If you've tried one Vietnamese dish, it's most likely pho. Made with rice noodles, the beef noodle soup is a must-try on the streets of Vietnam -- not to mention readily available overseas. But there's much more to Vietnam's diverse noodle scene than this familiar food. Hiding in plain sight is another delicious noodle dish: bun, as surprising, variable and seductive as jazz.
The joys of bún
In Vietnamese, "bún" refers to rice vermicelli. It's basically Asian spaghetti. It's slurpable and versatile, with endless combinations that make it taste new every time. You can eat bun with fish sauce or tomato broth, snails or grilled meats, wrapped in a spring roll, or woven into mini-bún blankets of joy in the form of banh hoi. "What I love about the variety of Vietnamese noodle dishes is that while they may have some crossovers in ingredients and herbs, they often have totally different compositions, and certain ingredients that truly make each noodle dish special," Mark Wiens, a "full time travel eater" who runs the Migrationology food travel blog, tells CNN.
Of course, all noodle dishes aren't created equal. According to Helen Le, the host of Helen's Recipes on YouTube, the best way to judge a noodle dish is by examining and tasting the broth and fish sauce. "The best broth is clear -- (in Vietnam), we don't like cloudy broths," says Le. The clearer it is, the better the balance of flavors -- salty, sweet, sour and bitter -- which is essential to a good dish. Ready to slurp some soup? Here are five dishes that showcase the best of Vietnam's bun noodles.
Bún riêu is a meat or seafood vermicelli soup with a distinctive crimson color. The broth gets its appearance from tomato paste and annatto oil, made from achiote tree seeds. Freshwater crabmeat and blanched tomatoes are the soup's star players. Tamarind paste lends sourness to the broth, while airy bits of fried tofu contribute crunch. Depending on the region, bún riêu might also come topped with beef, pork, snails or fish. Vermicelli noodles swim in the soup, adding balance to a dish that's both colorful and light. Add to that the requisite plateful of lime wedges, chili and greens -- like banana blossoms and mint -- and you have a perfect meal.
Bún chả is a local lunchtime obsession in Hanoi. A cold noodle dish, bún chả features hunks of charcoal-grilled fatty pork -- cha -- bathing in a blend of the ubiquitous fish sauce, vinegar, lime and sugar. Vermicelli noodles, fruits and veggies, such as carrots and green papaya, accompany the glorious pork. "It's a deconstructed noodle salad," says Le.
Bún cá Hải Phòng
On the way to the Pandora-like islands of Ha Long Bay, you'll pass Hai Phong, one of Vietnam's most important seaports and, by extension, one of the best places in the country for seafood. Bun ca Hai Phong, literally "fish noodles of Hai Phong," is much subtler than other, more flamboyant Vietnamese dishes. "It's the contrast of textures that makes this dish interesting," says Le. The fish -- usually mackerel, carp, or catfish -- is pounded into fishcakes then deep-fried. Traces of dill, tomatoes, green onions and perilla -- a mint-like herb -- combine for a light meal.
More than a century old, Cha Ca La Vong restaurant is so good an entire street in Hanoi is named after it. The humble two-story cafe is famous for its chả cá: chunky cuts of tender grilled catfish, or basa, that's been yellowed by turmeric and seasoned with dill and shrimp paste. Chả cá arrives in a small pan atop a portable gas stove accompanied by bountiful garnishes, chopped peanuts and cold noodles. Like most great eating experiences, cha ca is a do-it-yourself process. As the fish fries on the stove, diners can cook up the fresh green onion, ginger and extra dill. The flavor combination is fresh, yet earthy; delicate, yet pungent.
Bún bò translates to "Southern-style beef noodle," but you can still find this particular type of noodle soup in the northern city of Hanoi. The best place to try it? Bun Bo Nam Bo in Hanoi's Old Quarter. Stir-fried and spiced with lemongrass, a mountain of beef sits atop a throne of vermicelli, accompanied by an herbaceous assortment of greens. Crispy, fried shallots add texture to the dish, while the scent of green papaya and pickled carrots create an enticing aroma.