First published December 2023 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

Tom Divers is the founder and creator of Vietnam Coracle. He’s lived, travelled and worked in Vietnam since 2005. Born in London, he travelled from an early age, visiting over 40 countries (he first visited Vietnam in 1999). Now, whenever he has the opportunity to make a trip, he rarely looks beyond Vietnam’s borders and his trusty motorbike, Stavros. Read more about Tom on the About Page, Vietnam Times and ASE Podcast.

A spicy-sour, northern-style fish noodle soup found mostly in Hanoi and the surrounding provinces of the Red River Delta, bún cá rô is an exciting, lively, textural and colouful dish. Vietnam has many regional variations of bún cá (fish noodles), each with specific characteristics, but bún cá rô is my favourite. Central to the dish is cá rô, a mild-tasting freshwater fish found in streams, flooded rice fields, channels and brackish inlets – all features of the northern delta region where the Red River empties into the Gulf of Tonkin. Added to the fish and tomato-based broth is a plethora of herbs, spices and delicious, chunky ‘goodies’, not to mention a nest of bún (rice noodles).

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Aromatic, Spicy-Sour, Northern-style Fish Noodle Soup

In this guide, I’ve written an introduction to bún cá rô. Although this is a northern dish found mostly around the capital and surrounding provinces, it can be also be found in cities throughout the nation. I live in Ho Chi Minh City and there are four locations for bún cá rô in my local neighborhood, which I have mapped and described on this page. Of course, if you’re in the north, you’ll come across the dish much more regularly than anywhere else in the country. (See Related Posts for more noodle soups.)



What is Bún Cá Rô?

4 Locations in My Neighbourhood

More Noodle Soups

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Bún Cá Rô Noodle Soup

4 Locations in my Neighbourhood in Ho Chi Minh City

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What is Bún Cá Rô? 

A stock of fish bones, fish head and pork ribs provides the foundation for the soup. These rich, full-bodied flavours are balanced by the addition of tomatoes, onions, chilli and dill, which bring ‘high notes’ to the broth. Shrimp paste and turmeric provide depth and colour before the stock is poured over a bundle of rice noodles (bún). Then, lightly fried chunks of cá rô fish – crispy on the outside, soft on the inside – are dropped into the soup. But this is just the base. Depending on the region, many extras are added to the bowl. Common additions include, slices of fish cake (chả cá), ground pork or beef with wood ear mushrooms rolled and wrapped in aromatic piper leaf (chả lá lốt), cubes of fried tofu (đậu hủ), slices of taro stem (bạc hà), chopped water celery (cần nước), bean sprouts (giá), an assortment of fresh herbs and lettuce (rau thơm), shredded banana blossom (bắp chuối), a side dipping sauce of calamansi and spicy sa tế, and a delicious spicy-sour mix of pickled bamboo shoots and chilli (măng chua).

When you put all of this together in one bowl, the result is a spectacular-looking, -smelling and -tasting soup, worthy of a place near the top of the pantheon of Vietnamese noodle soups. With its vivid colours and varied shapes, forms and textures, a bowl of bún cá rô resembles an abstract expressionist multi-media collage. The aroma is only mildly fishy: the dominant smells are chilli and dill, which act like a menthol spray for your sinuses as you lean over the bowl to take your first spoonful of broth. The taste is sour and spicy: there’s a real kick to this soup – it’s sparky and live. After a few mouthfuls, your body and mind feel cleansed, refreshed, awakened – your eyes watering and your forehead perspiring. Bún cá rô is most commonly eaten for breakfast or lunch, presumably because a bowl of this noodle soup in the evening would be like having a double espresso after 5pm: the effects are so stimulating that you wouldn’t be able to sleep.

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4 Locations in My Neighbourhood: 

Below are four locations to try bún cá rô near my home in Ho Chi Minh City. All four are local noodle houses; not chains. I enjoy bún cá rô at all of these locations, but of course there are many, many more places to try this dish all across the nation: just look out for signs wherever you are, but especially in the northern provinces around Hanoi. The price for a bowl of bún cá rô at any of the locations below is between 40,000-75,000vnd ($1.50-$3):

Tiệm Cơm Ông Bà Anh [MAP]: At this open-sided, informal, northern restaurant near my home, they serve my favourite bowl of bún cá rô. In the style of the northern port city of Hải Phòng, this is a spicy, chunky, really delicious version of the dish, known as bún cá rô cay (cay = spicy). The soup is served with a jar of excellent măng chua (pickled bamboo shoots) that gives even more of a kick to the dish. To cool your mouth off, a glass of iced lotus tea accompanies your noodles. It’s fantastic. (As a side note, loads of other good quality, northern-style dishes are available here.)

Quán Anh Mập [MAP]: Run by northerners, this popular but casual noodle house serves a good bowl of Hanoi-style bún cá rô with all the trimmings. Nicely presented in a deep ceramic bowl, there’s lots of flavour and texture and plenty of spice to be added via condiments and fresh chillies, if required.

Bún Cá Tâm Anh [MAP]: A mild but visually stunning bowl of bún cá rô is served at this indoor, air-conditioned eatery. Although it feels a bit like a chain with its branded signage and laminated menus, it is apparently not. The menu lists many options, so you can add and subtract elements from your soup as you wish and to your taste. The bún cá rô here is Hạ Long-style, in Quảng Ninh Province, site of the famous limestone karsts. The mild flavours, inside seating, quiet ambience and easy-to-read menu, make this a good option for first-timers: a gentle introduction to the dish.

Hải Phòng Quán [MAP]: The most stripped-down and local of the places in this list, Hải Phòng Quán features plastic chairs, a friendly family and pet dogs ambling from table to table. As the name suggests, this is Hải Phòng-style bún cá rô and they also serve another famous dish from that city: bánh đa cua (crab noodles).

*Disclosure: I never receive payment for anything I write: my content is always free and independent. I’ve written this guide because I want to: I like Bún Cá Rô noodle soup and I want my readers to know about it. For more details, see my Disclosure & Disclaimer statements and my About Page

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