When you can’t decide if you want refreshing cold noodles or a steamy bowl of hot brothy soup, give bun cha (grilled pork patties with rice noodles) a try. It’s the best of both worlds and one of the most famous dishes to come out of Vietnam’s capital city, Hanoi. Springy rice noodles are served with a side of grilled marinated pork patties (and, in this case, pork belly too) that sit in a warm dipping sauce that doubles as a sweet-tart broth. Whether you dip the noodles into the sauce, spoon it over your entire dish or slurp it straight from the bowl, there is no wrong way to enjoy bun cha.
For the grilled pork patties and pork belly: Turn on a kitchen exhaust fan or open a nearby window. Things are about to get smoky! Combine the sugar and 1 tablespoon of water in a medium saucepan and set over medium heat. Stir gently until the sugar dissolves. Cook until the sugar mixture darkens to a deep, dark brown hue similar to soy sauce and the mixture is smoking, 5 to 7 minutes; swirl the pan as needed to ensure even cooking.
Immediately turn off the heat and remove the saucepan from the hot stovetop. Carefully add 2 tablespoons of water to the saucepan (the mixture may sputter). Use a heat-safe rubber spatula to stir the caramel until completely smooth. Transfer the caramel to a medium heat-safe bowl and allow to cool slightly, about 5 minutes. It will thicken as it cools.
Meanwhile, put the ground pork and the pork belly into 2 separate medium bowls.
Stir the fish sauce, oyster sauce, garlic, shallots, lemongrass, bouillon and black pepper into the caramel until well combined. Add 6 tablespoons of the sauce to the ground pork then add the remaining sauce to the pork belly. Use your hands to mix each meat with the sauce until well combined. Refrigerate each for at least 1 hour and up to 8 hours. (Do not refrigerate overnight or the meat will get too salty.)
Scoop the marinated ground pork into 18 portions (about a scant 1/4 cup each), placing each on a large baking sheet. Roll each portion into a ball then flatten into a 1/2-inch-thick patty about 2 inches wide.
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 250 degrees F. Preheat an outdoor grill or a large 2-burner cast-iron grill pan over medium-high heat. Lightly grease the grill grates or grill pan with oil. Working in batches if needed, cook the pork patties until charred and cooked through, 3 to 4 minutes per side, rotating the meat as needed to ensure even cooking. Transfer the cooked patties to a clean baking sheet.
Reduce the heat slightly (between medium and medium-high). Working in batches if needed, cook the pork belly until charred and cooked through, 2 to 4 minutes per side, rotating the meat as needed to ensure even cooking. Place the cooked pork belly to the same baking sheet as the pork patties and place in the oven to keep warm while you make the dipping sauce.
For the dipping sauce: Combine the sugar and 1 1/4 cups water in a medium saucepan. Set over medium heat and cook until the sugar dissolves and the mixture is hot and starts to steam, about 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Turn off the heat and add 1/2 cup cold water, the fish sauce, lime juice, garlic, carrot, green papaya and chiles. Stir to combine.
For serving: Divide the vermicelli among 6 individual serving bowls. Place the lettuce, bean sprouts, cucumber, cilantro and mint on a platter.
Divide the pork patties and pork belly between 6 medium serving bowls or plates. Pour 1/2 cup of the warm sauce over the meat in each bowl. Serve each diner a bowl of pork and a small bowl of noodles. Pass the platter of vegetables and herbs.￼ To eat, dip the noodles, herbs and vegetables into the warm sauce. Alternatively, you can hand tear the lettuce and herbs and add them to the sauce along with the other vegetables before dipping in the noodles, or enjoy the dish anyway you like.