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.