Do you remember that time when you’ve eaten something wonderful for the first time? The way your tongue curled around a foreign flavor, wondering how you lasted this long without tasting it. Wishing you can eat as much of it as you can, and then hoping you can replicate the dish at home. Or, it can also go the other way around: you regretting how you let yourself be coerced to eat that foreign dish.
I’ve often felt that traveling and eating go hand in hand together. Isn’t it such a pleasure to get to know a destination through their food? You can go on and on researching and reading about it, but the experience of actually eating it is something else. You never forget that first bite.
A busy restaurant stands at the corner of Ly Quoc Su: Pho 10. Cramped but full of energy, the orange sign stands out amongst the overgrown trees and the buzzing motobikes.
Upon entry I’m hit by the wonderful smell of food, the kind that sticks to your hair and your clothes long after you’ve left the restaurant. I watch how the staff went around taking orders, passing around glasses of house tea, placing down bowls of pho. One of them finally approaches me at the entrance and I put up my finger, signaling that I need one seat. She whisks me to a table beside the cashier, with two men having their breakfast.
I’m completely clueless on what to order, and the language barrier makes it hard for me to ask for a recommendation. The short and simple menu had ten different variations of pho bo, each one dubiously sounding like the other nine ones. Clearly, you go here for the pho and only the pho. I randomly pick a mid-priced one, figuring that’s a pretty safe choice.
I notice two things as I wait for my order: one, I’m the only non-Vietnamese and two, everything is snappy, from the service to the way the customers ate.
Beside me is a businessman in a powder blue button down and black trousers, looking impeccable and out of place in such a frenzied, humid atmosphere. He slurps his breakfast with much gusto, placing as much chilies and lime into his bowl. I mentally take note of the way he eats his pho, thinking that’s how you do it.
In front of me is a simpler man, wearing a pair of striped pajamas. He bites into his side order of fried bread (why didn’t I order that?!) and then takes a spoonful of his pho. While he is more subdued than the man beside me, he definitely has the same crackling intensity in the way he was eating his pho. I wonder how many bowls of pho this country consumes in a day? It certainly seems like a necessity to them.
As I’m pondering the wonders of pho, the girl comes back with my order, placing it in front of me unceremoniously. I take a second to appreciate this moment, of me successfully ordering my first authentic Vietnamese dish without having to resort to a game of charades.
I get acquainted with my bowl: it is filled to the brim with broth, and it’s rich with scallions and leaves of mint, cilantro and basil. The beef and vermicelli peeks out from underneath the herbs, letting me know that there’s more to this bowl.
I whip out my phone to take an Instagram-worthy photo and the two men give me curious glances. This is when I realize that while this whole pho experience is foreign for me, a bowl of pho for breakfast is not as earth shattering for them. I’m just another passing person in another day, and they’ll never get why this moment is important for me.
I grab a spoon and don’t bother with the condiments, watching the scratched silver surface sink in the broth. The scent of herbs and meat pleasantly assaults me as the steaming hot broth clouds my vision. Closing my eyes, I slide the spoon in my mouth. Strange new spices dance around my tongue and I momentarily chase them, trying to identify what’s happening until all too soon I’m swallowing. Now this is why they’re quick and enthusiastic eaters.
I smile to myself, open my eyes and find the man across me cheekily watching. I take another spoonful, bidding goodbye to my pho virginity.