Thursday, May 17, 2012

Steaming Hot Pho in Hanoi

Steaming Hot Pho in Hanoi Nestled in Vietnam’s north, Hanoi harks back to a time before Southeast Asia’s recent rapid growth. Its Old Quarter is a labyrinth of ancient, narrow streets, alive with people and a myriad motorcycles, their horns blaring. In the morning, everyone heads for a pho stand or restaurant for a bowl of this fresh noodle soup, brimming with crunchy vegetables and tender meat.

Over the centuries Hanoi has been the capital and political center of Vietnam for many different administrations, from conquering 11th-century Chinese dynasties and French colonialists to those of its own republic under Ho Chi Minh. In 2010 it celebrated its 1,000th anniversary and a long history that has included royalty and revolution along with Taoism, Confucianism, communism, and capitalism.
Somehow it has managed to both preserve and integrate the past and present in its customs, architecture, and food, and visitors can enjoy the pace of modern Vietnam mingled with colonial Indochina.
The colonial period left its mark on the city, and beautiful examples of the architecture remain today, such as the stunning Grand Opera House and the many tree-lined boulevards. It is also responsible for the origins of the national dish – pho – which is said to have taken its name from the French pot au feu, a dish built upon the long, slow simmering of bones and aromatics. Pho uses the same initial process, but gains from the addition of noodles, spices, and herbs.
Breakfast is the ideal time to experience pho, giving you a glimpse into Hanoi life and setting you up for the day’s exploring. Choose your restaurant, then stand elbow-to-elbow with locals, fighting to place your order at the busy counter. Vats of stock simmer and the air is fragrant with cinnamon, ginger, and star anise. Rice noodles and raw beef are given a quick hot bath before being placed in a bowl, then the diners follow their own routine, carefully squeezing lime juice and a squirt of hot sauce. A spoonful of sliced chili pepper makes the finished article unique. There is no talking, but this is a noisy affair, the clash of spoon with bowl and the slurping of noodles adding to the cacophony of service.
The bustle of the pho restaurant is a warm-up for the day ahead. Hanoi’s Old Quarter is humid and busy and you take your life in your hands each time you dare to cross the road. But walking is still the best way to see this part of the city, as each corner brings a surprise, whether it’s a street full of ironmongers or a hawker setting up for the day. Where exotic old Vietnam meets the new one head-on, Hanoi is the Asia of your dreams – you’re bound to leave wanting more.

Fresh pho is on sale at most of the roadside cafés in Hanoi
The Best Places to Eat Pho
Pho Gia Truyen
Nestled in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, a short walk from Hoan Kiem Lake, Pho Gia Truyen (also known as “Pho 49 Bat Dan”) is a pho restaurant of days gone by. You won’t find fancy decor or attentive service, but you will find a version of pho that has few rivals. This is one for pho bac purists; there is nothing but beef available, although you can choose between tai (raw), chin (cooked), or nam (fatty brisket) by looking at the different cuts that sit tantalizingly behind glass at the service counter. Place your order and then enjoy watching the chef briefly cook the noodles and deftly slice your choice of beef from the display, filling the bowls with a fragrant, cloudy stock. It is then up to you to find a seat among the locals and drink in both the atmosphere and your very fine pho.
49 Bat Dan Street, Old Quarter, Hanoi; open 7 AM–11 PM

The many tastes and textures of pho come from its great mix of long-braised, freshly steamed, and raw ingredients
Also in Hanoi
Northern pho doesn’t only come with beef: for a fine example of chicken pho (pho ga) head to Pho Ga Mai Anh (+84 4 3943 8492; inexpensive). Like all the best pho restaurants this is a simple open-fronted affair, and its location on Le Van Huu, a short walk from beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake, is perfect for the Old Quarter-based tourist.
Also in Vietnam
In Ho Chi Minh City, Pho Hua (+84 8 3829 7943; inexpensive) is on Pasteur Street, just a short taxi ride from the main tourist area. It’s been in business for over 40 years and caters to both locals and tourists. Spread over two floors, it’s one of the best places for pho in the city.
Pho has not escaped the restaurant chain industry, and Pho 24 (; moderate) has many franchises that churn out dependable southern-style renditions of the dish and are popular with the younger Vietnamese. Their air-conditioned outlets are all over Vietnam and offer many different varieties of pho along with other dishes such as com tam (broken rice with pork) and spring rolls.
Around the World
After the fall of the south in the Vietnam War, many Vietnamese settled outside the country and a large community formed in London. Among the host of Vietnamese restaurants on Kingsland Road in the arty Hoxton district, Song Que (+44 20 7613 3222; moderate) easily stands out. It has the widest selection of pho in the city, with beef, beef offal, chicken, seafood, and vegetarian options, all bathed in a rich broth.
North and South
In the middle of the 20th century, during Hanoi’s turn to communism, refugees fled from the north, taking their recipes with them, and pho appeared in the south. The dish is many-layered in both flavor and texture: the bite of rice noodles is a base for tender meat and the crunch of bean sprouts. But it is in the broth that the complexity of the dish really shows through. Formed from the slow simmering of beef bones, which gives the stock depth, it gains subtle nuances from charred onion, ginger, and the spices of the region – star anise, cinnamon, and cloves. No two recipes are the same. The pho of the north, pho bac, is a simple affair of rice, meat, and thinner noodles. In the south, pho nam is a more elaborate affair that might be filled with beef, chicken, offal, or seafood, and served with a plate of herbs and bean sprouts to add as you like.
A Day in Hanoi
You need to be up early to catch some of the best sights, but no day in Hanoi is complete without a breakfast of pho, so buy some on the run.
MORNING : Take an early morning trip to Hoan Kiem Lake (“Lake of the Returned Sword”), in the heart of the Old Quarter, to admire the lake and watch locals exercising before work. Then take a taxi to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, which is only open until 11:00 AM. The marble building is a place of pilgrimage for many Vietnamese, and its grounds contain the Presidential Palace and Ho Chi Minh Museum.
AFTERNOON : Hop on a local bus (an experience in itself) or take a taxi to the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology. Vietnam is home to countless hill tribe minorities and this modern museum gives a fascinating insight into their history and way of life.
EVENING : After a day of culture, some relaxation is overdue, so return to the Old Quarter and make your way to Bia Hoi Corner (Luong Ngoc Quyen/Ta Hien). Sink into one of the tiny plastic chairs on the sidewalk and drink the cheapest draft beer in town.

Getting to Hanoi
Hanoi’s Noi An International Airport lies 28 miles (45 km) outside the city. There are taxis, minibuses, and public buses to the downtown.
Where to stay in Hanoi
Make sure you have the address of your hotel, as unscrupulous operators can give their hotels the same names as successful ones.
The Hanoi Fortune Hotel (inexpensive) is close to Hoan Kiem Lake.
Hotel Elegance Ruby (moderate) is a cool, classy retreat from the busy Old Quarter outside.
The Sofitel Metropole (expensive) has long been the choice of diplomats and celebrities.

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