It is impossible to miss a bún đậu mắm tôm stall. Walking down the sidewalk of Trung Liệt Street, the pungent aroma of fermented shrimp sauce taints the air. “Smells like hell, tastes like heaven” is a common theme in Southeast Asia’s favorite foods, and one of the best representations of this sentiment is mắm tôm.
In central Hanoi, entire streets are often dedicated to a single type of shop or restaurant. Like the Old Quarter’s Beer Corner, Lý Văn Phứ (chicken street) or Hoè Nhai (bò bít tết central), Trung Liệt Street is lined with food stalls selling one of the North’s most robust dishes: bún đậu mắm tôm.
In this dish, bún (vermicelli rice noodles) and đậu (tofu; fried crispy on the outside but still tender on the inside) are served with vegetables, meat, and fish and accompanied by mắm tôm. The sauce is made by layering shrimp and salt in ceramic jars, which is then placed in the sun and left to ferment for months.
“Some people can’t eat mắm tôm, but I think it’s the signature of bún đậu.”
Mắm tôm is considered an acquired taste. Though most newbies are not a fan of the poignant smell or the jarring salty taste, many locals swear by it. Anh Thư, a 25 year old hailing from her hometown of Ha Long, laughed as she explained, “Some people can’t eat mắm tôm, but I think it’s the signature of bún đậu.” In contrast, Vân, a 25 year old who moved to the country’s capital one year ago, stated, “I can’t eat mắm tôm. I love bún đậu mắm tôm, but I always replace mắm tôm with nước mắm (fish sauce).”
The famous Northern dish can be found across Hanoi. Plates of Hanoi sat down at Bún Đậu Stall Number Four in Đống Đa to sample the variety of the dish’s distinct flavors and smells.
Bún đậu components are traditionally arranged on a Northern bamboo platter to share. On the table are also limes, kumquat, fresh chilies, a basket of herbs, and, of course, the infamous shrimp sauce. At Bún Đậu Stall Number Four, a refreshing almond tea also accompanied our meal, which helped to quench the thirst caused by Hanoi’s unforgiving heat.
“I've got a belly which can contain the whole world, so bún đậu doesn’t fill me up. I only eat it as a snack or before I go to watch a movie at the cinema.”
Stall Number Four’s plate cost 30k VND and included fried tofu (đậu rán), chicken nuggets (bánh gà chiên), shrimp (tôm), crispy pork (thịt lợn giòn), pork belly (bụng lợn) and fried blood pudding spring rolls (tiết canh nem rán). Students from Hanoi Medical University, Thuyloi University, and nearby high schools frequent the street stall vendors at lunch time. Seated under umbrellas and sprayed by mist from overhead, large groups can often be found sharing platters of bún đậu down Trung Liệt Street.
The variety of ingredients and inexpensive price make bún đậu mắm tôm a local favorite. It is one of the most famous northern dishes after phở and bún chả. Bún đậu mắm tôm is a versatile meal and is eaten for lunch or as a snack. Hiệp, a 26 year old from Nam Định who often travels to Hanoi, remarked “I've got a belly which can contain the whole world, so bún đậu doesn’t fill me up. I only eat it as a snack or before I go to watch a movie at the cinema.”
“I think If you keep eating it for a long time, you'll get addicted.”
“This dish is quite special to me,” continued Hiệp. “When I was five years old I watched my parents eat bún đậu mắm tôm and I was afraid of it because of the bad smell and color. It looks quite disgusting to a child and I thought I would never eat bún đậu in my life. However, seven years ago, I decided to give it a try and my opinion completely changed.” Hiệp explained that he adds kumquat juice, a little sugar and chili sauce to the mắm tôm, which, to him, creates the perfect mixture of sweetness, spice and salt.
Bún đậu mắm tôm has a particular connection to Hanoi. The city’s chaotic culture is reflected in the contrasting smells, tastes and sounds of one of the Northern capital’s most famous dishes. As Hiệp says, “I think If you keep eating it for a long time, you'll get addicted.”
Kiốt số 4 Chùa Bộc, Trung Liệt, Đống Đa, Hà Nội, Vietnam