Let me tell you about a bowl of pho...

The best pho I ever tasted was on a hot day in the middle of Sai Gon. I don’t distinctly remember which district I was in but it had to be one of the lessor toured districts because the sheen of modernity that touches places like Diamond Plaza had given way to the jostle of motorcycles driven by men and women working their daily grind. The English signage that litters District 1 and the other major tourist spots was all gone and only the dingy, storefront signs, all in Vietnamese, could be seen.

This particular day must have been in June or July when the air in Sai Gon hangs heavy and dank. It rains daily in big, sudden downpours and that helps to break the humidity but it doesn’t do much for the musty, earthy smell—Sai Gon grew up on one side of the Mekong Delta.

Between rains it feels like everything sticks to you—the heat, the smell, and even the noise. I don’t know if you know this but in Vietnam the most common form of transportation is the motorcycle— small 149cc deals. In the city the sound of their horns is a non-stop beep beep beep beep. I’ve always thought that a culture’s vehicular horn use reflected their propensity to chat—and Vietnamese people love to chat.

Now, on this day I was on foot. It’s actually quite easy to get around in Vietnam without having your own motorbike and this has always been the case, even before the advent of things like Uber (though Grab is the popular app to use if you’re planning a trip to Vietnam). You see, Vietnam has always had a thriving industry of “Xe Om” – Hug and Go motorbike taxis (not to be confused with Bia Om—beer and hug…but, er, we’d better not get into all that right now).

Anywho…I enjoy a good walk every now then but on this occasion I had to work to stay on the sidewalk. That’s because the sidewalks in Vietnam double as display or seating areas for the shops that fill the bottoms of the multi-storied concrete buildings. Men sit in lounge chairs drinking iced coffee. The older men that have nothing to prove un-tuck their shirts and expose their stomachs in an attempt to cool themselves. Some simply go shirtless. So, I maneuvered between them as I looked for a promising lunch spot. There were a number of small restaurants or eateries that serviced the locals and I attempted to decipher what each of their signs read, which required no small amount of effort because my Vietnamese was not nearly as fluent as it is now—this was back in 2007 when I was still very much a novice.

It was a little frustrating. Many of the establishments clearly sold food because I could see people eating but I wasn’t exactly sure what kind of food. Not much looked familiar. As I meandered from block to block, sweating all the while, my legs began to grow tired and the heat started to bear down on me. At this point I knew it was time to make a decision. My eyes surveyed the street and not too much further ahead was a sign that read: Phở. I was familiar with pho so it was the obvious choice.

I couldn’t tell at first but the Pho shop was no shop—it was a mobile cart that an old man had parked on the side of the street. As I walked up he looked at me with a welcoming smile, the wrinkles cracking his leather face. He was mostly bald except for a sprig or two of hair. Without words he motioned for me to sit and without asking me what I wanted he began to work. His hands were like two big boulders that seemed oversized for his skeletal body. Yet he used them delicately on the wares as he poured a pot of hot tea quickly followed by a bowl of steaming pho. Both were placed before me by those giant hands.

“First eat then drink.” He said in Vietnamese with a broad smile. The exotic smell of the pho beckoned me and I turned my attention to the bowl in front of me. 

It was a common, unadorned thing.

There were no fancy engravings or intricate designs purporting to be from this or that dynasty. The spoon and chopsticks were equally plain. A roll of toilet paper had been generously placed nearby and served as table napkin.

Feeling eyes on me—as a foreigner, when you get outside of the tourist districts in Vietnam you will be noticed by the locals—I took the bean sprouts and assortment of fresh herbs and placed them into my pho bowl. Then I added just a little hoisin and ‘tuong ot’ – they don’t use sriracha in Vietnam, but have other brands of similar hot sauce. When I took the chopsticks in my hand I was certain that even more people were watching than before, though I couldn’t detect anyone overtly. I mixed everything together, comfortable with my use of the chopsticks, and made a show of tasting the pho.

The broth was smooth, rich, and aromatic. The many tones of the spices appeared and disappeared like the twinkling of stars, and then lingered a moment more. The herbs—ngò gai , Rau om, rau quế —paired perfectly with the beef broth. Everything was amazingly fresh, a by-product of being in a tropical country.

The hot soup brought a bead of sweat to my brow, followed shortly thereafter by another. Then another. With each sip from my spoon, I felt myself sweating all the more. But oddly I didn’t feel overheated. The hot broth coupled with the hot day married for an unexpectedly refreshing experience. I watched the traffic as I ate and now it was as if the noise and the busyness of the city was somehow different than it had been just minutes earlier. Now it was as if I was viewing things with a completely different understanding.

A bus passed by with the loud rumble of a diesel engine and I caught a whiff of the exhaust and for a moment I was taken back to a summer when I was a child with my father, riding in his diesel truck. That moment was gone and then my eyes focused on a row of city trees, which had been planted some many years ago and grew up out of the sidewalk in regular intervals, breaking the brick pathway with an unrelenting persistence. I had seen this a hundred times before but exactly where and when I could not pinpoint. The busy streets too became familiar, like a memory from long ago. And I could feel the presence of someone beside me though there was no one there. For a moment the presence became almost tangible. Was a spirit from my past visiting me or was this a premonition of someone I had yet to meet? The breeze brought my senses to the present moment and I watched a passerby as she watched me. The two of us stared at one another and for a brief, few seconds it was as if Sai Gon was comprised of only the two of us; and then she was gone, leaving the image of her brown marble eyes dancing in mine.

“You like pho?” Came a man’s voice in English. I turned to see a twenty-something year old Vietnamese in office attire looking at me and smiling.

Yes,” I answered politely.

“Me too.” He sat down and placed his order and the old man with big hands began working.