Editor’s note: Jordy Comes Alive, from the U.S., has lived in Ho Chi Minh City for three years and become a big fan of local food after spending time wandering around local alleys and markets to discover the culinary scene.
His piece has been edited by Tuoi Tre News.
On a corner of chaos between Phan Van Han and Xo Viet Nghe Tinh Streets in Binh Thanh District, the Mi Hu Tieu Loi Nam noodle stall shines at night like an island offering a safe harbor. The classic Chinese-style mirrored noodle cart reflects the lights of passing motorbikes like a lighthouse housing a disco ball.
Niu makes noodles at his stall in Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City. Video: Jordy Comes Alive / Tuoi Tre News
I walk down Phan Van Han getting ready to cross over the main drag and I chuckle to myself. Three years ago, when I moved to Phan Van Han, I feared having to cross this street. It’s like a game of human frogger, bikes zooming by in every direction including sidewalks.
Crossing any street in Ho Chi Minh City is a challenge to every foreigner and I was no different.
I’d wait patiently at the corner for anybody who was going to cross the street. I push up behind them like a stalker and then follow in their wake to the other side.
The streets in Ho Chi Minh City have a rhythm all their own, it’s a beat. I can now eye up the traffic, becoming one with the groove, and then electric slide my way across. So, should people ask you “why did Jordy cross the road?” you now know the answer, NOODLES!
I’m excited not just to get my slurp on but to find out more about a man nicknamed Niu (pronounced like “new”), whose noodles I’ve been eating monthly for over three years.
He’s a 57-year-old good looking dude sporting the greatest silver Dutch boy bob that I’m jealous of. His birth name is Dang Sanh and he’s of Chinese descent.
I pony up to Niu’s noodle cart at 8 Xo Viet Nghe Tinh and ponder my ordering options. Here are some tips for you to enjoy a bowl of mi or hu tieu in Vietnam.
First, you’ll need to choose how you’ll want your meal. You have two options to gulp down: one is wet noodle called hu tieu/mi nuoc that comes in broth, and the other is hu tieu/mi kho, a dry noodle salad with soup on the side.
A bowl of 'mi nuoc' (noodles served in broth) at Niu's noodle stall in Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Jordy Comes Alive / Tuoi Tre News
Once you choose your style, then you choose your noodle. Niu offers three styles of noodles to choose for your liking. Hu tieu: white rice noodles, mi: golden egg noodles and mi hu tieu: a mix of both types of noodles.
The dish is highly customizable, you can dial in your personal preferences ordering it up depending on your cravings.
I asked Niu how he learned to make hu tieu and he pointed to his kitchen cart saying “My grandmother, that was her cart. She started cooking on this exact corner SEVENTY YEARS ago.”
The cart is a work of art and serves both as a kitchen and soup counter where patrons can sit and dine.
I prefer eating on the cart because I enjoy watching the chefs cook while eating.
The cart is art adorned in Chinese-influenced scenes overlaid on top of the mirrors. Made of wood and metal, these kitchens are complete with everything the chef would need including wooden drawers that keep fresh noodles.
Niu’s grandmother taught him his craft and he continues to use her recipes to this day. His grandmother passed the business down to Niu who will pass it down to his children. I’m in absolute awe. “Do you still eat hu tieu?” I asked. Niu proudly states “every day”!
“Please make me a bowl your favorite way!” I requested and his eyes lit up and said “bones and xa xíu (char siu)!
He walks towards his food station and I say “Niu, can you add…” but he finishes my sentence “top mo!” and I crack up because he’s aware of my top mo (fried pork fat) addiction.
Niu is the ultimate mad scientist. He’s fluttering around flipping noodles and assembling the bowl with precision. It’s a routine his family has been doing for way over half a century.
Niu grew up behind this magnificent cart. He is the lord of his laboratory as was his grandmother before him as will be his sons in the future. Generations of gastro genius passing knowledge down to share with the world.
Niu places the bowl in front of me beaming with confidence and I wonder just how many times in his lifetime he’s done this. A million?
