First published September 2020 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
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A deep, reddish broth made from tomatoes and pulverized crab, poured over white rice noodles, topped with marinated snails and crab cake, and garnished with fresh herbs and leaves, bún riêu cua ốc is one of those Vietnamese soups that jumps out at you from the bowl. Despite being one of the most ubiquitous street food dishes in Vietnam, bún riêu cua ốc doesn’t s have the same broad appeal among travellers and expatriates as other Vietnamese noodle soups. But, bún riêu cua ốc is a favourite among locals, which, Vietnam being a nation of discerning foodies, is a sign that you should take the dish seriously, however strange it might initially be to your palate. You may find you have to ‘work’ a little before acquiring a taste for bún riêu cua ốc, but this just makes it all the more rewarding when, finally, everything clicks and the dish makes sense. If you’re new to this dish, then Bun Rieu Cua Oc Phan Rang-Ninh Thuan, in downtown Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), is a good place to start, because it serves a relatively mild – but genuine – version of the soup, that’s a good training ground for your taste buds to learn the pleasures of bún riêu cua ốc.
BUN RIEU CUA OC NOODLE SOUP IN SAIGON
In downtown Saigon’s District 1, Bun Rieu Cua Oc Phan Rang-Ninh Thuan is a small soup house located on Nguyen Thai Binh Street. Among an attractive grid of streets filled with hardware stores and French colonial-era shophouses, I stumbled upon Bun Rieu Cua Oc Phan Rang-Ninh Thuan while wandering around on a hot and humid rainy season afternoon. Feeling hungry, I was trying to find somewhere local to eat (a difficult task these days in downtown Saigon, where chains and brands increasingly rule the roost). Standing out with its yellow facade in a row of Saigon townhouses, Bun Rieu Cua Oc Phan Rang-Ninh Thuan caught my eye. Although the exterior looks as though it’s been built with giant Lego blocks, the interior is typical of many Vietnamese soup houses: sparse but clean, with wall fans cooling diners sitting on metallic chairs at tables. One of the reasons I was attracted to this place were the words ‘Ninh Thuan’, a province on the south-central coast, and one of my favourite regions in Vietnam. Indeed, Bun Rieu Cua Oc Phan Rang-Ninh Thuan is a modest chain of sorts: the original soup house is in Phan Rang city, provincial capital of Ninh Thuan, and has been running for 17 years; the Saigon branch – the only other – has been operating for 6 years.
Bun Rieu Cua Oc Phan Rang-Ninh Thuan: 66 Nguyen Thai Binh Street, District 1, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)
Open from morning till evening, the menu at Bun Rieu Cua Oc Phan Rang-Ninh Thuan is simple: bún riêu cua (noodles and crab broth) with ốc (snails), chả (pork and crab meatloaf), or đầy đủ (everything). Personally, I would recommend going for the snails (ốc), as that’s what makes this dish special, in my opinion. The snails come on the side, on a separate little dish. The snails are already out of their shells, and marinated in chilli and tamarind (although I could be wrong about the latter). They’re pretty little things and nicely presented. When the bowl of bún riêu (noodles and broth) arrives, pop all the snails into the broth and stir them in. The snails themselves only have a mild flavour, but the marinade helps to liven them up. However, the snails are more about texture and nutritional value than anything else. Satisfyingly chewy and full of protein, snails are eaten all over Vietnam in great quantities and with great sophistication. Indeed, there’s a whole eating and drinking culture surrounding the cooking and consumption of snails.
Fundamental to bún riêu cua ốc is the broth: a tomato- and crab-based concoction that looks and smells as rich as it tastes. The crabs are traditionally small, freshwater, rice paddy crabs which are crushed and strained to give flavour and colour to the broth (this is the ‘riêu’ element in the name of the dish). However, in the case of Bun Rieu Cua Oc Phan Rang-Ninh Thuan, the crabs are saltwater ones from the ocean, which is an interesting variation and may give the broth a saltier flavour (but I’m no expert). The stock is colourful, live, and active: more of a potion than a broth. Things are happening in the giant pot as you watch the broth bubble and swirl on the counter at the front of the soup house. With smudged patches of colour, one bleeding into another, a bowl of bún riêu cua ốc resembles a painter’s palette.
The richness of the crab is balanced by the sweet-sour of the tomatoes, and yet more sourness comes through with the addition of tamarind and rice vinegar to the broth. The earthy-amber colour of the stock – from the crab and tomatoes – is further reddened by annatto seeds, which are often used as a natural food colouring, but also impart a subtle yet distinctive fragrance. The broth is poured into thick, attractive, painted ceramic bowls over rice noodles (bún), on top of which are placed extras, such as an assortment of chả (slices of fish, pork, and crab meatloaf). When the bún riêu cua ốc arrives on the table, it looks superb: but that’s nothing surprising in Vietnam, where food presentation is an art form.
Into the broth, you can choose from a number of accoutrements, including red chilli paste, finely sliced green chillies, salty fish sauce, a squeeze of lime, a dollop of mắm tôm (pungent, fermented shrimp paste), and a sprinkling of sugar to cut the potency of the latter. On top of this, add crisp greenery for extra crunch, flavour, and nutritional value: shredded morning glory, banana blossom, bean sprouts, and watermint. Stir it all in with chopsticks and a spoon, and you’re good to go. It’s a world of textures and flavours; each mouthful a little different from the last: fishy, salty, sour, sweet, hearty, and refreshing. A bowl of bún riêu cua ốc costs between 55,000-65,000vnd ($2-$3).
I’m not an authority on the quality of any given bowl of bún riêu cua ốc, but when I bumped into this place in District 1, it rekindled my interest in the dish. This may not be the best example of bún riêu cua ốc in the city, but it is certainly a good introduction to a ‘difficult’ dish for many foreign palates, which is helped by an English menu, a comfortable dining environment, and a central location. A bowl of bún riêu cua ốc here is a deeply satisfying experience; as is almost always the case when sitting down to a noodle soup in a local eatery in Vietnam. Long may that last, even in Saigon’s District 1.
Disclosure: I never receive payment for anything I write my content is always free & independent. I’ve written this guide because I want to: I like this dish & I want my readers to know about it. For more details, see my Disclosure & Disclaimer statements here
I’m an overseas Vietnamese, about twice your age. I left Viet Nam nearly 60 years ago but I visit often, including a teaching stint in 1999-2000. In 2015 I did a motorbike trip from Hanoi to HCM City. My next biking trip was supposed to be the northern loop next month. Unfortunately Covid-19 puts that on the back burner.
I know a lot about Viet Nam and am fluent in Vietnamese. However, I consider you a real expert on Vietnamese travel destinations, biking routes and cuisine, especially the street food scene. I consult your blog before each trip back home. In between trips I read your blog to keep myself informed. I don’t even bother reading the Lonely Planet anymore when the subject is Viet Nam!!!
Thank you so much for your interesting, informed, detailed and passionate writing about Viet Nam. Stay healthy during this dreaded pandemic.
Thank you for your kind words about my site. It means a lot to me.
I hope that you’ll be able to return to Vietnam before too long and complete your proposed northern motorbike loop. Things are looking pretty good here again, as the recent Covid outbreak in Danang (which began in late July) has been contained and the country is once again on a long ‘clean streak’ of many weeks without one reported case of Covid within the community.
So fingers crossed with 2021.
All the best,