Bánh Canh Crazy: The Dark Horse of the Vietnamese Noodle Race

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Bánh canh is one of my favourite noodle dishes and you are going to love it too. Don’t stop your noodle quest at phớ, bánh canh should be high on your Vietnamese dish agenda. Bánh canh isn’t one noodle dish but a whole sub-genre! There are countless variations of bánh canh across Vietnam. We’re going to tell you why this dish deserves a higher place on the Vietnam culinary hit list.

What is Bánh Canh?

sup canh cua
Bánh canh – part of the name means soup.

If you knew Vietnam holds the record for the highest amount of strand and broth dishes in the world, then you won’t be surprised bánh canh is another Vietnamese ‘noodle soup’ dish. But unlike its peers, the addition of tapioca starch in its dough makes it a chewier and denser noodle. A simple comparison to would be the Japanese udon noodle.

So what’s in the name? ‘Canh’ means soup. Bánh is slightly more difficult to define. The word bánh frequently appears in the Vietnamese food lexicon and is often misconceived by non-native foodies to classify breads and cakes (bánh mì, bánh bèo, bánh bao, bánh ngọt) but as a noodle, bánh canh doesn’t sit here comfortably. Maybe a more accurate definition of ‘bánh’ is food items made with flour.

‘Aren’t all noodles made with some sort of flour and sit in broth?’ I hear you scream. Right. Some people argue that bánh canh’s classifier derives from the prism shape the dough takes before being cut into its final noodle form. Either way, we’ll leave our linguistic investigation here. In short, don’t be bánh-boozled if you think you’re getting a baguette and end up with some tapioca noodles!

Standard set of condiments and utensils for any Vietnamese restaurant in central Vietnam.

Bánh canh is the base of the dish and comes with differing meats and vegetables depending on the vendor and the preferences of the home region. Similar to other Vietnamese dishes, what follows each dish in its name is often its defining ingredients (bánh canh cá lóc – snakehead fish, bánh canh cua – crab), a location (bánh canh Thùy Dương, bánh canh Nam Phổ – both wards in Huế city) or a signature cooking method (bánh canh bột xắt).

How the Noodles are Made

The production of bánh canh is neither significantly diverse nor unique apart from the addition of tapioca! After mixing the rice flour, tapioca starch and water together, the dough is kneaded into a large ball before being flattened out into a long oblong and cut into thin cube strips.

Different vendors will vary dish preparation depending on their practice. Many vendors won’t cook the noodles until shortly before serving bánh canh, others reboil them at their vending location. Vendors who do prepare their noodles onsite provide guests with an additional insight on their cooking method as well as, dare I say, serve a generally better noodle.

Where to Eat Bánh Canh

Bánh Canh is best eaten at a street food vendor who is making the noodles onsite. Particularly one who works with a minimal amount of dishes and prepares all the ingredients themselves. Most vendors only serve one variation (sometimes with a selection of noodle variations, see below) and excel in their signature dish! This seems too obvious to be true but food that tastes bad doesn’t sell and street food vendors that don’t make money don’t stay open for long – unless they’re selling to clients who don’t know their food. You can connect the dots here.

If you’re looking for a specific variation, it is better to seek local knowledge than try to find them by walking chance. Some dishes are only sold at a few locations around the city. A foodie with less specific objectives will get more joy in the serendipity of walking the streets, interacting with people on their way and playing roulette with their order.

How to Eat it (Hint: NOT with chopsticks!)

The first time I ate bánh canh, I thought the vendor was mocking me when my bowl came accompanied with a spoon. The dish is seldom served with chopsticks. This is because the length of the noodle is considerably shorter than other Vietnamese noodles. Yep, I also find this to be an unbelievable reason. But the spoon exists. Therefore, it is.

Optional condiments and sides are the standard prescription for any street-side noodle in whatever region you are eating in. If it’s central Vietnam, then dried chilli flakes, garlic, salt, fish sauce and soya sauce sit on each diner’s table. There is usually chả and nem (fermented pork cakes) wrapped in banana leaves, which make for spice/pepper side snacks. Quail eggs can be deshelled and added to the noodles or eaten separately. They’re best dabbed in that suspicious-looking pile of salt before consumption.

Three Different Noodles

There are three varieties of the noodle itself. The most common form is rice flour (Bánh canh bột gạo) but many vendors also offer the more unique tapioca noodles (Bánh canh bột lọc). Both contain tapioca but the latter is tapioca dominant. The texture of the tapioca is chewy and provides a stark alternative to the rice flour-heavy noodle. Some vendors also offer egg noodles (bánh canh mì) as a tertiary choice, although they are almost completely irrelevant to this article. Maybe the most unique noodle is Bánh canh bột lộn (chopped flour noodles). This noodle varies in its recipe and preparation rather than its ingredients. See below for more details.

#7 types of Bánh Canh to Eat in Huế

As I spend time in other cities, it’s hard not to notice the endless variations of bánh canh available around Vietnam. Unlike the more prescriptive rules of dishes such as bún bò or phớ, bánh canh as a dish is seems without taboo and free for experimentation. Even among the more stubborn food cultures of Huế, permeations of this dish exist around the city.

