Monday, January 25, 2010

Saigon, Vietnam - Bun Bo Hue, an Afternoon with Nguyen Thi Thanh the Lunch Lady

Saigon Bun Bo Hue Lunch Lady

A few hours earlier, Jeni and I were able to sample one of Bourdain's first pit stops in his No Reservations: Vietnam episode – a Vietnamese crepe-like snack called banh xeo that was both fun to eat and somewhat tasty. We got there the hard way and saw first hand how hectic Saigon street traffic was from the perspective of a cyclo transport. No thanks, we were done with that tourist trap. At our guest house, we were able to rent a scooter for only $7 the whole day, which was killer cheap. Jeni didn't like the idea of it, nor would the mother-in-law, but hey, you only live once.

We pulled out our little food itinerary and talked about our next destination. There was just too much to eat but since we were on the Bourdain tip, we might as well have paid a visit to the lunch lady he also visited on the episode. This stall was a bit out off the radar but it only meant more good times on the scooter. Thanks to Cathy's many nice postings on her blog, Gastronomy, we were able to find our lunch lady with ease. It was time to meet Mrs. Thanh Thi Nguyen.

As we were on our way, I prayed to god that Nguyen Thanh Thi would make her bun bo hue. Bun bo hue, is a Central-region soup noodle dish that includes beef slices, pork sausage, fixings in an aromatic lemongrass and chili-oil broth. This is simply my favorite Vietnamese soup noodle dish. When I saw it on the Bourdain episode, I stood up, pointed at the screen and was like, "Goddamn! That looks good". With food flying out of my mouth. To fill the void, I think we got some bun bo hue that same weekend.

Go down a main street, turn left on to a smaller street and go down an alley - the instructions said. We were finally in the vicinity. I slowed down and started to look around what was basically a large courtyard with surrounding buildings. I flared my nostrils wide to detect the smell of sweet lemongrass. To my surprise, there wasn't just one food stall or restaurant, but more like 5-6 others. All with the same set up - a makeshift tent, small blue tables and small red stools. Men sat around on their scooters smoking and drinking. We scanned the courtyard from left to right and it didn't take us long to realize which one Nguyen Thanh Thi ran because out of the 5-6 stalls, there was one stall with a good 15+ customers. I took off my space-ship like helmet, removed my exhaust mask and ducked my head to look around. And there she was, as in the episode, wearing the traditional straw hat and working the control tower. We parked the scooter and she immediately greeted us with a warm smile.

Saigon Bun Bo Hue Lunch Lady

Where's the Lunch Lady? Find her now!

I walked by her 'kitchen' and checked out the broth. YES! It was bun bo hue. I remembered sitting down on that little stool and just grabbing a chunk of towels to wipe my sweat. One of the ladies came over with a bottle of water and I guzzled that thing down. It was super hot and here we were about to eat some soup noodles. I looked over at Nguyen Thanh Thi and she was busting her chops over there, serving up noodles next to a scalding hot cauldron of bun bo hue broth. I know this is gross, but I wouldn't be surprised if her secret is some accidental salt if you know what I mean haha. Sick.

Saigon Bun Bo Hue Lunch Lady

The color of her broth was a fiery red, a sign of dense chili sauce and probably annatto seeds. The chocolate-like cubes you see are anything but chocolate. Andrew Zimmern would probably spend two whole episodes trying to eat this congealed, pork-blood delicacy. The Vietnamese call it huyet, and its used in pretty much used by every Asian ethnic group including the Chinese, Korean and Thais. It's not for everyone but I like it for the texture. There's not much taste to it.

Also in the cauldron were Vietnamese pork sausage patties called cha. I wish places like Wurstkuche would serve this because I'd for sure order it grilled with a bun. This is basically a beige-colored, Vietnamese version of spam that tastes good with virtually everything. Even pigs like it.

Saigon Bun Bo Hue Lunch Lady

Saigon Bun Bo Hue Lunch Lady

Once Nguyen Thi Thanh adds the hot noodles and toppings in the bowl, her "sous chef" takes over by adding the fragrant, red-colored broth and adding a few pieces of "pig chocolate" and Vietnamese "spam". She walked over to our little table and served us the piping hot bowls. Is it me, or do Asian servers have heat-proof hands made out of silicon? And it's not even like they're traveling a short distance, sometimes they are walking at least 50 paces to bring you your food. Most people couldn't even carry a hot bowl for more than 2 paces!

Saigon Bun Bo Hue Lunch Lady

Saigon Bun Bo Hue Lunch Lady

Foreplay was over. It was business time. I had waited for this moment for a long time. To eat one of my favorite soup noodle dishes, in the country of origin, on little red stools, under heat and humidity, with my wife. I took a sip and tasted the soup, which was really nice. I've tasted a lot of bun bo hue, and this would be on the strong flavoring end that some people either like or dislike. There was a good amount of spice but a few slivers of the orange and yellow chilies could only make it better. The beef was tough and wasn't what I expected. She might have pulled out the beef shank an hour too early. But I think the best part was the "Vietnamese spam", cha. That log of goodness took up a good amount of surface area in the bowl and it was just done right – with large bits of black and white peppercorns - just how I like it. Overall, the bowl was very good and for those that may never travel to Vietnam to eat this, you can definitely find a decent bowl in Little Saigon but you won't get that Saigon experience. I still find homemade version of bun bo hue more comforting then any restaurants.

