I'm not sure how much bún chả emissions contribute to the greenhouse effect or if Hanoi's numerous vendors would be subject to participation in future carbon trading schemes. I do care about the environment but not so much that I want to see traditional grilling methods banned, the bún chả experience gentrified or moved off the street into the kitchen.
I like the smell of bún chả fumes.
And I recently inhaled the smoke that drifted from what I now consider to be Hanoi's best bún chả barbeque.
My previous favourite has been usurped.
My bún chả landscape has been altered. In some senses, strangely.
Outside this particular exponent of Hanoi's trademark lunch dish, a peculiar set of oddities (which are all quite normal for this city, I might add) are at play. First there is the key tree, used ingeniously by the proprietor's parking guards to keep track of patrons' motorbike keys. Regular customers know the drill: ride into the blue meaty smoke, get off motorbike, remove helmet, gives keys to boy-guard, order lunch and eat. Meanwhile, boy-guard transports motorbike to nearby parking strip, walks back, hangs keys on one of numerous nails hammered into the key tree. Customer finishes lunch, pays, exits via the tree, points to keys and boy-guard retrieves corresponding motorbike. Essentially, it's valet-parking Hanoi style.
Second, across from the establishment, is the old lady bra cabinet. Forgive me for not knowing much about the technical aspects of this kind of apparatus but it seems these ones are not contemporary, definitely not part of Elle McPherson's Intimates collection. All fabric and no wire, they are in essence old world "over-the-shoulder-boulder-holder"...but with sequins and seemingly hand-made, exhibited in a 2'x4' wooden cabinet with sliding glass doors, on the street. A bit like a museum vitrine.
Inside there is much to observe, too. The ambience here is very much 'I am eating in someone else's home, don't be too nosey, don't touch anything and don't stare'. Of course, everybody (including me) does the exact opposite and it doesn't matter one iota. There's the detritus of 50 or more years of accumulation, a courtyard out back that barely has a square inch of floor to stand on, at the centre of which is a conical monument to the spring roll, parts of which will be chipped off during lunch service.
There is human interest, too. Ancient grandpa is being assisted to lunch from his 'cupboard' somewhere out back. Attended to by the family/business helpers, he is clearly revered as he sits down on a huge day bed which occupies one corner of the room. He gently smiles and bows to the customers present, pats down the front of his pale blue pyjamas and waits patiently for his lunch to be placed before him.
And that's complicated because the family and staff are not having bún chả. No doubt they are sick of the sight of it. Instead it is family recipe chicken noodle soup (not phở but a kind of bún gà), rich in blood chunks, organs, cones and beak. I almost want to change my order and push my way onto the day bed for this home-cooked bowl of bird.
But simply being here is privilege enough. I turn away to what has been set down on my table.
The side players have been assembled: bún (vermicelli noodles) which here seems better than simple carb element, somehow more fresh, less processed...just more, well, better; a generous fistful of greenery and sprouts, so sweet you could juice them; and the colour spark of the chili. All is in readiness.
To dip into the meaty font that the customers are really here for. This bún chả is close to perfect. Pork belly grilled with crunchy black edges, pork patties enveloped in lốt leaves and a charcoal-y must on the surface of the 'soup' all combine to win me over.
So this is a strong recommendation. Even if you don't encounter the key tree or sight the brassiere vitrine, even if grandpa is not sitting down to lunch - all experiences that I am keenly on the look-out for because I'm strange - the bún chả is the main event here.
Come, put your head down, and just eat.
34 Hàng Than