The following post is written by my dear friend, Ryan, over at Boundless Abundance. He is writing to us all the way from Vietnam! Ryan’s adventures in food, scenery, history, and an overall perspective of each culture he encounters is something that should not be overlooked, and it’s wonderful that he has taken the time to give us a little taste of the Vietnam region. His blog is inspiring, beautiful, and brings out the wanderlust in all. To read more about his adventures, click here!
Eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner, phở is a staple in Vietnamese cuisine if not its most popular dish. At its heart the soup is composed of a hefty portion of rice noodles submersed in a large bowl stock and it’s the additions to this base that are the source of variety—meat and organs of beef, chicken, pork, shrimp and fish cakes seemed to be the most popular though I’ve also come across duck, goat, dog and horse as well as some mysterious animal byproducts of unknown origin.
On the hunt for good phở a Lonely Planet Guide is little help, its suggestions are usually more expensive and less authentic so don’t bother, just wander the side streets and eat where the locals are, it’s unlikely you’ll have to go far. Many hole-in-the-wall restaurants and transient street carts that appear on the sidewalks at sunset specialize in the dish and serve nothing else. For a visual gauge of cost, generally speaking, the shorter the plastic stools and tables the cheaper the phở (a rule that conveniently holds for beer also), and if the crowds aren’t an obvious indication of quality seek a venue with plenty of trash below its tables—no joke, the dirtier the better. In Vietnamese restaurants napkins, cigarette butts, toothpicks, wrappers and any other garbage generated at the table is thrown on the ground and swept out at the end of the day, so a dirty floor is the sign of high patronage and good food turnover.
Menus at most phở spots are simple and easy to decipher even with a limited grasp of Vietnamese, but the meats offered are usually on display so if all else fails you can window shop and point to attain the desired results. Since everything is cooked ahead of time there is little wait after ordering before a bowl is placed before you along with a stacked plate of trimmings. Mint, basil, lotus shavings, Asian spinach, lettuce, bean sprouts, limes and diced chilies or chili paste are common accompaniments allowing diners to develop the taste to their liking. I personally go heavy on the greens and bean sprouts for crunch, add chilies to just below an eye-water and squeeze in half a lime to balance the burn and round out the flavor.
When you mix spicy chilies, a bowl of hot liquid and Vietnam’s humid climate the outcome is always the same: a serious phở sweat! It’s a strange state of content discomfort that is oh so gratifying. A bit time after finishing the meal is always allotted to linger and let the momentary meltdown to subside, a local beer or the ubiquitous iced Vietnamese tea helps. It’s an opportunity to savor the flavor and take pause to absorb the scene—I’m in Vietnam!
Ryan’s blog, Boundless Abundance, is a casual chronicle of his year-long adventure abroad. After recently finishing university he feels extremely fortunate to have this opportunity to pursue a different sort of education than academia provides. Exposure to contrasting worldviews, cultures and contexts yields new vantages for a fuller awareness of Self and how he perceives of the world, as well as a richer understanding of the state of the planet and what it means to be a human alive today.