Alvino Fantini gave a memorable lesson on semantics to a linguistics class in 1987.   He used pasta as a study: while to some people “pasta” may mean just spaghetti, to an Italian “pasta” describes a universe of shapes and textures, and many of them imply a particular preparation and sauce. In recent years, “penne” have become associated with vodka sauce (though not in 1986!).

As with pasta, so with noodle soup in Vietnam. Many Americans are familiar with “phở”, a soup with rice noodles most often served with beef and greens. How about “bún”, “bánh”, “miến” and “hủ tíu”?   I will attempt an introduction to this linguistic and culinary universe, and I invite you to go online to any number of sites on Vietnamese cuisine to learn more.

The first word on a menu of noodle dishes describes the kind of noodle, or so I thought until Wikipedia told me that “phở” is the soup and “bánh phở” is the noodle. So the noodle in “phở” is actually bánh, a thick flat rice noodle.   We also enjoyed bánh in a “lẩu” or hot pot filled with many varieties of mushrooms. From the color, I’d guess these are egg noodles.

Mushrooms awaiting the hot pot

Mushrooms awaiting the hot pot

The "bánh" that will join the mushrooms in the hot pot

The “bánh” that will join the mushrooms in the hot pot

The hot pot!

The hot pot!

Phở is a perfect breakfast on a cold winter morning in Hanoi. We sit on low stools at the stall next to our hotel enjoying the warmth of the beef broth which has been prepared overnight in huge kettles on an outdoor stove. There was a time when the government outlawed these kitchens on the street and we saw police smashing the brick hearths. Today, the cauldrons of stock boil away on the side of the wall across from our favorite stall. This establishment adds not only basil and coriander to the soup but scallions. The thinly sliced beef cooks in the hot broth, as will a raw egg if you ask for it. Fried bread like pizza frita can complete this wonderful meal.

Bao contemplates our breakfast of "bún riều".

Bao contemplates our breakfast of “bún riều”.

           Bún are thin rice noodles cooked in many, many ways, not just in soups. “Bún bó Huế”, a specialty of the central part of Vietnam, is a beef noodle soup seasoned with lemon grass and other herbs. The red color of “bún riều” comes from the tomatoes cooked in the broth, with tofu added. “Bún bò”, noodles with beef, is served with plentiful fresh greens and thin garlic or scallions fried to a crisp. “Bún thịt nướng” is a hearty bowl of noodles with barbecued pork and greens.

Bao has taken us to yet another eatery to enjoy noodle soup with plentiful fresh greens.

Bao has taken us to yet another eatery to enjoy noodle soup with plentiful fresh greens.

Noodle soup with tofu and fishballs

Noodle soup with tofu and fishballs

are wheat noodles, either white or yellow. I most enjoy them as “mì xào”, stir-fried with vegetables and meat, a drier dish than the soups. This preparation is also available for “phở xào” and “bún xào”.

Miến are vermicelli rice noodles that we’ve enjoyed in a “hot pot” or “lâu”.

Beef stew enjoyed with fresh "French" bread

Beef stew eaten with fresh “French” bread – no noodles but, again, a generous side helping of greens

Now to return to bánh. Lina loves “bánh cuốn” for breakfast, a very thin rice noodle rolled up and stuffed with minced pork and mushrooms.   The “noodle” is actually an extremely thin crêpe steamed on a round membrane stretched over boiling water. The cook ladles a thin rice batter onto this membrane and skillfully twists the crêpe off to be filled by her helper.

HuTiu

Hủ tiếu – yellow and white noodles, homemade!

We went on an expedition to find hủ tiếu on our last morning in Bien Hoa. Bao took us to the best place for this dish. (He always knows the best place.)   The noodles are white and yellow, made from rice, perhaps wheat and certainly egg.. They were home made and so somewhat irregular. The noodle dough was rolled, then cut and the strips unrolled to dry, as I’ve seen done in Italy with tagliatelle, a wheat and egg noodle whose root is “tagliare” or “to cut”.

Bao then suggested we try “bún riều” so we had a second breakfast.   Our semantic exploration had to end there as we were very full. It would take weeks if not months to sample all the kinds of noodle dishes in Vietnam.

Crisp bánh mì and the fillings - cucumber, pork, cilantro, chili

Crisp bánh mì and the fillings – cucumber, pork, cilantro, chili

Mama Hung prepares a sandwich at her streetside stall.

Mama Hung prepares a sandwich at her streetside stall.

On our last morning in Vietnam, our friend Fred bought us a bag of fresh “bánh mì” which, in this case, is not a noodle at all but instead the crisp French bread that Vietnamese bakers make so perfectly.

This concludes a short and very incomplete tour of the Vietnamese world of noodles

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