The Holy Trinity… of Noodle Soups

By: Lewis Nguyen

I always get excited when I visit Vietnam. Spending time with my family is definitely the highlight of my trips home, but gorging myself on as many Vietnamese dishes that I can during my usually short visits, comes a very close second.

I was born in Ho Chi Minh City but left when I was three years old. I grew up in Sydney in the suburb of Cabramatta, affectionately known as "Vietnamatta" due to the many Vietnamese restaurants, bakeries, cafes and fabric shops that adorn the streets. Cabramatta is the largest Vietnamese community in Australia and is also sometimes referred to as ‘Little Saigon’. I was put to work in my parents’ Vietnamese restaurant from a very young age, and have been spoilt with amazing Vietnamese food growing up.

Vietnamese noodle soupImage source: asiatatler.com

I live in London now, and it is only recently that some good Vietnamese restaurants have started emerging. I also lived in San Francisco for a couple of years, and although there are many Vietnamese restaurants there, not many are authentic or worth coming back a second time. For me, coming to Vietnam is always a treat!

My favourite thing to do is to find the best street vendors that sell the dishes from my childhood that I love and constantly crave. Noodle soups in particular holds a special place in my heart and are a mainstay throughout Asia, they are light and tasty, and the broth is always prepared well in advance the evening before or super early in the morning. The best thing about noodle soups is the no-fuss satisfaction from each visit where you can literally find yourself slurping on your noodles mere seconds after ordering them.

I am on a mission this visit. As per usual, my first priority is to tick off what I like to call “The Holy Trinity” of noodle soups : Bun Bo Hue, Banh canh gio heo, and of course Pho.

Bun Bo Hue - Spicy beef noodle soup with pork hock

I’m quite often asked what my favourite dish is, and if I had to choose my ‘death-row’ meal, what would it be? My answer is always Bun Bo Hue, a deep flavoured spicy soup cooked for hours with lemongrass and shrimp paste, pork bones, beef bones and beef shank. I’m biased, but my mother really does make the best Bun Bo Hue.

Quan Thuy 

42 Quoc Huong, Thao Dien, District 2
Open 7 days from 4:30am until they run out, usually about 10am. So come early!
VND 45,000 for a fully loaded bowl with all the toppings

Nestled on the busy corner of Quoc Huong and Xuan Thuy, Quan Thuy is my first stop whenever I am in HCMC. It is big and clean and not too cramped. As you approach the vendor, the aromas of an authentic Bun Bo Hue wraps your senses like a comforting blanket. Owner, Chef Thuy, is super sweet and incredibly generous.

Thuy's Bun Bo Hue is the closest to my mother’s that I have ever tasted. The bowl arrives promptly. The waiter places a generous plate of bean sprouts, banana blossom, morning glory and holy basil, and a glass of iced tea in front of me. My eyes widen when I see the bowl of Bun Bo Hue and I am a kid in my parents’ home again. The deep earthy smell of lemongrass mixed with shrimp paste, combined with Asian basil and freshly sliced chilli kicks my taste buds into overdrive and I start salivating. My bowl is full to the brim with thick spaghetti-like rice noodles, slivers of pork hock, a baton of Vietnamese ham, and my favourite, pork knuckle. 

I first take a moment to smell the fragrant soup, I quickly mix everything that is in my bowl and start with a good mouthful of the broth. I went to a whisky tasting recently and was told by the brand ambassador that you should leave the 25 year old whisky in your mouth for 10 seconds before slowly swallowing the velvety liquid. Your mouth will become dry but will immediately become moist again and all the flavours of the whisky will open up and awaken your senses. He called this the "Hallelujah moment". 

Vietnamese noodle soupImage source: Lewis Nguyen

Every sip of broth, and every mouthful of Thuy's Bun Bo Hue is a "Hallelujah moment". The noodles are silky and cooked to perfection. The Vietnamese ham has a nice density and peppery flavour, the slivers of pork hock are not overcooked and the pork knuckle is a dream. I love dipping my meats into a mixture of the fresh chillies, fish sauce straight from the bottle, a squeeze of lime and a generous dollop of Thuy's homemade satay chilli paste. The chilli paste adds an addictive kick to the dish, but be warned, it does pack quite a punch so don’t be too overconfident.

We arrived at 10am and Thuy’s giant pot of stock was down to her last three servings so do make sure you come early if you can. On the 1st and 15th of the lunar calendar Thuy cooks vegan dishes only.

Banh Canh - Tapioca noodle soup with pork hock

A very close second to my favourite noodle soup is definitely Banh Canh Gio Heo.

