Tran Ngoc Bich moved from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City to open a bun cha restaurant.
“It’s easier to live here and do business,” she said. “It’s easier than in the north.”
Bun cha is a Hanoi specialty, regarded with disdain by some southerners. It’s a dish that requires some assembly. Bun cha consists of bun (fresh rice noodles), cha (pork meat patties), barbecued pork and fresh herbs.
The bun is served on its own little plate. The two types of pork swim in a warm umami sauce with slices of pickled papaya and carrot. Each diner has access to a basket piled high with perilla, holy basil, Vietnamese balm and shredded rau muong (morning glory), as well as pots of chilli and garlic.
Bich opened her bun cha place the day she arrived in Ho Chi Minh City: August 1, 2005. She had no family recipe to guide her, or any experience in making bun cha. She insists she just follows a “normal” bun cha recipe, but I believe there must be a secret to her juicy pork patties. And the nuoc mam sauce, which I drink from the bowl when I think no one’s looking.
Sang Bun Cha Ha Noi has been our family’s weekend brunch spot for more than four years. We’ve tried other bun cha places in different parts of town, but none are as good as our local, handmade by the ever-smiling Ms Bich.
When we first started going, we sat on tiny plastic chairs and ate at child-sized metal folding tables. When there was a nice breeze, we dined on the footpath, under a shady tree.
Three years ago, Bich renovated, and now Sang Bun Cha Ha Noi is quite swish, with high glass-topped wooden tables and a pristine thatched roof. The food, however, didn’t change. It’s still as good as ever.
Bich’s shop opens every day at 6am. It closes by 2pm at the latest, but Bich usually sells out well before then, especially on weekends.
When she first opened, Sang Bun Cha Ha Noi was the only eating place in the street. Over the years, more restaurants have opened up nearby. Bun Cha Ha Noi is now sandwiched between a com tam place and a pho joint.
Bich said she didn’t mind the competition because it gives people a range of options, and she’s still the only bun cha place in the area.
As selling winds down in the early afternoon, Bich and her staff begin preparing for the next day. They slice papaya and carrot, marinade the sliced pork, prepare the meat ball patties and the nem (spring roll) fillings.
Bich has been using the same suppliers since she opened. The pork – always lean pork – comes from a market stall, and the bun noodles come from a noodle maker in Thu Duc District. “It’s the best bun in Ho Chi Minh,” she said. “And it’s safe.”
Every night, just before bed, at around 9pm, Bich does a final market run to buy fresh herbs.
She gets up at 5am to prepare the restaurant, making sure she’s ready to serve her first customers at 6am.
On a quiet day, Bich sells about 10 kgs of meat. On a busy day, double that, and she’s usually sold out by 10am.
Looking to the future
After the restaurant closes, Bich has the rest of the afternoon free. She usually naps and takes a yoga class. In the past she used to play badminton, but she recently switched to yoga, which she says she enjoys more.
Over the years, Bich has been approached many times by people who want to open new branches of her restaurant. She always declines their offers, feeling that the only way to ensure quality is to supervise everything herself.
Her plan for the future is to maintain her bun cha business. “I want to try to make it better and better every day,” she said.
Despite her dedication to her restaurant, Bich doesn’t want her 14-year-old daughter to follow in her footsteps. “I want her to have the best education, maybe study overseas, to prepare for a good future,” she said.
8 Duong So 34, Tran Nao, D2.