Simon Stanley discovers what happens when history and noodles collide at Hu Tieu Nam Vang Lien Hua. Photos by Vinh Dao.
Hu tieu Nam Vang, a Khmer-Chinese hybrid noodle soup dish, first arrived in the Mekong Delta in the 1970s when civil war and political uncertainty forced many Cambodians to flee their homeland and cross the border into Vietnam. Known in Phnom Penh as kuy teav – pronounced “kway teow” – this flavoursome, pork-heavy breakfast alternative to pho was quickly adopted by the inhabitants of southern Vietnam who, over time, have made the dish their own. “Kway teow” became hu tieu, and Nam Vang, the Vietnamese name for Phnom Penh, serves as a reminder of the recipe’s origins.
It’s 10 o’clock on a Friday morning and I’m heading to Lien Hua, one of Saigon’s oldest and most famous hu tieu Nam Vang shops, having been opened by current manager Mai Thi Thanh Thao’s grandfather forty five years ago. I realise just how famous the place is as soon as I arrive. I’m well clear of the breakfast rush and two hours ahead of the lunchtime office exodus, yet every chair but one is taken.
As with all of the best Vietnamese restaurants, the choices are simple. “With soup, or without soup?” asks the smiling waiter. Go for “without” and the pork-based broth will be served on the side for you to moisten your meal as much or as little as you wish. Classic rice noodles are the staple, but egg (mi) and soya (mien) are also available. Whichever option you choose, prices move between just VND 85,000 and VND 90,000.
So just what are you getting in your hieu tieu Nam Vang? On a bed of clear noodles rests a generous helping of tender, juicy and surprisingly lean slices of roast pork that ribbon around a smorgasbord of ingredients, flavours and textures. Exploring with my spoon I’ve got a nice scattering of minced pork, a boiled quail’s egg, a beautifully steamed shrimp and a healthy layer of green leaves and spring onion, all topped off with caramelised flecks of fried garlic. From a side plate I pinch in a refreshing snap of bean-sprouts, yet more fresh greenery and a few drops of chilli oil. Pickled garlic, soy sauce and fresh limes are also available to tweak your flavourings to perfection. I mix, pinch and eat, and every part of my tongue lights up. The complex flavours evolve from sweet to sour and everything in between.
In addition to the Chinese breadsticks stacked up on each table, a further nod to Lien Hua’s heritage comes in the form of their homemade dim sum. With just a handful of exquisite pork and seafood creations available, I’d strongly advise ordering the full platter for just over VND 200,000. If you only have room for one, make it their signature pork bun (VND 50,000). It’s the very definition of comfort food.