The luck of the new year is definitely in when a new haunt for an old favourite is discovered. For the uninitiated, bun cha is arguably Hanoi's signature lunch dish, consisting of pork grilled over coal embers served in a subtle sweet, warm soup alongside oodles of fresh white rice noodles and salad greens. It's been featured in these pages before, described in more detail.
This particular incarnation of bbq soup is a very fine one, in familiar stomping ground, in the same market street as these noodles and this pho. At street level, it's a tiny grimey rectangular cave with a pulled back vertical shutter upon which hangs the most rudimentary signage. In this box, no-one eats and I think this is why I had baulked at this place in the past. It seemed that the smoky meaty fumes were emanating from a bun cha shop which was take-away only.
It pays to go with somebody who knows. My mate, Khai, lives in the vicinity and when his sister-in-law needs a day out of the kitchen before she cracks the heads of the lazy males in the family, they all scoot over to this, their local bun cha outlet.
He knows the drill. I follow him into a crack in the wall two doors up from where the meat is being grilled. I step between two curbside butchers, beef being dealt to the right, pork to the left. A labyrinth of domestic clutter, the belongings of several families confront me as I follow Khai's shadow to the depths of a rabbit warren I may never exit from. Squalid bitty rooms with makeshift lofts and mezzanines are crammed with beds, wardrobes and altars honouring departed family members. An obstacle course of shoes, baskets of washing and bicycles is negotiated in the narrow thoroughfares and perilous staircases up which we ascend to the second or is it the third floor.
Here, an oasis of open space appears. It's a family living room, the smudged glass of the wall unit housing a decade of trinkets, gifts and souvenirs alongside the TV, the stereo equipment and the home karoake system. On the wall hangs a huge poster sized photograph of a proud moment in the family history - a young lad receiving a hairdresser's award, surrounded by friends and family.
And it is here, in the private world of a family I don't know and will never know, that I tuck into my Saturday lunchtime bun cha.
Two serves of bun cha, two nem ran (fried spring rolls) - 36,000VND (USD$2.25, AUD$2.52)
3 Hoe Nhai