Pleading for Bun Rieu Soup in Cai Rang

Categories Food, Vietnam

With an emphatic shake of the head, I was denied my soup.

Không. Khôngkhôngkhôngkhông. Khôooooooong!

(“No. Nonononononoono. Nooooooo”)

Not only was I given a derisive, decisive shake of the head, but as soon as the soup stall owner dumped his dirty dishes into a bucket, he lifted his hand to give me a vague version of the royal wave, a very Vietnamese signal that means anything and everything. It could mean “I don’t know what you are asking”.  It could mean “we don’t have what you want”.  It could mean “I do not know how to give you directions so I’m just going to shake my hand at you”.

And in this case, it meant “listen crazy lady, I am not going to feed you breakfast.”

I did not expect to find myself in the middle of a soup stand-off at dawn. Bleary-eyed, without coffee and wholeheartedly confused about why I was being denied a meal, I stood in the middle of the market and blinked in the morning sun. Up early to see the floating markets of Cai Rang, I was now wandering the wet market on land, caught in a vortex of sensory overload, of fruit and vegetables and thrashing fish in shallow bowls of water. The best way to navigate the dawn markets is to arrive already hungry, letting your nose lead you to your first snack of the day. In my case, a steaming pot of bun rieu soup.

Cai Rang market Vietnam

Fresh fish at Cai Rang’s morning market.

Cai Rang market Vietnam

Vegetables lining the narrow streets at Cai Rang’s morning market.

Originally from the North of Vietnam, bun rieu is a crab-based soup unknown to me prior to arriving in the country. I tried my first bowl two days into my trip and it quickly catapulted its way to the top of my personal soup hierarchy. There are different versions of it – bun rieu cua is with crab, and bun rieu oc with snails – but the base of the broth is quite similar and both make my stomach very happy. My last meal in the country was a bowl of bun rieu cua from my favourite vendor in Ho Chi Minh City, two sisters who ran a clean and tidy soup stall across from my apartment with their other family members, a huge vat of broth steaming into the alleyway. “We are sad you are leaving” they said, shaking their heads at me as I rushed off to finish packing. “But you will be back – you love soup.”

*

The original Northern styles of bun rieu are more simple, focusing on the broth and the contrast in consistency between the soft crab and the more textured tofu. For the snail-based version, tomatoes and large snails compete with noodles for real-estate. The colour of the broth is golden with hints of red, a subtle, sweet and tangy taste all at once. Freshwater paddy crabs are pounded into a fine paste, strained and the liquid is used as a base for the soup. Annatto seeds and tomatoes contribute to the beautiful colour. A blood cube is often included, great for extra protein and iron. What’s left of the crab meat is used for making a crab and egg sausage that is usually served with the soup. Accompanying the dish are a bright purple fermented shrimp paste and a wet chili paste that can be used to add additional flavours at will. As with many soups in Vietnam, the broth is served with a plate of steamed split morning glory or water spinach stems as well as shredded banana flower, both for adding to the soup before eating.

I’ll be writing a post called “A Tale of Two Phos” to talk about the differences in pho broth and soups from North to South, and as with the classic pho, bun rieu varies quite a bit between the geographic regions. In the South, as with many of the dishes that have been transplanted and changed, the soup became more complicated. Small freshwater crabmeat was mixed with pork and herbs and rolled into mini meatballs, with the meat put back in the crab shell and steamed, added to the soup when it is served. Smaller snails pop up from the depths of the bowl, peeking through between the pieces of tofu and the crab shells. A thin strip of pork sausage is added to the mix. In HCMC, thin bun noodles are used in the broth, and sometimes additional meat, thin slices of pork.

bun rieu

Bun rieu station in Cai Rang.

*

Wandering that Cai Rang market at dawn, I stumbled upon a woman selling pig meat, delicately scraping the hair off a pig’s head to have it presentable for selling that day. Many of us that grew up in the west do so unused to seeing dead animals. Understandably people come to these wet markets often find the butchering sections jarring. I know many readers might be vegetarian (I was too for several years) but for those who do eat meat, I’d rather know where my meat comes from and appreciate every step in the process in doing so. Buying pre-packaged, sterile meat from a supermarket provides no insight into the animal it once was; we should appreciate the origins of what we eat, no? It’s part of why these markets are so compelling to me. Start to finish, a wet market shows you your food – whether you want to see it or not.  The woman in Cai Rang was so incredibly concentrated on getting that pig head to look as clean and sellable as possible, meticulously grooming it for the morning rush.

