On any given street corner from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, at any hour of the day or night, diners perch on miniature plastic stools, hunched over steaming bowls of noodle soup. But Vietnamese phở is more than a steaming bowl of noodle soup; it is a national obsession that flirts with full-on addiction. But you can hardly blame the Vietnamese, because—and pardon my language—it’s so f***ing good.
Almost comically oversized in a nation that rewards diminutiveness and the economy of space, each giant bowl of phở seems—like me—so very out of place in Vietnam. The ubiquitous white bowls contain what is possibly the world’s single best fast food. But fast food connotes processed and packaged, fake and faux—while phở is anything but. Instead, phở consists of only the freshest ingredients, suspended in an oily beef or chicken broth along with a handful of translucent rice noodles.
That phở deliciously stands on its own does not suggest that accompanying fresh garnishes be overlooked. To the contrary, the ever-present nuoc mam—fermented fish sauce—merely adds to the depth of flavor in this already deep dish. And fresh garnishes like hot chili peppers, chili sauce, sliced lime, Thai basil, and bean sprouts also add spice, complexity, or a satisfying crunch as the case may be.
Phở devotees are, for the most part, divided into two camps: phở ga (chicken) or phở bo (beef). For those who are particularly daring—or indecisive—the “everything” option is the obvious choice. Order The Works, and your phở will arrive with gelatinous bovine bits and fatty cuts of cow (whose provenance I’d prefer remain a mystery) swirling around in an oily bath. But the options hardly end there; the true de-pho-tee will explore any number of variations including, but not limited to, flank steak, brisket, thinly sliced fillet, gristle, shrimp, tripe, tendon, pork loin and a handful of other unidentifiable animal proteins.
Eating my way from northern to southern Vietnam, then, became a veritable Who’s Who of the Heifer, and a truly hedonistic consumption of the flesh. As I write this, it’s been nearly three months since my last street corner tryst, yet this quotidian dish—or noodle soup, to put it bluntly—still evokes a certain longing and, dare I say it, lust. But at around 40,000 Vietnamese dong (about $2.50) per bowl, the price is right, the gratification instant, and the flavor divine. Phở, then, is fast, cheap, and truly indulgent. I’d argue, then, that it’s only natural to lust after the next bowl—at least this street corner indulgence won’t leave you feeling empty inside.
Will Nichols is an esteemed travel writer who happens to work in Marketing on the side. He recently completed a tour around the middle east and southeast Asia.