There are no signs pointing the way to Phu Do. Turning off the highway, the best way to reach this neighbourhood in outlying Tu Liem District is to follow the smell of fermenting rice. As the narrow streets constrict even further into a spiderweb of alleys, the odour becomes more pungent. Half the households here produce bun noodles, a staple of the Hanoi diet second only to steamed rice. The workshops are not marked, but the smell alone gives away their location.
“In the past, nobody wanted to enter the village because of the smell. But it’s changed a lot in the last 10 years,” says Ha, 32, a cheerful woman who has worked at her family’s workshop since she was a child. Perched on a wooden stool, she wrings the water from clumps of fresh noodles, then tosses them into plastic colanders. Except for the intervention of machines, the process has remained almost unchanged since her great-great grandparents started making noodles a century ago.
If you eat a bowl of bun cha in Hanoi, the noodles almost certainly come from Phu Do, which has supplied the city with rice vermicelli since the early 1900s. Like Hanoi’s other artisanal production areas, the small enclave in the shadow of My Dinh Stadium is still referred to as a village even though it was long ago swallowed up by the greater city. But production remains small-scale. There are about 1,270 households in Phu Do, of which nearly 500 produce bun, each one churning out about a tonne per day. Most noodles are taken to restaurants and markets in other areas of the city to be sold, though you’ll still find vendors here offering the product right in the village.
10 years ago, the noodles were all made by hand. But after one household mechanised the process, other families felt compelled to catch up. “When we saw other houses using machines, we did the same,” says Ha.
Today, the rice is ground and fermented in stainless steel tanks, where electric blades stir up a thin batter. A larger machine turns the liquid into delicate white strands.
“People want to have noodles faster,” says Thanh, 32, who bought his machines four years ago. His grandparents and parents, working by hand, needed five people to grind 100kg of rice flour. Today, Thanh can do it by himself.
It’s easy to get sentimental about this change. Is noodle-making a lost art? But Hoa, a former farmer in her 60s from nearby Nam Dinh province, makes it clear that the mechanisation of the process was a boon for labourers.
“It’s the same as ploughing the fields,” she says, heaping noodles into a plastic bag outside the old yellow house where she works. “Before, we used buffalo. Now we use machines.”
Machines also lend the appearance of modernisation and, by extension, cleanliness — an issue that villagers became acutely conscious of last year, when a Vietnamese newspaper published an exposé on the unsavoury conditions in Phu Do. If there were ever any plans to promote the artisanal noodle village as a tourist attraction, this article surely put them on hold. Even Lonely Planet writers couldn’t draw visitors to a place where “the sour smell attracts many flies” and “fat pigs fight for food on a dirty floor full of urine and dung”. On a recent visit, no pigs or excrement were visible, but producers still cringed at the sight of a reporter. Giving a reluctant tour, Hoa regards the camera with a wary eye: “Maybe one or two places didn’t make the noodles very cleanly and the reporter exaggerated it. We make the noodles very cleanly. We don’t use any strange substances.
We wash the rice many times.” Behind her, a wiry man pours water over a basket of rice flour sitting on the floor and shakes it emphatically.
Machines aren’t the only change that has come to the village in recent years. When construction began on My Dinh Stadium in 2000, many noodle-making families sold their property and used the compensation money to open shops and real estate agencies. “Before, they didn’t have money to start businesses. The government gave them lots of money, so they stopped making bun,” Thanh explains. Even those who continued to produce noodles saw the environment change around them.
“We used to raise pigs and feed them the fermented water,” Ha says. “Now we don’t have enough land.”
But for every family who leaves the business, there’s another entrepreneur who spots an opening. Hoa came to Phu Do five years ago hoping she could earn better wages in the capital than in Nam Dinh, where farms are increasingly giving way to industrial parks. And while Thanh acknowledges the job is “hard work”, he says he has no plans to quit: “I actually earn more from making bun than doing real estate. Soon, I plan to start making pho.”