Cai Rang Market

Meat market in Cai Rang

Just across from this grooming process was an older woman sitting on the ground and selling freshly skinned frogs, and on her lap was a delicious-looking, steaming pot of soup. I immediately decided that I needed that soup. Pointing, I asked her where it was from and she cackled loudly, directing me to a bun rieu stand diagonally across the street. Apparently in my fascination with her tray of frogs, I neglected to look across the way. Eyes creasing in mirth, she smiled widely and grabbed my forearm, physically pushing me in the direction of the stall. Excited, I hopped over for what I hoped would be my first of several breakfasts.

Except the man running the stand would have none of it, meeting my pleading for soup with a stream of nos, and shaking his hand at me vociferously.

Không

I tried the name of the soup, asking for bun rieu cua so that he realized I knew exactly what I was getting. Another shake of the hand, and with that he turned away. Stumped, I stood mouth agape trying to strategize.

While thinking of ways to convince him otherwise, the frog woman across the street marched over to me and grabbed my forearm again, launching into a blistering monologue to the soup man that was punctuated by gestures at me, gestures at the soup and a very clear gesture to the soup guy himself. Another older woman wandered over from across the way and joined in, both of them now holding onto me. Flanked by two toothless ladies, each holding onto my arm, and with neighbouring cafes and shops watching attentively, I wondered what the soup stall owner would do.

My soup angel.

Shaking his head and throwing up his arms in defeat, he instructed his wife to make me a bowl of bun rieu. Satisfied, one of the women meandered back across the street. I sat down at the stall. The soup arrived in a few minutes time, and of course it was fabulous. But what made this experience so funny was not just the refusal of soup, but what happened next. My soup saviour who wandered off came back with 4 of her friends in tow, all older women, all beaming. They sat around me in a semi-circle, laughing at how I used chopsticks with my left hand, asking me where I was from and how old I was, nodding in approval as I added shrimp paste and chili to the bowl.

It was a community meal in the truest sense. Throughout my soup consumption I had at least two of these women holding on to my hand or touching my face. “Instant grandmothers – just add soup.”

Everyone waved furiously as I rushed back to the boat to return to my guesthouse.

Soup angel number 2.

The next day I returned around the same time, craving another bowl of the soup. The cafe next store was full of men sipping their iced morning coffee, and the soup stall was full of women. The same women that sat with me the day before. As I walked up I was rewarded with a big cheer and the stall owner shot me a side-eye to rival the best of them, turning to make me a bowl of bun rieu without my even asking. The men next door craned their heads my way to figure out what was going on; the women all rearranged their chairs so that I could sit in the middle of their table.

When I returned to Ho Chi Minh City I told my friends about my experiences in the Mekong, including the refusal to serve me soup. Everyone was confused – “why would they say no?” I’m still unsure myself but I suspect it is because he thought I would not like the soup. My landlady often seemed appalled at the foods I was eating. Coming home from a day of food crawling or trolling through District 5 in search of new eats, she would warily ask me what I tried that day. I would expound upon them enthusiastically – “I tried venison hu tieu in saté style!” or “I tried pig’s ear spring rolls and crab soup!” – and she would shake her head at me, saying that foreigners were not supposed to like these foods. “Why do you like these foods??” as though something was wrong with me for doing so.

I mentioned in a prior post that a Vietnamese woman bought me lunch because she was so shocked I was eating fermented shrimp paste and pig’s ear spring rolls, her initial disbelief replaced by delight. She thought I couldn’t possibly know what it was I was eating, else I’d have run screaming the other way. I suspect that was this soup vendor’s problem. He genuinely thought I would hate his soup, the deep purple, pungent fermented shrimp paste and the crabby broth, and he did not want to take that risk.

Happily these wonderful women came to my rescue because  – for serious — it was quite honestly one of the best bun rieus I’ve had. But even if it was terrible, the interactions that came with it and the many smiles that started my day off right were well worth the effort.

bun rieu

Worth it: bun rieu from Cai Rang’s wet market

I continuously advocate food as the ideal tool to connect with local people and this is a perfect example of that fact. The universality of eating juxtaposed on very different eating cultures and habits makes any interaction with a country that loves food extremely rewarding. And Vietnam definitely loves its food.

