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Forget Pho in Hanoi

As the most recognized Vietnamese dish outside of Vietnam, pho — a northern specialty composed of rice noodles, meat and broth — has assumed iconic status. No wonder, then, that for the Hanoi-bound epicure, it’s something akin to the Holy Grail.

At its best, pho is indeed deserving of praise: Humble ingredients made majestic, a succinct expression of the simple elegance of the cuisine of this crescent-shaped Southeast Asian country.

Yet a fetishistic focus on pho holds peril for the visitor to Vietnam, for even in the capital of Hanoi, finding a memorable version can be a challenge. The foundation of pho is its broth. When made with top-notch components and cooked by skilled hands over a period of hours, it’s a heavenly, multilayered marriage of protein (beef usually, but also chicken), dried herbs such as star anise and cassia bark, and fresh scallions and ginger. These days however, inflation-driven price hikes challenge the resolve of even the most diligent pho makers, and monosodium glutamate (MSG) provides a tempting shortcut to vendors who lack the time and patience to coax greatness from their ingredients.

The same cannot be said for a host of other equally divine northern Vietnamese noodle specialties, most of which suffer near anonymity thanks to the foreign food world’s pho obsession. Which prompts a question: If you’re traveling to Hanoi, why hang the culinary success of your trip on the increasingly unlikely possibility of stumbling across a stupendous pho?

This food writer recently passed eight days in Hanoi without sitting down to a single bowl. And, thanks to the following four dishes, I left with no regrets.

Banh da

Wide, flat caramel-colored banh da are rice noodles made with green tea, which lends a subtle dusky and almost wheaty flavor and a pleasant elasticity. Sold dried at Hanoi markets, they’re heartier than bun (rice vermicelli) or pho. On Hanoi streets, banh da are usually served one of two ways: as banh da ca (“ca” means “fish”) and banh da cua (“cua” for crab). The first dish features chunks of deep-fried white fish or discs of chewy deep-fried fish paste in a slightly sour tomato and pork broth. Noodles and soup are garnished with chopped green onion, cilantro leaves and wisps of fragrant fresh dill. In banh da cua, the noodles are floated in a weak crab-based broth, sometimes with slivers of beef and always with stems of blanched morning glory (water spinach). This banh da is especially tasty eaten cho or dry: a brothless tangle of greens and noodles sprinkled with crushed roasted peanuts and caramelized shallots, to season at the table with chili-spiced white vinegar, soy sauce and roasted dried chili flakes in oil.

Bun dau

Bean curd skeptics are likely to be converted in Hanoi, where rectangles of firm tofu are fried till tanned and crispy-crackly outside but still custard-like within. Served on a tray alongside slices of rice vermicelli (bun) that’s been pressed into a loose cake, a mound of pretty perilla(shiso) leaves and sliced cucumber, it’s a mostly cool, lively combination of textures tailor-made for Hanoi’s hot and soggy summer. Bean curd, noodle and vegetables are eaten one at a time or together, usually accompanied by mam tom, an odiferous purple shrimp paste that even some Vietnamese find challenging; bun dau sellers offer nuoc mam (fish sauce) as an alternative. Diners add chopped garlic and/or chilies to their piscene condiment of choice and sour it with a squeeze of kalamansi (green-skinned, orange-fleshed marbles that are a cross between lime and mandarin oranges) or white vinegar.

Bun rieu cua

When northern Vietnam’s lush rice paddies are flooded, they’re the source of gray-shelled crabs roughly the size of a silver dollar. At Hanoi wet markets, vendors pry off the crustacean’s top shell, scoop out its fat and pound the rest of the body to bits in large mortars or electric grinders. When boiled with water and strained, the resulting slurry becomes a flavorful base for bun rieu cua, a dish of rice vermicelli in a persimmon-hued, lightly spicy crab and tomato soup with floating squares of deep-fried tofu and lacy puffs of crab fat. Bun rieu cua is often served alongside Chinese-style deep-fried crullers — for dunking or slicing directly into the soup. Like most Vietnamese noodle soups, it’s also accompanied by a basket of greens and herbs — leaf lettuce, perilla leaves, cilantro and shredded morning glory stem — to soften in the hot broth. A variation worth keeping an eye out for is bun rieu oc, which features the same crab-based broth but includes the chopped meat of snails the size of golf balls, also harvested from waterlogged rice paddies.

Bun cha

Come late morning into lunch hour the scent of grilled pork on the streets of Hanoi signals the preparation of bun cha: cool rice vermicelli with fish sauce-seasoned pork belly and coin purse-sized pork meat patties. For bun cha, noodles are piled on a plate while patties and belly — the latter cut with scissors into bite-sized pieces — are served in a rice bowl filled with lightly sweetened diluted nuoc mam and thin slices of vinegar-pickled green papaya. A perilla-heavy mixture of fresh lettuces and herbs is served alongside. Bun cha consumption is a highly personalized affair. Some diners add noodles to nuoc mam and alternate with bites of pork and greens, others chopstick up all three and dip simultaneously.

Zester Daily contributor  David Hagerman shoots for the New York Times, Travel+Leisure and Saveur, among other publications. To view more of his slide shows, go to davidhagerman.photoshelter.comRobyn Eckhardt is a food and travel journalist based in Penang, Malaysia. She also is a contributor to Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia and has been published in Saveur, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal Asia. Her last article for Zester was a double book review, Veggies and Grains Deluxe.

Top photo: Vietnamese bun dau. Credit: David Hagerman

Slideshow credit: David Hagerman

Zester Daily contributors based in Malaysia, journalist Robyn Eckhardt and photographer David Hagerman collaborate for publications such as New York Times Travel and Wall Street Journal Asia. Their food blog EatingAsia was named Editor's Choice for Culinary Travel in the 2014 Saveur Blog Awards. "Istanbul and Beyond," their first cookbook, is forthcoming from Rux Martin Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Follow them on Twitter at @EatingAsia and @DaveHagerman and on Instagram at @davehagerman.

  • Northen Light 8·10·12

    Pho is not that special in my book either. However, it flows in the blood of most Northerners and theirs descents. Pho is a simplicity type of food that is made famous, because it is easy to make and has a high profit margin. Refugees from the Vietnam War Era use that knowlege to restart their lives in foreign lands. Yes, anyone can make Pho, although the traditional makers usually are the best at it, and they are from the North. However, there are some entrepreneurs not from the north have been known to do the same, and that explain the reason why their are places that make great Pho versus places that do not. Furthermore, Pho does not solely depends on the broth for the flavor and taste, the other equally important ingredients is the noodle itself. Most places other then Northern Vietnam would serve Pho using the factory made freeze dried type of noodle. Northern Vietnam would serve Pho using daily made rice four sheets that are sliced thinly into noodle form. The right type of noodle and correctly made broth soup is what differentiate a great bowl of Pho versus a mediocre one. If there is a place to savor or experience Pho, Hanoi is the best place for it. You are likely to find the above combination in places other then tourist trap area.

  • Matt 2·12·13

    Really nice profile of some of Hanoi’s lesser known noodle wonders. Just one note—from my experience, the “dry” version of bánh đa is normally called bánh đa trộn (pronounced like chon with a longer “aw” sound but clipped off in the throat at the end), meaning “mixed” or “to mix”.

  • Stefan 9·20·13

    Yes, Hanoi is not only Pho, there are a lot of other street foods to try. Banh Tom Ho Tay, Banh Cuon etc.