Miming for Bun

When you wander into a restaurant and can’t speak the local language then there is a short moment when you steel yourself for the interaction with the waiter, who in most cases, will look as confused as you. Bun Bo Nam Bo in Hanoi circumvents this great moment to test out your miming skills by serving a single, eponymous dish in its long, packed hallway of tables. Sit down and your beef noodle combination arrives before you can imagine what Marcel Marceau would do, if only he could escape from that glass box in time for lunch.

bun bo nam bo

The servery out the front pumps out endless bowls of the beef-packed noodles, topped with crushed peanuts, slices of fresh carrot, paper thin wafers of papaya and a fistful of fresh bean shoots. A layer of greenery lies beneath the white bun. Despite the freshness of the vegie components, the beef shines through and dominates the dish. I don’t think that I’d be surprising anyone by saying that Hanoians love their meat front and centre of most dishes.

The eating hall has all the ambience of dark subway tunnel with patrons eating quickly enough to suggest that they know when the oncoming train will arrive. A mezzanine level seems tacked on above the fray, with a ceiling not more than four feet high. Underfoot lies a layer of banana leaves, discarded in the frenzied destruction of nem chua, small packages of cured pork.

Location: Bun Bo Nam Bo, 67 Hang Dieu St, Hanoi

See also: Stickyrice’s coverage

Drank in public

There’s two ways to enjoy beer. Firstly, the late and sorely-missed Michael Jackson in his apophthegmatically-titled Beer suggests that for proper close examination, beer is best enjoyed in the privacy of one’s own home, lest the neighbouring drinkers think that he or she is the sort of person that would be pompous enough to sniff at their glass of ale:

A gentle swirl disturbs the beer enough to release its aromatic compounds. This level of study is best pursued in the home, as serious swirling might easily be thought pretentious when conducted in a bar or restaurant.

Drinking at home alone however, tends to take on negative connotations rather than being the preserve of the connoisseur. If I told people that I spent my nights at home alone with my Little Creatures, they’d probably associate me with the wrong Michael Jackson. Some beers are meant to be savoured and considered. They are designed to be flavourful and thought-provoking but still best enjoyed in the second way, in public. I tend to think pretension be damned. Swirl your beer rampantly. Drink your Belgian lambic from a beer bong for all I care.

bia hoi keg in hanoi vietnam

Of all the manifestations of public drinking, none are more out in the open than that of Vietnam’s bia hoi. For all the keg partys and beer gardens in the world, nothing is easier to find than a simple keg of bia hoi in any shopfront in Hanoi. Bia hoi is a beer designed to be drank in public and nowhere else. It’s simple and straightforward, comes only by the keg and relies on a huge informal network of shambolic streetside vendors for its success. Larger vendors have their fresh beer delivered daily by the factory, smaller vendors pick themselves up a keg as soon as theirs runs dry. The vendors themselves range from dedicated beer halls to little more than a keg on a stand and a collection of ankle-high plastic stools. Some have elaborate tapping systems for their kegs, others have a clear plastic hose that they suck upon to create a siphon.

glass of bia hoi
A glass of bia hoi

The beer itself is so uncomplicated that it is almost transparent. It has the barest of effervescence, hops but a little hint of maltiness. The head is soapy and can barely be sustained long enough for it to arrive in front of you after the beer’s short journey from keg to your plastic stool.

Locations: Everywhere up north in Vietnam. Hanoi Bia Hoi has handy maps and reviews of various bia hoi joints around Hanoi. In the countryside, the big kegs of beer at the front of the stores are hard to miss.

Cha Cha Cha

Putting the char into bun cha

is a blunt instrument. For all the subtlety engendered by Vietnamese cuisine, bun cha acts as a counterpoint: blackened rissoles of pork teamed with charred slices of pork belly in a thin fish sauce, vinegar and sugar stock with sides of bun noodles and assorted greens. Depending on season, either slices of green papaya or chayote (choko) are set afloat upon the stock.

bun cha meat fest

The emphasis however is on the barbecued meat. After mixing components, loose charcoal from the pork is suffused through and suspended in the stock, leaving a thin black ring of charred detritus around the bowl and clinging to every slurp of noodles. The dish is omnipresent at lunchtime in the north of Vietnam, tough to find in the south, practically impossible to stumble upon overseas without guidance or a moment of serendipity. The above bowl was from Bun Cha Dac Kim on Hang Manh Street, Hanoi, not quite “utter bollocks” as one of my favourite food writers denounced them but certainly not the best bowl. The bun cha at 20 Ta Hien St is a much better bet – their fish sauce is punchy and lively, and leaves Dac Kim in its fragrant wake.

I’m beginning to suspect that the quality of food in Vietnam is inversely proportional to the height of the plastic chairs at the restaurant or stall. If a restaurant has stools short enough for your elbows to knock into your knees each time you slurp at your bun then it’s a good find; if plastic chairs are absent then all the better. I’m not sure how folding metal tables work into this equation but they’re somehow vital to it functioning at all.

bun cha greens and condiment
The sides

What Dac Kim lacks in vim, it compensates with bulk. The greens are plated a foot high, the damp bun noodles weighing in at about two pounds, and a spare bowl of stock and papaya is at hand just in case your bowl runs dry. I noticed a trend down south in Veitnam for pho joints to list that “Bill Clinton ate 2 bowls” on the door, regardless of whether he ate there at all. I’m hoping that Dac Kim will follow the trend and list “Bill Clinton ate 2 bowls, then lapsed into a food-related coma”.

bun cha joint
the servery

Location: Bun Cha Dac Kim, 1 Hang Manh St., Hanoi. A better bowl can be found at Bun Cha, 20 Ta Hien St. .

Price: 35000 VND with a plate of spring rolls for good measure.