The pho lovers Marmite
45 Tran Hung Dao, Hoi An
Bun bo: it’s the pho lovers Marmite, a rich combination of spicy, sour, salty and sweet flavours with a predominant lemongrass hit. Pho in comparison is the soother, an altogether sweeter, more delicate dish in its pure form, with flavour enhancers (in Central Vietnam at least), bowls of sweet chilli paste, hoisin sauce, lime and herbs sitting at the table to be added after the dish has been served. True pho is about a clean, clear stock. With bun bo, the flavour layering process is in the cooking.
Bun bo originated in the former capital city Hue – hence its street name in the more northern and southern provinces of bun bo Hue. In Central Vietnam this spicy beef noodle soup is more commonly known as bun bo.
Hue, for the purist at least, is the place to buckle down over a steaming bowl of bun bo, and teams of stalls and soup shops line the streets within a very large radius of the citadel city, each one serving their own family’s interpretation (you can never get bored of bun bo)!
For bun bo virgins, it looks a lot like pho bo and the stock is almost always based around the beef shank or shin bone, but there its preparation similarities end. Where pho is fortified with spices (cloves, star anise, cinnamon), bun bo has lemongrass as its star attraction, added at the beginning of the process with earthy fermented shrimp paste and spicy green chilli oil, plus an array of pork products that sometimes include feet. The real giveaway to the uneducated (other than the taste) is the noodle — in pho the noodle is flat (bahn pho), while in bun bo it’s round (bun), a bit like thin spaghetti.
Bun bo is very much a breakfast dish, which means the good stalls sell out by about 07:30. The best place to sample it in Hoi An is at one of the one-dish food stalls (normal rules apply – busy is best) that set up shop daily on the outskirts of town. Our regular pitch is a mobile stall run by a characterful old lady and her family from Hue. They set up in front of Khoi tailor shop by the alleyway that leads to the Ba Le well on Tran Hung Dao Street from dawn till 08:00 (get there by 07:00 to guarantee yourself a bowl). Her stall is a bit of a bun fight (sorry), with three generations of the family slaving over the stock pot, the matriarch in place monitoring all additions, the menfolk in charge of the meat, the kids in charge of crowd control and the ladies keeping the whole thing together.
If you miss her then head into the alley and you’ll find the next best bun bo stall about 20 metres down on the right. This is a Hoi An locals’ favourite, which put simply means the stallholder has a no-holds-barred approach to which pig parts she uses to compliment her stock — it’s not unusual to see a couple of penises mingling with the blood and bowel. Although her stock pot is not visually appealing (especially that early in the morning), the end result is quite delicious. Unless you specify that you’d like your serving heavy on the organ, you’ll be served up a clear and fragrant bun bo for 20,000 VND.
Two final words of warning about bun bo. The first is that although you can get this dish in tourist restaurants, don’t. The stock is almost always made from a cube and bears little resemblance to the real thing. The second is that if you are even slightly squeamish, don’t look in the stock pot.
By Caroline Mills
Last updated on 24th July, 2014.