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For the love of pho

Publication Date : 20-03-2012


On overcast days, it provides comfort. When I have a scratchy throat or am feeling lethargic, it gives me a boost.

Pho, Vietnamese beef noodles in soup, is impossible to resist, even though I generally avoid hot liquids in humid Singapore.

I have had the dish here, in the United States and in Australia but never in Vietnam.

So when the opportunity came up to visit the birthplace of pho, I jumped at the chance.

Never mind that I would be visiting Ho Chi Minh City instead of Hanoi, where the dish originated. Never mind that I had only 2 1/2 days.

I would spend that short time hopping from one pho restaurant to another, drowning myself in bowls of beefy goodness.

There are countless variations of the dish and as many personal preferences.

The pho I measure all others against is served at An Restaurant in Bankstown, outside Sydney. The broth is robust, the noodles silky, the many cuts of beef all cooked perfectly.

On my first night in Ho Chi Minh City, I tried the pho bo (210,000 dong, US$10) at Square One, the buzzing restaurant at the Park Hyatt (2 Lam Son Square, District 1, tel: +84-8-3520-2359).

The bowl was pretty good, the broth beefy enough and with just a trace of the sweetness that permeates the city's version of the dish. It was, alas, a tad salty.

I also hit three more pho joints.

At Pho Hung (10 Nguyen Thi Nghia, P Ben Thanh, District 1, tel: +84-8-3925-9898), with prices starting at 43,000 dong ($2) a bowl, the broth seemed a little lacklustre.

Then it was over to Pho 2000 (1 Phan Chu Trinh St, District 1, tel: +84-8-3822-2788), where former United States President Bill Clinton famously ate in 2000. More than a decade later, the tagline for the restaurant is still Pho For The President, so expectations were high.

Its broth was also not beefy enough and I did not finish the bowl.

I thought I would give another chain, Pho 24 (5 Nguyen Thiep St, District 1, tel: +84-8-3822-6278), a go.

The light broth was overwhelmed by the lime and herbs and did not sustain my interest.

With time in Ho Chi Minh City running out, I decided to give up. I figured my inner peasant preferred more robust flavours and the ones I had tried were too subtle for me.

Taking a break from the pho hunt proved very fruitful indeed.

One morning, I had a late breakfast at Nam Loi Hu Tieu Ca (43 Ton That Dam Street, District 1, tel: +84-8-3821-0720).

The bowl of fish noodles (70,000 dong or $3.40) was fantastic. There was sugar in the clear soup, I was sure, but it was just a hint. What came through instead was the clean, light flavour of the broth and the natural sweetness of the fish slices.

Walking out onto the main road to catch a cab, I spotted Nhu Lan (50 Ham Nghi Street, District 1, tel: +84-8-3829-2970), which another friend had told me about.

It takes up three or four units of a shophouse and is part grocery store, part bakery and part kopitiam selling street food indoors.

Here, I had a banh mi or Vietnamese sandwich with pate, slices of different kinds of cured pork, a pat of butter and pickled vegetables served with a warm, crusty baguette roll.

It was a DIY meal that cost 25,000 dong ($1.20) but was better than any banh mi I have had in Singapore.

Later that afternoon, while exploring the sprawling Ben Thanh Market (Le Loi Street, District 1), I decided to have a bite.

I sat down at one of the stalls and ordered pork noodle soup. What came blew my mind - the bowl of beehoon, thicker than the kind used for frying but thinner than laksa noodles, was bathed in a dark, robust broth topped with minced pork, fish cake, tomatoes and, best of all, chunks of pig blood jelly.

It hit all the right spots.

I felt that way when a friend took me to Hu Tiu Mi (2 Mac Thi Buoi Street, District 1).

It is tucked away on a quiet street in an industrial area and I hesitated before stepping in. The floor was streaked with dirt.

The owners, who are Cantonese and speak the dialect fluently, busied themselves mopping the floor and chopping up pork after we ordered.

The speciality here is wonton mee, the noodles made by hand every day, the filling for the dumplings hand-chopped.

There is no fridge in the little coffee shop, so everything is made fresh and just for the day.

What a delight those springy noodles were, especially mixed with some chilli paste and a bit of the soup. A bowl of plump dumplings was served alongside the noodles and the filling, roughly chopped and rustic, was perfect.

I wanted seconds but it was time to head back to Nhu Lan for another banh mi. I had salivated on my last visit at the large slabs of pork roasting on vertical turning spits at one of the stalls facing the road.

My banh mi thit nuong cost just 25,000 dong but the warm, crispy baguette roll, spread with butter and pate, was stuffed with juicy roast pork, cucumber, onion, pickled carrot and radish.

It was pretty much the perfect sandwich, one I was tempted to have on my last day.

However, I had to be at the airport early and decided to check out the hotel buffet breakfast I had avoided during my stay.

Pho was part of the spread. I decided to give it one last shot.

And what do you know? That bowl of pho at New World Saigon (76 Le Lai Street, District 1, tel: +84-8-3822-8888) turned out to be the best one I had on the trip.

It was full-bodied and the slices of raw beef tender and flavourful after a soaking in the hot broth.

I drank every drop and plotted a return trip to this crazy, charming city.

Next time, I am venturing beyond District 1, will arm myself with charcoal pills so I can eat without worry at roadside stalls, and try not to ignore the hotel breakfast.


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