While local people deem snails to be as much of a staple as chicken, beef or fish, for many non-Gallic expats, the reaction is simply “Eww!”
Some common reasons are “because of its texture” or “food poisoning risks.” Admittedly, Vietnamese people do not treat snails with the care the French do, yet they love eating them. I once remember someone writing, “All street foods are chancy” in terms of food poisoning. So if you can overcome any negative feelings you may have about snails, you won’t be disappointed.
Vietnamese snails come from both saltwater and freshwater sources. Most of the snails people sell around Hanoi are freshwater, culled from paddy fields or ponds in villages in the north.
Hanoi’s signature recipes with these kind of snails are boiled snails or oc luoc and snail noodle soup or bun oc. While eating oc luoc is one of Hanoi’s most popular culinary pastimes, bun oc is one of the city’s staples, much like bun ca or bun rieu.
Bun oc Hanoi is a medley of snails and noodles, served in a tangy and slightly spicy soup, with a mix of local fresh herbs. Lighter, and just as good as bun rieu, bun oc in Hanoi is ubiquitous. While people eat bun oc in winter or autumn to warm up the body, it works equally well for springtime or a summer lunch treat thanks to its lightness.
Of all the small streetside bun oc eateries, Bun Oc Co Hue is the one not to be missed. Originally the creation of a bun oc peddler working an alley on Nha Chung — after two decades in its original location the stall recently relocated to a small space on Dang Dung in an area surrounded by second-hand phone shops.
Instead of offering bun oc paired with any type of meat or deep-fried tofu like some other stalls, the eatery sticks to basic bun oc, literally snails with noodles and a snail-based broth.
Bun Oc Co Hue is particularly well known for its delightful and gently spicy broth. The broth here has a moderate sourness, a piquant yet pleasant taste, and added to this already complex flavour is their excellent homemade dried chilli for diners who love the spice.
Like many other traditional bun oc eateries, Bun Oc Co Hue serves the dish in two styles; bun oc nong or snail noodles in hot broth and bun oc nguoi, in cool broth. While the first version can burn the tongue, the cool serving, which is eaten by dipping small noodle pieces into the cool broth, is Hanoi’s favourite dish during the summer, thanks to its lightness and pleasant taste.
The snail flesh itself is another plus as the cooks here carefully select the fat, medium-sized and yellow-shelled snails. It is these chewy snails that make local people love the dish.
“We bring the fresh snails from paddy fields in Hai Duong to the city every day,” the owner’s daughter says. “The snails are carefully soaked in water derived from rice washing for one to two days to make them clean enough to eat.”
Snails are always accompanied by fresh tomato, cut into pieces and put on top of the big heating broth pan. Other important ingredients in bun oc are a variety of fresh vegetables and herbs; lettuce, coriander, cockscomb mint, perilla mint, knotweed and basil.
A social dish, the casual way of eating bun oc on the street seems to contribute to its flavour and uniqueness. This may also explain why the snails, a countryside ingredient, come all the way from rural waterways to another type of thoroughfare, the street. With the right ingredients added they become a key component of one of the best loved dishes in Hanoi.
Bun Oc Co Hue is located at 16 Dang Dung, Ba Dinh. A bowl of bun oc ranges from VND25,000 to VND35,000. The eatery is closed on the 1st and 15th of every lunar month