Saigon Bun Bo Hue Lunch Lady

From the scooter ride to finally eating a Bourdain-approved noodle stall run by a sweet lady, it was one awesome experience. Nguyen Thi Thanh is one of thousands of food stalls in Vietnam and in case you happen to visit on her day off, trust me when I say that you will never run out of food options. Thanks to the Gastronomer for a great find and thanks for reading.

Nguyen Thi Thanh Lunch Lady
23 Hoang Sa (Down the alley on the right side)
Cross Street: Nguyen Thi Minh Khai
District Binh Thanh
Everyday from 11 am - 2 pm


tokyoastrogirl said...

Pig chocolate! Tell the Vosges Bacon Chocolate Bar people about that one, ha!

Sounds good...but I am beginning to wonder if Bourdain's show makes a place seem a little bit better than it really is. J and I went out of our way to hit that teeeny tiny little sushi spot in Osaka after drooling over Bourdain's episode on the city, and although the elderly couple behind the counter were as charming and sweet as they were on TV, the sushi was just so-so. Bourdain made it sound downright orgasmic, which it definitely wasn't.

SauceSupreme said...

It seems like HaVL in POTland aimed to do something similar. Is there anyone doing daily soups in LA?

Gastronomer said...

Oh, how I've missed that face! I'm glad that you guys found her and enjoyed her bun bo Hue. Her potent broths always keep me coming back for more.

e d b m said...

TAG, this place was definitely good. But I know what you mean. I've actually begun to feel Bourdain out. Even when he says he likes something on TV, you can tell he really doesn't. Saw it in a few instances in Panama and Turkey episode. He loves the countries, but not all he tried. Just my thoughts.

Sauce! Can I tell you how much I miss HaVL? When I was in Vietnam, I saw a few places doing the Bun Thang thing and was just way too stuffed to try it. I don't know of anyone doing daily soups but i'm sure that will lend itself to yet another LA vending truck concept. BTW, Jeni and I are back on the cocktail tip so when you're back here, we'll have a lot to talk about.

Gastronomer, she really is a sweet lady. She has a motherly/homey personality and I'm sure all customers feel the same way too.

TripleScoop said...

Oh wow that looks so good! I can sure use a bowl right now!!! My mouth is watering!!

weezermonkey said...

I am a wuss when it comes to carrying hot bowls.

Great stuff, dude.

EatTravelEat said...

Looks nice! The owner's smile shows her passion for the noodles :).

Agree about Bourdain of when he likes something. On the Panama episode, it was quite obvious he thought the Chinese food was good but not spectacular. Very little commentary...

Bsquared said...

Glad to see somebody writing about Bun Bo Hue. So many people think Vietnamese food begins and ends with Pho. Me, I"m a BBH man.

In Saigon, we sometimes eat at Bun Bo Hue A3, a small chain. I think they have pretty good BBH if you can't find a street vendor you trust.

Of course, if you want the best, nobody can beat my mother-in-law's.

e d b m said...

TripleScoop, I can eat one, two or three right now.

WeezerM, maybe that's where we should all get plastic surgery? So we can hold hot bowls of noodles. Not sexy, but functional.

ETE, yeah she's great. She could've fed me mud with a smile and i'd be happy. Re: Bourdain in Panama, why would you eat there? Then again, why did I search for Chinese food in Buenos Aires in the "Chinatown" area? Aye!

BSquared, High-5. I know people love Bun Bo Hue too but if you put it down with pho, it'll be like a pepsi/coke challenge. And most people will gravitate towards pho.

Presto said...

nice article with traveling in vietnam. and i also love noodles. yum2x

Jenny Cleary said...

Hey, hey! Came across your blog and loving it. Glad to see Bun Bo Hue instead of the typically Pho like Bsquared mentioned. Also, sweet deal on the scooter. That's better than what I paid in Taiwan.

Anyways, just wanted to let you know I instantly became a fan and that I'm sharing your adventures with others too^^

e d b m said...

Presto, thanks.

JCleary, hello. Thanks for stopping by, many more adventures in Southeast Asia to come.

Christine D. said...

I saw a video of you on VendrTV tonight and wondered what u and the Mrs. were up to...

Holy crap, you guys went to VN! The past few posts were awesome and the pictures look great as usual.

Mmm, bun bo hue! I bet that the "accidental salt" tastes like nuoc mam, so it's all good.

Hobson's Choice said...

Awesome series of posts so far on Saigon. Always love your photography. Fingers crossed that you have more to go.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi E D B M,

Great post and beautiful, beautiful photos as usual! :) That's so awesome that you found this Bourdain stop / Lunch Lady. I saw that episode also and was thinking how oishii it looked! :) Thanks.

mal nguyen said... guys can see more pictures of the Hue's foods on my page at

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