If you’re at all familiar with Vietnam, then you’ve heard of pho before (am I saying that right?) Pho is Vietnamese noodle soup flavored with delicious spices such as star anise, cloves, cinnamon, charred ginger & onion and more. One of the more popular types is phở bò, or beef noodle soup. I’m thrilled that we learned how to properly pronounce it (“fuh” with a tone that lowers and then rises, and “bo” with a lowering tone) and even more thrilled that I was able to eat a lot of it. But the sad part was that Michelle couldn’t partake in this treat, as she is a vegetarian. Little did I know this would soon change!
One day, while doing a double Minh Khai (teaching two classes at the language school on Minh Khai street) I went out for dinner in between classes with the guy that drove me on his motorbike. After walking a short distance from the school, he told me that he is Buddhist and tries to eat vegetarian 10 days per month and asked if I would be willing to eat vegetarian food. Of course!
In my younger and dumber days I swore I would never even date a vegetarian, but marrying Michelle was (obviously!) a great idea and has given me a huge appreciation for vegetarian fare.
So we backtracked 20 meters to a tiny room off of the alley where we were walking. I had not noticed the place before, despite passing it twice each day I taught classes. There was a table in front with a few stools and a sign hanging that listed 4 different types of noodle choices and said vegetarian at the bottom (all in Vietnamese, of course). We sat down, ordered and thus began my introduction to one of my favorite restaurants.
As I mentioned, the room that this restaurant operated out of was tiny, maybe 2 meters by 4 meters, if I’m being generous. This was the kitchen, the passageway to what I assumed were the family’s living quarters behind and above, and the dining room (if the aforementioned table was full, which it was with more than 3 people, because it also doubled as a food prep table!). With my friend translating, I learned that the woman running the place was 60 years old and born in Hanoi. Her husband, who arrived later, was 80, had a crushing grip, and liked to tickle your palm with his middle finger (following the crushing grip) while shaking hands. They had been married for over 30 years and were a really cute couple. He would lean in towards her, pretending he was puckering up for a kiss, and she would playfully smack him (while cackling with laughter). Sadly, there was such an overwhelmingly large amount of things going on around me that I never learned either of their names.
The pho was not as you might think; absent was the plate piled with fresh herbs, lime slices, and chilis, but the broth was so flavorful that nothing extra was needed. Each time it was a little different; sometimes with varying types mushrooms, once with okra, but always with bits of fried noodle on top. Also with each visit the wife would watch me as I took my first taste, waiting for the inevitable exclamation of, “Ngon!” (delicious!) and would crack up laughing afterward, while commenting to anyone around that the foreigner had just said delicious in Vietnamese.
After my first visit, I told Michelle and she also began to frequent the tiny establishment when she taught classes at the school on Minh Khai street. The next time I visited, I made sure to learn the Vietnamese words for “my wife”, so I could try to communicate that the Western lady that had come was Michelle, my wife. We were glad to give our money to such a nice couple that served great food and felt that they must need our business. Then I ate lunch one day and discovered that I had been wrong. This was while watching customers sit down to eat in any space available as numerous to go orders were being dished up. I was amazed by the huge number of customers for such a tiny business!
Most times when I ate at night the husband would try to insist that I drink a beer or homemade rice wine with him. I would always decline, since I had to teach another class after dinner. This was always reason for him to get a dirty look and a slap from his wife. One night I joined Michelle for dinner while she was teaching and was pleased to be able to taste the rice wine and have a beer with him. Actually, I should correct that statement; I regretted tasting the rice wine (it was very homemade) and I used the beer to wash the taste from my mouth!
Michelle and I ate at this nameless restaurant many times and were never disappointed. We thoroughly enjoyed the happiness and playfulness of the couple that ran the place and their attempts to communicate with and open up to us as much as our different languages allowed. We also really appreciate the opportunity to have had this experience in the first place. I’m quite sure we would never have stumbled onto this tiny gem if we had just been visiting Hanoi and not living and working there (albeit temporarily!) I don’t know if and when we will find another spot like this one, but we’ll continue searching!