#1 Bánh Canh Cá Lóc – Fish Noodles for the Masses

Bánh canh cá lóc is the most common of the listed dishes in Huế. River fish fillet (often snakehead fish) stripped and powdered in tumeric, served with a stocky broth packed with pepper and chilli tinge. Green onions added at serving to top off this explosive dish.

Bánh canh cá lọc originates from Quảng Trị – the province known formerly as the DMZ that split North and South Vietnam from 1954 to 1975, also known as the DMZ. Vendors there are more generous in their addition of green onion to the dish.

Bánh canh cá loc
Bánh canh cá loc

No one knows exactly how long bánh canh cá lóc came to exist, but it supposedly dates as far back as 1558 when the first Lord of the Nguyễn dynasty, Nguyễn Hoàng, moved to the land of Thuận Hóa. Quảng Trị Province is a lowland area; perfect for farming and fishing. With nearby resources, inhabitants created bánh canh cá lóc.

The dish goes under various names – bánh canh cá loc is its most common moniker in Huế. In the dish’s home province of Quảng Trị, cháo bột cá lộc (river fish porridge). It is also known as bánh canh Thùy Dương, referencing a ward on the southern outskirts of Huế. Could we speculate on Huế’s Thùy Dương ward appropriating the dish from Quảng Trị province?

I love bánh canh cá lóc and I love introducing it to Vietnam visitors. Even the most food enthusiastic traveller often misses this must-try dish in Vietnam. It’s polite and comfortably sits distanced from other more internationally known Vietnamese noodle dishes. Unmissable.

#2 Bánh Canh Bà Đợi – the Waiting Lady 

Bánh Canh Bà Đợi is a family-owned set of restaurants that serve their own variation. It is a Huế institute and well regarded around the city. In the past, when a small team of family members founded and staffed their restaurant, customers would frequently be irate by the time it took for food to arrive at their table. The restaurant gained the nickname bà đợi (translated as “lady waiting”), which the restaurant grew to appreciate and eventually adopt.

Bánh Canh bà Đợi

Bà Đợi has been in operation for nearly 50 years. In the beginning, the owner’s two attempts to create her own noodles were unsuccessful. After the third attempt, neighbours wholeheartedly complimented the dish. She began selling them at Đồn Market. As her noodles became increasingly popular, she changed to a fixed location to establish her first restaurant.

This dish is served in small and simple portions: a few unshelled shrimps, a pork/shrimp dumplings made on-site and an additive-free broth. While the broth is more transparent than other dishes on this list, the pepper bite remains.

To make the noodle, rice flour and cassava flour are kneaded by a ratio of 7:3. Although the noodles are pre-cut, they are only boiled on order. The restaurant makes an effort to abide by the original preparation methods when making the noodles. The decades-old wooden pestle and a rudimentary glass bottle are still used to knead and roll the dough.

bánh canh ba doi
Traditional methods are still used to make the noodle dough.

Due to its popularity, Bánh canh Bà Đợi is one of only a few examples where the success of a street food business in Hue has allowed it to expand over multiple locations. All three of her daughter-in-laws manage each location and rigorously abide to the dish’s original recipe. Although three restaurants around Hue isn’t a conglomerate, it is definitely an opportunity for exploring what changes once a street food business expands.

There was one disappointment though, the wait for our dish wasn’t so long! Irritation on an empty stomach possibly being a missing key ingredient from the original dish. Nevertheless, any modern-day advances haven’t put regular punters off returning for bánh canh bà đợi.

The original unmarked restaurant is currently situated at 40 Đào Duy Anh, at the very back corner of a small alley. Other locations include 9 Nguyễn Trãi, 34 Ngô Gia Tự, and some in Da Nang city.

9 Nguyen Trai (Hue city), 34 Ngô Gia Tự (from Dong Da) and 01 Dương Văn An.

#3 Bánh Canh Tôm Hùm – Baby Lobster in your Bowl

Bánh canh tôm hùm isn’t exclusive to Huế but is certainly the most novel variant around. The star of this dish is the lobster that sits atop the bowl like a king too big for his throne. Bánh canh tôm hùm breaks a dining taboo, switching between utensils for the noodles and fingers for the lobster. Unless you have the precision of a surgeon, you will not tackle this dish with top marks in dining etiquette. Expect broth-drops on clothing. The purpose of the accompanying wet wipe will become obvious.

That’s a baby lobster in a bowl of noodles.

Edit: At the time of writing, Bánh canh hải sản Mụ Nị – the sole vendor of this dish in Huế, appears to be hit by the economic downturn of 2020 and permanently closed. We hope that she returns to business in the future. For now, here is a photo from a vendor of the same dish in Hồ Chí Minh City.

