One thing that is very noticeable in Vietnam is the hawkers… every densely populated area (which is in fact every square meter of ground in this country) has it’s hawkers and those hawkers will hit the streets in force and advance on the populace, both local and foreign, and will all try and convince you that they are selling exactly what you need; a book, CDs, donuts and other sweet coated fried bread products, cigarettes, cigarette lighters, wallets, hats, trinkets (I don’t even know what a trinket is, but it seems like something these people would sell), watches and other bits and pieces.
For the most part they are in fact selling nothing that you need, but they will not believe you when you tell them this, so you need to walk on (see “the cardinal rule when dealing with hawkers”).
The only hawkers that truly have something that you might want are the ones who are selling the donuts. Sweetened little balls and fingers (not actual body parts) of tasty fried bread goodness, these guys are doing you a favour. But, if you do in fact make a purchase from one of these vendors you are faced with another set of problems because you have in fact communicated and, dare I say, looked the hawker in the eye and in doing so, you have broken the cardinal rule when dealing with hawkers – if I may bring it to your attention – DO NOT ACKNOWLEDGE OR LOOK AT HAWKERS.
As much as you are a nice and decent human being and they are people too and you have your obligation to be kind to your fellow man and blah blah blah. Well you need to realise that these people are the lion and you are the antelope, and if you falter, even for a second, they will pounce on you, drag you to the ground and rip you to shreds, then more of their kind will come and squabble over your remains.
It is like opening your door to a gypsy; you only see one initially and think that’s going to be fine, next minute your house is over-run and you find yourself renting your own Toyota Camry from a small man with a decisive limp and an uncanny way with goats…
Another thing that is very easily noticeable is the love of pho.
Everywhere you go in this place there are piles of the freshest, tastiest rice noodles you have ever had the pleasure of placing in your face, just laying there, quietly dormant, patiently waiting for their ovation once swimming in the clear, mothers-milk of a stocky broth that will finally allow this dish to be known as pho.
Breakfast, lunch, dinner, summer, winter, special occasion, regular midweek dinner or lonely Friday night in for one, this noodle soup is anytime food, comfort food, party food and food to be consumed from your girl friend’s body all in one.
If you are smart you will make this, or something very similar. If you are not smart you are probably sitting at the dinner table trying to eat soup with a knife and fork.
PHO –BEEF or CHICKEN. YOU CHOOSE (serves 6-8)
I feel that before you embark on this mission you should know that eating pho is a life style choice. Other things that, say, the Australian Prime Minister says are a lifestyle choice, may in fact not be a lifestyle choice at all and are indeed just more words that seem to fall effortlessly from his lips with the express purpose of embarrassing the Australian people.
FOR THE BROTH
2kg beef bones (or 4-5 chicken frames)
1kg brisket (or ½ chicken. You can freeze the other half for later, eat it for dinner tomorrow, or even make a double recipe of pho so you can feed the neighbourhood… I can’t believe I need to tell you this)
1 thumbsized piece ginger (approx. 50g)
1 cinnamon stick
3 black cardamon pods
1 star anise
10 black peppercorns
1 stalk lemongrass, light part only, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
500g dried rice noodles
1 bunch garlic chives, chopped
250g bean sprouts
4-5 spring onions, chopped
A large pile of picked fresh herbs (I used mint, basil, coriander and purple shiso)
Some kind of fresh chilli or chilli condiment
Sweetened fish sauce
• Put the bones and meat in a large pot with enough water to cover. Bring to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Strain and discard water
• Grill onions and ginger over an open flame for 5-10 minutes until nicely charred. Chop roughly
• Combine all broth ingredients in a clean pot (you could probably just clean the other pot out and use that…) and cover with approx. 4lt water
• Simmer broth for 2 hours or so, skimming a few times to remove scum from surface
• Strain through a fine sieve or muslin or even a clean chux, and return to heat. Remove meat and chop to serve (pick chicken from bones first if using)
• Check seasoning and adjust if necessary
• Soak rice noodles in hot (but not boiling) water for 2 minutes or until starting to soften. Drain
• In a wire basket/sieve, blanch bean sprouts in broth for 20 seconds
• Put it all on the table for people to help themselves to whatever
• Put “go to Vietnam” on your bucket list