In Vietnam pho (pronounced “fur”) is the traditional noodle soup that is usually eaten for breakfast, but it’s a popular meal at any time of day. Stalls spring up along the pavements with customers perched on plastic stools around low tables. Most only serve one kind of pho, which minimises the amount of cooking – pho bo is beef, pho tom is shrimp, pho ga is chicken (or possibly railway station, depending on how you say it). If you are vegetarian you’ll need to find a pho chay. Noodles are boiled rapidly and then added to a large bowl filled with stock in which assorted vegetables float, such as onion, bean sprouts, pumpkin, cabbage, bok choi and other greenery, then chopped meat or tofu is added. Add a squeeze of lime, chilli to taste and sprinkle with fresh coriander. It’s lovely stuff.
The pho stall sat on the corner of a road which at night became a giant market, and even at 10pm the tables were full of people hoovering up bowls of soupy noodles. Space was found for us right in the middle of a group of friends who seemed delighted at our arrival. After a brief game of charades with the waitress we sat down unsure of exactly what we had ordered. The boss came over and began chatting to us in Vietnamese, asking where we were from, whether we were married, and how we liked Vietnam. We did. Her son provided the translation – he lived in Sydney and had a broad Aussie accent. Halfway through this conversation an enormous cockroach ran under the table and up the wall. Without pausing for breath the boss removed her wooden sandal and swatted the monstrous insect off the wall and into the gutter. Some time later I saw it zigzagging across a table nearby with its antennae knocked askew. I reckon it was about the size of a hamster.
A vast bowl of pho arrived, and following the example of the people around me I started drinking it out of the bowl, using the chopsticks to shovel in bits of vegetable. Immediately my glasses misted over and I felt the chilli go to work on my sinuses – the whole effect was reminiscent of having a bad cold and inhaling mentholated steam with a towel over my head. Picking up a large clump of noodles I carefully guided them towards my mouth, but at the last minute they slithered off the chopsticks and landed back in the bowl with a splash that covered me in vegetable stock and caused the small child opposite to get hiccups from laughing so hard. With my dignity in tatters I took refuge in my bowl once again, draining the remaining stock and encountering one last rogue chilli as the final mouthful. Determinedly I crunched my way through it, sweat running off me in rivers. Panting gently from the heat, I spotted someone drinking what looked like a chocolate milkshake and ordered one myself. It turned out to be iced coffee made with condensed milk – ca fe sua da – which tasted as strong as whisky but had an effect more akin to amphetamine. It was delicious but after the chilli I’d had all the stimulation I could handle for the time being. I said goodbye to my new-found friends, and with my heart pounding from the quadruple espresso, hair damp with sweat and a shirt spattered in broth, I wandered back to the hotel through the warm night bearing the unmistakeable signs of a full-on encounter with pho.