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From the streets of Hanoi

28 May 2021
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A quest to bring Cantabrians a perfect-tasting Vietnamese pho took Bernie Luu back to Hanoi, where she grew up. 

When Hang ‘Bernie’ Luu thinks of her first memory of the food of Hanoi, Vietnam, she thinks of her grandmother and their walk to school.

“I always woke up late, so every day on the way to school she would get me a banh mi [a long bread roll stuffed with meat and salad] and I would eat it,” says the 28-year-old.

Lunch rush at Hanoi Alley, Bernie’s stall at Riverside Market, has just finished. By rights she should be exhausted, but instead she has the energy of someone who truly loves what they are doing. She is perched on a stool upstairs, the only quiet spot we could find in the busy market, and rests her chin on her hand as her mind travels through time.

Of course, she explains, eating street food for breakfast in Hanoi is part of the norm. From early morning the streets begin a beautiful dance of chaos as people and scooters swarm. Street vendors cook on the footpath – with blue and red plastic stools waiting for their customers – or from tiny shops. While Bernie grew up in the city, she is not fond of its chaos. But she is fond of its food.

She has just returned from Hanoi, where she was on a quest to find the perfect pho (a popular noodle soup with meat) for her winter menu.

Armed with the names of 10 shops, as provided by her friends in Vietnam, Bernie wove her way around the tiny alleys and thoroughfares of her home city, trying each one.
“I was desperate to find the right pho for Kiwi people, and I tried so many,” she says.

Finally, she tried one and was taken by its “light, elegant” flavour. With trepidation, she asked the woman who made it for the recipe.

“I was so excited when she said, ‘Yeah, of course. Just don’t open a shop next to me.’”

In Vietnam, she explains, there are few rules around the stalls. So, when a stall called Pho 24 became hugely popular, suddenly there were Pho 24s on every street, right next to each other. But only one is the true stall, and hunting it down is much like a curious game.

Bernie’s spark for cooking started just seven years ago.

When she moved to Christchurch, aged 17, it was to study to become an accountant. Along the way she met husband Huan Nguyen, a structural engineer, and, both being foodies, they enjoyed trying all the menus in town.

“But one day we ran out of food options, so I started cooking. My husband said my food was really good. I just thought he was saying that so I would keep cooking! But then my friends started saying it too.”

Bernie quit her job and started cooking out of a caravan on Colombo Street in 2016.

Last year, she moved into Riverside and her already significant following increased tenfold. She worked 120 hours in the first week, getting up at 5.30am and finishing at 12.30am. It has settled down somewhat now, but she has five times the business from when she operated out of her humble caravan. She has three staff, and Huan helps her clean for two hours after the stall closes.

Coming from Vietnam, where street vendors are seen as “lower class”, Bernie’s career change was not received well by her parents.

“They are both accountants, and it is a respectful job in Vietnam. If you are telling people about what your children do and it is selling food, it is seen as not good,” she says.

But her love for sharing her own variation of Vietnamese street food outweighs any misgivings she may feel from home. She is proud of the food she makes and, judging by the regular queues for her food, Cantabrians are happy she chose us too.

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