it, but what’s not to love about pork? I found out about Bun Moc from Legal Nomads and would have eaten it at least once a week during my time in Saigon. The broth is made from mainly pork bones and its simplicity makes it the ultimate comfort food.
The pork balls are made of finely ground pork and finely chopped wood ear fungus and then mixed together until a fine paste is formed. That is the secret to how they become so light and airy when braised in the pork broth. The pork balls can also be fried to give them a golden colour and different texture as well. Usually served with a braised rib, it’s the dish that surprises my friends the most when I introduce them to alternative Vietnamese dishes that they haven’t heard of.
If Pho Bo is seen as a delicate soup, the Bun Bo can be seen as the opposite. It’s a darker, spicier and fragrant broth that is usually on display in a huge pot that never fails to catch my attention when I go past a Bun Bo Hue stand. My favourite time to devour a bowl is in the evenings when it’s slightly cooler and there’s a gentle breeze to cool down the beads of sweat that have formed as I’m slurping away at round noodles like a kid eating spaghetti.
Unlike pho, big cuts of brisket or shank are slowly braised, allowing the collagen in the meat to seep into the broth and leaving the flavours of lemon grass clinging to you lips. There are other varieties that contain pigs knuckle and congealed blood, but mine prefer it less piggy.
How does this sound? Crispy pork with braised eggplant, fish and squid that is served with noodles in a murky and pungent fermented fish broth. Enough to put you off yet? Trust me, this dish is well worth tasting. After eating many light and delicately tasting soups, you may want to step it up a notch and try some Bun Mam.
Gazing at the list of ingredients, you would think that it was made by somebody who just mixed together whatever leftovers were in the fridge that were beyond the expiry date. Somehow though, this is the real deal and all of the flavours just work together like a symphony.
Banh Can Cua
I usually experience a gag reflex when I eat anything with very few textures, but for some strange reason, when I eat the soft and mushy noodles made from tapioca flour, I get no such reaction. Banh Can Cua uses these types of noodles that has the same appearance as Japanese udon, but is a lot softer. If you held if with your chopstick you’ll be amazed as to how it doesn’t fall apart due its softness.
I’ve seen a number of versions of this dish, but the common theme is that you’ll get a lot of crab and the soup mixture will be thick. Sometimes I’m not sure whether to eat it with a spoon or slurp it up with chopsticks.
The final Vietnamese noodle soup is Bun Suong. Most people who I have spoken to who have lived in Saigon and Hanoi for an extended period of time, haven’t heard about it. I only came across it when A Blog of Salt mentioned the dish on her Instagram, so I had to go find it in Saigon. It turned out that there was only one place in Saigon where I could find that made it, which was Ben Thanh Market.
What makes this soup so special is the prawn sausage that is made from ground shrimp that is golden in colour as a result of the addition of annatto oil. The sausage is nice and springy and the accompanying tamarind sauce works a treat with it – something I’ve never seen used with other noodle soups.