I remember when my siblings and I were kids, we used to help our mother prepare the pork hock for her soups, this involved hours of painstaking labour using tweezers to pick out all the hair from the trotters. Our mother would then debone the shins, tie them and cook them for the pork hock slices. The trotters would be chopped into smaller pieces and also cooked in the broth. My father then came up with the ingenious idea to use a blowtorch to burn the hair from the trotters. We were very much relieved by his time cutting discovery but did wish he had had the lightbulb moment many years earlier. 

I cannot lie, I have a soft spot for pork hock whether it is sliced or served as the hock or knuckle itself. I love eating off the bone so biting into the hock and chewing through the gristle is heaven to me. The meat from the hock has a tough, sinewy, gelatinous texture, which may sound like an unappealing effort for many, but is absolute heaven for me.

The main ingredients of the Banh Canh Gio Heo stock are pork bones and dried shrimp, my mother also adds lemongrass to hers. What I love about this soup, in addition to the pork hock, is the clarity of the broth, which allows the dried shrimp and the flavours of each ingredient to shine through. I also love the texture of the fat tapioca noodles and how they absorb all the flavour of the broth. 

I cannot find this dish anywhere in London and as of a few years ago the Asian supermarkets and grocery stores stopped selling the treasured Banh Canh (Tapioca noodles). I asked them why and was told that there was no demand, I was shocked and saddened. Now, whenever I visit my cousins in Paris, I always buy a few packets of fresh Banh Canh to bring home to London with me.

Truc Phuong

44, Street 4, An Phu Ward, District 2
Phone: 0919 366 396
Open 7 days from 6 am until sold out, usually about 1:30 pm
VND 50,000 for a generous bowl with added pork hock and quail egg

Truc Phuong is tucked away in a quiet back street. At the front of the stall is the ubiquitous food trolley with noodles, pork hock, large king prawns, minced pork, peppered Vietnamese ham (Cha Lua), and quail eggs on display. All of these ingredients make up Truc Phuong’s Banh Canh Gio Heo. I order mine with extra pork hock and extra quail eggs, and when the waiter brings my bowl I already have my spoon ready in hand to sip the broth. I add generous portions of chinese celery and lettuce and I take a deep whiff of the broth and can definitely smell the dried shrimp. A cannot help but smile.

Vietnamese noodle soupImage source: Lewis Nguyen

The soup is clear, as it should be, and the dried shrimp flavour definitely shines through. The chinese celery adds a nice crunch and a bitter yet fresh taste to the dish.

Pho Bo - Vietnamese Beef noodle soup

Vietnam’s national dish is great for any time of the day. I love having a bowl of Pho Bo in the morning for breakfast, but the only place that this can be done is in Vietnam. Most Vietnamese restaurants in other countries do not really open for breakfast so Pho is relegated to lunch or dinner.

Pho Bo is my father’s speciality, he has spent many years refining his recipe, adding and replacing ingredients over the years. Both my parents have spent many hours arguing over the recipe but ultimately my father has the final say in this dish. I have fond memories of him labouring over his 100 litre pot of Pho. He painstakingly weighs, toasts, and grinds his aromatics, cleans his many kilos of beef shin, and nurtures the pot for hours on end and well into the night. 

My father simmers his Pho stock overnight to really bring out all the flavours. Sourcing the best brisket, tendon, tripe, beef balls and fresh herbs are my mother’s responsibility, as are the fresh rice noodles.

Pho Dung

Corner of Street 16 and An Phu street, An Phu Ward, District 2
Open 7 days from 6 am to 2 pm

VND 35,000 per bowl

I always come to Pho Dung for my Pho Bo fix and always order her Pho Bo Tai Nam Bo Vien (Beef noodle soup with brisket, rare beef, and beef balls). As soon as I arrive she prepares my Pho Bo and on this occasion informs me that my parents have not eaten here in awhile. I look down into her welcoming bowl and am greeted by a dark yet clear broth which lets out wafts of aromatics. I can smell the distinct aniseed of the star anise and the sweetness of the cassia bark used to create the broth. A huge plate of Asian basil, saw leaf coriander and rice paddy herb accompanies the Pho Bo.

Vietnamese noodle soupImage source: Lewis Nguyen

Almost all of the customers around me are having their Pho Bo with chilli sauce and hoisin sauce but not me, I am definitely my mother’s son. Our family are split when it comes to these sauces, my mother and I do not add them, we consider ourselves purists and think the sauces overpower the delicate Pho Bo broth. But each to their own!

My first mouthful of Pho Bo transports me back to the corner of the kitchen where I would sit quietly watching my father skim the impurities from his pot of Pho. The fresh noodles are delicious, as are the slivers of brisket with just enough fat on them which adds a lip smacking richness to the dish. The rice paddy herb goes well with the Asian basil and coriander and adds a welcome freshness to the Pho.

As quickly as the Pho is served, it has disappeared into my happy and content belly. I blot my brow and exhale blissfully. I feel energized and ready to face the day ahead. And so completes my Holy Trinity of noodle soups.

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