Surprisingly, pho in Vietnam (north and south) ranks somewhere between horrible and barely passable. Given that all other foods were so freaking phenomenal, pho was a huge disappointment. This is with the exception of one single food stall. Pho Gia Truyen (49 Bat Dan, Hanoi). It is the pho that pushed a vegetarian smack dab back into the deep end of omnivorism. Granted, she’s never had Mama N’s, so this enlightenment could have come much earlier – just saying! One of my closest friends, G, and I took a girls-only trip to Southeast Asia a few years back. And to be honest, I was a little nervous. Besides the fact that we were going to have to depend on me for communicating (to be generous, I have the Vietnamese vocabulary of a 5-year-old), I knew she was mostly vegetarian. Being vegetarian in Vietnam is not easy. Hello. The national condiment is fish sauce! But, OK. We can still manage. Little did I know at the time, but I had nothing to be nervous about. By day two, she was a professional grilled pork sniffer-outer. She said, “you know. I think I can do the seafood, chicken, and pork now. But I’m just not a fan of beef. The flavor is too…beefy. But it’s OK if you want it. I’ll just find something else…”
That single remaining stance against full-on meat appreciation came tumbling down one very early morning in Hanoi. We’d just stumbled off a very early train from Sapa and bouncing to get back into the Hanoi action. Only problem, it was 5:45 in the morning. The sun was barely up and the streets were silent. Only a few street hawkers starting to set out their morning wares.
We wandered around the quiet streets until we stumbled upon….a Honda moped shop? Seriously, we’d turned a corner and ahead of us were Honda motorbikes three rows deep and a line of people all crowded around a tiny little shop. Apple iPhones, we thought? Oh, no, my friends. We just stumbled upon the greatest food discovery of our entire trip! Pho, my friends. Knock your socks off pho. This is what the shop looks like at 5:45 in the morning.
You get in line and order right up front next to the massive cauldron of bubbling broth. I could have fit inside, easily. Word of caution. These people are the Soup Nazis of Vietnam. Know what you want, order it fast, pay, and get out of the way. Then go stake out your seats. We were darn lucky to get two stools. For that, I have to give credit to white-y. She parted the pho patrons like the Red Sea! Seconds later, two steaming bowls of pho are slammed down in front of us. We’d ordered Pho Chin. Chin refers to the brisket that this place specializes in. I didn’t get too close of a look (we were scrambling for seats), but it looked like they crusted the brisket in the same spices as what’s used in the pho broth, then it’s slow cooked until tender, then thinly sliced on top of pho bowls. It was very simply dressed, just a little chopped cilantro and delicate curls of scallions adorned the top. Then it’s up to you to dress the rest. A few chilis, a drizzle of vinegar. Done. Don’t mess it up with too much stuff. The broth was just magical. It had that beefy unctuousness to it that you know only comes from slowly simmered bones and a lovely, lightly spiced broth that’s so well-balanced you don’t quite know what’s going on in there.
All you know is you want to keep eating and savoring. And that’s the problem. You can’t just keep eating and savoring. This is a bustling place of business, man! Linger and you will start to get the stink-eye, that not-so-subtle clearing of the throat, the muttering, the inching closer and closer to your back. It’s kinda like waiting for one of the few coveted swings on the playground. “By the count of ten, it’s my turn! One, two, TEN! Move swing hogger!” Not even the novelty of being a tall, beautiful blond is going to win you any reprieve in this place. Keep it moving, people!
By the time we left, people were eating on the curb and the line had snaked down the block. Word of caution. If you’re going to eat here – and you must! – come early. It was already packed at 5:45am. Come around 6:30 and not only will you be fighting for a place in line, you’ll also be competing with the take-out orders. Every 20 patrons or so is a take-out courier – a skinny little guy carrying a stack of bowls towering 2 feet over his head! They drop off orders and start running take-out bowls back to customers. It’s an amazing sight! And one I wish I had a picture of. The line is unbelieveable. Don’t even think of coming by after 11. They’re closed. Pho’s done. When they run out, that’s it for the day. That’s always a guarantee that you’re in for a life-changing experience. Vegetarian? What vegetarian?
Didn’t get a chance to read Part I?
Pho Gia Truyen
49 Bat Dan, Old Quarter, Hanoi