All Hail Hanoi, King Of Pho, The Breakfast Soup (And Every Other Kind Of Soup)
Waking up in the dark and realizing that you are on the other side of the world from everything and everyone you know and love can be harrowing.
As the sun rises and the world is illuminated, you’re struck by the enormity of the situation. There’s a great big world out there, full of people, and it’s up to you to navigate it, to conquer it, to make it work for you.
This task feels even tougher in Hanoi, Vietnam’s northern capital, which pulls no punches: From the moment the day starts, traffic is roaring, the motorbikes are zooming, the air is hazy, the horns are honking, the street vendors are screaming, the old men are ripping water pipes and blowing the smoke into the street. In short, shit is crazy, and it’s not stopping just for you.
Thankfully, the world shrinks over a bowl of pho. Or bun. Or any of the other noodle soups I’ve had that I didn’t quite catch the name of.
And even better, that’s the first thing you eat. Here, soup is breakfast.
As a guy who is addicted to eggs in the morning, along with other American staples like bacon and oatmeal and the occasional pancake, this concept was confusing at first.
Soup, for breakfast? Noodle soup?
Yes. Noodles, in broth, for breakfast. Spicy broth. Lots of noodles. Incredible additions like thinly sliced beef and minty leaves and hot peppers, seeds and all.
The phrase “comfort food” is never more accurate than when describing pho in Hanoi. Not only is it delicious and filling, but it takes your attention away from the stresses of the streets and focuses it on the task at hand.
Just a refresher, pho is the following:
Banh pho, a flat, square, rice noodle that sits at the bottom of every bowl, waiting to be resurfaced by your chopsticks and spoon.
Broth, which you’re probably familiar with — this broth comes from steaming hot cauldrons, thin and sweet and delicious.
Some kind of meat, typically chicken or beef, cut into small strips. The portion of meat is small compared to the Whoppers we eat in the U.S., but no less satisfying, in my opinion.
Seasonings such as roasted garlic, fennel, star anise, and a wealth of other flavors my peasant mouth can’t identify.
Garnishes, which you add yourself, ranging from shallots and basil and lemon to fish sauce and big, beautiful pieces of chili pepper.
This is the very first pho I had in Hanoi. I was almost high from the culture shock, and this simple but delicious meal centered me:
Whenever I sit down to noodle soup here, the process is the same. The bowl is set in front of me. I spend a moment garnishing (and photographing). And then I dig in and don’t stop until there’s no more.
I find myself literally unable to tear my gaze away. It’s task that requires all your attention, first because it can be kind of a messy affair — every bite or slurp can send droplets of broth or even a noodle or shallot flying onto the only pair of pants you own at the moment.
But it’s also something of a zen experience. I think about what’s in the confines of that perfect circle of the bowl. I think about creating ratios of noodle to broth to meat to vegetable. I think about the sweet heat, the texture of the noodle. I stop thinking about everything else that isn’t in my glorious line of sight.
I’ve had pho every day that I’ve been in Hanoi so far. Hanoi is considered the country’s pho capital, and considering it’s the national dish, I think that cements Hanoi as the place to eat it.
Here’s the version I had after waking up in Hanoi for the first time. This broth is made with red wine. The photo quality isn’t good, because I was surrounded by people and self-conscious of my lack of knowledge of how to speak Vietnamese or do anything, but I think it’s important that you know about this:
And look, I’m going to cheat a little bit, but here’s a pho I had in Bac Ha, which is a mountain village nine hours north of Hanoi by train. But it’s still a northern pho, and I still had it for breakfast, which is the most important thing.
I’ve also had other meals dedicated around bowls of some kind of meat and noodle in steaming broth — bun cha (which is bun, a thinner, rounder noodle, with pork), and something like that looked exactly like pho but had glassy, translucent noodles that I was told weren’t noodles and thus, wasn’t pho — and each time I emerge from the meal feeling reinvigorated, ready to dodge traffic and explore further.
Here’s an example of bun cha with a side of crab spring rolls:
And here’s a breakfast version of bun called bun rieu cua, which here was made with beef — but the best part is the broth, which is a combination of tomato and crab paste:
That bowl meant a lot to me: The place that makes it typically sells out early, and the first time I tried to go, it had closed up before 10 a.m. But when I returned to Hanoi on a night bus from Bac Ha (which, by the way, is a trip worse than death) I hit the bus station around 4:30 a.m. I was exhausted, dirty, and once again overwhelmed by the scale of things. Once I had that bun, I was revived, revitalized, reinvigorated.
Finally, just because, here’s that glass noodle soup (glass noodles are made from starch). It had big pieces of fried eel in it. Holy shit:
This is what glass noodles look like:
[Editor’s note: Just so we’re clear, I’m aware these pictures aren’t making it into Nice Photographs Of Good Food Magazine. This is for your edification, not for your food porn Pinterest page.]
In short, everything they tell you about the food here is true, particularly the pho. It’s delicious and it satisfies you in ways that only transcendent food does, beyond the typical hungry→full. Believe the hype.
(Best of all, you can have it again for lunch. Or dinner. It’s always for sale, from any number of fancy Hanoi eateries — which I’ve never stepped foot in — and street vendors, of which there are seemingly millions. You’re never too far from a bowl.)
(No, sorry, the real best of all is that these meals usually cost between 20,000–40,000d, or $1–2. Can’t believe I didn’t mention that earlier.)