One of the aftertastes remain in my recent trip to Hanoi is a bun oc (snail noodle soup) store. When my colleagues heard that, they teased me: “Please cut that “common” part, now bun oc has become a specialty in Hanoi! We (rural officers) cannot even come near to that common store…”
Hmm, this guy was exaggerating! Every time I come to Hanoi, I always have chance to taste that specialty in a famous store located at Tay Ho (West Lake). But, indeed, it’s hardly possible to find a common bun oc store in Hanoi nowadays.
Next to the hotel I was staying, in a small lane of Hanoi University of Science and Technology, there was really a common bun ocstore.
Every early morning, the owner – a beautiful young lady has to carry a load full of stuff to a small corner of the sidewalk to “set up” the store. Even though being called a “store”, it just includes a small table with some small chairs. A big snail noodle soup pot is boiling fast on the blazing red brazier. A light yellow layer covers on the surface of the pot, creating an attractive look.
All other utensils have been already prepared at home: A full bowl of snails which have shape of a fingertip, spreading out the onion’s scent; a basket of fresh vegetable, fennel, perilla, marjoram, basil…Various spices are also put on the table: wine vinegar, chili powder, garlic, onion…
When I sat down, the young lady came near with a big smile, asking: “What would you like to try?” I was surprised: “I thought you were selling bun oc?” She nodded her head: “Yes, but I also have bun rieu (crab noodle soup) and bun dau phu (soya bean curd soup)! Would you like bun oc or bun lan (a mixture of three kinds)?” I smiled and pointed out to the bun oc pot: “I’d like to try that today!”
The young lady used chopsticks picking a handful of soft noodles, put it in long spoon-net, dipped into the boiling water, moving it around and then lifted up. The soft noodles were put into a bowl, neatly. She scooped two full spoons of snails, laid on the soft noodles. Next, there was a pinch of perilla, fragrant khotweed, and small spring onion. Before sousing soup, she asked me: “Would you like some mam tom (salted fish)?” I nodded: “Yes, please!”
Giving me the eye-catching snail noodle soup bowl with both hands, she formerly said: “Here you are, ma’am!” With the same polite talking style, she offered me another fresh vegetable bowl.
I put into the soup a couple of fresh-cut chilies, a little wine vinegar, soaked garlic…and mixed it up, I finished the “preparing” step! Then I could move on to “tasting” step. I scooped a spoon of soft noodles, put some snails on and tried; I unintentionally utter a compliment: “Wow, so delicious!” Tasty soup brought a pleasant flavor; snails were yellowish, brittle; vegetable was fresh and fragrant. Besides, there was spicy taste of chilies, soaked garlic and the taste of salty fish. Altogether dissolved, creating a special, typical flavor…In a short time, the bowl got dry. Suddenly I felt a sense of satisfying and stomach-filled.
The store soon got crowded. A dozen of chairs were full of people. Everybody was eating at full stretch…Behind me, there were some people waiting for their turns patiently.
Wiping my mouth, I looked up at the store owner. She was busy making endless bowls of snail noodle soup. Her cheeks were gradually getting reddening but still, big smiles and the typical Hanoi accent remained: “What would you like to eat?…Do you want more salted fish?…Ok, I know…You don’t want onion?” I took out my purse, asking “Young lady, the bill, please!” She gently said: “Ah, yes…15 000 dong total ma’am.” (About 75 cents) I thought I was mistaken, I asked again: “Again, please?” She repeated, louder: “Yes! 15 000 dong” I said secretly: “Wow, so cheap!”
The following days, I gradually tasted all kinds of her bun: Whether snails with soya curd or crab soup with snails or three kinds at the same time. All kinds of bun are delicious, tasty but still very cheap! Only 15 000 dong to 20 000 dong, according to each order.
One day, I came early talking with that young lady: “Do you have any tips on your cheap, tasty bun?” She awkwardly smiled back: “I have no tips. But I order fresh snails from the countryside, so it’s very cheap. Besides, I have to sit up late and get up early! But, as you see, my guests are only college students and employees; if I sell more expensively, there would be no guest anymore. I take my labor as an interest!”
Until now, typing down these words, the sweet taste of bun oc still makes me desire to try it again. Suppose somebody asked me what the difference between bun oc in that common store and bun oc in the luxury West Lake store was, I wouldn’t probably answer. Maybe because I’m not a gastronomist?