How to Eat Pho

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 front 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. Satisfaction.

Me and Pho


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I can’t say what made me fall in love with Vietnam…

Well, we left Phu Quoc for the city of Saigon six weeks ago. We’ve been very undisciplined updating the blog but we’ve got a really good excuse. We have decided to settle in Saigon for a few months before we continue with our travels up north to Hanoi. In the mean time, instead of laying prostrate on a beach or hiking up a scenic mountain we are working our little tushes off.
Being in a bustling city of 9 million was a real novelty for us. Although Phnom Penh is quite a metropolis, it doesn’t even come close to rivalling the life and energy of Saigon. Our first two weeks in Saigon consisted of doing the tourist trail and visiting the local museums, art galleries and places of historical significance like any tourist would.
We followed our travel guide through the city’s District 1, starting in Pham Ngu Lao, the tourist hotspot, then moving towards Ben Thanh Market, a huge indoor market selling quite literally everything. Our first purchase was a pair of Vietnamese drip coffee filters, something of a speciality in this part of the world, and now we couldn’t live without them.
How have we ever lived without these? Bit of condensed milk does the trick
Next was the Fine Arts Museum, a stunning old French villa that now houses Vietnamese art and exhibitions. Nevermind all of the wonderful contemporary art, I couldn’t get over how beautiful the windows were. Patterns of pale blue and frosted stained glass adorned the windowpane that opened out to a small courtyard at the heart of the villa while garlands of roses decorated the balcony windows to the front.
p p p p poser!!
Our next port of call was the Opera House, well, it was more of a landmark for us to find a German Brauhaus called Lion that a bar owner on Phu Quoc had told us about. When we found it we were not disappointed.
Lion brew their own blonde and dark beers using all German imported ingredients and both are refreshing and satisfying beers, as good as any Schneider-Weisse or Paulaner (probably helps that the Master Brewer was trained by Paulaner). The beer is made according to the Thuringian Law of 1434 which is also known as the German Purity Law, so the ingredients are simply water, hops and malt. So, you know you’re getting a pretty decent bevvy. Lion is now one of our regular haunts that we go to for an ‘all you can drink’ Beer Buffet with our flat mates. It gets messy. Oh, and the Opera House looks nice too.
That’s some God-damned tasty beer!!
With a spring to our steps, and after practically dragging Gareth away, we carried on to the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City, a quaint museum showing the impact of the Vietnam War on the city and its residents. There are also artefacts chronicling the French occupation of Saigon from the late 18thcentury. After our short time there we moved on to the War Remnants Museum.

Previously known as the Museum of American War Crimes, the War Remnants Museum is one such place that you need to be prepared for emotionally. As Gareth had visited it back in the day, I knew what I was getting myself into, but for those with a delicate disposition I can imagine it is extremely hard to stomach. Filled with images of the atrocities during the Vietnam War, the museum holds nothing back in its attempt to voice the stories of the victims of US military action. Most of the images were actually documented by US sources and were even broadcast in the West. Photographs of massacres and the after effects of Agent Orange, a herbicide used as chemical warfare, not to mention Napalm, fill the walls. There is even an exhibit showing a deformed foetus. I found myself feeling moved, angry and ashamed but I got the impression at times that language was used throughout the museum in order to influence the reader to hold a certain point of view. Still, it stirred us both to be people who won’t accept just what we are told but instead to question everything and weigh it up. Who wants to live their lives hypnotised?

War Remnants Museum
A big gun thing

Next was the Reunification Palace. Built in 1966, the building’s design is homage to sophisticated 1960’s architecture and has been used as a presidential palace, the American Embassy for South Vietnam and a telecommunications centre during the war. The rooms are stuck in a time warp yet the décor throughout oozes grandeur; a merge of the oriental and art deco.

Reunification Palace
So, this is the living room

A couple of days later, when the weather was right, we rented ourselves the obligatory scooter and visited the Cu Chi Tunnels, a system of tunnels up to seven storeys deep in places. Guerrillas fighting the Americans used the network of tunnels (at one point reaching an area spanning 250km) during the Vietnam War. Now only a very small part of the tunnels are open to the public.

For an hour or so we were treated to a guided tour of the Ben Dinh tunnel site along with an Asian family and a few other Europeans. One of the first things the visitor can do is to lower themselves through an opening into one of the tunnels. Both Gareth and I were twice the size of all of the Asians so we merrily watched them slide their petite frames into the hole and pop their heads up to a gaggle of laughter. When the 6ft European also managed to do it, it really put Gareth and me to shame. We made up for this by being the first to climb on top of a disabled American tank.  We were allowed to crawl through one of the tunnels and exit at either 20 metres, 50 metres or 100 metres, most people only managed to get to 50 metres and even that was a sweaty affair.

