The Vietnamese staple balances sweet, salty, sour, and umami in just the right measure
In the central Vietnamese city of Hue, you have to get up early for breakfast. Though the hard-partying backpackers and tourists are usually too bleary-eyed to make it out in time, this is a town that rises before the sun crosses over the horizon, before the tiny cafes that dot the narrow streets open their doors, before the steady hum of motorcycles and blaring horns takes over as the soundtrack for the city. But for anyone with a culinary hankering, this time of day, around 4 a.m., is akin to the witching hour: It’s the best (and sometimes the only) time you can get a bowl of bun bo hue, the piping-hot pork-and-beef noodle breakfast soup ubiquitous to the region.
“It’s basically everywhere, on every corner in Hue,” says Thu Ngo Vu, who runs the travel and food tourism company BeeBee Travel and hosts food and walking tours around the city. “You might wake up and think, ‘I want cereal for breakfast,’ but the first thing we think of in the morning is, ‘I want something made with rice… I want bun bo hue,” Vu says.
In the predawn hours,women carting giant aluminum and pounded pewter vessels set up shop, unloading baskets full of fresh herbs, meat, vegetables, and spices. Here, they begin the hours-long process of cooking the beef bones and pork knuckles for the stock, readying themselves for the onslaught of hungry customers who will descend on them over the next few hours. The stalls selling the popular breakfast soup are everywhere, filling the streets and skinny walkways surrounding the Citadel, peppering the booths and stalls in and around the busy Dong Ba Market.
Vu brings many of her customers to another bun bo hue stand, in the Chi Lang area, on the north bank of the river, roughly a five minute drive from Dong Ba Market. Here, a woman named Ty operates a stall that stays open late—till 5 p.m. Her casual restaurant is colloquially known as Lady Ty, or, Bún Bò O Ty, and it’s where three generations of her family have served the soup, which she cooks daily out of a pounded pewter vessel passed down from her grandmother.
Rice noodles form the body of the rich elixir, which is served with bits of pork slabs, beef brisket, and—in this case—crab meatballs, which bob like apples on the surface of the annatto-tinged broth. It’s a dish that is both widespread and deeply woven into the breakfast culture of Vietnam.
“Because agriculture is such a large part of our country, every dish comes with rice,” explains Vu. “It’s a food that you can eat in the morning that will last you till the afternoon. Because we are a warm country, we need something watery, too, and something that will settle easily in our stomach. [Bun bo hue] is easy to eat, it fits with the weather and it’s part of our agricultural system,” she says.
While the exact origins of bun bo hue remain somewhat of a mystery, it's believed that the soup’s genesis is likely similar to that of other traditional Hue dishes, which found their way into mainstream society by way of royal order.
Though famed for its culinary lexicon, the city of Hue (pronounced “hway”) is remembered for more somber reasons: It was the site of the Battle of Hue, one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Tet Offensive and the Vietnam War, which leveled large swaths of the city and killed thousands. Now the capital city of the central province Thừa Thiên–Huế, it was also the imperial capital under the Nguyen dynasty from 1802 to 1945.
The food in Hue is influenced by the imperial court’s cuisine in many ways. Hundreds of meals were prepared by visiting chefs and tested by the royal family, and with their approval, the dishes eventually trickled down and became part of the country’s culinary repertoire.
Although the food in the north of Vietnam tends to be milder and the food in the south leans toward the sweeter side, heavily influenced by France and Cambodia, the food of central Vietnam—and Hue, in particular—is considered by many Vietnamese to be the most authentic example of their country’s cuisine. Spice features strongly, and dishes have a reputation of being much hotter than in other parts of the country.
Though globalization has practically made the northern Vietnamese soup pho a household name, bun bo hue is still much harder to find stateside. Unlike its northern counterpart, the rice noodles in bun bo hue are round (in pho, they’re flat) and the base for the soup includes both beef and pork, whereas the broth for pho is made only with beef. Though the name is slightly misleading, roughly translating to “noodle beef Hue,” pork is the dominant protein, which lends the soup an earthier flavor and a light yet cloudy broth. While pho recipes season the broth with star anise and cinnamon, it’s lemongrass that helps perk up the bun bo hue with a jolt of freshness and an almost minty aroma.
“The water in pho is usually clear, but in bun bo hue it’s blurry and textured,” says Vu. That murky quality can be attributed to a generous dollop of fermented shrimp paste, or as it’s called here, mam tom. The pinkish-gray slurry is found at markets across the coastal region and adds a slightly funky and almost sweet element to dishes.
To finish, the soup is topped off with a hearty cube of congealed pig’s blood, sliced brisket, and, these days, balls of crab meat, a new addition to the centuries-old soup that’s taken off in the past decade. As with so many other soups in this region, bun bo hue is served aside a bouquet of fresh herbs—basil, bean sprouts, morning glory stems and banana flowers—fresh limes, and thick, crimson chili paste to taste. With these elements and add-ons, the soup transforms into a bright and lively display of color and texture. The meaty, earthy undertones are still there—imbued by the lengthy cooking process—but the minty aroma released by the lemongrass and the fermented shrimp paste can be tasted throughout, creating a balanced finished product ripe with dimension and flavor.
For all of this one can expect to pay an average of 35,000 Vietnamese Dong, or roughly $1.50.
Rapid globalization and a constant flow of tourists and backpackers have had an obvious impact on the city, including shops like Lady Ty’s, where the addition of new ingredients and late opening hours are a clear response to the changing times. But despite the changes, the lifestyle in Hue is still fairly conservative, and history is repeatedly honored through tradition. Nothing says that better than a bowl of bun bo hue, and it’s well worth getting up a little earlier.