Niu and his noodle cart in Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Jordy Comes Alive / Tuoi Tre News
Before looking down at the food, I can smell it resulting in a visceral reaction. My nose is filled with the symphony of smells, it’s music I can sniff. Funky notes, jazzy notes, and blue notes all harmonizing inside my head.
There’s a ton of soul in my bowl of mi. I look down to find an opaque broth with golden yellow egg noodles, contrasting bright greens, reddish-brown xa xiu!”, and massive meaty pork bones speckled with fat.
On top of all this goodness is dice size cubes of top mo and they’re vocals singing a sweet lullaby as if this tune was written only for me.
I first take a hit of broth and “My heart is bumpin' louder than a big bass drum”.
I grab a lime and splash up my soup followed by a slurp. I grab a bottle of fish sauce then drizzle it over my food. I inhale the golden egg noodles that have a great spring to them as I chew.
I grab the biggest bone to dip it in rich soy sauce shellacking it with even more flavor. I add hot pepper mash gulping down more broth. The flavors change again, the heat playing well with the fish sauce. The crescendo to this tune is the top mo, fatty, crunchy, and otherworldly.
Besides mi, my go-to after dark is usually hu tieu kho. It’s a deconstructed soup meal offering you tons of opportunities to play with the flavors.
You’re now playing the role of a soup scientist. You have a bowl of noodles in front of you topped with all kinds of goodies served with a side of bubbling pork bone broth that’s an umami tsunami.
Your laboratory is not complete without the condiment cart. It looks like a portable chemistry set prepped for your edible experiment. It’s filled with beaker-like bottles loaded with a riot of colors: red chili sauce, purple hoisin sauce, tan fish sauce, and black soy sauce. It’s a rainbow palette of dank.
There’s also a variety of jars brimming with oils with floating garlic chunks and pepper slices. There is a flask packed with fiery crushed peppers as well as decorative dishes with limes and tiny peppers to nibble on. All your laboratory instruments are on display in the condiment cart where you’ll find chopsticks, spoons, forks, (occasionally) napkins plus a mandatory jar of toothpicks.
What I enjoy the most about the combo is building the flavor upon the flavors. The white flat rice noodles rest dry on the bottom of the bowl like a cushion for my toppings of char siu, greens, shallots, peanuts, and the holy grail of all things edible, the golden nuggets of the Gods, top mo.
On the side is a small soup with small pouch-like dumplings floating and bobbing on the surface.
I instantly transform into a mad professor squirting a dash of dark soy sauce plus a large pinch of potent fish sauce on top of the dry noodles and mixing it all together. I taste, I dunk, I slurp and then I begin again incorporating more flavors on top of what I just added.
I let my tongue guide me. It's playing with your palette as if it were a game of mouth manipulation. I sip the broth then hit it with a massive squirt of lime for that citrus charm. I nipped some noodles and hit them with a powerful slurp. I can taste the fish sauce like a refined oil slippery and sweet on my lips. I swipe some pork and dip it in hoisin sauce.
I save most of the top mo for the last bits at the bottom of my bowl savoring all the flavors. That last bite with all the bits and tiny morsels is always the best! This meal never fails me, always going beyond my expectations.
I look at the cart and then at Niu and then again at my empty bowl. I have just swallowed Niu’s family history. His lineage is now a part of me, inside me.
I’m then jolted by the thought of how many people have sipped this over the past 70 years? I look around and everything is in motion but I’m stationary, lost in thought. My admiration now is loaded with respect for Niu’s family, and their food.
I lock eyes with Niu and he lifts his eyebrows as if to say “So, what do you think”? I stand up pumping my fist in the air hooting and hollering like at the end of an amazing concert.
One of my favorite bowls of soup tastes even better learning its flavored with history. It's an ingredient you can’t buy, you earn it.
“Yo Niu! Ngon Qua! (So delicious!)” He laughs as he chirps out “see you again” and in my best operatic voice, I bellow “Ohhh yeahhhhhhhhhh”!
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