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Phở Bò

by Lowell Jantzi,

MCC Vietnam Country Representative, 2003-2008

Many mornings in the winter of 2003-2004 I walked out of the MCC apartment in the Thái Hà neighborhood of Hà Nội, crossed the street, and sat down on a plastic stool at a metal table too low for my legs to fit under. 

The phở lady and her daughter were serving breakfast in the alley. Behind the phở lady was the brick wall of a two story building, with tables lined up against the wall. The four small tables were full of customers—all men, hunched over their steaming bowls, eating rapidly and without conversation. Motorbikes whizzed by carrying people to their jobs.

No one looked up when I approached.

In front of the phở lady was a large pot of bubbling beef broth sitting on a charcoal brazier, a mixture of cow bones and herbs that had simmered in water for hours before daybreak. To one side was a stack of baskets filled with rice noodles and on the other side containers of thinly sliced beef or chopped chicken, bones included. 

When she looked at me, I asked for phở bò chín, well-done beef phở. A wooden handled strainer filled with noodles went into the hot broth, steeped awhile, and then into a large plastic soup bowl. Broth was ladled in along with several large slices of beef and topped off with sliced scallions. The daughter served it to me and then went back to resupplying ingredients for her mother, clearing tables, and washing dishes.

Meanwhile, at my table I selected two wooden chopsticks from a glass jar. To clean them, I pulled off several small pieces of paper impaled on a metal spike and wiped the chopsticks down. The same paper cleaned a small metal soup spoon. From the bowl of leafy greens already on the table I pulled out mint leaves, basil, lettuce, and some dark purple leaves whose name I never learned. Several slices of limes squeezed into the bowl, and a couple of thinly sliced hot red peppers completed the preparation.

Too hot to eat right away, I cradled the bowl, warming my hands. Leaning over to inhale the warmth and aromas washed away the last of my sleep and awoke all my senses. With chopsticks in my right hand and soup spoon in my left, breakfast began. 

Finished, I stood up, handed the lady 10,000 Vietnamese đông—about 45 cents—and walked back to the MCC office, fortified and ready to begin the day.

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