Most tourists and expats to Vietnam become fans of bun cha, or grilled pork with noodles. They may have it at least once a week but perhaps never wonder where the delicious soft white rice noodle, or bun, comes from. The answer is Phu Do traditional trade village in the south-east of the city.
|The delicious soft white rice noodle contributed to form various specialties of Hanoi. Photo: Them Hang Rice Noodle
For some hundred years the village has supplied bun to two-thirds of the capital’s markets, where it then goes to restaurants and households.
The old village’s flame
Nestled between skyscrapers in the modern urban area in the west of Hanoi, Phu Do village (in what is today Me Tri Ward in Nam Tu Liem District) still retains its inherent trade for centuries: making fresh vermicelli from rice. Households are busy day and night, producing hundreds of kilograms of delicious fresh stuff every day and selling them all over Hanoi.
According to the elders of the village, nobody knows exactly how and when Phu Do villagers started making noodle , but they are always grateful to the ancestor of their craft. Ho Nguyen Tho, a native of Thanh Hoa, was said to teach the craft of making vermicelli to the villagers 400 years ago.
Together with the tutelary god of the village, he was worshipped in the communal house of Phu Do village. In order to honour the creator of this famous food, a big festival is organised every five years in the village.
|The Phu Do Village Festival was organized in January 2020. Photo: Dan tri Newspaper
Experiencing the ups and downs of the profession, today Phu Do vermicelli has become an indispensable specialty of Hanoians. In 2010, the Bun Phu Do was honored to be recognized as a ‘national brand’.
Currently, it is estimated that more than 50% of noodle products sold at Hanoi’s markets are from Phu Do village. There are around 10 to 15 tons of Phu Do vermicelli are consumed citywide daily. Especially, dried vermicelli has also been exported abroad.
The quintessence of the craft village
Although being a simple dish that is made from rice, the vermicelli still requires a lot of work from craftsmen. According to Tran Ngoc Hau, a skilled worker in Phu Do village, it takes a lot of time and sophisticated steps to make bun.
“The best fresh noodle is made from the finest rice,” he told The Hanoi Times, “and the first and foremost step is selecting the raw materials. A bun maker will choose gao mua, or recently-harvested rice, which is washed, rinsed, and then soaked in clean water for half a day in summer and almost a full day in winter.”
|The dish of Bun dau mam tom (rice noodle with fried tofu and shrimp paste). Photo: Becky Luu
The soaked rice is then rinsed with water once again and ground into a liquid form. The liquid is poured into cotton bags, which are then pressed for hours to drain the water.
“This is also an important stage determining the quality of the noodle: too much-dried rice paste makes dry noodles, while damp paste makes sticky noodles,” Hau added.
In the middle of the process, the rice starch is put into molds for casting long strips of gluey noodles. A few minutes later the process is almost complete when the noodles are boiled until they turn into a rather pliable soft and glutinous form. In the old days, most of this process was done manually with handcrafted machines and the finished product was less hygienic than it is today.
|The dish of rice vermicelli soup with rice field snail and beef. Photo: Thuy Tran
As the glutinous soft vermicelli cools, the bun makers hand-wrap it into the shape of a ball weighing about two kilograms. These balls are then placed into bamboo baskets covered by la dong or Phrynium leaf, strapped onto the back of a motorbike, and taken to the market or local restaurants. The freshness of the noodles, combined with the fact that they are processed and cooked, means the bun only lasts about a day.
The indispensable dish
Hanoi’s specialties with fresh noodles have long become indispensable in the menu of locals as well as visitors to the city.
According to culinary experts nationally and internationally, vermicelli is great as a side to fried spring rolls, with fresh herbs and dipping sauce in bun nem dishes, or to be eaten with grilled pork in bun cha. It is also perfect to eat with chopsticks and a spoon in bun ca (hot soup with vegetables and fried fish), bun mang vit (soup with bamboo shoots and duck), or bun doc mung (soup with taro stems and trotters).
|The bun mang vit (rice vermicelli soup with bamboo shoots and duck). Photo: Savoury Days
For Elizabeth Hobb, a Canadian expat in Hanoi, bun cha is one of her favourite dishes that she ate it every day during the first month staying in the capital.
Due to her tight work schedule as a Montessori English teacher, she had to have a quick lunch and dinner, so bun cha, one of the most famous Vietnamese street foods and available everywhere, fit the bill.
Later, as soon as she had more time to discover other dishes, like many other expats she became a fan of a lot of other noodle dishes.
“In Hanoi, street food with noodles served as side dishes is part of the culture and something you simply must try,” she said. Local culinary experts completely agreed with Hobb. And this explains why Phu Do vermicelli has had its reputation for hundreds of years, and why it is a highlight on Hanoi’s culinary map.