More from the Mekong soon – markets, a classic Vietnam/Canada love story and other features – in coming weeks.

-Jodi

38 comments to Pleading for Bun Rieu Soup in Cai Rang

  1. Moral of this wonderful story: Everyone, everywhere, needs soup angels.

  2. Great story Jodi! And I’m so glad you got the soup in the end (never knew how seriously gripping soup tales could be until today!)

    I just wanted to say you have a real gift with food writing! You care so much about the intricacies of every recipe & regional variant and you have a lovely way of weaving those details into stories ppl want to read! I think you should do a recipe book but pepper it with lots of cute stories like this one! I know I’d buy it (even if I didn’t plan on making soup!)

    Love from Singapore!

    • Thanks Sarah! This is certainly something I’d be interested in doing, though my culinary literacy is somewhat lacking…building recipes would be along the “add a handful of x and y” at the moment. Definitely on my mind and in building better recipes I hope to eventually get to the point where a story book with recipes added would be possible. It’s a pleasure to share foods through words and I’m thrilled you enjoyed the post!

  3. What a great story! Glad the soup angels came to the rescue. Love that you have such an adventurous palate.

  4. Mekong via Brighton. Ye goddess of Pho. I want some comments on soup from the Sceptre queendom. Think, isn’t there a Vietnamese community amongst the heather or bogs?!?!?! Mutton stew will do though. Especially if it’s been prepared using Irish whiskey }D

  5. What an awesome story! This is a great story about connecting with locals. At first, it’s easy to get upset the man who didn’t want to serve. But thank goodness you did! You got a lot of grandmas as a result.

    I generally don’t look at food as a way to to bond with others. However, I am a huge fan of connecting with locals. Doesn’t matter how it’s done – a shared meal, a market, a sporting event – love reading stories about connecting with locals.

    Thanks for sharing this story Jodi!

  6. I was smiling so much as I read this!
    What a hilarious experience- I’ve always found that older people are both the rudest to you and the most interested in you while you are travelling in their country.
    Did you research different Vietnamese dishes before you went or did you simply eat what was offered and then learn more about it? You always seem to know so much and find such interesting foods! I loved Vietnamese food but didn’t hear of hardly any of these dishes… I guess I wasn’t really looking for them though.

  7. Also, this is the PERFECT story to go along with the Seinfeld Soup Nazi episode – only in Vietnamese. How do you say “No soup for you!” in Vietnamese? :)

  8. Best. Soup Post. EVER.

  9. My husband & I were not familiar with Bun Rieu soup either before landing in Vietnam, but like you, it has swiftly become one of our favorites (Bun Bo Hué is also pretty fab)! Every time I slurp down a bowl, I wonder why it hasn’t made the transition over to the west as other dishes have… perhaps the lack of paddy crabs has something to do with it?

    We’ve been in Vietnam for about 1.5 months now, and I think your story perfectly encapsulates what this country is. Sometimes it can be incredibly tough here, and we have had some disappointing interactions with locals. But, we’ve also had some AMAZING interactions as well, very similar to your soup guardian story, where we have just been blown away by the generosity and good humor of the people here. I’m glad you got your soup in the end; it sounds like it was worth fighting for and like you wound up having a better experience for it.

  10. Fabulous story. My guess is also that he thought you would not like it. But it looks amazing! And I love the grandmas. :-)

  11. Someone (probably) not wanting to sell you his product because they think you won’t like it.
    Would that ever happen in Europe? I don’t think so.

    The soup looks deliiccccccccccccioussss by the way:-)

  12. Jodi, you have such a wonderful writing style, and I always enjoy your posts! This story had me particularly entranced. It encapsulates some really classic Vietnamese characters (fiesty grandmothers, tough lady butchers, grouchy soup nazis) just perfectly! I’ve been in Vietnam for almost 3 months now and I agree that this is definitely a country where food (and drink) are the best tools for bonding.
    This is such an awesome story – a book with recipe notes / food descriptions and stories like this would be fantastic! :)

  13. Maybe the vendor’s motto is: “We sell no soup before it’s done.” I often have refused to let my kids eat Pho before it’s cooked properly. Sometimes they don’t want to wait for 7 hours for it to be done. But no is no.

