It’s a rip-off, but you were expecting that. Still, it’s a good bun cha.
If only the incumbent president had such capable chopstick skills. Obama chowing on a bun cha with Anthony Bourdain during his 2016 state visit to Vietnam brought joy to Hanoians, and also made the noodle spot a must-try for tourists and locals alike.
The logical conclusion of course is that the price went up and everyone started moaning about how the bun cha was sub-standard. So, we decided to try it for ourselves. Is it really as killer as Obama proclaimed, or just an overpriced disappointment?
Fitting Meal for a President
Indeed, the bun cha at Bun Cha Huong Lien (or, ‘Bun Cha Obama’) is far from disappointing. Actually, it’s a very interesting take on the staple Hanoian lunch.
The most important element of a good bun cha is the sauce, and at Bun Cha Obama it’s obvious that a lot of time has gone into perfecting their own signature flavour. The balance of herbs and fish sauce is amongst the best around town, and the meat signals good quality. The noodles, usually cold and sticky with this dish are actually warm here — even though on his show Anthony Bourdain declared them cold.
The major disappointment here are the nem — deep-fried spring rolls. At VND7,000 a piece they’re embarrassingly small.
The bun cha itself is a more modest VND40,000, though this is still more expensive than you usually pay (unless you include the tourist-favourite restaurant Bun Cha Dac Kim, where the prices are astronomical). What’s also frustrating is that they automatically charge you VND3,000 for a wet wipe which is pointless, and VND5,000 for parking on the pavement, something that’s not even commonplace in this upmarket part of town. The owners have obviously spent some time in Saigon where both practices are increasingly common.
Overall, our bill came to VND54,000 for a bun cha and two nem.
Bun Cha Trump?
No, that doesn’t exist. But it would be great if it did — a massive open space Bun Cha Trump restaurant — and Obama’s gonna pay for it!
It is however worth noting that there is a restaurant called Bun Cha Obama on Ma May in the Old Quarter. The former president only went to one noodle joint for lunch, he didn’t do a culinary tour. So to avoid getting totally ripped off, don’t get confused by this one… or the one in Ho Chi Minh City, or the one in Danang, or… you get the picture.
In fact, you have to hand it to Huong Lien for keeping their original name, and this is a genuine testament to their reputation. At 11am (just before peak lunch time) the place is full, with more customers arriving. The service is prepared — quick serving, hot portions, and a bill on the table which you take outside to the counter once you’re finished.
Portraits of the owners embracing the president, and of him dining, adorn the walls, although none of the diners seem fussed. They’ve come here for the food by the looks of things — regulars or curious tourists, the place can cater to both.
Bun Cha Putin…
Again, no this doesn’t exist — although there is a Café Putin in Mai Chau, and a Putin / Obama-themed printing shop in the Dong Anh District of Hanoi. As of writing this article there’s no Merkel-themed anything in Vietnam that we know of.
Bun cha is one of those things where if you step outside the box too much, you’re going to risk getting slated. Huong Lien keep to the classic flavour, but they put a bit more prep into it — it’s sort of what you’d imagine the dish to taste like if you got it in a Vietnamese restaurant abroad.
The bowls are nice, the salad is fresh and comes on a big plate. As mentioned, the nem fail, but the service is efficient and you could be sitting on the same chair that Obama sat on.
In all, you can’t knock it until you try it, and it’s worth trying to get a feel for different approaches to this classic Hanoi dish.
Bun Cha Huong Lien is located at 24 Le Van Huu, Hai Ba Trung, Hanoi. Opening hours are 9am to 9pm.
PHOTOS BY TEIGUE JOHN BLOKPOEL