Every day, thousands of people pull up a stool and dig into a bowl of bun cha, that quintessential Hanoi dish.
Even American presidents such as Obama are susceptible to its charm, despite being invited to try one of its lesser examples, according to most. But let’s not argue about whose bun is best.
Let’s instead meet one of the families working day in, day out, to make sure your nem are always crispy, your nuoc mam is always hot and your meatballs are always moreish.
As with so many of Hanoi’s best eateries, our family-run restaurant of choice can be found tucked away down an inconspicuous alleyway.
The restaurant was opened in 2010, and was the brainchild of Huyen Binh Ngoc, 49.
“I’ve had so many jobs; I even worked in a government office,” Ngoc says. “But now I’m sure I will be working in this restaurant until I retire.”
Ngoc’s younger brother, Tung, trained as a chef and used to work as a caterer; it’s his house the restaurant now operates out of.
“I really love this job,” says Tung. “I love cooking. Here, I fry the fish and make the soup for our bun ca (fish noodle soup), and I make our chilli sauce.”
Tung’s wife, Hanh, prepares the vegetables and three varieties of noodles used across their range of dishes, which also includes mien hai san (glass noodles with seafood) and banh da tron (mixed brown noodles).
Ngoc’s older sister Nga can usually be found on the all-important grilling duty, wafting delicious billows of BBQ smoke into the faces of passers-by; the most effective kind of advertisement.
As a result of the attractive smells and word-of-mouth recommendations, every lunch time the restaurant is packed to the rafters with both locals and foreigners.
“We don’t do any real marketing, and we’re hidden from the main road,” says Ngoc, “so I’m quite surprised we’re so popular with foreigners.”
Ngoc shows us a letter she was given earlier that week by a foreign woman who was sad to face the reality of never eating there again, as she was going back to her home country.
“We’ve even had people crying that they won’t see us or eat here again,” Ngoc says. “As long as people are that happy with our food, I’ll always keep working here.”
Such good food requires a huge amount of effort, and everyone does their part.
“We start preparing at 6am, and usually finish clearing up at around 4pm,” explains Tung. “We each stick to the same tasks every day, to make sure we work efficiently, and without too much stress.”
Every morning, 10kg of fish and several bags of herbs, salad and noodles are delivered by a market wholesaler. Ngoc buys 10kg of pork belly and minced pork herself, which she prepares alone in her own home, before bringing it by motorbike to Tung’s house.
“Good food requires good ethics,” says Ngoc. “I choose and prepare all the meat myself, marinate it and taste it; it can’t be served to anyone until I’ve tasted it and decided it’s good enough for my own children!”
Once she arrives at the restaurant, there are around 120 nem (fried spring rolls) to make, which Ngoc also does alone. Everyone has a quick breakfast at around 7am, and they don’t eat again until 4pm, their last meal of the day.
“After work, we usually just hang out; it’s a long day,” says Tung. “Sometimes we take the kids to study somewhere after school, but usually we just rest.”
During the summer holidays, the restaurant gets some extra small hands to help out.
“I like working here, my customers are very friendly,” says Vi, 12. “I like helping my parents, but I won’t help them forever… I want to be a painter.”
Vi can be found ferrying tra da (iced tea) around, clearing tables and generally brightening faces.
“We had a little chubby boy helping us too,” says Ngoc, laughing. “He’s the neighbour’s son, and used to eat here every day. I joked that he should work here, in exchange for free bun cha. He ran home and told his mum, who agreed… so we had to let him do it for a few days, just for fun.”
Despite the variety on the menu these days, it’s the bun cha that most people come here for. Ngoc used to make it during family gatherings, and her recipe always attracted good feedback.
“I always knew if I opened a restaurant, it would be to sell bun cha,” Ngoc says. “Even though my brother’s a trained chef, I’m pretty confident that my bun cha is the best.”
Ngoc considers bun cha to be the perfect dish for Hanoi. It’s not too hot to eat in the summer, like hotpot or other soups can be, and yet, the nuoc mam can be warmed up during the winter.
“It has simple ingredients, but when you bring them together, it becomes something very special, and very delicious,” says Ngoc.
Tung admits he loves hotpot, BBQ and other soup dishes just as much as bun cha, but he doesn’t go out often to enjoy them.
“Because I have a good knowledge of cooking and hygiene, I don’t trust most street food restaurants,” says Tung. “If the price is too good to be true, it means you’re going to get sick.”
With six days of hard work requiring the same level of intensity and high standards, Tung is confident they’ll be around for many more years to come; even with the daily “crazy hour” at midday to contend with.
But how do they compare to Bun Cha Obama?
“I don’t know who picked that place for the president to eat at,” says Tung, “but I don’t think it’s that special at all!”
Ngoc’s bun cha joint is at 6/31 Xuan Dieu, Tay Ho, Hanoi. They start serving from around 10.30am until the food runs out — usually around 2pm. Closed Sundays
Photos by Julie Vola