When I first came to Saigon, I would eat on the street every morning. At the time, Vietnamese cuisine wasn’t as well-documented as it is now and it certainly wasn’t the popular focus of worldwide adoration that it has become in the past decade.
So, when I started eating the street-side noodle soup, I had no idea what it was called. It wasn’t pho, I knew that — this one came with pork leg, bits of minced pork and slices of boiled pork. In fact at the time pho wasn’t even deemed to be the national dish. According to the Lonely Planet it was spring rolls — cha gio in Saigon and nem ran in Hanoi.
And it definitely wasn’t bun bo Hue — during this period this ‘new’ dish was just starting to make inroads into the Ho Chi Minh City dining scene. As was other cuisine from Hue; bun thit nuong, com hen and banh bot loc
Eventually I discovered what I was eating was hu tieu. I loved it, and at a time where pho was more expensive and hard to find in Ho Chi Minh City, this dish with its clear broth, slightly al dente noodles, deep-fried shallots, shrimp and carrot was to die for.
War and Food
The reason for hu tieu being the dish of choice in the late 1990s and early 2000s has to do with Vietnam’s involvement in Cambodia, which formally ended in 1989.
Within two years of taking power in 1975, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge made moves towards the creation of a Greater Cambodia. This started with an invasion of Phu Quoc Island and was followed by border raids into the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. In one village alone, Ba Chuc, 3,000 people were massacred in one night.
Pol Pot’s megalomania included party-wide purges. Anyone who was Vietnamese, had Vietnamese blood or relatives, or who had been trained by the Vietnamese to fight in the early 1970s was rounded up and killed. Those who could, including many top party leaders and Chinese Khmer, escaped to Vietnam. With them they brought the best-known noodle soup dish in Cambodia, kuy teav, a Chinese-inspired dish made with dry, thin, rectangular-shaped rice noodles.
Known by the Vietnamese as hu tieu Nam Vang — Nam Vang is the old word for Phnom Penh — with a few adaptations to make it more favourable to the local palate, within a decade it became a Saigon favourite. A few places served up the original version brought over by the Chinese Khmer which included liver, intestine, tongue and ground pork. But most ditched the additional cuts of meat in favour of shrimp or even crab. Regardless of the preferred version, at the time pork was cheap, making this dish more affordable than pho bo.
From Icon to Bygone?
Hit the streets of Saigon today and you’ll rarely see food stands selling this once iconic noodle soup. Instead com tam or bitty rice, pho, banh mi, bo kho and bun bo Hue are all the rage.
Over the past few years I’ve hardly eaten hu tieu at all. You just don’t find it on the street these days. But I can still taste the broth, its rich sweetness, and I can still taste the pork and remember the way it came effortlessly off the bone. I also still remember late night, post-bar eating sessions at hu tieu restaurants in Vung Tau and Saigon.
Eating this dish was not only a perfect way to start off the day, but a perfect way to end it as well.
If you look, you can still find hu tieu in Saigon. But you’ll need to know where. Here are a couple of places: Nam Quan, 72 Nguyen Thuong Hien, Q3, HCMC and Hu Tieu Nam Vang Quynh, A65 Nguyen Trai, Q1