[health-vn] Nasty noodling
vern.weitzel at gmail.com
Sun May 17 09:12:53 EST 2009
20:00' 16/05/2009 (GMT+7)
VietNamNet Bridge - Some noodle producers in Vietnam would appear to have a
troublingly lax attitude towards hygiene
Pho might be the Vietnamese rice noodle that is most frequently lauded by food
writers around the world, and it has even inspired some men to write poetry, but
if I were to take a noodle to the next life, it would be bun.
Often described as rice vermicelli, bun is a more airy and soft kind of rice
noodle than pho and the sumptuous foundation of classic Vietnamese dishes, such
as bun cha in which it is served with charcoal grilled pork-patties and slivers
of pork and dipped in fish sauce or bun cha ca, the classic Hanoi dish
consisting of bun, fried catfish, scallions, dill, nuts and plenty of fish sauce.
Made from rice flour, water and salt, I had always thought these noodles first
originated in Phu Do village in Hanoi, but recently I heard that bun were
actually first created in Hue hundreds of years ago. When I dig a little deeper
I discover that it all started in a small village called Van Cu in Hue – with a
little help from a woman from Thanh Hoa province.
Hundreds of years ago the village’s main industry was producing bricks and tiles
for construction. The story goes that one day, hundreds of years ago, the woman
from Thanh Hoa arrived in the village and it was her that taught the locals how
to make bun. Such her enthusiasm for cooking, her house went up in flames while
she was in the kitchen and the fire quickly spread to other houses, destroying a
large chunk of the village.
The draconian village authorities arrested the woman for her gross negligence
and sentenced her to be “left in the sun till death”. The local villagers knew
this was a punishment that did not fit the crime. Some even claimed that for
years afterwards on the woman’s death anniversary you could see ghostly flames
lick around her former home. The villagers eventually decided to erect a shrine
dedicated to her and ever since the village saw no fires and business for
families producing bun began to flourish.
A troubling sight
Bun certainly holds a place in Vietnamese people’s hearts. Thousands of
restaurants in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City will serve up countless bowls on any
given day. The noodle is mostly served cold, so it must be fresh. Keen to see
the process I decide to go to the source and check out some of the workshops
producing bun in Phu Do village.
After a shower of rain, the road to Hanoi’s Phu Do village is awash with rubbish
and filthy pools of water, and as I clamber out of the car there’s a rank smell
in the air. It’s not a good omen. Right by the gate of one bun producer’s
workshop, there’s a big pigsty filled with seven squealing pigs happily rolling
around in the muck. Black waste water trickles down a gutter. I tiptoe past into
the ramshackle workshop.
There is only one window so it is rather dim inside but I can still see that
everything is covered in soot. The floor is just a bare piece of earth that the
building surrounds. Next to the pigsty there are three rusty tanks, which are
used for containing water and mixing up the rice powder. There are buckets, pots
and vessels here, there and everywhere and an uncountable amount of flies in the
“I can make 200kg of bun per day,” says Hoang Vinh, the workshop owner who has
been in this line of business for 20 years. When I glance at his grubby, bare
hands, he smiles. “I know that it is unhygienic but gloves are inconvenient,” he
says. “Anyway I don’t have to worry about food hygiene and safety issues.” A
number of bun-producing workshops I visit in Phu Do are in a similar state of
More troubling is that the water used to make the noodle paste is pumped
directly from the ground without being filtered or sterilised. Nguyen Thi Thom,
another bun-producer, is more suspicious when I ask if I can come in. She tells
me I can’t take any photos as she’s stirring up the bun-paste with her bare hands.
Her husband is in the corner, dressed in nothing but a pair of shorts, sweating
over the large bamboo baskets of noodles. “I don’t have much capital so I have
to make bun manually. Each day I can make 250-300kg and I earn VND200,000-
VND300,000 ($11.4-$17.1) per day,” says Thom, whose family has made bun since 1997.
“I need VND10-15 million ($571.4-$857) to buy modern machinery. Many other
families in the village already have their own machines, which saves time and
reduces costs in the long run. “In order to make delicious, white bun, you have
to have high-quality rice. After the rice is washed, it will be soaked in water
for a day and pounded into paste.
The paste will then be kept in pots for two days before being used.” That all
sounds fine, but I’m not convinced that Thom’s bun will be “delicious and white”
as I watch her scoop grey paste out of the bowls with her bare hands and dump it
into plastic bags. The paste also appears to be covered by a yellow film.
According to Thom the village has no piped water but water from drilled wells only.
She gathers the bags and presses them between her own body and a set of bricks.
“I have to squeeze all the sour water out,” she says. Half an hour later, Thom
empties the paste into a bunch of pots which are then placed over a fire. The
paste is boiled for 20 minutes. She adds some additives which she says will make
sure the bun won’t wither.
After that the paste is kneaded by machine then poured into a mould, which is
already hung over a boiling pot. “This is the most important stage because it
determines the quality and the flexibility of the noodle strings,” says Thom’s
husband. According to the Ministry of Health, foodstuff producing establishments
must be examined every month by health experts.
Each establishment must meet strict requirements about food hygiene and safety
to ensure consumers’ health. But clearly, noodle producing establishments in Phu
Do and many other ones in other areas are undervaluing these regulations. Thom
for one seems unconcerned. She says that health inspectors also need to live,
implying perhaps that a simple pay-off will ensure that they look the other way.
Eventually she tires of my questions. She leans back in her chair and takes a
quick nap while her employees gather the fresh bun. Outside the workshop,
vendors wait with empty baskets. Beyond, a hungry city contemplates lunch.
More information about the health-vn