There are good reasons why travellers like visiting Hanoi between September and November. It’s the time of year when autumn breezes sing on tree-lined roads enchanted with golden leaves and the aroma of milk flowers. It’s also this time of year when Hanoians, including me, feel happy, open-minded and blessed.
More people than normal head to the streets, walking and enjoying the ambience of the city. Couples, hand in hand, walk around Hoan Kiem Lake. Office workers, instead of hiding themselves away from the sun, eating lunch in the office, venture outside to hang out and eat at cafés.
The weather also strengthens people’s desire for food, a time when street eateries selling dishes with hot broth are packed with people. Pho, bun ca or fish noodles, bun rieu or crab noodles, bun bo Hue or Hue-style beef noodle soup are always favourites at this time of year.
Seafood noodles are also popular, particularly with young people, who prefer a bowl of hot and spicy broth with something rich in taste to heat up their bodies. Bun be be or noodles with mantis shrimp, bun hai san or noodles with seafood and banh canh ghe or Vietnamese-style udon noodles with crab, are some of the dishes that are all the rage in Hanoi these days. But at the top of the pile sits bun be be — in my opinion, it is the undisputed king of the seafood noodles.
A Recent Addition
Like other seafood noodle dishes, bun be be is not traditional Hanoi fare. Typically, people in Hanoi eat noodles with freshwater fish, crab or shrimp that are found in the likes of bun ca and bun rieu.
But seafood noodles is a combination of something staple; bun together with seafood ingredients that are quite familiar are brought from beaches in the north of the country, and so more options are available. Be be, a sibling of the shrimp, is a favourite when people go on beach holidays in the north. Yet, while this variant is popular at the seaside, until recently, not many people in Hanoi thought of asking for it instead of their standard bun ca.
So how was this dish brought to Hanoi? The owner of Café Van Mieu, one of the two eateries that are said to be the first to sell bun be be, told me: “When we went on holiday in Halong, my friend invited us to go for bun be be. I was a bit surprised. As be be has a tough shell, it is quite hard, even a bit dirty if you have to peel it and then put it back into the noodle bowl. But instead, I was offered a noodle bowl with peeled be be and other kinds of seafood. It turned out to be delicious.”
Café Van Mieu offers ready-to-eat be be served with noodles, Vietnamese mustard greens and slivers of spring onion. Add some spices to counterbalance the fishy taste, and the full flavour of the dish is brought out. Delicious bun be be can also be found on Ngu Xa or Tran Quoc Toan streets.
Café Van Mieu is famous for offering really sweet, fresh and rich-tasting be be. The owner told me: “Our be be is brought by relatives who live on Cat Ba island. The saltier the water is, the stronger the waves at beaches where this kind of shrimp lives, the better the be be tastes. We have tried a number of beaches in the North, and I think that the be be from Cat Ba is the best.”
“The two fundamental factors required for a delicious bun be be is the shrimp and the broth — both depend on the way you treat fresh be be once they are caught in the sea. If you don’t know the correct way to handle the creatures, by the time they are delivered to Hanoi, they are already dead and your noodles will be spoilt.
“The broth should be sweet, yet light, and must be the kind of broth that boils the shell and head of be be, not pork rib broth. People easily know if the broth is fake.”
If you don’t care about being at a famous eatery, you can instead drop by the place at the crossroads of Tran Quoc Toan and Quang Trung to try their own version. For me, the broth is tastier, although their be be is not as fresh.
Café Van Mieu is located at 150 Nguyen Khuyen, Dong Da, Hanoi. A bowl of bun be be costs from VND45,000 to VND60,000. The eatery also sells very good nem be be or be be spring rolls