#4 Bánh Canh Nam Phổ – The Noodles of a Small Community

Similarly to cơm hến, bánh canh Nam Phổ is an edible Huế heirloom whose past reaches beyond living memory. From Nam Phổ village, located east of the Hue citadel. It was an itinerant dish that vendors would serve door-to-door around neighbourhoods. History of the dish isn’t clear and vendors aren’t entirely in agreement over the dish’s origins, but some family-run restaurants have been in business for over 3 generations. Bánh canh Nam Phổ’s distinction from other variants indicate a history yet to be known.

bánh canh Nam Phổ
bánh canh from the ward of Nam Phổ in Huế.

What defines bánh canh Nam Phổ is its vibrant, thick red broth, coloured by accompanying chả cua (crab and pork meatballs). The broth is a mixture of stewed pig’s bones, boiled shrimps and crab broth, which gives it an acute sweetness. The addition of fish sauce and green chilli at the diner’s own discretion creates the dish’s full flavor.

Quán Thúy is one highly popular restaurant that serves bánh canh Nam Phổ. The small, family-run restaurant is located on 16 Pham Hong Thai and has been running for over 28 years.

Quán Thúy
Address: 16 Phạm Hồng Thái, Vinh Ninh, Hue, Vietnam
Opening time: 12:00 – 20:00

#5 Bánh Canh Bột Lộn:

Bánh canh bột lộn is the only dish on this list where the noodle itself is the difference. The dish originated from a village alongside An Cựu River, where bánh canh bột lộn was once abundant. Since the 2000s, it has proliferated along various streets and into different districts, no longer a working class dish in the An Cựu ward of Huế.

Bánh canh bột lộn
Bánh canh bột lộn

Made from freshly peeled cassava roots and pureed with water, the noodles are mostly produced at a small factory in An Cựu Ward. The cook washes the tapioca starch with water and even after discarding the water, A slight brown tinge remains in the noodle’s mix and is left to settle, hence the name bột lộn. Similarly to the texture of bột lọc, bột lộn noodles are even chewier than other types of noodles on this list.

Bánh canh bột lộn includes pounded crab balls, quail eggs, chopped coriander. It is further flavoured with salt, pepper, and chilli sauce. The broth cooks for 45 minutes with pork bones, shrimp paste, grounded crab meat and with a few stems of lemongrass to enhance the smell. from then on the vendor keeps the broth at a constant temperature to maintain the heat throughout the time of sale.

The owner of Quán Mân, Mrs Man, began vending in the early 2000s. After 5 years of itinerant trading, she moved to a permanent store at 66 Ngô Đức Kế and has been there ever since. She shared that over the years, bánh canh bột lộn has only slightly changed with developments in cooking technologies and trading relationships between inner-city businesses.

Quán Mân
66 Ngô Đức Kế, Phu Binh, Hue
Opening time: 6:30 – 13:00

#6 Bánh Canh Cua Rời – Fresh Crab and the Economical Period

There aren’t many vendors selling bánh canh cua rời in Huế and online search results suggest it is exclusive to the city. Even though the dish pales in historical depths unlike some of its peers, its origins are a result from a difficult period of Vietnam’s modern history.

Bánh Canh Cua Rời
Bánh Canh Cua Rời

Crab was a popular component of dishes in Hue before 1980. Crabs were abundant and affordable for everyone. The economic troubles of the 1980s came with the scarcity of seafood. The price for crab rapidly inflated and bowl prices increased to figures only the wealthy could afford. Residents subsequently came up with the idea to split the crab meat into many small proportions, which created the dish “cua rời” (separated crab). In addition, some people instead substituted sentinel crab (ghẹ) for crab (cua) because of its abundance in the nearby Tam Giang Lagoon. Since then, both are often present in bowls of bánh canh cua rời.

What defines this dish is the way the crab is processed and eaten. In bánh canh cua, eaters must separate the meat from the crabshell themselves. But in this dish, the vendor meticulously separates the meat from the shell before serving.

#7  Bánh Canh Chay – the Meatless option

If you’re a meat-free muncher but keen to try this unique noodle, Fear not! There are a few vendors that trade solely in bánh canh chay, free from the meaty broth and limbs of any sea-bound or ground-roaming creatures. Vegetarian vendors top their noodles with veggies and maybe a hunk or two of tofu. If you’re lucky they might even add a cracker too.

Bánh Canh Chay
Bánh Canh Chay

Not far from the abandoned waterpark, I dropped into one of the few street vendors who sells this vegetarian edition every day. Aside from the mouth-sized chunks of carrot and sweet potato nesting between the noodles, the defining characteristic of this bánh canh was the thick pumpkin-stewed broth. It definitely wasn’t the best noodle dish I have tried but this unique feature warrants a place on this list.

Food Coma

Bánh canh is everywhere and the options on this list are only a few that exist around Vietnam.  Get out onto the street and get some good eats.

Chúc ngon miệng!

Written by Luke Digweed and Phu Nguyen

Edited by Luke Digweed

Researched by Phu Nguyen and Quynh Anh Nguyen

Photos by Thao Trinh and Luke Digweed

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