Taking a breather in Vietnam during her big round-the-world trip, Jen gets some useful tips from the locals on the best way to tackle their national dish
Just over the road from where we live there is a small eatery tucked in between a palatial home and a café that makes iced coffee to rival any Costa, Starbucks or Nero. This eatery attracts a lot of regulars including a few taxi drivers, always a good sign.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve picked up one of the white soup bowls from the kitchen and walked the 50 feet to this eatery when I’ve been too lazy to cook and too hungry to starve. Right now, I need to get me some food.
As I walk towards the entrance I see a sign that reads Pho Bun Bo, which roughly translates to Beef Noodle Soup. This place specialises in the world famous dish. It is Vietnam’s original fast food.
A quick ‘xin chao’ as I greet the bubbly, wide-eyed middle aged woman who is cornered behind a metal ‘L’ shaped cart that houses two tiers of miniature bowls containing raw beef, bean sprouts, chopped up dried spring onion and stalks of fresh spring onion. There are small balls of processed meat, packet noodles, trays of eggs, a pile of one and two thousand dong and on the counter is a big metal bowl of pre-soaked white vermicelli noodles, the basis of the Pho. Behind her are pots of boiled water and the broth that will bring this Pho to life.
With a big smile and a ‘mot’, I indicate ‘one’ with my index finger and then I’m sat down eagerly awaiting my Pho.
Red, pink and green plastic chairs encircle the six metal foldaway tables. On top of the table I’m sat at are a handful of condiments that enhance the Pho to my liking. There’s a plastic pot of dried chillies, squeezy bottles of ho sin sauce and chilli sauce and a small plastic bottle of fish sauce. I always like to add some chopped up garlic so I eye up the tables around me to see if I can go on the rob. A man slurping away at his Pho with noodles hanging out of his mouth has the garlic I want. I politely ask if I can take the garlic using a mixture of grunts, pointing and Pidgin English. With a nod of the head it’s mine.
Within minutes a steaming bowl of Pho is placed before me. The raw beef and the fresh spring onions are now cooked in the hot broth, the noodles are infused with the chopped up spring onion and the broth is dark and enticing me to add the multitude of flavoursome condiments. I dismiss the ho sin sauce, it makes the Pho too sweet, and add a heaped spoonful of dried chillies, a good squeeze of the chilli sauce, a dash of the salty fish sauce and a clove’s worth of garlic. With the bowl of Pho came a plate of limes, fresh chillies and herbs of basil and mint. Adding practically a whole tree worth of herbs, a squeeze or two of lime and even more chillies is the final part of this preparation ritual.
In my right hand is a pair of chopsticks to lift the hot dripping noodles and beef to my dribbling maniacal mouth, and in my left is a tablespoon for slurping the soup that always lands on my chin and gets on my legs. It’s not a pretty sight.
I brought a book with me and only manage one page before I realise that eating Pho needs all of my focus and concentration otherwise it just gets everywhere and I later end up finding noodles sticking pages together.
Looking around, I try to nose into the owner’s back room that opens up to their living space. All I can see is a black mongrel dog licking its bum in the doorway. The back wall ahead of me has a few dark wooden cabinets lined across it, one has a black and white TV on top showing a Vietnamese soap opera, something to do with a couple of women stood in a stairwell having a heated argument, then one of them does some karate on the other. An Asian version of Corrie. Dead centre of the wall is a red and yellow Buddhist shrine that stands atop one of the cabinets. Within the shrine are old faded photographs of family members and near the edges are small bowls of fruit and a bottle of pop given as an offering. Draped across the wall are flashing neon lights that almost hypnotise me as I rhythmically lower my head to the bowl every few seconds.
In my hypnotised state I notice that a man is stood on the other side of my table directly in font of me. He’s grabbing spoons and chopsticks, and now he’s gone and taken my garlic without asking. Then I hear another man at the table next to me yell in Vietnamese ‘Girl, calculate the bill’ and I remember that the British version of politeness doesn’t compute here. Next time I want someone else’s garlic I’m just going to grab and run.
After ten minutes my Pho is all but finished apart from a few noodles and some bean sprouts floating in the broth. If only Gareth was here, he’d be able to have my leftovers. I wipe my face clean and pull out 18,000 dong.
Jen, 26, left her job as an Intelligence Analyst to travel the world. She is currently taking a breather in Vietnam after three months wandering around South East Asia. Her plan is to head into China and Tibet before heading home to Liverpool, overland.
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