In a recent newspaper interview, celebrity chef Luke Nguyen said that the most clichéd view of people around the world about Vietnamese food is that Vietnam only has a few dishes. I feel likewise, especially about Hanoi’s cuisine. Many foreign travellers associate Hanoi with pho, spring rolls and grilled fish. But there are many kinds of food in the capital.
One example is bun bo nam bo, mixed dry noodles with stir-fried beef. Local people eat bun bo nam bo for any meal. The dish is popular in summer and the name means Southern-style beef noodles.
Bun bo nam bo in Hanoi is similar to bun thit bo xao in the South, which is fresh bun noodles cooked up with stir-fried beef (these days the southern variation substitutes the beef with pork and is known simply as bun thit xao). Both versions are enjoyed without a broth but mixed with fresh vegetables and sauces instead. Yet, the two dishes differ in the way the meat and sauce are prepared, as well as the types of vegetables included.
Rumour and Legend
Nobody really knows when bun bo nam bo first appeared in Hanoi or how bun thit bo xao ‘migrated’ to the capital city. There’s a rumour that the dish was brought back to the capital by troops who returned from Saigon after 1975. A shop called Bun Bo Nam Bo (67 Hang Dieu, Hoan Kiem) is said to offer the best version of bun bo nam bo in Hanoi.
According to legend, this was one of the very first eateries to sell bun bo nam bo in Hanoi. Says the owner, Phuong, who is now in her 60s: “It was around the early 1980s and even before that when I first heard about the dish. Yet, it was not until I went to Saigon and had a chance to eat bun thit bo xao that I became so engrossed in it that I tried to make it and sell it in Hanoi. I opened this shop on Hang Dieu in 1987.”
While the price is a bit more expensive than elsewhere, her offering is known for its soft and perfectly seasoned beef. When a diner orders, a zesty stir-fry of marinated beef hot from the wok is put on top of the dry noodles. The layer beneath includes different types of vegetables. Dressed with sauce and topped with roasted peanuts and fried shallots, the flavours of bun bo nam bo are clean, fresh and restorative, perfect for sweaty weather.
While the preparation seems to be simple, the recipe itself calls for a variety of ingredients and according to Hanoians “the simpler the dish, the harder it is to get right”.
“If you notice, the sauce has the same spirit at that used in bun cha,” says Phuong. “Also, the way the beef is sliced, then marinated and stir-fried is totally different from how it is done in the South. From the first day, I knew that if I copied the same recipe of bun thit xao in Saigon, I would fail.”
Thanks to her tireless market research, she later decided to cater to Hanoian taste buds by adding Vietnamese ham and fermented pork rolls to the menu as condiments.
Says Phuong, “Even though the sauce simply consists of fish sauce, sugar, lemon and chilli, which is the same across the two regions, the difference between the two bun bo dishes is very obvious. Personally, I think the dishes are completely different. Let’s also not forget to mention the regional modification, or the variation in the way each restaurant combines the elements. This also helps differentiate each bun bo nam bo restaurant in Hanoi.”
Bun Bo Nam Bo is located at 67 Hang Dieu, Hoan Kiem. A bowl costs VND60,000