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“I don’t like ‘bun cha,’” admitted our young friend from the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism when asked where best we could sample the legendary Vietnamese dish in Hanoi.
Still, he recommended that we head to Bun Cha Huong Lien, the most popular spot in the country’s capital for the meal.
That’s how we stumbled into the very place where Anthony Bourdain dined with former President Barack Obama back in May 2016 for an episode of Bourdain’s popular television show “Parts Unknown.”
The highly publicized dinner added much tourist appeal to the otherwise very local joint on the southern fringe of Vietnam’s Hoan Kiem District. And the owners are certainly milking the publicity — photos of the event are on practically every wall space, and the “Combo Obama,” a scrumptious $4 meal of bun cha, a fried seafood roll and Hanoi beer, is a menu item.
All that, however, is fleeting. What keeps people coming back here is the warm bowls of soupy deliciousness that is the famous bun cha: a rice vermicelli and grilled pork concoction that may have originated right here in the city.
This is the Hanoi I have come to love, where the culinary scene is just as endearing and as engaging as the glorious chaos of its motorcycle-filled, store-lined streets. Hanoi’s effervescence isn’t just in its many textures, colors and sounds. It’s also in its aromas and its tastes; its light-yet-hearty, mild-yet-very-tasty flavors that will leave you wanting more.
Anyone can carve out their own culinary trail here with the city’s many possibilities, but there are a few essential dishes that must be added to everyone’s list. Bun cha, of course, is one; “bun bo nam bo,” a Southern-style marinated beef and rice noodle salad, is another. Some say Bun Bo Nam Bo, a tiny spot along Hang Dieu Street, serves the best in the city. And having sampled a bowl of the modest-but-complex-tasting, transformative dish here myself, I’m inclined to agree.
“Nem cua bien” (fried crab egg rolls), “banh cuon” (pork- and mushroom-filled steamed rice rolls) and “xoi xeo” (sweet sticky rice with toppings) are gastronomic shoo-ins, too. Of course, clients cannot leave Vietnam without sampling both pho and banh mi. They are, after all, the country’s most universally known dishes. And it must be said that pho in Vietnam is unrivaled in the world.
If you’re a coffee drinker like me, one thing that must be ticked off your list is the highly addictive “ca phe sua da.” Visit any cafe in Hanoi, and ask for a tall glass of this slow-drip iced coffee with milk; though I must say, it’s definitely best enjoyed at Cafe Pho Co in the Old Quarter.
Tucked away behind a novelty T-shirt shop — which, in a way, complements the cafe’s mystical rainforest atmosphere — the venue is the perfect spot to leisurely sip a cold, chocolaty caffeine drink on the topmost floor while enjoying breathless views of Hanoi. Because, ultimately, the only way to experience this wildly appealing city is through and with its food.