Pork Soup for The Soul

From one restaurant space to four, all adjacent, 30 years of steady development now sees Bun Moc Thanh Mai serve over 3,000 customers a day. Words by Tess Somerville, photo by Alexandre Garel

 

Just around the corner from one of Saigon’s most famous landmarks is a lesser known but nonetheless glorious structure: a pyramid of soup. The staff at Bun Moc Thanh Mai — located around the corner from Ben Thanh market — must stack bowls upon bowls of its delicious products in order to serve the restaurant’s ever-growing customer base.


Kim, a businessman from South Korea, goes there every time he’s in the city. He was instantly drawn to the establishment when he saw it from his nearby hotel. “I prefer local food, not food for foreigners,” he explains. “When I saw the crowd of locals I thought there must be delicious things happening there.”


And many seem to agree with him — since its founding in 1980, the establishment’s daily consumption of rice vermicelli has grown from 40-ish kg to 400kg. Current owner and manager Hoang Dao attributes the business’s success to two things — knowing its target market and perfecting its product.

 

Fueling the Economy


Bun Moc Thanh Mai represents two key aspects of Vietnamese culture — an industrious spirit and high gastronomic standards. It aptly responds to downtown workers’ demands for fast, affordable meals as well as their unwillingness to sacrifice quality and taste.


Although the dish originated in the northern town of Ha Tay, bun moc is perfectly suited to Saigon’s sweaty and bustling atmosphere. Unlike heartier soups, it is nourishing without being nap-inducing. Light broth and thin rice vermicelli make it easy to digest while delicate balls of pork sausage provide the sustenance needed to get you through the day.


Co-founder Mai Dao perfected her recipe using a day-to-day process of trial and error and welcome input from her family and friends in order to achieve what she describes as a “complete taste”.


The flavours are simple and familiar. Noodles, meaty pork bones, peppery balls of gio song (raw pork sausage) and cha lua (cured sausage) bathe in a broth made from stewing pork bones with shitake mushrooms, scallions, sugar, fish sauce and other spices. Accompanied by the ubiquitous heap of fresh herbs and veggies, a squeeze of lime, some chilli and a splash of fish sauce, the dish is unsurprising but ultimately satisfying.
Regular Thanh Cong stops in for a bowl at least once a week on his way to work at a District 1 police station. He says that in addition to being easy on the stomach and on the wallet, Mai’s bun moc is the most delicious in the city. “Vietnamese people know bun moc well, so [the restaurant] cook[s] a good flavour for them.”


Kim says Bun Moc Thanh Mai will continue to be a favourite way for him to experience Saigon food culture and fuel up for exploring the city. “Oh, and [bun moc] is great for hangovers, too!” he adds with a grin.

 

Bun Moc Thanh Mai is at 14 Truong Dinh, Q1

 

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