    Move over Messieurs Bourdain and Zimmern and make room for Ms. Ettenberg!

  14. Excellent story, Jodi! And the pictures are delightful. Something about pig head’s cosmetic makeover is intensely interesting.

  15. Nice post! I really felt your deep connection to your experience with this type of soup. Sounds really good and I hope to try it some day! Great photos too!

  16. What a neat story! Hearing about the things you eat makes me want to become more brave with my eating. I tend to play it safe and avoid a lot of meat, but I think I’m missing out when I do that!

  17. Great story. I’ve had similar encounters in Taiwan where vendors have refused to serve me food. My only guess is that they don’t feel like trying to deal with our poor Chinese skills. I love your photos though, especially of the pig grooming! :)

  18. The question in Vietnamese is not, “Do you like this?” It’s, “Do you know how to eat it?” If some Vietnamese grandmother looks at you perplexedly when you explain your dining choices, just tell her, “Well, I know how to eat it!”

  19. I love this story! My husband and I live in Orlando, and we are fortunate in the selection of authentic Vietnamese restaurants – we love all of the real, un-Americanized foods! There is also one Chinese restaurant that serves authentic dishes. We ordered the duck tongue appetizer one night, and our waitress asked us three times if we were sure, offering us other options. When the bowl of duck tongue was on its way, she intercepted it and made us each try one before the bowl reached the table :)
    I absolutely enjoy reading about your travels – it’s inspiring to see how you can have so many wonderful experiences and adventures (and enjoy so much food!)! I can’t wait to do the same :)

  20. On April 28, 2013 at 5:59 pm Randy Johnson said:

    “You cant beat women anyhow and if you are wise or dislike trouble and uproar you dont even try to.”
    ― William Faulkner

    Great story.

  21. I am Vietnamese, and I live in Hanoi. I love your story and I like Bun Rieu in Hanoi too. I hope you will travel to Hanoi and have some experiences about Vietnam’s foods.

    Duc in Hanoi

  22. This is way more heartwarming than anything from Chicken Soup For The Soul. I need soup angels in my life!

  23. I’m consistently inspired by your posts, Jodi! I’m about to embark on a backpacking adventure, with the eventual destination of Vietnam to meet an old friend. Do you have any advice for vegetarians to connect in a similar way? I LOVE to eat, and I love meeting locals as I travel. But I worry I won’t be able to do it as well, without eating meat/seafood.

  24. What a great story and the soup looks and sounds delicious!

  25. That was an exciting market trip. I bet the you really enjoyed the soup angel.:)

  26. “Instant grandmothers – just add soup.” I loved that line! What a lovely, heartfelt post. I, too, love pho, so waiting with bated breath for a “Tale of Two Phos” :)

  27. I love this! As a vegetarian, I was denied the pleasures of bun rieu when I was in Vietnam last year :)Nonetheless, I deeply enjoyed the food I had during my stay. I think I had my fair share of fishy/porky broths, where meat or fish had simply been removed and replaced by tofu ;)
    I just came across your site, and so far, I loved every single piece I read – your stories are so witty and good-humoured and they exude your love and passion for the places you visit and the people you meet (and the food you eat).
    Much love from Germany!

  28. thanks Jodie for the great story. i will not forget camping at the foot of Mount Kenya and been catered to by locals who slaughtered a chicken and slowly and carefully prepared it for my small party over a fire. all the children of the village sat with us patently waiting for a helping for themselves. it was a dark and clear night that was later lit up by a shooting star! a great ‘foodie’ memory that including much mingling with the locals.

  29. Can’t say enough about food connecting everyone together! I’ve been saying it for years, falling mostly on deaf ears. So instead, now I’m in the midst of saving before I take flight for a round the world trip until I run out of money, eating all the many wonderful foods of the world and connect with cultures. Thank you for such an inspiring post! :) Looking forward to more!

  30. On July 22, 2013 at 3:45 am Danny Delnison said:

    “Bun rieu” is the soup at Vietnam! It’s used crabs and eat with noodle.
    This’s good food.
    Thanks about this post

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