Sunday, March 09, 2008


On our second morning in Hanoi, Bordeaux and I went in search of breakfast among the twisting alleys of the old quarter. Down a lane crowded with low market tables, we spotted a busy shop house kitchen. At the entrance, one woman scooped handfuls of white noodles into a metal pot, while another deftly sliced at various cuts of beef. Inside, patrons were crowded at plastic tables. The cold morning air was parted by drapes of white steam, in which we caught the alluring scent of star anise and cinnamon. We ordered at the counter, and waited for our breakfast.

Of all the dishes available at sidewalk kitchens around Hanoi, pho is perhaps the one most worth trying. Not because it is the most delicious- certainly there are far tastier dishes- and not because it is the dish most reflective of Vietnamese cuisine. Rather, it is because while other dishes can be made well at home or in restaurants, pho is best when made in street kitchens. This is because the perfect broth must be made over a long time, the beef bones having simmered for more than 24 hours. Furthemore, at pho stands the chef makes only one thing, so she must make it well.

Our bowls were sloshed onto the table in front of us. Thin slices of beef and whole spring onions rested on a cushion of white noodles. With one hand tilting a metal spoon and the other weaving chopsticks, we set to work. The golden broth was rich and delicately spiced, but it was only a canvas onto which to create. Bordeaux scooped a ladleful of chili paste into his bowl, swirling in the spicy red tint. I squeezed in a lime half, giving my dish a fresh tart citrus edge. The warm broth heated our half-asleep bodies, while the wisps of white steam curled around us, trapping us with its exotic spices and flavors.


a said...

Would you believe I was unconverted by my pho experience when I spent a few weeks in Vietnam in 2006? I thought something must have been wrong with me. Maybe it had something to do with being in the furthest northern reaches of the country where I found the pho lacking, or maybe it was finding my bowl full of dog meat in Dien Bien Phu.

Anyhow, it was on my recently completed trip to Laos that I found a lot of pleasure in a bowl of Pho. Maybe it's different there. Any idea?

Robyn said...

I'd say bun cha has to be right up there with pho as a must-do Hanoi street food experience. The first reason is that you'll never find a bun cha outside of Hanoi that's as good as the Hanoi versions. And the second is that it's darned difficult to do well in the home kitchen. Something about those ankle-high, chicken-wire grills, I suppose, the way the sweet-sour dipping sauce complements the smoky char on the pork (I prefer mini burgers to meat strips), and the accompanying wild mix of shrubbery that's hard to duplicate outside of Vietnam.

Now I've made myself hungry.Please post bun cha!

Bordeaux said...

Where will we find a dish like that here in Bangkok? Wish I could have that for breakfast this morning.

Prêt à Voyager said...

I always love tales of food. Says so much about a place!


Xander said...

a- I never encountered the pho in Laos. I'd be very curious to know how it is similar, and how it is different.

Robyn- I loved bun cha; far more than pho, to be honest. I shall be writing on that soon, as well.