Bun Cha Huong Lien is one of the hundreds of cheap, delicious street food restaurants you’ll find scattered liberally around the Vietnamese capital.
Its specialty is a local classic, bún chả – a mix of grilled fatty pork (chả) in a plastic bowl of sweet, clear, unctuous broth, with rice noodles, leafy greens and fresh herbs. The decor of the narrow two-storey diner could best be described as prison canteen – stainless steel tables, the small plastic stools that are ubiquitous around the city and while tiles – that could be easily hosed out before the next wave of diners.
Dirty plates and empty beer bottles are stacked haphazardly against the walls.
And there are a lot of people coming to eat at Huong Lien, because in May 2016, this happened:
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The recently retired US president caught up with the chef turned TV presenter at Huong Lien for beers and a bite as part of Bourdain’s CNN travel show Parts Unknown.
The meal cost them about $AU5, including a beer.
Then things got weird.
Before Bourdain died suddenly and tragically in June this year, he returned to Huong Lien and discovered their table had become a shrine.
And that’s very different to the way Obama remembered it in paying tribute to his friend when he died.
“Low plastic stool, cheap but delicious noodles, cold Hanoi beer.” This is how I’ll remember Tony. He taught us about food — but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown. We’ll miss him. pic.twitter.com/orEXIaEMZM
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) June 8, 2018
When Business Insider visited Hanoi recently, we went to lunch at Bun Cha Huong Lien too.
It was great fun, and we’d recommend you try it too if you’re ever in the northern Vietnamese city. You’ll be in and out in no time for very little money with a full belly, still licking your lips, and ready to face Hanoi’s bustle once again.
Here’s what happened on our visit:
Nothing makes the restaurant stand out, except for the fact that it’s really busy – and when I turned up, a woman asked me if I could take a photo of her standing outside the front of the restaurant.
It’s a narrow terrace with canteen-style tables on two floors. There are photos of ‘the moment’ everywhere – on the walls, the menu.
We headed up a narrow tiled staircase to the top floor and adjacent to where Obama and Bourdain sat. As you can see the decor has that if-there’s-couple-of-wires-sticking-out-of-the-wall-no-worries casual vibe.
The menu is simply bun cha (grilled pork) and beers, although you can add a deep-fried seafood ball if you’re feeling fancy. The 85,000 Vietnamese dong meal deal works out at about $AU5.10. The local Hanoi beer costs about 90 cents, the bun cha itself about $2.50.
The table is laid out with plates of cold rice noodles, leafy greens and herbs, cut chilli, minced ginger and garlic, and pickled vegetables, all to share, as well as a dipping sauce made from fish sauce.
We all get individual bowls on the grilled pork in a sweet vinegary broth that helps cut through the fattiness of the meat. You add the flavours you want to make it more interesting. Hit the chilli sauce hard and you’ll break out in sweats.
The bill. Yes, you pay (about 20c) for the hand wipe towelettes. The ‘nem cua be’ is the crab spring roll, which didn’t deliver a lot of thrills, although if you like big fat fried things, you’ll be happy.
Here’s the pork being grilled and some of the spring rolls. All the food comes really quickly, then you scoff it and run.
The Obama meal made Bun Cha Huong Lien, but unless you knew, you wouldn’t pick it from the outside. There are plenty of great places to eat in town. One of my favourites is KOTO, which stands for Know One, Teach One, which Vietnamese-Australian Jimmy Pham launched as a hospitality training centre at-risk and disadvantaged youth in 2000. Bill Clinton’s been to eat there. The menu ranges from bun cha to a rib-eye steak and spag bol.
Owner Nguyen Thi Lien (top right) sits in the front window of Bun Cha Huong Lien. She’s made the most of her opportunity.
Bun Cha Huong Lien
24 Lê Văn Hưu,
Phạm Đình Hồ,
Hai Bà Trưng, Hà Nội, Vietnam
* Business Insider Australia visited Vietnam as a guest of Vietnam Airlines, which runs daily flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, as well as special flights from Sydney to the resort city of Danang.
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