Serious Eats / Vy Tran

In Vietnam, vermicelli noodle bowls make an easy lunch and dinner, whether sold from street vendors or made at home. One of the most popular options is fresh vermicelli noodles served with crispy bites of imperial rolls, along with fresh lettuce, a medley of herbs, and bright pickled vegetables. In the hot, humid weather of Vietnam, it’s a meal that is both incredibly satisfying but also refreshing and bright.

What Are Vietnamese Rice Noodles?

The dish is built on Vietnamese vermicelli noodles, which are long, thin noodles made from rice. Rice noodles, or bún, were brought to Vietnam by the Chinese during their rule from 179-938 BC. Eventually the noodles were incorporated into Vietnamese-style cooking, becoming an important element in dishes like phở, bánh canh, and netted rice noodles.

Serious Eats / Vy Tran

Bún is a general term for rice noodles, and does not distinguish between size or preparation (whether the noodles are prepared fresh or cooked from dried). In the noodle section at an Asian supermarket, you will find different types of rice noodles such as thick round ones for bún bò Huế (beef noodle soup); incredibly fine ones called bánh hỏi that are woven together like an intricate net to serve as a wonderful base for all kinds of protein; and ones somewhere in the middle that are used for everything from crab tomato noodle soup (bún riêu) to duck-and–bamboo noodle soup (bún măng vịt), spring rolls (gỏi cuốn), and vermicelli noodle bowls like this one. 

How Rice Noodles Are Made in Vietnam

On a recent trip to the Mekong Delta, I visited Sau Hoai’s noodle shop, one of the few remaining noodle factories in Con Tho that still produces handmade rice noodles. Hoai is a second generation noodle maker with over 45 years of experience and oversees and trains workers on the craft of handmade noodles, a practice that is quickly disappearing. Fresh rice noodles with the perfect texture and fragrance require high quality rice, a thorough understanding of mixing flours and water, and a lot of manual labor. 

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Traditionally, rice vermicelli noodles were made fresh and sold at markets. The process is a tedious one: Clean rice is steeped in water for several days to ferment. Then the rice goes through a wet-milling process to produce flour. Boiling water is then added to the flour along with tapioca to form a batter , which gets extruded through molds or hand coated into sheets and cut to form various rice noodles of different sizes. Making fresh noodles is a meticulous process that requires the agility and experienced hands of trained workers for each stage of production. 

Fresh noodles, sitting in the humid weather of Vietnam, can start to ferment, resulting in a slightly sour flavor and going bad in a matter of hours. To avoid this, most rice noodles today are made by machines and sold dried, then boiled until soft, similar to dried wheat pasta.

The Key Elements To a Great Noodle Bowl

With time, vermicelli noodle bowls became an iconic dish and popular street food in southern Vietnam. It’s easy to see why. These bowls combine protein, vermicelli noodles, fresh herbs, cucumber, bean sprouts, pickled veggies, and nước chấm, a sweet and tangy sauce, all into one satisfying meal. It’s a revelatory dish of fresh bright flavors and contrasting textures. The most popular options for protein include imperial rolls (chả giò), grilled pork (thịt nướng), grilled pork paste (nem nướng), grilled chicken (gà nướng), grilled prawns (tôm nướng), sauteed beef (thịt bò xào), and shredded pork (bì). Sometimes these proteins are combined in one bowl, but I prefer not to mix more than three proteins; any more and the flavors become overwhelming. 

My go-to dried vermicelli noodle is Three Ladies Brand. It has a firmer bite than other brands and is less likely to turn undesirably mushy—the springy texture of the cooked noodles is paramount to this dish. It’s important to keep an eye on the noodles as they cook to avoid overcooking and losing their slight bounce. Once the noodles are properly cooked, they are drained and immediately rinsed under cool water to stop the cooking process. Rinsing the noodles also removes the excess starch, which prevents them from sticking together. 

Serious Eats / Vy Tran

The most time-consuming part of this recipe is making the imperial rolls themselves. While store-bought options exist, I unfortunately have yet to find a brand that comes close to what I would call a good-quality product. These really are best when made at home. If you’re not up for that, you can also top the vermicelli noodles in this recipe with some of the meats commonly served with broken rice, including the grilled pork and the shredded pork (instructions for both those meats can be found in this broken rice recipe).

The herbs are the unsung heroes of vermicelli noodle bowls―they pack a lot of flavor. In a well prepared vermicelli noodle bowl, you will find ribbons of lettuce along with an array of fresh herbs, such as Thai basil (húng quế), Vietnamese coriander (rau răm), Vietnamese perilla (tiá tô), peppermint (húng lủi), and cilantro, along with distinctive fish mint (dấp cá). It’s worth seeking as many of these herbs out at your local Asian grocery stores so you can fully enjoy the result.

Serious Eats / Daniel Gritzer

I like to tear the herbs into smaller pieces, but they can also be cut into ribbons, similar to the lettuce. Diners can customize and season their bowl to taste with bean sprouts, cucumber, and roasted peanuts add a welcome crunch to contrast the tender noodles, while pickled vegetables and nước chấm add a final pop of sweet and tangy flavor and light heat to the bowl. The end result is a vermicelli noodle bowl that is bursting with fresh flavor bite after bite.

For the Nước Chấm: In a medium bowl, combine water, sugar, fish sauce, and lime juice and mix until sugar has fully dissolved. Stir in garlic and chile; set aside.

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For the Vermicelli Noodle Bowls: Bring a large pot of unsalted water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add noodles and boil until tender according to the package instructions (the cooking time depends on the noodle and the brand.) Check for doneness by pressing the noodles between your fingers: they should be soft and have some spring and not mushy. Drain in a colander, rinse with cold water, and set aside to cool.

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For Serving: Divide herbs, lettuce, cucumbers, and bean sprouts between large individual noodle serving bowls. Top with noodles followed by imperial rolls. Garnish with roasted peanuts, if using, and pickled daikon and carrot, and leeks. Serve with nước chấm. 

Serious Eats / Vy Tran

Notes

For vermicelli rice noodles, I recommend the Three Ladies brand, which is available at most Asian supermarkets and online.

The most time-consuming part of this recipe is making the imperial rolls themselves. While store-bought options exist, I unfortunately have yet to find a brand that comes close to what I would call a good-quality product. These really are best when made at home. If you’re not up for that, you can also top the vermicelli noodles in this recipe with some of the meats commonly served with broken rice, including the grilled pork and the shredded pork (instructions for both those meats can be found in this broken rice recipe).

Pickled leeks, often labeled “pickled leeks in brine,” are available at most Asian supermarkets in the canned section. Their delicate aroma and sweet-and-sour finish make them a great pairing with these imperial rolls.

Make-Ahead and Storage

The vermicelli rice noodles can be prepared up to 4 hours ahead and held at room temperature before assembling the bowl.

Nước chấm can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 days ahead. It may thicken as it sits; dilute with water as needed. 

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