Bui Thi La, 59, sits quietly at the corner of Hang Bong and Ly Quoc Su, two busy streets in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Even without visitors, the place is already packed: a flaky wall with a Dolce & Gabbana poster, an electric substation, some motorbikes, La with her stools and baskets.
By 9:30 a.m., La still hasn't sold half of the congee in her pot.
But it’s not the congee’s fault. For the past twenty years, chao suon, or rib congee, has been her trademark dish. This morning, her quay (fried dough) is crispy, the pork fat and cartilage are crunchy and the congee is spotlessly white.
“It takes two hours to soak the rice in water,” La explains. She then grinds the softened rice and cooks it until snowy-white, thick and creamy.
“Then I add chopped pork, pork floss and fried dough,” the wrinkly vendor continues. “Ribs and cartilages are optional.”
Chao suon has been a cheap, popular meal craved in the afternoon by Hanoians as early as the 70s. Students, hourly workers and busy white collars alike would gather in front of steaming congee pots, either sitting or standing, to warm their bellies on windy days.
“I started off in that small alley,” La says, pointing toward Ngo Huyen, now a touristy alley branching off Ly Quoc Su.
The two-meter-wide alley, now packed with low cost hostels, was crammed with La’s plastic stools in the 90s and 2000s. Queues and queues of people lined up at her stall, and Hanoians started refering to Ly Quoc Su as the chao suon street.
As we slurp a spoon of warm, creamy congee, La continues with saddened eyes.
“Other people started selling the same thing next to my shop, and the competition became crooked.”
La didn’t go into details of her lost legacy, but her daughter, Lan Anh, wrote a story about her shop on Facebook last April that attracted thousands of likes and a few local media reports. Several chao suon vendors pressured La to give up her spot, until the poor vendor moved away.
Between 2015 and 2016, La’s disappearance left the whole city confused and searching for her famous congee.
The vendor told local media at the time that she had tried to do casual work but the money wasn’t enough to support the whole family.
“She always dismisses my idea of opening a proper shop,” Lan Anh wrote in her long, emotional Facebook post. “Yet it’s too difficult and depressing trying to sell at the old place.”
Since April 2016, La has been trying to revive her legacy at her new place, the corner of two busy streets. But La’s chao suon lives on at her old spot. Queues of Vietnamese and foreigners, unable to tell one vendor from another, continue to visit the alley to try out the famous congee.
At the new place, La sells about two kilograms (4.4 lbs) a day, a tenth of what she used to.
She also ships her chao suon citywide, with the help of her two children, for less than a dollar.
La’s chao suon
2A Ly Quoc Su
Price: VND 20,000 (US$0.9)
Hours: 6:30 - 10:30 a.m.; 2:30 - 6:30 p.m.
01655 092 802