Bit of a squeeze
The climax of the day, for Gareth, was the shooting range where he had the choice of shooting a number of assault rifles such as the M16 rifle, AK-47 or a machine gun like the M60. Gareth decided to shoot the M1 Garand, a semi-automatic rifle. The sound of the guns going off simultaneously made one little boy cry his eyes out. It was stupid loud, even with the ear defenders on. I wanted to cry with him, but instead I was commissioned to photograph the man in action.
Can I just say… PHWOAR!

The last stop of the tour had us sat at a long wooden table where we were served hot jasmine tea and boiled tapioca, the diet of the guerrillas. When the tour was over, we made our way to the scooter, hoping that the journey back to our hotel would not be our last. These roads are just outright deadly bearing in mind that in a city of 9 million most people get around by motorbike and a good number of them don’t look to see if there is anything coming when they turn into a road and there’s no such thing as personal space, if there is a space then someone is going to fill it.

After having to budget approximately $50 (£30) a day for all this tourist malarky we found ourselves in a precarious situation: Either we get jobs ASAP or we book our flights home for early July.

We were 12 hours away from booking our flights, having decided that this was the most sensible course. Sat at a roadside drinking beer for 6000 dong (20p), feeling like we’d failed and had to succumb to the truth of the matter, that we were skint, we unexpectedly overheard a bloke asking a table of Swedes next to us if they were interested in teaching English. As soon as Gareth heard this he beckoned the man over. He was a short, middle aged Kiwi and he introduced himself as Neil, handed us his business card, told us he owned a hotel in a district about 30 minutes away, could help us find teaching work, and the clincher, it was real Vietnam. No tourists.

Plastic children’s chairs and 20p draught beer = somewhat uncomfortable heaven

We gave ourselves a few days to weigh it up; our main concern was whether we could afford to invest in an idea that might ultimately not work out. We knew that we had enough cash to live in Vietnam for a month and on top of that enough cash to fly home if we needed to. We decided to just go for it. Teaching English was one thing we’d both wanted to do originally, in fact, on our first date Gareth had told me he wanted to go back to Vietnam and teach English (this made me fancy him even more). We had our TEFL certificates with us and I’d been carting two heavy English books with me across Southeast Asia so it was a bit of a no-brainer in the end.

We moved into a small bright room with white walls and an interestingly positioned mirror that ran alongside the bed. We have our own TV, a pokey fridge, an en-suite bathroom that leaves nothing to the imagination when one of us has to use the loo, and a communal kitchen that we share with around 10 other lodgers. Home sweet home.

When backpacking and moving from location to location every few days the need to be still can become overwhelming. So we gave ourselves a few days to find our feet, did some shopping in a real supermarket, and even cleaning and cooking felt so thrilling.

Within a few days we were out with Neil who took us to 15 schools in the district where we would hand in our CV’s then move on before they asked us any difficult questions such as ‘Have you ever taught before?’ Three days later we got our first job, teaching nursery school.

Now, you might think that’s truly awful, or you might think that’s the easiest job going. At times it can be both. Teaching 3 year olds to count to 5 takes weeks. Taking 5 minutes to line up 4 year olds to play a numbers game that involves them writing on a whiteboard then realising they can’t actually write yet, and some can’t even reach the board, is quite embarrassing. Teaching 5 year olds words for colours then being smacked by one kid when your back’s turned and that 5 year old telling you that the stick they have just hit you with is ‘Red!’ is just a mixed bag of emotions. Dancing and singing is fun but coming home and singing that one song ‘Clap, clap, clap your hands, clap your hands together…’ over and over in your head could make some people really quite ill.

So, now you know, we’re still alive and kicking in Saigon. Got our hands full a bit with the wee ones but we also teach 16 year olds so it’s not all singing and dancing. I started teaching adults last Monday, which is probably the most relaxing part of my week, unless I’ve got a glass of Dalat red wine in my hand that is.

Before I end, let me leave you with this from The Quiet American:

I can’t say what made me fall in love with Vietnam. That a woman’s voice can drug you? That everything is so intense – the colours, the taste, even the rain? Nothing like the filthy rain in London.

They say whatever you’re looking for you will find here.

They say you come to Vietnam and you understand a lot in a few minutes. But the rest has got to be lived.

The smell, that’s the first thing that hits you – promising everything in exchange for your soul. And the heat. Your shirt is straight away a rag. You can hardly remember your name, or what you came to escape from. But at night, there’s a breeze.

The river is beautiful. You could be forgiven for thinking there was no war, that the gunshots were fireworks, that only pleasure matters. A pipe of opium, or the touch of a girl who might tell you she loves you.

And then something happens, as you knew it would, and nothing can ever be the same again.