What is Bun Bo Hue?
Hue, in the heart of the Vietnamese people, is a poetic and royal city. Hue is home to subtle people, peaceful landscapes, and culinary heritage inherited from the royal court in which Bun Bo Hue (Hue beef noodle soup) is recognized as the signature and most widely-spread dish. Let’s learn more about the history and stories behind this noodle soup – Bun Bo Hue – and understand why it is a culinary experience you should not miss in Vietnam.
The origin of Bun Bo Hue
The creation of Bun Bo Hue dates back to the 16th century under the reign of Lord Nguyen Hoang. Legend has it that it all started in a village called Co Thap (meaning the ancient tower village), where there was a lady so good at making noodles that people called her Ms. Noodles (Co Bun). However, there came a time when Co Thap Village suffered severe crop failure for three consecutive years, causing the villagers’ disappointment and frustration. They blamed it on Ms. Noodles for her act of crushing and grinding the consecrated rice to make noodles that infuriated God, so He decided to punish them with crop failures. The villagers made her choose between quitting making noodles or being expelled from the village. With her passion for the artisan, she decided to leave with the support of five helpers as the village’s last mercy for the kind lady. The five supporters took turns carrying the heavy stone mill and other belongings until they were all exhausted and decided to settle down in what happened to be Van Cu Village in Hue. To popularize noodles to the local people in Van Cu, she created the beef broth with chili and lemongrass sauté and other local spices to go along with her signature noodles. She kept on making traditional noodles, and it was passed down to many generations until now. This is believed to be the originality of Bun Bo Hue – the result of creativity, devotion, and even sacrifice.
Types of Bun Bo Hue
The original Bun Bo in Hue is more salty and spicy, while other places across the country have adopted and adjusted the recipes to suit the regional palates.
1. Bun Bo Hue in Hue
The original version of Bun Bo undoubtedly comes from Hue. Bun Bo Hue captures all the essence of Central Vietnam cuisine. To taste Bun Bo Hue is to learn so much about the culture of the Central people generally and of the Hue people particularly. Bun Bo Hue is the favorite breakfast of Hue people. The uniqueness of Bun Bo Hue here is that the broth is clear, and its subtle sweetness comes mainly from the dried baby shrimps and pork legs. A bowl of Bun Bo Hue often has crab cakes, pork blood cakes, rare-cooked sliced beef, and pork legs served with an abundance of fresh vegetables and herbs such as lettuce, Vietnamese basil, banana flowers, and fish mint. When you have your very first bite, you will immediately feel an unmatched hot and spicy taste of homemade chili and lemongrass sauté. The original Bun Bo Hue must have a distinct hint of saltiness from fermented baby shrimp paste. Bun Bo in Hue is noticeably spicier, not only from the sauté but also from the dipping sauce – a small bowl of fish sauce added with sliced fresh chilies. This spiciness deeply reflects the culture and culinary palate of the Central people. This part of the country suffers extreme weather with many months of rain, flooding, and cold winds. So, eating spicy and salty foods is a way to keep them warm. Some locals also share that making extremely spicy and salty dishes helps them save food by restraining them from eating. That’s how Bun Bo Hue, at its source, gains its unique flavor.
2. Bun Bo Hue in the North
Unlike the original Bun Bo Hue, in the North or specifically in Hanoi, people often extract the sweetness from beef legs and tendons. They do not use much chili and lemongrass sauté in cooking the broth; therefore, Bun Bo Hue in Hanoi is less spicy, and the fragrance is not as intense. All the toppings are cut in smaller sizes, and even the noodles are smaller than the original ones in Hue. The local eaters in the North are not big fans of crab cakes, so they are often replaced by meatballs.
3. Bun Bo Hue in the South
Moving down to the South, Bun Bo Hue has adapted to the hot climate. In Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Bun Bo Hue is not mainly a breakfast dish, but it can be eaten anytime during the day. The first impression of the broth is its sweetness from pineapple and the iconic orange-ish color from annatto seed oil. The big difference is that Bun Bo Hue in Saigon uses pork cakes wrapped in banana leaves (chả lụa) instead of crab cakes and blood cakes. The size of the noodles is also bigger, and you will find morning glory served together with other green herbs.
Bun Bo Hue ingredients
A bowl of Bun Bo Hue requires many ingredients and a meticulous cooking process.
