Nguyen Manh Hung’s unassuming house sits on the corner directly across the street from Puku on Tong Duy Tan. His family has been serving Hanoians from the house’s no-frills ground floor area for over 65 years, under the restaurant name of Banh Cuon Ky Dong. A 100 percent family-run business, Hung's grandmother originally served banh cuon from the outlet, and then some 30 years ago my van than found its way onto the menu.
My first ever bowl of this wonton noodle soup was served to me by Mr Hung, and ever since that fateful day I have been hunting down and conquering the dish throughout the city. More often than not, though, I'm left disappointed. Like a dog chasing its own tail, I end up right back where I started — at Mr. Hung's place.
My van than is not a traditional Vietnamese dish — it originates from Guangdong province in southern China, which also happens to be the ancestral homeland to a large portion of Vietnam's Chinese population. Hung and his wife Loan were given the recipe by a Chinese friend in 1979, just before being evicted from the country. Despite being around since the 18th century, my van than didn't start appearing on Hanoi streets until the 1990s.
Pass the Parcel
During the hot summer months, many people prefer to eat the dry version of my van than, known as my kho tron. The most foreign ingredient in this dish is the sui coi — the wontons — which when translated literally means ‘cloud swallow’. Sui coi is a soft, boiled pastry parcel that is stuffed with minced pork and chives, and floats in a clear broth made from steamed shrimp, simmered pig bones, and boiled sa sung (a type of seaweed). Boiled cai cuc (a green vegetable), a few generous slabs of xa xiu (Chinese sweet-roasted pork), a wedge of boiled duck egg, and a single slice of pork liver accompany the wontons. My kho tron offers a more varied textural experience than its soupier counterpart; it’s topped with fresh basil, bean sprouts, and deep-fried onions, with the wontons served in a small bowl of broth on the side. The noodles themselves also derive from China and are fluffier and lighter than standard noodles.
Hung’s day starts early. Every morning he visits Hang Da market to source the freshest ingredients, and then Banh Cuon Ky Dong opens its doors at 6.30am. Although the stall’s location on Food Street means the stall could stay open until much later, Hung believes that closing at 8.30pm every night proves that serving these specialist dishes is a craft, and that people will make time during the day to plan a visit. And they do. With the help of Hung’s sister-in-law, the shop serves around 150 bowls of floating cloud soup every day — and that's on top of the other offerings on the menu.
Hung and his family offer a welcome respite from the bustling streets of Hanoi. Loan’s warm smile and Hung’s jolly demeanour are as inviting as the dishes, but a word of warning: Hung is a sunglasses fiend. If you go there wearing a stand-out pair, don't be alarmed if he snatches them off your face and presents them back to you under his extraordinary eyebrows. Don’t worry, though. You’ll get them back.
Thanks to Huyen Quy Nguyen for assisting with the translation, and to Mr Hung and co. for offering up their knowledge and time. My Van Than is priced between VND30,000 and VND40,000 a bowl, and Banh Cuon Ky Dong is located at 11 Tong Duy Tan, Hoan Kiem