Hanoi’s fish noodles a CNN sensation, local favorite

Hailed by CNN as a “must-try,” old Hanoi’s noodle soup shop Van entices diners with crispy fried fish complemented by a savory broth.

In an age where social media often dictates the success of eateries, Van at 174 Quan Thanh Street, Ba Dinh District stands out as an exception in the capital city.

Nguyen Thi Van, the shop’s 52-year-old owner, embarked on her culinary journey back in 2010 when she initially planned to specialize in seafood dishes like crab spring rolls, shrimp spring rolls, and fish spring rolls. However, due to budget constraints, she decided to focus on selling fish noodle soup, a choice driven by the affordability of the ingredients.

The turning point for Van’s fish noodle soup came in June 2019, following the Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un Summit in Hanoi, when CNN featured her signature dish as one of Hanoi’s top 5 delectable offerings.

Beyond her most famous menu item, Van also serves a variety of other dishes, including fish cakes, shrimp cakes, crab noodle soup, and egg coffee.

The CNN feature drew in an influx of foreign tourists, especially from Europe. As more people came in every day, Van decided to move her restaurant to a bigger space at the end of 2019.

The present-day façade of the shop spans approximately 20 square meters and is divided into two distinct spaces. To the right lies the entrance leading to the eatery’s dining areas, including two indoor sections and an attic space, totaling nearly 100 square meters. On the left side, you’ll find a compact kitchen area where the staff prepare the fish noodle soup.

The kitchen area has a glass cabinet housing ingredients essential for crafting the fish noodle soup – fried fish, fish cakes, peeled boiled shrimp, and an array of fresh vegetables. Within the kitchen, two pots of broth simmer away alongside two bamboo baskets lined with cloth that hold two types of noodles: vermicelli and red flat noodles.

Van offers two variations of fish noodle soup for her patrons to choose from – one featuring golden and crispy fried fish fillets, and the other featuring steamed fish slices. Both varieties use fresh, unseasoned fish meat to maintain the original flavors.

The fish bones undergo a filtration process before being simmered for a duration of 3-4 hours to create the rich broth. The secret seasoning agents in the broth include bong ruou (fermented rice) to introduce a mild acidity, and sa sung (peanut worms) to lend a sweet flavor.

“We never use fish heads to prevent the broth from becoming fishy or greasy,” Van says. “The broth is freshly prepared every day.”

While the shrimp, fish cakes, and red flat noodles are sourced from nearby Hai Phong, Van sources the remaining ingredients locally in Hanoi. Vermicelli hails from Phu Do Village in Nam Tu Liem District, while the tilapia arrives fresh daily from Thanh Tri District.

Van’s day begins at 3:30 a.m. when she arrives at the restaurant to oversee the delivery and preparation of vegetables and fish. She personally filters the fish, washes the vegetables, and dices the scallions. The frying of the fish begins just before the arrival of guests to ensure it remains crispy. At 5:30 a.m., four employees join the ranks, ready to clean up and prepare for the day’s sales.

The restaurant opens its doors every day at 6 a.m. and serves customers until 3 p.m. Between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m., Van lets her staff take charge so she can briefly rest at home.

The artistry of crafting a bowl of fish noodle soup begins with blanching the seasonal vegetables in a separate pot of broth. Van uses mustard greens, spinach, and bean sprouts. The next step entails blanching the noodles. Finally, diners can customize their bowls with a choice of fried fish, shrimp, or fish cakes. A sprinkle of chopped scallions and a pour of broth complete the dish.

A bowl of Van’s fish noodle soup costs VND40,000 ($1.60) and includes 3-4 pieces of crispy fried fish. The deep golden-brown fish meat contrasts beautifully with the fresh vegetables and white vermicelli. The light-yellow broth, adorned with a dash of red from the tomatoes, enhances the overall appeal.

A bowl of fish noodle soup at Hanois Van restaurant is topped with large chunks of fried or steamed fish, and a generous amount of scallions. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Mai

A bowl of fish noodle soup at Hanoi’s Van restaurant is topped with large chunks of fried or steamed fish, and a generous amount of scallions. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Mai

The fried fish maintains its crunch even as it absorbs the broth, remaining firm and textured. The mustard greens retain their natural pungency and spice, blending with the broth’s sweet and tangy notes, offering a medley of flavors without the need for additional condiments like garlic, vinegar, or chili oil.

Mai Phuong, a 24-year-old from Nam Tu Liem District, described her first encounter with Van’s fish noodle soup as “a filling and reasonably priced delight.” Even during non-peak hours on weekends, the restaurant remains bustling, resulting in a somewhat extended wait time. Phuong said she appreciated the crispy, yet slightly under-seasoned fish meat.

Trung from Tay Ho District, who visited the restaurant for breakfast, noted that the fish noodle soup caters to mature palates and is prepared with precision.

In addition to fish noodle soup, the restaurant also offers shrimp noodle soup and mixed noodles, with prices ranging from VND40,000 to VND50,000 per bowl.

With the onset of cooler weather in September, the restaurant experiences a surge in customers compared to the summer months. On an average day, the restaurant serves between 400 to 500 bowls, while on weekends, that number can soar to over 800. Daily consumption at the shop includes approximately 80 kilograms of fish, 50 kilograms of vermicelli, and 25 kilograms of flat rice noodles.

The restaurant’s peak hours typically span 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and Van advises diners seeking a shorter wait time to visit on Monday.

Despite its newfound international recognition, Van has chosen not to raise the prices of her dishes, insisting that “the quality of the food remains unchanged.”

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