The charcoal-grilled aroma of bun cha wafting into the street; the seamless mix of carbs (the bun noodles), meat (the pork patty and the bacon) and roughage (the salad and fresh herbs); the warm fish sauce broth spiced to taste; the thin slices of pickled papaya and carrot; the tiny stools, wooden chopsticks and plastic tables. Don’t be misled by the worldwide obsession for pho. The one dish that screams Hanoi, and the street food culture so heavily embraced by the capital, is bun cha. Yet with different readily available ingredients in the south, together with a palate partial to sugar, Saigon’s version of this ever-present Hanoi staple has never quite hit the mark. Until now.
Thanks to the Hanoi brain drain — growing amounts of Hanoians young and old are seeking their fortune in Saigon — the number of restaurants serving northern fare in this city is on the rise. Meaning that nearly authentic bun cha is now readily available in the south. On a mission to savour the best of what Saigon has to offer, I went on a self-curated, self-researched bun cha tour of Vietnam’s largest city.
My first stop was at Bun Cha Ho Guom. Now with five well-located eateries spread around the city, this joint’s epithet is a misnomer. Ho Guom is the colloquial name for Hoan Kiem Lake, the body of water standing at the centre of the capital. Yet not one bun cha joint circumnavigates this landmark. So is the name merely a marketing ploy?
Where Bun Cha Ho Guom succeeds is in the replication of the flavour and the spices — you wouldn’t know you were in Saigon. The fish sauce broth has a balanced mix of garlic, chilli and pepper and spice, while the pork patty and the Vietnamese bacon have that charcoal-grilled edge you would expect of the original. But beyond this, their rendition is a whole-hearted average.
There were inevitable differences in the accoutrements — the crushed wet chilli and addition of grated morning glory to the salad basket don’t make the cut up north. Every joint I would visit on this bun cha crawl had their own creative adjustments. But there was nothing at Ho Guom to leave you salivating for more.
Which is an accusation you can’t make of my second stop, Anh Hong. A southern branch of the over-popularised Bun Cha Hang Manh in Hanoi, here the standout was the meat. The patties were cooked to order, and were so well-spiced and wholesome that they eclipsed the counterparts raved over by guidebooks at their sister restaurant in the capital.
Located down a small drive-in alley, Anh Hong got other things right, too. The fish sauce broth was served warm and slightly sweet — unlike at my first stop — and there was a greater variety on the fresh herbs. The addition of pickled chillies and garlic on the side, added a spicy, vinegary kick.
After two failed attempts — Song Nam on Dinh Tien Hoang had closed down while the eatery at 217 Nguyen Van Thu, Q1 had that dirty street-side look that had my stomach crying out a definitive ‘no’ — I decided to forgo driving out to the eateries in Tan Binh in favour of the long-running Bun Cha Ha Noi in town.
One of the city’s prominent bun cha joints, the typical ramshackle, street food eatery interior belied the product. For an all-round contender, this stood head and barbecued meat shoulders above the competition. The salad basket was huge, the portion of bun larger than elsewhere, the pickles, the fish sauce broth and even the meat — done not to perfection, but close.
While I enjoyed aspects of Anh Hong more, this eatery — which hewed closer to its northern cousin than the others — took home top noodle.
Bun Cha Ha Noi
26/1A Le Thanh Ton, Q1
VND32,000 a portion
Bun Cha Ho Guom
107 Nguyen Thai Hoc, Q1; 47 Truong Dinh, Q3; 8B Tran Phu, Q5
VND35,000 a portion
Bun Cha Anh Hong
140B Ly Chinh Thang, Q3
VND36,000 a portion