The noodles used in Bun Bo Hue come in medium size and are made from rice flour mixed with tapioca starch with a balanced ratio, which is the key point to creating the big stripes of noodles specially used for this dish. Of course, in Hue, the best noodles are from Van Cu Village – the land where they were first created.
The proteins found in Bun Bo Hue are varied from region to region. Basically, people use neck beef, blade beef, and thick plank for Bun Bo Hue toppings because they have a balanced ratio of meat and fat. During the preparation, beef and pork legs are washed several times and boiled in water added with vinegar or lime juice to eliminate the unappealing smell.
One unmissable ingredient is the crab cakes – symbolic of the original Bun Bo Hue. Crabs, generally used in Vietnamese cuisine, are the small, black ones caught in the rice fields. Their carapaces are first removed; the remains are then ground carefully and filtered into a smooth mixture that is used to make crab cakes. The cakes can be cut into small cubes or balls with a lovely brick orange color from the crab eggs.
The broth is the heart and soul of the dish. The flavorful broth results from a sophisticated process of stewing beef, pork, lots of lemongrass, and local vegetables. When it boils, chili and lemongrass sauté and fermented shrimp paste are added. The chef constantly removes the bubbles in the boiling pot to keep the broth clear. That’s how you get a perfect balance of sweetness from proteins and saltiness from the local seasonings.
The ingredients are placed in a bowl in the mentioned order: a bed of noodles first, then toppings of your choice, and broth is poured in afterward. When being served, the cook will place some fresh onion slices and coriander on top.
It is common to find a small basket of green vegetables and herbs to go with local Vietnamese dishes, and Bun Bo Hue is no exception. Bun Bo Hue is served with a bunch of green leaves such as lettuce, bean sprouts, chopped-up banana flowers, Vietnamese basil, mint, and fish mint. These veggies and herbs are typical; however, depending on the region, you may find some other varieties, such as morning glory or chopped cabbage.
Other things you will find on the table are lime (cut into small pieces), sliced chilies, homemade chili and lemongrass sauté, and fish sauce.
How to eat Bun Bo Hue?
Due to cultural integration, Bun Bo Hue is no longer just a breakfast dish. You can eat Bun Bo Hue any time and be assured that it will fill you up all the way. When ordering, you can request the particular toppings of your choice. It’s ok to come to the food counter and point at whatever you want for your bowl (no worries, it will not be taken as an offense). When you get your food, it is suggested first to try the broth to see if it matches your taste. Our locals, though, often season the food ourselves with the spices on the table until the flavor is right for our individual preference. A little bit of lime juice and lemongrass saute can be added (especially if you are in the North or the South) to lend more flavor to the broth; then add your favorite vegetables and ready to go. It is a good idea to add green veggies because it helps balance the amount of carbs and protein loaded in the dish.
To make the dipping sauce, one simple way is to mix 2-3 teaspoons of fish sauce in a small bowl and add some slices of chilies. Ask for an iced tea to help cool down the heat (both from Bun Bo Hue and the weather outside) and enjoy.
Where to eat Bun Bo Hue?
We hope you will appreciate Bun Bo Hue not only as an eating experience but also as an entry in your travel diary in Vietnam. Here are some suggestions on where to eat Bun Bo Hue in big cities in Vietnam.
- Bun Bo Hue Ba Tuyet
Address: 47 Nguyen Cong Tru, Hue City
Price: 30,000 VND – 60,000 VND ($14 – $28)
- Bun Bo Hue O Phung
Address: 14 Nguyen Du, Hue City
Price: 30,000 VND – 40,000 VND
- Bun Bo Hue Dong Ba
Address: 207B Nguyen Van Thu, District 1
Price: 50,000 VND – 85,000 VND
- Bun Bo Ganh
Address: 110 Ly Chinh Thang, District 3
Price: 55,000 VND – 65,000 VND
- Bun Bo Hue 65
Address: 65 Lang Street, Dong Da District
Price: 40,000 VND – 50,000 VND
- Bun Bo Hue O Xuan
Address: 5D Quang Trung, Hoan Kiem District
Price: 55,000 VND – 75,000 VND
- Bun Bo Ba Thuy Dong Da
Address: 218 Dong Da, Hai Chau District
Price: 50,000 VND
- Bun Bo Me Mui
Address: 63 Le Hong Phong, Hai Chau District
Price: 30,000 VND – 75,000 VND