When I got to Vietnam for the first time I was faced with pho. Pho is an infamous Vietnamese soup that has lured many mispronouncing tourists into dark corners in every city in Vietnam and that is eaten as a staple breakfast dish. It created a bit of an issue for me because I am not a big fan of breakfast in general and soup in particular. I like the stuff that you put in a soup but when I have the choice I eat the stuff on its own.
Now I was not only supposed to eat breakfast, but I was supposed to eat soup for breakfast if I wanted to eat as local as possible. The fact that it was a noodle soup couldn’t make it any better for me and that says something for a self-proclaimed pastaholic.
Read more: The best pasta dishes in the world.
But when in Rome… I ate my way through a few bowls and must admit that there are worse things than eating a hot bowl of fragrant soup when you have just climbed off a night train and you are not feeling too well. In fact, this picture of me was taken at 6 am after such a trip with a rumbling stomach:
I should have been grumpy and would have usually shoved any camera out of my way, but for some reason, I didn’t. I blame the pho but one nice picture of me eating a bowl and a soothed tummy didn’t mean I love it.
My new love: Bun Cha Hanoi
I did, however, at his very same spot in Hanoi at a little corner cafe close to Temple of Literature, fell in love with a soup. This soup is called bún chả and is, in my opinion, the most underrated Vietnamese dish and the whole reason why you are reading this. Indeed, don’t let the title fool you – I was just wanted to do a clever wordplay…
The rules for any good street food stall are simple: you have one or two dishes and once the chef runs out it’s closed for the day. And the smaller and more uncomfortable the plastic stools the better the food. I have no proof for the latter, it was just my impression of this particular place as the food was incredible and the chairs basically the size of half one Western butt cheek. It also only offered two dishes: pho for breakfast and bún chả for lunch. After the pho was approved by the pho lovers, we decided to return the next day for lunch. And what a lunch it was!
If you are looking for bún chả in Vietnam you will have to come to Hanoi where it is at home. In 1959 bún chả was described by the Vietnamese food writer Vu Bang. He called Hanoi a town “transfixed by bún chả” according to Wikipedia. I have never quoted Wikipedia before, but I love this sentence as I was actually transfixed by bún chả Hanoi too and there seems no better way to describe the feeling.
So what is bún chả? Bún chả is a broth with pork meatballs and/or crispy pork belly and vermicelli noodles (the bún describes those particular noodles). In hindsight, I am a bit fuzzy on the details for a bún chả recipe as all my research didn’t say anything about a broth, but all bowls I have eaten were definitely more broth than a dipping sauce.
And it was delicious enough that even I was happy to call it a soup, but then again I added enough noodles, herbs, greens, and extra tofu that it was more stew-like afterward. The taste cannot be adequately described without using all the cliches we writers are supposed to avoid. Spicy, sweet, fresh comes to mind. Just know that it is delicious and that pho has nothing on it (sorry, pho lovers!).
Where to eat Bun Cha in Hanoi
So when I recently returned to Vietnam I knew Hanoi was on the agenda if only to eat a few bowls of bún chả. Hanoi was difficult this time around. I am not sure if it was the traffic or me, but I was having a hard time finding decent food – unheard of in Vietnam, I know I know…
Eventually, I started to focus my efforts back on what I had come for: bún chả. Unfortunately I couldn’t remember the original bún chả shop I had eaten at and honestly, I wasn’t in the mood to brave the traffic and search for it. So I went to the one source which never disappoints: Google.
First up was the international sensation: Bún chả Obama. What is actually called Bún chả Huong Lien has gotten this nickname after President Obama shared a bowl of deliciousness here with late Anthony Bourdain who I needless to say adore when it comes to any food recommendations. The spot is famous and pictures of its famous visitors grace the walls. On the menu, you will find bún chả as well as the popular Obama Combo which comes with an oversized spring roll and a beer.
While this bún chả restaurant is definitely a tourist magnet by now and always full, the menu is still worth a visit: fragrant broth and a nice mix of pork meatballs and crispy pork bits. Mind you, I felt a bit rushed and the spring roll wasn’t the best especially for Vietnam spring roll standards.
Next up I went to number 2 of the best bún chả restaurants in Hanoi: Bún Chả Ta. Again, I went early and came prepared to wait but I was in luck and got a whole floor to myself. They offer a few different varieties of bún chả including a vegetarian version with tofu, spring rolls, and juices. I stuck with a classic bowl and it became my favorite dish in all of Vietnam. I think the secret was a slightly sweeter broth and pork meatballs which were incredibly tender and juicy but had a smokey barbeque flavor that made incredibly so special.
Finally, I had booked a food tour on Airbnb with Minh. I had told her before that I didn’t want to go to the “famous” places I could find in any travel guide. I wanted to know about her favorite bún chả restaurant. We went to 41 Cua Dong and again, the bún chả was amazing. They wrap the meatballs in some kind of leaf which makes them fragrant and juicy. Minh also told me that regardless of where you eat you should add chili, garlic, and rice vinegar to your bowl as most Vietnamese soups are quite basic and ingredients are available on the tables. Probably not the best dish for a first date but delicious nonetheless.
Afterward, Minh told me that the best bún chả in Hanoi is sold at 59 Ma May – unfortunately, they are only open for lunch but maybe you can go and report back to me?!
Book a tour with Minh on Airbnb here – she is amazing and will adjust restaurants and dishes according to your liking!